Les Pauls are classic looking and hugely versatile guitars, used in lots of styles from metal to rock to reggae. The guitar’s small shape makes it a breeze to play, and it’s arguably the coolest looking one on the market.
The one major downside is price – LP’s made by Gibson are expensive. For someone who doesn’t have the cash to drop on an original, it’s just not a viable option. But if that’s you, there’s good news. There are some great Les Paul copies out there that are remarkably impressive.
Not all Les Paul copies (which I’ll refer to as simply ‘copies’) are born equal. However, some models are perfect for certain genres of music but not for others. In this article, we’ll look at a handful of copies and help you work out which is best for you.
Here’s a quick overview of the guitars we look at.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the Best Les Paul Copy on the Market
- ESP LTD EC-256
- Johnson JH-100-S
- Vintage V100
- Agile AL-2000
- Epiphone Les Paul Standard
- Tokai (ALS48 / LS48)
- Oscar Schmidt OE20QTE
- Epiphone ENS-EBCH1
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Here’s what we cover in this article. Jump to a section of interest, for full effect read from top to bottom.
- What is a Les Paul Copy?
- Les Paul Design Features
- Buying Guide – Things To Consider When Buying a Les Paul Copy
- Product Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Les Paul Copy
- So, Which is the Best?
What is a Les Paul Copy?
A Les Paul copy is a guitar that emulates the design of an original Gibson but comes without the hefty price tag. They’re not ‘fakes’ – they’re made by other manufacturers that have borrowed many of the design features you’ll see on an original.
It was Ibanez in 1970s Japan who first started making copies. You may have heard the term ‘lawsuit Les Paul.’ This refers to a famous lawsuit where Ibanez was sued for copying the headstock. Gibson felt that the guitars Ibanez were importing into America were so similar to their LP that people were mistaking them for Les Paul. Any Ibanez Copies which were made before the lawsuit are referred to as ‘lawsuit.’
Since then, Epiphone, Jackson, ESP and many more makers have jumped on board and started to make their versions of the classic LP. These look, sound and feel like the Gibson original. Some claim even to be superior.
Les Paul Design Features
Let’s quickly look at the design features of the Les Paul that most copy guitars have borrowed.
A mahogany body is a crucial feature, giving the tone it’s deep resonance. Rosewood fretboards are a classic feature too, smooth to play and with a rich sound. They’re naturally oily, so they don’t need a finish to make them fret-able.
Short Scale Length
LPs have a shorter scale length than other guitars, at 24.75 inches, compared to the standard 25.5 inches you’ll find on a Telecasters for example. This slightly shorter length contributes to the warm tone and makes stretchy chord shapes easier to reach.
Humbucker ‘Burstbucker’ Pickups or P90s
Early LPs used P90 pickups. The same goes for many copies. P90s bring out high range frequencies a little more than humbuckers, but humbuckers are preferred due to their lack of feedback. Humbuckers are also known for delivering a deep, rich tone which contributes significantly to the classic LP sound.
Unlike a Strat where the neck is bolted on, the LP neck is set into the body and glued into place. This is one of the features that give you the signature sustained tone as more vibrations move through a conjoined neck and body than a bolted together neck and body.
The angled headstock is another classic feature that is responsible for better sustain. The angled headstock puts pressure from the strings onto the nut. This increased pressure means that there is very little loss of vibrations, which results in better sustain. This pressure also means that strings stay in their place, and won’t slip out of their nut slots if you play big, Gilmour-esque bends. Some headstocks have 14-degree angles; others are 17 degrees.
Volume and Tone Controls
They also typically have four controls: neck volume, bridge volume, neck tone and bridge tone. Having separate controls over volume and tone for different pickups is one of the features that makes the LP so versatile, as you can go effortlessly go from screeching rock sounds to smooth jazz.
Three-way Pickup Selector
LPs almost always have two pickups, and a toggle to switch between the two. This toggle has three settings, so you can choose your bridge pickup, neck pickup or to use both. The corresponding volume and tone controls can make this switch really significant, as you flick from your preferred bridge tone and volume to your neck set up in an instant.
Buying Guide – Things To Consider When Buying a Les Paul Copy
Okay, let’s say you’re ready to buy one. What do you need to take into consideration?
As mentioned, a mahogany body and a rosewood fretboard are more likely to give you an authentic LP sound. However, newer guitars are switching over from rosewood to jatoba or pau ferro, as rosewood is now protected due to its endangered status. Agathis is also common on less expensive guitars as its tonal properties are similar, but it’s a cheaper wood.
