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Gibson Les Paul Exotic Smartwood

October 15, 2008 by  



Gibson Les Paul Exotic SmartwoodHouses, railroads, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, telephone poles, books, bookshelves, magazines and guitars—what do they have in common? You guessed it, boys and girls: they’re all made of wood and wood-based products.

Which, as it turns out, is a problem. Every year, millions of innocent trees are slaughtered so that we can continue leading the common, convenience-filled lives to which we’ve grown accustomed. And that would be fine, except for one thing: millions of new trees don’t magically pop up each year to replace the old ones. In most parts of the world, wood is harvested irresponsibly, with little or no attention to reseeding, regrowing and regenerating a supply of timber for future generations.

Guitar builders, in particular, are affected by the ever-worsening tree shortage because they rely on very specific and increasingly rare woods to create instruments that have the tone, stability and appearance musicians’ desire. Important luthiery woods like maple, ebony, rosewood and mahogany have become harder to obtain, thereby driving up their price. As a result, it’s become increasingly difficult for builders to produce instruments that are both good sounding and affordable.

Enter SmartWood and the Rainforest Alliance, an organization concerned with preserving what remains of South America’s rainforests. SmartWood is a division of the Alliance that sends representatives to forestry operations around the globe, where they inspect each company’s methods of harvesting and reseeding. Operations that responsibly and effectively replenish the resources they exploit are certified by SmartWood. This certification ensures builders and craftspeople that such materials are ecologically friendly.


Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz first heard about the SmartWood program in 1994 while attending the Rainforest Alliance’s annual gala concert. He reasoned that, by establishing relationships with environmentally farsighted operations, Gibson could secure a sustainable timber supply, thereby ensuring its guitar building future.

Four years later (1998), Gibson had revealed the fruits of those relationships with the Les Paul SmartWood Exotics. The new line consisted of six guitars featuring tops fashioned from unusual, “smartly” harvested tropical woods. Each guitar listed for $1299 new, and in the spirit of philanthropy, Gibson donated a portion of the profits from the SmartWood guitar sales to the Rainforest Alliance.

Composed of mahogany bodies and necks (like most Les Pauls, except those made in the Seventies that had maple necks), each of the six models in the SmartWood line featured tops made from a different but equally stunning wood: Curupay has a deep chocolate-walnut richness; Peroba recalls the orangey hue of the old pine ceiling beam; Banara has a golden, banana-like glow; Ambay Guasu boasts the even lightness of maple; Taperyva Guasu is reminiscent of a sun-bleached rosewood, and Chancharana is a deep, warm-brown russet.

The guitars are lightly finished with a satin-like UV-resistant compound that seals and stabilizes the wood without masking its feel or nuances. All models feature a Curupay fingerboard, a traditional Les Paul two-humbucker pickup configuration, a Tune-O-Matic stop tailpiece bridge and gold hardware.

Based loosely on :”the Les Paul variant” of the late Seventies and early Eighties, the Exotics are light and well balanced, with a slim contour that is also quite reminiscent of the Les Paul Custom Lite that saw limited success in the late Eighties. For standard Les Paul players whose shoulders and backs can no longer take that 10-pound payload, the thinner body on these instruments will provide some relief. In addition, the Exotics’ “1959 Rounded Les Paul” neck shape is beefy but now unwieldy and will feel instantly familiar to Gibson players. The fretwork on all six instruments is excellent, the trapezoid fretboard inlays cleanly installed, and the playability on all models is exactly what you’d expect from a good Les Paul. No surprise there.

Gibson reports that, beyond their obvious cosmetic differences, the exotic tops have little or no effect on the sound of these Pauls. I played all six guitars through a Marshall Super Lead and a Blackface Fender Deluxe and could detect no significant tonal differences among them. Of course, no two sounded exactly the same, but them no two guitars made of wood ever will. That said, the Exotics did share a common sound that we’ve come to expect from Les Paul: a fat low-end that is soft yet present, a midrange that is rich, and sweet highs that are neither piercing nor dull.

The bridge-position 498T humbucker (standard on most non-Custom Shop Gibson electrics) is a relatively hot pickup that drives amplifier preamp sections well without being muddy or too unruly. This is certainly one of the best stock pickups that Gibson has produced in the latest decade or so. And while it does not have the pedigree or clarity of their 57 Classic reissues, it is more versatile than those pickups and performs equally well in mellower blues applications and balls-to-the-wall scooped midrange riffathons. The neck-position pickup, a 490R, is sweet but powerful and can produce throaty, rounded lead tones. With the guitar’s volume rolled back, the neck pickup maintains excellent bite and clarity while generating chimey, bell-like clean sounds.

