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Les Paul: Gibson vs Epiphone – Can You Tell The Difference?

March 28, 2014 by  

Hey Gear-Vault readers! An interesting debate was brought before our attention earlier this week and we thought we’d pass it along to you guys. Let’s put your mad guitar knowledge to the test! Comment your answer at the end of this kick ass discussion!

Can you tell which is Gibson and which is the Epiphone?



Now let’s take a closer look at these two guitars:

[click to enlarge]
Epiphone Les Paul vs Gibson Les Paul

At first glance, these two guitars appear quite similar. In fact, many players might even have trouble distinguishing between the two. However, did you know that the left guitar often costs as much as NINE TIMES than the one on the right? That’s right. The axe on the left is perhaps one of the most recognizable guitars in the world: a Gibson Les Paul Standard. You can typically purchase one of these for around $2500-3500. Pictured just to the right of the Gibson is the Epiphone Les Paul Standard, which usually clocks in at just under $400 (or $499 for the Plustop Standard Pro).

Now, we realize that Epiphone is Gibson’s junior brand (not to be mistaken with the Les Paul Junior), and their target audience is usually newer players who may not be ready to spend a few grand on a guitar just yet. However, we still have a tough time believing that Gibson’s make on the LP is actually nine times better than Epiphone’s. In order to settle this issue once and for all, we’ve done some investigating to really determine what the difference between these two really are, and whether or not that difference is worth the extra three thousand dollars. In order to do this as fairly as possible, we’ve made an attempt to avoid subjective statements (i.e. “but the Gibson just feels better”), and instead will be taking a look at the hardware of these two guitars. So without for ado, let’s dive into the varied world of the Les Paul. There’s a few points of discussion that will hit along the way, including:

  • Video – Can you tell the difference between the Gibson and Epiphone?
  • Guitar Aesthetics – The Actual Design of the Guitar
  • Tonewoods – What the Guitar Is Really Made Of
  • Finishes – How the Guitar Is Protected
  • Pickups – When Electronics Come Into Play
  • Phase Control and Bypass Capabilities – Some More Electrical Differences
  • Business Branding – “Only a Gibson is Good Enough”

Guitar Aesthetics – The Actual Design of the Guitar

Let’s begin this investigation by inviting you, the reader, to examine the infographic image above. But this time, pay attention to the aesthetics of the guitar. As you can see, most of the stylistic touches between these guitars are nearly identical. Both feature the classic four knob control system with 22 jumbo frets marked by the classic Les Paul trapezoidal inlay. In addition, both guitars finish with the similar headstocks and sport matching pickguards. In fact, if we choose just to examine the visual similarities between these two guitars, you’ll find them to be quite similar. Although seemingly similar, these are not the same guitar. The most striking differences between these two guitars are:

Tonewoods – What The Guitar Is Really Made Of

Both guitars feature thin, 60’s style mahogany necks with rosewood fretboards. This same mahogany is also used as the underbody for each of the guitars. The top material of Gibson’s Les Paul is constructed of maple wood with a nitrocellulose finish, while the Epiphone uses a maple veneer with a standard gloss finish. This actually serves to make a huge difference in the tone of the guitar. FYI, random but relevant fact: veneer is created by gluing a multitude of thin sheets of wood together. While this creates a product that is less likely to crack, it in many ways seems to slightly alter the dynamics and removes a bit of the lower mid warmth. Since the maple top and the tone associated with it is one of the most ICONIC parts of the classic Gibson Les Paul, this point of contention seems to indicate at least one area where Gibson’s Les Paul is demonstrably better than its Epiphone cousin. However, wood is only as good as its protection, and as you may know, these two guitars have entirely different finishes…

Finishes – How the Guitar is Protected

We briefly touched on this in the previous paragraph, but a huge difference between these two axes is the choice of finishes. As stated, Gibson’s Les Paul uses a nitrocellulose finish which must be painstakingly applied via spray to the guitar (the fumes are actually poisonous to breathe). Despite the hassle, when applied properly, nitrocellulose finishes are very thin, allowing them to create a minimal impact on the vibrations of your guitar body while playing. The Epiphone’s standard gloss is roughly analogous to what you might find in your local hardware store. It’s easy to apply and protects your instrument well, but must be applied more thickly, reducing the guitar’s ability to vibrate. This can lead to some changes in tone, though these changes won’t be nearly as noticeable as the differing pickups…