In terms of electronics, humbuckers are the most popular option but some players prefer the brightness of p90s. Look out for ones made from alnico for a well balanced and warm sound. Ceramic pickups are also good, and they can bring out more low-mid range tones than alnico ones. It is worth noting however they are prone to feedback.
Original LPs use Grover tuners. These are high-quality machine heads are permanently lubricated, so tune more smoothly and stay in tune for longer than some cheaper tuners. If you find these on a copy, that’s a sure sign that the guitar will hold its tune well. Chrome diecast tuners are also good and are more likely to appear on an LP copy.
Product Round-up & Mini Reviews – Best Les Paul Copy
So, now you know what to look for, let’s dive into the reviews.
ESP LTD EC-256
One of the best Copies you will find, especially considering the massive price difference. It looks as good as it sounds, and apart from a few minor setup adjustments you’ll need to make, it’s a great sounding instrument that’s faithful to the original.
The ESP LTD EC-256 has a mahogany body and neck, a jatoba fretboard and two split function humbuckers.
These split function pickups enable you to choose between a humbucker sound and a twangier single coil option, making it exceptionally versatile.
The ESP LTD EC-256 also has a ‘thin U’ neck, which will suit players who like to have their thumb on the back or side of the neck.
There’s also gold hardware on this guitar which adds to its quality and gives it a vintage look.
This guitar is perfect for versatile guitarists who need to switch between single coil and humbucker tones, and want a stylish, subtle looking guitar. The style also lends itself to metal players with the black finish and spiky cutoff.
It will be less suited to those who want something that’s a direct copy of an LP, as it has its own aesthetic and some additional features (such as the split function pick up). This guitar also has no angled headstock, and there are only three knobs: two volume and one tone.
- The stock pickups are adaptive to a lot of styles of music, and you can switch between single coil and humbucker at your leisure.
- The mahogany body and neck enable a rich tone, which is true to the classic.
- The gilded LTD machine heads help to keep the guitar in tune for a very long time.
- There’s no angled headstock, so the sustain might not match that of a real LP.
- The neck is a little thin so that it will feel a bit different to an LP and the tone will also be affected slightly.
- If you’ve never played a guitar with jumbo frets before, you’ll need to give yourself some time to adjust to the feel of them.
This guitar draws inspiration from the semi-hollow type, although it doesn’t quite manage to nail the right look and tone. This might be because there’s no angled headstock – meaning some vibrations can get lost. That said, this is still a very decent guitar.
Like the ESP, the Johnson JH-100-S has a mahogany neck and body, enabling rich, warm tones. It also has a rosewood fretboard, so it’s smooth to play and akin to older Gibson models.
There are die-cast chrome tuners, which help it to hold its tune extremely well. What’s more, there are also two volume and two tone controls as well as a three-way pickup selector, so you have excellent controllability with this guitar.
It has a 24.75 scale length, just like a Gibson and humbucker pickups for a warm, feedback-free tone.
This guitar will suit those who play genres such as jazz as the f-holes offer a great clean tone. It’s also fairly original looking as the shape crosses over between that of a Les Paul and more traditional semi-acoustics.
It will be less suited for those who play heavier genres such as metal, as the f-holes reduce this guitar’s ability to overdrive in the same way as a solid bodied guitar can.
- An affordable model, although modification might be needed to achieve a truly great instrument.
- Very good for jazz thanks to the f-holes and good clean tone, but struggles with harder genres.
- Has a pleasing aesthetic (although not reminiscent of the more well known Les Pauls around).
- This is a hollow body, which means that the tone and feel of the guitar in your hands may be unfamiliar.
- Frets, tuners, and intonation will need to be fixed before you can really enjoy this guitar.
- The iconic shape of the original is simply not matched here.
The Vintage V100 is a stellar example of a copy that holds true to the original. The commitment to quality is reflected by a slightly higher price than some of the others on the list, and unfortunately this guitar is difficult to acquire outside of the UK without paying a little extra.
It has a mahogany body and neck, and a rosewood fretboard, remaining true to Gibson’s preferences and the preference of most guitarists. The headstock is also angled to 14 degrees: the same as many Gibsons.
There are two volume and two tone controls on this guitar, so it has the controllability of a Gibson LP, and there are also humbucker pickups which give you that fat Les Paul tone.
It also holds its sustain very well thanks to the low action and set neck.
