The Les Paul is one of the most iconic electric guitars of all time. It’s the instrument of choice for tonnes of pro guitarists, and it’s well known for having a rich and deep tone. But what’s it like for metal?
In this article, I’ll go through the Les Paul’s suitability for heavy metal, looking at the pros and cons in-depth. Then I’ll jump into some tips on getting the best metal tone on your Les Paul. So let’s get started!
The Quick Answer
The Les Paul is a good choice for metal because it has a thick tone with great feedback, and the humbucker pickups don’t suffer from feedback when you use a lot of distortion.
However, there are a few issues with using a Les Paul for metal such as the thick neck which makes shredding a challenge, the single cutaway design which limits upper fret access, and the lack of a tremolo arm.
What Makes a Les Paul Good for Metal?
There are several different features of a Les Paul that make it a good guitar for metal style music. These include:
- Heavy and dark tone
- Few issues with feedback
- Excellent sustain
heavy and dark tone
Having a thick and rich tone is essential for metal. It underpins the chunky sounding power chords and riffs, and gives you plenty of weight to your solos. This is due to both the mahogany tone wood, which is great for enhancing the low-end frequencies (bass) and mid-range frequencies, giving your tone plenty of depth and warmth.
The dual humbucker pickups are also super important. They again emphasise the bass and mids, but still have enough treble balance to give you power and clarity to your tone.
Few issues with feedback
One of the best things about a Les Paul, is not having to deal with humming and feedback issues. These are much more common on guitars that use single coil pickups, like Strats and Teles.
Instead, the humbucker pickups on the Les Paul cancel out this humming noise that can creep in when you crank up the volume or gain. Something you really don’t want if you’re playing metal.
Humbucker pickups give you a clearer sounding tone when you are using plenty of distortion, so your power chords and riffs will be heard without any trouble.
Finally, it’s important to remember that you need plenty of sustain for metal. It’s what gives your tone more depth and presence. Luckily, the Les Paul has bags of sustain, primarily due to the mahogany tone wood.
This means you won’t have any trouble with your notes running out of steam after a couple of seconds. Something that can get incredibly frustrating if you’re playing elongated power chords or holding notes in your solos.
Issues with Using a Les Paul for Metal
Okay, so there are plenty of reasons why using a Les Paul for metal works really well. But there are a few things that stop it from becoming a complete metal machine. These are:
- Passive pickups
- Thick neck
- Single cutaway design
- Flat fretboard
- It’s a heavy guitar
- No tremolo arm
Although the Les Paul’s humbuckers are great for producing a thick tone, they aren’t the most effective for metal. Generally, most “metal guitars” use active pickups, whereas Les Paul’s have passive pickups.
- Passive: these are the most common type. They don’t require a battery, and work passively to detect the string vibrations.
- Active: these use a battery to boost the signal.
Active pickups tend to sound better when you run them through a very distorted amp, like you would with metal. This is because they are more powerful, and are clearer, so allow for better note separation.
Check out this ultimate pickup guide to learn more about this topic.
Another issue with using a Les Paul for metal, is the neck thickness and shape. LP’s have pretty hefty necks, which can become an issue if you’re trying to shred, or if you have smaller hands.
Some Les Paul’s can be more difficult than others though. Gibson and Epiphone Standard ’50’s, Tribute and Junior are usually the hardest to shred on, whilst some Les Paul’s have slimmer necks, like the Modern, Classic and Studio models.
single cutaway design
Moving on to the body type, the Les Paul isn’t the most effective shape for metal. It has a single cutaway design, meaning that accessing the higher frets can be a bit more difficult than it would be with a double cutaway design.
This is more of an issue with metal because it’s a genre where you tend to use the higher frets a bit more often. Since the Les Paul only has 22 frets, and the cutaway comes in at around the 17th fret, you may struggle with some riffs and solos.
Another problem with using a Les Paul for metal, is the fretboard. As well as only having 22 frets, the actual fretboard is incredibly flat.
Most metal guitars tend to have a more curved fretboard, because this makes it easier to bend strings, like most metal solos involve.
It’s hard not to talk about a Les Paul without mentioning its weight. The average weight of a Les Paul is 9-12 pounds, which is on the heavier side. Most electric guitars weigh around 7-9 pounds.
This can be an issue if you’re gigging and need to be stood up for a long time. You may start to get an achy shoulder after a while, which can make the guitar more difficult to play.
no tremolo arm
Finally, the Les Paul has a fixed bridge. This means it has no tremolo arm, like you’d get with a floating bridge.
This of course isn’t essential, and there are plenty of metal guitarists out there that don’t use a floating bridge, however, it can come in handy for a lot of riffs and solos. So if you choose a Les Paul, then you’ll have to deal without the trem.
Check out this guide to floating and fixed bridges to learn more about the pros and cons of each.
How to Use an LP for Metal?