Pickups – When Electronics Come Into Play

Probucker pickups, maple topAlthough a bit difficult to see in the picture above, these two guitars differ in their choice of stock pickups. The Gibson LP features their standard BURSTBUCKER pickups; Epiphone instead created the PROBUCKER pickups as a tribute to the BURSTBUCKER. In fact, in many ways the PROBUCKER seems to be a lower end version of the BURSTBUCKER (which is actually just a lower end version of Gibson’s PAF pickups). Both of these humbuckers feature roughly the same materials and wiring. However, the PROBUCKER has a different connection type, with four simple input connections. This makes it easy for inexperienced players to work on their pickups, but does unfortunately reduce the quality of the pickup ever so slightly. It should be noted that the PROBUCKER pickups only come on the Epiphone Les Paul Standard Pro. The lower end Epiphone LP’s do not feature as nice pickups. In all, the pickups seem to be another point for Gibson.

Now say PROBUCKER / BURSTBUCKER 3 times fast. Go ahead, we’ll wait

Phase Control and Bypass Capabilities – Some More Electrical Differences

A final area of difference between these two guitars is the addition of new controls to the Gibson LP. Whereas the Epiphone LP only features the standard tone, volume, and pickup selector controls, Gibson’s take adds in phase control and true bypass capabilities. This allows for professional quality recording that will be in phase and contains minimal noise and static. Yet again, another point for Gibson. It almost seems to highlight the fact that Gibson wants their instrument to be viewed as professional quality, as opposed to the entry level Epiphone. Actually, Gibson’s line of thinking might be on to something…business branding.

Business Branding – “Only a Gibson is Good Enough”

Gibson 1969 advertisement

Gibson “Daddy of ‘em all” 1969 advertisement

In all, it’s pretty undeniable that the Gibson seems to have all around better hardware, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, even after this investigation, we still don’t believe the differences between these two is around $2400 simply due to hardware. In fact, the powerful branding techniques, built on the legacy that IS GIBSON, are behind this pricing conundrum. After all, each of these guitar manufacturers both need and want to make large stacks of cash. While the Gibson LP is undoubtedly the better guitar in terms of construction, chances are that much of the price difference is related to branding. Think about it… Gibson knows that the Les Paul is definitely its most popular model on the market. In fact, it’s one of the most popular models of any brand! Due to the laws of supply and demand, as Les Paul became more popular, the prices of their higher and lower end models have polarized. Their more expensive, professional level guitars have only increased in price, while their bottom end Les Paul (the Epiphones) have become more accessible at a significantly lower price. This stratification has created enough space in the market for two players, Gibson and Epiphone. So long as one remains a high end product while the other is lower end, the two facets of this company won’t cannibalize each other’s sales, leading to maximum profits for both. You can be sure that when Gibson began pricing their Les Paul, they chose a price that would maintain this chasm as much as possible, while still remaining accessible for some consumers ($3k isn’t a lot to invest when playing guitar is your job). Gibson’s branding might explain the difference in price between these two guitars; a difference so great that can’t be justified by better hardware alone.

Vintage Gibson Advertisement

In reality, the difference in price between these two is probably a combination of the following: branding, consumer perception, the actual physical hardware and construction of the guitars. We hate to say this, but for the sake of journalistic integrity, we must: We don’t think the price difference between these two guitars is fair. Sure, we might understand the reasoning behind this difference, but that still doesn’t convince us that Gibson’s LP is actually worth all $2400 of those extra dollars.

Summary

  • Guitar Aesthetics – Slight Variation of the Headstock
  • Tonewoods – Maple Wood vs Maple Veneer
  • Finish – Nitrocellulose Finish vs Standard Gloss Finish
  • Pickups – BurstBucker vs ProBucker
  • Electrical Differences – Phase Control and Bypass Capabilities vs Standard Controls
  • Business Incentives – American Made vs China / Overseas Made
  • Price Difference – Ouch!

If you hate our analysis, then we’d love to hear from you in the comment section below. Oh, and if you agree? We want to hear from you too!

