Gibson Lukas Nelson ’56 Les Paul Junior Review
Design economy doesn’t stand in the way of delicious, wide-ranging tones on this straight-ahead rock machine.
A sweet-to-savage range of tones from a relatively noise-free P-90. Comfortable.
Some minor intonation issues.
Gibson Lukas Nelson '56 Les Paul Junior
In a guitar universe awash in sound-creation options, it's easy to forget the joy of simplicity. So if you awoke this morning with a digital hangover from a night of auditioning too many virtual mics and impulse response models, the Gibson Lukas Nelson '56 Les Paul Junior might be the greasy cheeseburger fix you crave.
Wood, Wire, and a Wallop of Old School
Electric guitars don't get much more elemental than the Les Paul Junior. Not coincidentally, perhaps, its ranks of admirers and adopters tend to be straight-ahead rockers and punky troublemakers that dig the absolute lack of fuss and frills. Lukas Nelson's signature Junior takes the back-to-basics concept to the extreme. It's based on Nelson's 1956 model, which is more-or-less identical to the very first Les Paul Junior that debuted two years earlier. In these early years of the Les Paul Junior's production, Gibson hadn't yet bothered to add a neck pickup, double cutaway, or TV yellow or cherry color options. This is electric guitar making at its most straightforward, and the musical outcomes can be thrilling.
Just as on vintage specimens of the Les Paul Junior, Gibson did not make “student guitar" status an excuse to skimp on quality. It's very well put together, though, admittedly, the spartan appointments leave little room to mess things up. The compact body feels downright small but incredibly comfortable. And while the finish reads more as modern satin than vintage, the patina is still lovely, suggests a life well lived, and works well with details like the aged Kluson-style, three-on-a-side tuners. The similarly aged compensated wraparound vintage-style bridge is a nice update of the impossible-to-intonate original. I still noticed minor intonation irregularities—particularly on the third string—but that doesn't really keep chords from ringing true once you're in tune.
Wild Sounds on the Range
The alnico 3 P-90 is notably quiet at idle—no small thing given how many P-90s buzz like a busted liquor store fridge. And even if you're familiar with the typical P-90 profile, the relative quiet can leave you unprepared for the way sounds seems to explode from the guitar. Typical of any P-90, the pickup in the Lukas Nelson has a toothy attack, substantial output from the first and second strings, and a strong midrange presence. But it's not all ice pick tones. There's a pretty, almost dusty, roundness in the harmonic make-up—even with tone and volume wide open—that Fenderphiles and Telecaster players in particular will know and recognize. Build those tones into a chord composite, and the whole becomes a throaty growl that sheds much light on why punk and rock players adore this model.
At low-gain amp settings—say 3-to-4 on a low- to medium-powered Fender combo—the Lukas Nelson growls resplendently. In fact, there's something almost hi-fi about the detail that the P-90 communicates in these settings. Clarity is not typically the first quality you associate with the mythically rough-and-tumble P-90, but it's an audible facet of this pickup's performance. There's a lot of detail to find in these tones, and the responsive pots with their relatively gentle tapers mean you can explore that detail in surprisingly clean and strong volume-attenuated settings or mellower tone-attenuated settings. You might also be more compelled to use these controls in expressive ways, given their thoughtful placement: just aft of the bridge, but close enough for easy and gentle simultaneous volume and tone control swells.
Match the wide-open Lukas Nelson to an amp deeper into its natural saturation state, and the Gibson takes on the personality of a well-read and worldly roughneck. There's plenty of room to clean up the tone and loads of overtone detail. But it's also the sound of rowdy rock 'n' roll incarnate.
My time with the Lukas Nelson '56 Les Paul Junior is as much fun as I've had with an electric guitar in a long time. It's incredibly light and comfortable to hold and handle over extended sessions, it feels smooth and fast under the fingers, and the lovely alnico 3 P-90 is both quiet and full of range—from mellow and clean volume- and tone-attenuated sounds to full-throttle garage punk barbarianism. And at every setting, the guitar reveals a capacity for complex tone pictures that belie its proletarian simplicity.