The End Line

For sound and playability, the Les Paul Exotics offer nothing less than would be expected from the Les Pauls we’ve come to know and love. What’s more, they prove prove that a guitar built from wood harvested in ecologically conscientious manner is just as viable as one crafted from timber obtained with traditional methods. Gibson should be congratulated for taking this step. I for one, certainly hope they reissue the Exotic line soon.

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Comments

14 Responses to “Gibson Les Paul Exotic Smartwood”
  1. How to Buy Guitars says:

    Nice article! Good to see suck a HUGE company really care about the planet!

  2. Michelle G says:

    Gibson certainly created a great program by working with the Rainforest Alliance to createthe Smartwood guitar. I believe there may have been some errors in counting the population of Banara wood available, and that’s what lead to Gibson producing these particular instruments in such small qauntities. I believe they were available in much lower numbers than any of the others. I guess that would make a Banara Smartwood Gibson among the rarest of all Les Paul guitars made.

  3. Dave says:

    This article is filled with much misinformation regarding these guitars. Also, the comment from Michelle is incorrect. Banara is not the rarest of these, Canchanara is, so rare in fact that it was not even photographed – note that the picture in this article includes only 5 species, with the Canchanara model absent. The most important misinformation in the article is about the tone. Gibson’s comment regarding the wood not affecting the tone is false, the tops form a significant percentage of the body wood and each species varies in density dramatically. The second most important nugget of incorrectness is that not all models had Curupay fretboards. Some had Rosewood and some had Pau Ferro. The construction of these is that of the early 70’s “The Paul II”, which is essentially “The Paul” with a carved top. The tone is much more like an SG than a Les Paul. Lastly, the guitars were named Les Paul Smartwood Exotics, not Les Paul Exotic Smartwoods. Ok, and none of them had trapezoid inlay, so the writer of this article obviously made that part up.

  4. Chaz says:

    Thanks for the clarifications Dave.

  5. JHMvP says:

    DAVE, I need to contact you!

    I own 5 Smartwoods Exotic and 1 Smartwood Studio and it’s kinda hard to tell which wood is which, and *you* seem to know what you’re talking about.
    .. 🙂

  6. Stray says:

    They are alright if you like thaty look. I love natural woodgrain (and no, I’m not talking about flame maple at all) if it has character. What sucks though is that it gives tree huggers something more to talk about.

  7. Tommy Tucker says:

    My ’98 Ambay Guaso Smartwood has trapezoidal inlays.

  8. Matt says:

    JHMvP, If you remove the neck pickup there are 2 letters written inside.
    PE=Peroba
    TA=Taperyva
    BA=Banara
    CU=Curupay
    ??=Canacharana
    ??=Ambay Guasu
    That’s what I could come up with.

  9. JHMvP says:

    @Matt: THANK you for sharing info! Please search on user JHMvP on http://www.mylespaul.com/forums for more info on Smartwood Exotics! 🙂

  10. Charlie says:

    I can vouch for http://www.mylespaul.com/forums. I often turn to mylespaul forum when doing some off-the-wall Les Paul research or hard to find info when writing stuff for Gear-Vault. If you’re a Les Paul lover, you really should join that community. Lots of great folks over there with lots of useful knowledge. I’m a member there as well and learn new stuff all the time! =)

  11. Matt says:

    PE=Peroba
    TA=Taperyva
    BA=Banara
    CU=Curupay
    ??=Canacharana
    AB=Ambay Guasu (newly added)

    getting the Canacharana in the mail this week so should have an answer on that one soon.

  12. JHMvP says:

    @Matt: Thanks for your update! 🙂

    Did you already register at MyLesPaul?
    If you did, please drop me a line over there!

    🙂

  13. Matt says:

    If you remove the neck pickup there are 2 letters written inside.
    PE=Peroba
    TA=Taperyva
    BA=Banara
    CU=Curupay
    CA=Canacharana
    AB=Ambay Guasu

    DONE!!! LOL

  14. JHMvP says:

    Nice work Matt, good info!

    But eh…does this mean you actually OWN all six?

    🙂

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