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Comments

14 Responses to “Les Paul: Gibson vs Epiphone – Can You Tell The Difference?”
  1. Don says:

    Les Pauls have always been overpriced, you can get a better looking, better sounding and better quality guitar for less from PRS. Additionally, you can take the above Epiphone and spend a couple hundred bucks on upgraded hardware, upgraded picks and add the missing circuit and you will have an Epiphone that sounds exactly like the Gibsonfor a 1/4 of the price. But even then your true Gibson lovers will say with their noses high in the air, “My Gibson is still a better quality and better sounding instrument”… I’m a collector and a player and I own Gibson’s, Epiphones, PRS’s and some incredible boutique guitars that put all the big boys to shame… The one thing I have learned, each and every single guitar has it’s own unique sound and qualities, even between guitars of the same make and model. And now with all the modern manufacturing processes that every manufacturer shares, the differences between an Epiphone and a Gibson is not as far apart as the price and the hoopla the companies want you to believe.

  2. Don says:

    Oops… That was supposed to be “pickups” not “picks” in my above post. And for all you grammar police types, some of the other errors were caused by auto correct from my phone so relax and save your breath for giving us your opinion on the article above :-) :-)

  3. Nick Othen says:

    Both great giutars but looking at this years models the build standard has dropped a little. Would I buy one? So much choice all at very good prices. A hard choice.

  4. J says:

    I can hear a definite difference, guitar A sounds brighter & clearer than guitar B. That being said, Many Epiphone guitars, particularly higher end guitars, are a great value. The lower end guitars appear to be pushed out quickly w/ little regard for QS in the hopes that new guitarists can’t tell. I received an Epi acoustic electric as a gift, had to send it back because the neck was unplayable, & although it was obvious that Epiphone US had done more setup & finish work, I’ve still put over $100 into a $500 guitar to make it playable all over the neck. I’ve also played Epi SGs & LPs that were purchased for beginning guitar players that were very feasible after some minor setup & fret work.
    As w/ many tools of many trades, you get what you pay for, but I have to agree that Gibsons tend to be over priced for gigging guitar players & many of the newer models seem to be produced for collectors of expensive things rather than actual guitar players.

  5. Raven says:

    Thank God for Epiphone! I own three Epiphones now including a Les Paul Custom Ltd Edition. I am so pleased with the axes I have bought in the last 4 years…they should almost charge more for the Epi’s (but don’t tell them that). I love some of the newer Gibson models and have always been a fan but the price has been out of my range regarding the top end Les Pauls and such.
    I think the quality control team in China is doing a pretty fair job and are putting out good guitars for the price. Just about to order a new Epi ES-335 Pro…always look for the Epiphone Custom shop logo (back of headstock) on some models and you can’t go wrong. I’m not sure of how the value will hold up over the years but I play my axes and don’t plan on selling them. The Les Paul tribute guitar is fantastic by the way with the Gibson pickups and case included for $599.00

  6. ron says:

    I do believe playability is an important aspect for consideration. From my experience lower end imported guitars often are stiffer in general and harder to bend . . . . I mean these as two different characteristics. I wish Washburn still made the Idols with the Custom Customs and the 59s in the neck because they blow Gibson pickups away in most if not all instances. I’ve never played one; but I do have a Washburn V with those pickups and it’s an ugly guitar that plays like melted butter and sounds like a 59 LP. I’m a hobbyist and lazy so, I play sitting down. That being said. I think single coils work better with many ods and fuzzes so, Fender Baja Player Tele in Swamp Ash is my main practice guitar. It wounds beautiful clean and beautiful with pedals plus, the s-1 switching system gives you tonal options that with one or two pedals you can cover anything and your owns stuff!

  7. Jack Smith says:

    @don That’s exactly what we’re saying, thanks for the comment. Seems like when most upper end players will be changing a lot of the hardware anyways, there’s really not too much of a reason to instinctively go for a Gibson over an Epiphone. They really aren’t too different (other than price, of course).

    @J We totally get that. It really comes down to the fact that every guitar is different, even the same makes and models. Plus, people have different preferences. Sorry to hear about your Epi experience though, hopefully you got her in good shape in the end.

    @Raven Hope you enjoy your new axe! Also, that’s a good tip to look for the Epi Custom Shop logo. People need to know what they’re getting.

