2015 was a challenging year for Gibson’s iconic Les Paul guitar. Many guitarists, especially those who play a “traditional” type of guitar such as a Les Paul, they don’t do change all that well. Yet this past year’s model had a slew of changes: a wider modern neck profile, a new brass nut design, robotically controlled tuners that didn’t always work as advertised, and in honor of what would have been Les’s 100th birthday, a comically large “100” signature that looked as if my elementary school-aged child might have painted it right on the headstock. Suffice it to say, many revolted against these changes and simply didn’t buy. Others complained these changes should have been an option, and not incorporated on nearly every Les Paul outside of the Custom Shop models.
Once Gibson realized that customers were not flocking to these changes, it did exactly what it should have done in the first place, by creating the: “T,” or Traditional line which has none of these new changes, and goes back to what most will find familiar. And now there is a “HP” (High Performance) line, which features those aforementioned changes. I’d be curious to see which line sells better; my money is on the “T.”
Make a List
A recent milestone birthday for myself combined with GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) had me once again looking for a new guitar. But which one? I set my buying criteria fairly strategically; I wanted a real Les Paul made in the USA, and not an import. I wanted new, and not used this time. I wanted the traditional mix of a mahogany body and neck, maple cap, rosewood fingerboard, dual humbuckers, and a simple nitro finish, while ideally staying under $1,000. Would Gibson even offer anything for a budget-minded buyer like me anymore?
And then suddenly I found it, the 2016 Studio Tribute, which for me checked all the boxes. Absent from the 2015 line, the 2016 Tributes come in two styles; the ‘50s model which has a bit beefier neck and humbuckers, or the ‘60s model which has a slim taper neck and P-90 pickups. I ended up with the ‘50s model in the iconic gold top finish.
What’s under the hood? The Tribute had the basic features I wanted, a mahogany body and neck, maple top, rosewood fingerboard, with that slightly beefier ‘50s neck profile that I really wanted to try this time. The finish comes in four choices: Gold Top, Honey Burst, Vintage Burst and black. The sides and back are black, with the entire guitar finished in a “Satin” finish which has a bit of sheen to it, but is not glossy. With a little work, one can probably buff it out to a glossier finish, but personally I really like the look and feel of the satin finish, especially on my gold top. It has a certain vintage vibe to it, without going the relic route. It has a thin nitrocellulose finish which I love, as it seems to just breathe better than a thick poly finish. The natural sustain of this guitar is very impressive.
While it’s true that the Studio/Tribute body is not quite as thick as the Traditional or Standard models, it’s barely perceptible—about a 1/16-inch at most. Like most modern-era Les Pauls, it also features modern weight relief and mine weighed in at eight pounds, three ounces. Pickups are standard fare here—a 490r alnico II pickup in the neck, and the hotter wound 498t alnico V bridge humbucker. Both feature exposed black bobbins, and neither have the split coil feature. Otherwise, most other features are pretty much the same.
Without the neck binding, initially I was concerned that the frets could be sharp and poking out, but there was none of that, and the fact that Gibson PLEKs all of their guitars for consistent fret levels and it was very evident here. There was no buzzing, everything was nearly perfect, even the intonation was extremely close to being spot-on.
Want a gloss finish? You have to step up to the regular Studio model that retails for $600 more. Want binding on the body and neck? Sure it looks good, but then you need to move up to the Traditional or Standard model, which is close to triple the price. Those models offer higher-grade wood tops as well, and some other features, but in the end it all depends on what you want, and your budget. For me, the Tribute is everything I need, and nothing I don’t.
A Modder’s Platform
If you want a simple, basic Les Paul this is it, but the Tribute is also great for experimenting. Try out some different pickups, maybe change the chrome Nashville bridge to an old school ABR-1 aftermarket product, or try different wiring schemes; heck, even the black finish might be interesting to sand off and see what’s under the multi-piece body.
How does it sound?
Like a Les Paul should. There are nice clean tones from both pickups and great rock tones with my Marshall amp cranked up. The sustain rings out with authority, and there are warm, deep lows, and a wonderful high end bite without being shrill. With a little amp adjustment, I found both the neck and bridge pickups had a nice variety to them. I like to roll back the neck’s volume control just a little, and on the bridge pickup I roll back the tone control to tame some of the top-end. This gives me a great combination of bluesy tones, and great rock crunch just by switching the toggle position.
Right out of the gates, the new 2016 Tribute models may be the bargain of the year. If you don’t need all of the flash of the more expensive models, but want the playability and tone of a real Les Paul, made in the USA, this is certainly a worthy contender for guitar of the year. Welcome back Gibson.
What we like
Great tone, great playability, and all the essential Les Paul features for under $1,000.
Little to none. Only a gig bag is included, but with a little negotiating, many retailers might throw in a hard-shell case for you.