Epi’s bargain-basement solidbody is full of surprises and inspiration.
Epiphone Les Pauls are popular with players at all levels, from beginners to budget-conscious pros—and with good reason. While a Gibson Les Paul will generally set you back north of $2,000, their Asia-built Epiphone cousins offer excellent bang for the buck at prices in the low-to-mid hundreds. The new Epiphone Les Paul SL, however, ups the value ante by reducing the actual price to less than $100.
Similar in shape to a Les Paul Junior, the SL’s poplar body is slim, compact, and very light. None of the SL models have the deep mahogany grain of the Les Paul Junior or the flamed tops that some Les Paul Standard enthusiasts drool over. But their quirky solid colors (my test model came in a bright sunset yellow finish), contoured pickguard, and top hat knobs will turn heads. (More traditional sunburst and black finishes are also available). The controls are straightforward: A 3-way pickup selector switch and two knobs that control volume and tone for both pickups. The input jack is located on the pickguard, rather than on the side.
Ready for Action
The quality control on the SL is remarkably good for a guitar with a two-figure price tag. There are no sharp fret ends, and the volume and tone knobs have a smooth, noise-free—if somewhat limited—taper throughout their ranges. I saw a few minor cosmetic flaws, like yellow paint sprayed on the edge of the fretboard overhang and what looked like buffed out file markings on the tail end of the fretboard. But I didn’t see a single structural flaw that would affect playability.
The factory setup was good, too. The guitar was set for medium-low action, and the intonation, though not quite perfect, was close enough to fix with a few tweaks to the wraparound bridge. (Keep in mind that adjustability is relatively limited on this type of bridge, so you’ll want to make sure intonation is as close to correct as possible before you buy.) Playability was great all over the range of the SL’s bolt-on, 24 3/4"-scale “slim taper” mahogany neck. There was no buzzing or choking-out on bends, big-grip chords were comfortable to hold for extended periods, and the guitar didn’t fight back when I played faster licks. The 14" radius fretboard is quite flat (Gibsons typically have a 12" radius), which probably saves some manufacturing costs, but also provides a very comfortable playing experience across all 22 of the guitar’s medium jumbo frets and prevents fretting out during deep bends.
SL in Action
P-90s loom large in Les Paul and Les Paul Junior legend (the first Les Paul, of course, was P-90 equipped), and single-coil pickups aren't usually a part of an archetypal Les Paul. The inclusion of slim ceramic single-coil units on the SL evokes thoughts of Gibson’s ’60s entry-level staple, the Melody Maker. And how good these ceramic single-coils sound is a pleasant surprise.
I tested the SL through two setups: a Mesa/Boogie Lone Star Special amp and its clean and dirty channels, and with vintage Ibanez SD-9 and Boss DD-2 pedals into the Boogie’s clean channel. With each setup I got satisfying, often great, sounds.
The bridge pickup is bright, twangy, and very present, and worked wonders on country-fried double-stop riffs. The neck pickup is bright, too, though it’s rounder and less toothy than the bridge pickup. What’s nice is the clarity you hear when playing full chords, and that translates to surprising versatility that enables crossover from styles as divergent as Brit Pop and neo-soul.
As you might expect, the controls have a little less sensitivity and range than you get from higher-end instruments. For instance, rolling the tone knob all the way off to cop a jazz tone resulted in sounds that were slightly anemic and excessively muffled. Bumping the tone knob up a smidge delivered the slight attenuation of highs and added warmth that I was looking for, but there aren’t a ton of color variations on tap.
With a little gain from the amp, the bridge pickup has an almost Tele-like bite that made single-note solos and bends powerful, brash, and in your face. Power chords take on a full and familiar classic-rock heft. But as good as the pickups can sound in rowdier settings, high gain can highlight their inherent noisiness. Live or in a dense mix, the noise can be camouflaged. But the guitar could be tricky to work with in a recording situation if you’re fussy about 60-cycle hum. With the middle pickup position selected—both neck and bridge engaged—the guitar was dead quiet.
Players often buy budget instruments to use as modding platforms, and the SL is a perfect choice for projects and experiments. The irony here, of course, is the SL is cheaper than many components you might use as upgrades. On the other hand, many components modders might typically replace are quite nice on the SL. The SL’s tuners, for example, turned out to be good. They weren’t perfect, but they certainly kept the guitar in tune better than some of the tuners used on many budget guitars I’ve played over the years. I experienced some recurring slippage on the G and B strings, but these were minor shifts, like a couple of cents, rather than drastic and offensive detuning.
For an instrument that’s totally gig-worthy, feels and sounds good, and looks awesome, the SL is a flat-out killer deal. Whether you’re looking for a backup stage guitar that you don’t have to baby all night long, a guitar that you can permanently leave in a different tuning, or a great modding platform, the SL is a solid performer and an amazing bargain. Even if you don’t actually need another guitar, for $99 it’s pretty hard to resist.
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