    @ron Playability is absolutely the most important aspect when picking your guitar. However, because playability is so utterly subjective and varies greatly even within the same makes and models, it’s not really something we can use to fairly compare the two guitars. We’re pretty jealous of your Fender though, it sounds like a pretty nice guitar.

  8. jim says:

    There are big sound differences between the two guitars,and using a digitised youtube clip to compare them is pointless as you have to be in the same room as the gear to hear the real sound(which is of course better).

    I had an epiphone once and loved it.I upgraded the pickups and electronics and felt like Jimmy Page.
    Then one day i tried a proper Gibson and Japanese Tokai love rock.Both these guitars ate the Epiphone alive and now i really did get that pro sound i was always looking for.
    Sure the Gibson is overpriced,but you also have to consider the cheap metal on the epiphones that eventually is worn away and snaps your strings alot.
    Whereas the Gibson is designed for the road with better hardware.

  9. Charlie says:

    Jim, I get what you’re saying. However, if both guitars sound almost equally as good through a cheap YouTube recording (though I do think the Gibby sounds slightly better in the video), but in order to hear the ‘true’ sound difference when requires sitting down and A/B’ing them side-by-side, does that justify the $2,500 price hike?

    As for the string breakage, I never had a problem. But I know a TonePros bridge system can be purchased pretty damn cheap. Or you can buy a used Gibson bridge off ebay for a fair price… that solves that problem (if it’s even a problem).

    At the end of the day, I think the difference in price is mainly the logo on the headstock among the few other difference, which Jack highlighted in his comparison.

  10. guitar b is not nearly as good probably the epi

  11. ron says:

    I had an entry level Gibson les paul mahogany with burstbuckers 1&2 . . . . it was good, but the Duncan custom customs and 59s sound better. Originally, these burstbuckers were made for japan les pauls and because they gave feedback better were finally made for the US. However, almost all models have burstbuckers 2&3. They did give a great vintage sixties sound for like Cream, etc. I thought I liked the shorter neck length – 24.75, but now I’m using the longer 25.5 all the time and it’s no problem. The new 61 zebra humbuckers on the low end SG look great, and I can play it sitting down as a hobbyist, but I hear SGs suffer from a heavy neck if you play standing up. However, I used pedals a lot more and I don’t feel I need the heft of humbuckers like I used too.

  12. Don says:

    Here is Henry’s view on the subject, CEO for Gibson. Borrowed from the Gibson forum on their website…

    “In any case, our Epiphone Les Pauls, are real Les Pauls. Our plant manager in China was the plant manager in Nashville for a number of years and all our divisions work together to get the very best product for the price. Most Les Paul’s come from our own factories in Quing Dao China and I believe they are superb instruments and great values. They do say Epiphone and our customer know what they are getting for their hard earned money.

    Are the Epiphones as good as Gibsons? They are not the same. We try to make guitar affordable at Epi so the material and construction is different. The tops are typically laminated and the wood is a specie called Nato. There are other subtle differences. Both are great instruments, but they are not the same. I think they are both great values and both are professional quality.

    I think what you believe is a lot more important than what I believe.

    Thanks for taking the time. Henry “

  13. ron says:

    I guess the point I was making is that if you want a USA Gibson, then the Mahogany or what they call the SGJ or LPJ models are priced a bit on the lower end between a Gibson and an Epiphone. You seem to have an option of the new 61s or 490s for pickups.

  14. J says:

    While there are construction & materials differences between the two, by changing hardware & doing additional setup & finish work on an Epiphone you can still get a gigging axe for a lot less than the equivalent Gibson. Tweaking the neck, refinishing the frets, routing the bridge & adding a new saddle increases the cost of my new Epi acoustic, but I have a very playable guitar for half to a third of the cost of a Gibson. I also have two early 80s guitars made in Japan, one of which is an Epi, that are as good or better than the equivalent Gibsons of the same period.
    The issues I have are two:
    many of the newer Epiphones are made to quickly put them out, QS is poor & many of the places selling them don’t do setup & don’t seem to care about the quality. They’re made for entry level guitars players that don’t & may never know the difference.
    Gibson is producing some very nice guitars, but @ the price points appear to be producing guitars for collectors rather than guitar players.

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