Okay, so what can you do to get the best out of your Les Paul if you’re playing metal? Well, there are plenty of things you can do to get the best metal tone. Here’s a few quick tips:
- Select the bridge pickup
- Keep the tone and volume controls on full
- Use your EQ settings on your amp
- Use a distortion pedal
Let’s go into a bit more detail.
Select the Bridge Pickup
When you’re using a Les Paul for metal, you will usually be best off selecting the bridge pickup, compared to the neck, or even the middle position.
This is because it will give you a sharper and brighter tone. The Les Paul is warm and thick enough as it is, so instead of using the neck pickup to enhance this, you should use the bridge to ensure you get enough note separation and clarity to your chords and riffs.
Take a look at this article on the difference between bridge and neck pickups to learn more.
keep your tone and volume controls on full
This is for a similar reason to using your bridge pickup. The tone control on your guitar allows you to adjust the amount of treble frequencies that go to your amplifier. Treble frequencies are what give your tone sharpness and clarity.
Since the Les Paul already has a pretty warm and mellow tone, you don’t want to dial the tone control back, otherwise your tone can start sounding a bit muddy.
Same goes with the volume control. It doesn’t just affect how loud your guitar is, but it also will limit the treble frequencies if you turn it down.
So your best bet is to keep your tone and volume controls on full to get a better metal tone.
use your EQ settings on your amp
It’s also really important to dial in the best amp settings, and in particular the EQ settings. Sometimes these are grouped into one control, called either tone or EQ, or you can have separate bass, mids and treble settings. It just depends what amp you have.
You need to have the bass reasonably high, to give your tone plenty of depth. You also need your mids to be high to give you enough presence. Play about with your treble and get the balance between it making your tone sound clear and crisp, but not too harsh.
This is a pretty big topic, so if you’re struggling, you may want to check out these two articles I’ve written for some more advice.
Use a Distortion Pedal
Distortion pedals are probably one of, if not the most well known pedal types out there, and you’ll find a distortion pedal in pretty much every rock guitarists collection, particularly those who play heavier genres. They’ll add that classic heavy gain that gives you tonnes of sustain.
Generally, the Metal Zone pedal have a pretty bad rep, but I’ve not tried it personally. I like the Boss DS-1 Distortion Pedal though. It’s plenty heavy enough for metal and it sounds clear.
If you’re looking for a more versatile pedal, then check out the Boss OS-2 Distortion/Overdrive Pedal. It’s what I currently use because it stops my pedal board getting cluttered, and it’s really versatile and gives you tonnes of high quality gain on tap.
So I know the journey to getting the ultimate metal tone on a Les Paul isn’t always easy, so here are a couple of problems I’ve run into in the past, and how I’ve fixed them.
Muddy distorted tone
This can be a bit of an issue since the Les Paul has passive pickups, and a short scale length, giving you a very dark and mellow tone. If this is causing your guitar to sound muddy when you use distorted metal amp settings, then there are a few things you can do besides the tips I’ve already mention.
- Use an EQ pedal or adjust your amp to increase the treble and lower the bass. This will give your tone more clarity and less fuzziness.
- Use a high quality distortion pedal instead of your amp. Often the issue isn’t your guitar, it’s actually the amp. So using a good quality distortion pedal run through a clean amp can solve this issue.
Lack of Sustain
This can be a problem if your amp doesn’t sound great when you increase the gain. I’ve found the best solution to this is using a compression pedal.
It’ll give you better sustain, and help your tone sound more polished and professional. Check out this guide to compressor pedals to find out more.
There are also plenty of other ways to fix a lack of sustain. I’ve written this article on the 9 ways to improve your sustain that takes you through some instant and free ways to tackle this problem.
weak and hollow tone
Although this isn’t normally as much of an issue with a Les Paul as it is with something like a Strat, it can still happen. If you’re suffering from this issue, then a really effective solution, is to use thicker strings.
Higher gauge (thicker) strings, hold more energy than low gauge strings, because they are more tense. Sustain is increased, when the strings vibrate for longer. So if you have thicker strings, that hold more energy, the strings will continue to vibrate for a longer period of time. This results in a more sustained note.
Also, going back to basics with your amp settings can really help with this as well. Try turning everything to 6 o’clock and work from there to thicken out your tone a bit more.
Modifying a Les Paul for Metal
If you’re serious about turning your Les Paul into a metal machine, then you can consider modifying it.
One of the most simple modifications you can make, is swapping out the passive humbuckers for some active ones. This will give you some more power and clarity when you crank up the distortion.
You can also lower the action to make it a bit easier to shred and play quick riffs. Sanding down the back of the neck to a matte finish, rather than a plastic coated one can also help increase your speed when moving your hand along the neck.
Which Metal Guitarists Use Les Pauls?
So you may also be wondering who actually uses a Les Paul for metal. Here are some of the most famous metal players that have used a LP.
- Randy Rhoads
- Zakk Wylde
- Dan Donegan
- Kirk Hammlett
- Adam Jones