This guitar is perfect for rockers who want something that plays, looks and sounds just like the original, and can get over trivial issues like a less sturdy headstock and a thinner neck than a Gibson has.
It’s less suited to those who are looking for a copy that has its own features – as the ESP does – or for a guitarist who is likely to bash the headstock (it really might come off!).
- The pickups and tone knobs are very responsive and work well together to produce a fat tone.
- It holds sustain well due to the angled headstock, comparable to a genuine LP.
- Visually it’s very similar, although the cut off is ever so slightly different.
- Unfortunately, it’s more expensive than most copies
- Chances are you’ll need to do some minor alterations, such as fixing the intonation and possibly adjusting the action. Despite this, they are generally very well set up from the factory.
- Although the rest of the guitar is exceptionally sturdy, the headstock is certainly a weak point, and care must be taken to avoid breaking it off.
The AL 2000 is a budget-friendly copy. It’s well made with good choice of wood and the hardware performs reliably enough not to need a back-up when gigging.
There’s a mahogany neck set into a mahogany body, and the fretboard is rosewood – just as you’d want on this style of guitar.
The guitar looks very similar to the original and also has two volume and two tone knobs which give it its versatility. There’s also an angled headstock of 14 degrees which really helps with sustain.
There are humbucker pickups which are responsive and high quality, and the chrome diecast tuners help to keep this guitar in tune.
This is the perfect guitar for those who don’t mind putting a bit of work into a cheaper product. Intonation, action, and frets might need some work before you can get the smoothness you require, though it is definitely attainable.
The guitar also has an added benefit for shredders in its extremely low cut off. The high frets are more accessible to reach than on a traditional Les Paul.
The AL 2000 will be less suited to those with large hands which require a rounded, fat neck. It has an unusually thin neck and will feel strange unless your hands are on the smaller side.
- Looks very much like a Les Paul should do.
- The cut off is low down so you can shred on the high frets very easily.
- Ceramic pickups deliver a beautiful tone with minimal feedback issues.
- The neck is thin and flat in comparison to a Les Paul, and many other guitars besides! Unless you have tiny hands, it won’t suit you very well. Best try this one before you buy!
- It’s likely that before you can properly enjoy this guitar, you will need to get a set up to sort out action, intonation and filing down of frets.
- Prices can fluctuate wildly.
Epiphone Les Paul Standard
Epiphone has made a solid attempt at creating an authentic copy here. Although the hardware is inferior to a real Gibson, the massive price difference more than makes up for it. If you were to consider it as a guitar in its own right, you’d be very pleased.
The Epiphone Les Paul Standard combines alder, mahogany, maple, and rosewood to create a warm, full sound which is reminiscent of the Gibson. It has Alnico humbuckers – just like on a Gibson – and the guitar looks almost identical, with a very similar shaped body, angled headstock and 24.75” scale length.
There are two volume and two tone knobs, a three-way pickup selector and Grover tuning pegs which help it to hold its tune well.
This guitar is perfect for those who really want a Gibson but can’t quite afford one. It handles a variety of styles well, and it looks almost the same, it even has the same kind of pickups.
It’s less suited to those who are looking for some innovation, rather than a straight up copy.
- Solid wood construction and set neck – the use of mahogany, maple, and rosewood make for a very warm, full sound.
- Sustain lasts for a lifetime.
- Generally, these guitars come well set up straight from the factory, but if you’re having it sent across continents, you will have to consider the effect of humidity.
- Although the humbucker pickups do a decent job, they don’t match what a real Gibson produces.
- The mid-tones are weaker than they should be.
Tobacco Sunburst Tokai (ALS48 / LS48) LOVE ROCK
Tokai are Japanese guitar manufacturers with an excellent reputation. A reputation so good in fact, there have even been cases of people making copies of their copies.
The Tobacco Sunburst Tokai is authentic-looking with an angled headstock, glued neck, and humbucker pickups. There are four knobs: two for volume and two for tone, and a three-way switch to toggle between the pickups.
The aesthetic is almost identical to a Gibson, which has led some people to call these ‘lawsuit’ guitars.
The body is made of agathis, the neck is maple, and the fingerboard is rosewood.
This guitar is suited to blues-rock players who don’t mind using heavy strings, due to the sweet and feedback-free tones the high-quality humbuckers enable when you play hard.
It’s less suited to delicate fingers, as this guitar responds best to heavier playing.
- Very similar in aesthetics and build.
- Sustain lasts well, thanks to the angled headstock and set neck.
- High-quality humbuckers than on many budget guitars: you probably won’t be in a rush to replace them.
- The body is made of agathis, which is a cheaper alternative to mahogany and not quite as rich sounding.
Oscar Schmidt OE20QTE
Oscar Schmidt have an excellent reputation for providing high quality, good value guitars and their LP copy is no exception.
The OE20QTE looks just like the real mccoy, and it plays like one too. There are all the features you’d expect: two humbuckers, four controls, a three-way pickup, and an angled headstock.
This guitar is made from mahogany, maple, and rosewood, meaning that although it has the status of ‘budget guitar,’ quality is not sacrificed here.
These guitars will be suited to those on a tight budget, or for players who want to try out how an LP feels before committing to a big purchase.
They’ll be less suited to those who have already played on some other copies and are looking to upgrade to something of higher quality.
- Solid wood construction, set neck and the use of mahogany, maple, and rosewood make for a warm, full sound.
- Sustain lasts very well, thanks to the glued neck and angled fretboard.
- It comes at a very low price, making it the most budget-friendly in the list.
- Although the humbucker pickups do a decent job, you might wish to upgrade them to get a brighter, more responsive sound.
- There are plastic inlays which detract from what otherwise looks like a very high-quality instrument.
Epiphone ENS-EBCH1 Les Paul Standard Plustop PRO
The Epiphone ENS-EBCH1 Plustop PRO is a step up from the Epiphone Les Paul Standard.
This guitar is like the Les Paul Standard, but the humbuckers are of higher quality and more expensive materials.
The body and neck are entirely mahogany, the fretboard is rosewood, and the top is flamed maple. This gives the guitar a richness that is akin to a real Gibson and a weight that’s similar, too.
The Plustop PRO has an angled headstock, 24.75” scale length, and chrome hardware to ensure that it holds its tune.
The headstock is angled at 14 degrees, as opposed to many Gibson guitars which are angled at 17, but aside from that this guitar truly is the most similar to a Gibson of the list. Unfortunately, it’s also the priciest, but this is to be expected given the high quality.
This guitar will be suited to the professional or semi-professional player who isn’t precious about having ‘Gibson’ on their headstock. It really does match the quality of the original.
It won’t be suited to those on a budget, who are looking for a cheap copy of a Les Paul.
- Solid wood construction and a choice selection of woods give it great sustain.
- Sustain is almost identical to Les Paul, and the humbuckers are of extremely high quality.
- It holds its tune well, due to the excellent build quality and chrome hardware.
- It’s certainly pricey for a copy guitar.
- It weighs a lot, which might come as a surprise to some players.
So, Which is the Best?
Each of these Les Paul Copies has its own benefits that will suit different kinds of players.
If you’re a heavy metal player, you might be drawn to the aesthetic of the ESP LTD EC-256 – It handles a massive variety of tones, and even switches from humbuckers to single coils. Anybody who requires this feature (which isn’t typically associated with Les Pauls) will be best going with this guitar.
If you’re a jazz player who likes f-hole guitars but wants a guitar with a similar aesthetic to a Les Paul, the Johnson JH-100-S is the obvious choice. It handles clean sounds really well and is capable of some beautiful, rich tones.
The rockers amongst you who want something straightforward, budget-friendly and pretty similar to a Les Paul, would be best going for the Vintage V100 or the Tokai ALS48. These guitars hold their sustain really well and look pretty close to Gibson Les Pauls in their aesthetic.
If you want fantastic value for money, the Oscar Schmidt OE20QTE is the only real choice, and might be the perfect option for those wanting to get a feel for the Les Paul before they commit to the ‘real deal.’
Slightly less similar in a visual sense, but still similar enough (and great for shredding) is the Agile AL-2000. This really does allow you to be agile, providing you have small enough hands.
The Epiphone Les Paul Standard is probably the most well known Les Paul copy on this list and also probably the most similar to a real Les Paul. Although it doesn’t quite match up with Gibson quality, it’s better than most Gibson owners would like to admit, and it costs a fraction of the price.
Update: After reading this article you are hopefully more likely to buy a Les Paul copy, but if you can afford a Gibson original, I urge you to do so. Between 2013 and 2016, Gibson’s revenue fell from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (May 2018). They were quick to stress they aren’t going out of business, but it’s a bit alarming, and it would be a huge shame to see them go.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.