When Gibson sued Fernandes for trademark infringement, dilution, and unfair competition for selling Les Paul copies in Japan (under the Burny brand), the Tokyo High Court ruled, on February 24, 2000, in favor of Fernandes, finding that the form of the Les Paul had become, by this point, generic. Intellectual property law is not the sexiest of subjects, but the committed are invited to read the court’s decision (and some helpful commentary) in this PDF. It’s worth it, really. If only to read a stiff, sober Japanese legal account of rock and roll, which “allows musical expression in a lively manner,” and how this genre made possible the electric guitar solo, driving the instrument’s iconic status (and thus sales). If reams of legal waffle, even about electric guitars, cannot appeal, then the salient results of the case are these:
- Gibson waited too long to complain, as over 30 brands had been cranking out Les Paul copies in Japan for more than 20 years before they got around to having a moan in 1993.
- Consumers, the court says, can tell the difference between Gibson and domestic brands — they are not being hoodwinked into thinking they’re buying a Gibson just because it’s the same shape as a Les Paul, as Gibson alleged.
- Amid so many unchallenged copies, Gibson’s design became recognized as a standard, general template for electric guitars, and the Gibson Les Paul is not seen as the source of this but simply as one implementation of it among versions from dozens of manufacturers.
This history explains why stunning, dead-on copies of Les Pauls continue to be made and sold in Japan, and not of course in the US, where Gibson maintains its copyright and will kill you with knives and acid if you produce an LP copy. If you seek that classic Les Paul configuration of woods, cut and controls, but balk at Gibson’s blue moon quality control that makes finding a good one a random event, or its absurd why does that zip code have a dollar sign pricing, then you want to look at the Les Pauls of Japan, past and present.
Greco, Orville, Burny, Tokai… there are many beloved, high grade versions. The Edwards line, by ESP, is not the most forensically accurate of the lot — although it is closer to a ’59 than Gibson now makes — but their quality has made them the most prominent models currently produced, relatively easy to obtain for guitars not legally for sale in the US, and let’s be clear: Westerners snapping these up love them ecstatically. Every Edwards Les Paul discussion thread is packed with Gibson players who’ll put their Eddies up against anything short of a Historic, and always holds a handful of lifetimers who’ve sold up their ‘real’ Les Pauls after finding Edwards, citing comparable playability and tone that made having an extra $2,500 tied up in each Gibson seem needless.
These are challenging guitars. Do you care about tone, feel and quality alone, or do you also care about a name? How about origin?
The Edwards E-LP-98LTS I have here, an ’08 if the serial number is to be believed, is based, like most Edwards Les Pauls, on a ’59, widely appreciated as the zenith of Les Paul production. It certainly looks lovely, with a beautiful deep top carve, perfect open-book headstock, and period accurate details such as body binding that does not obscure the cheeky little peek-a-boo from the maple cap in the horn’s cutaway, which for some reason is reassuring to see. Something to do with knowing that big slab of maple is there, doing its job. The behemoth mahogany back appears to be true mahogany, swietenia macrophylla, not a cousin and, incredibly, is one solid glorious piece.
And really, how pretty is the burst? This is their Vintage Honey Burst top, on a bookmatched flamed maple veneer (more on this in the next section), much richer than the example on the Edwards website, and it reminds me, with its warm orange hues, of marmalade more than honey. Months later I still find myself gazing at it, taking in the lovely whiskey tones that occur at the transition from the amber center to the orange edges. And I’m not a person who cares about tops in an overdone, weekend-guitars-for-lawyers way.
You also get a ’59 neck profile, beloved for its just-right balance between the fatter ’50s necks and slim ’60s profiles, and one construction bonus purists tend to get caught up on which cannot be seen from the outside: long neck tenon. This means the part of the neck buried in the body goes right back under the pickup cavity for a very secure marriage between the two and, some will debate, better transfer of tone and sustain. This hidden design is no longer followed by Gibson, and overlooked by several of the replicas, so it stands out on paper as an attractive feature of the Edwards Les Paul.
Because owning a factory fresh ’59 feels unnatural, the E-LP-98LTS (like the model it replaced, the 90LTS) incorporates a number of features to help it seem gracefully aged. All the plastic’s cream instead of white; the neck and body binding is treated with a tasteful amber; the GOTOH tuning keys are that dull vintage mint green; the bone nut’s not all showroom shiny; even the pickup selector switch is waxy orange-brown like an old fuse; the Edwards logo is a synthetic mother of pearl with a well-chosen golden tint. The metal, too, has been chosen to keep the guitar from appearing jarringly new, with nickel pickup covers in a subdued, brushed finish that not only stops them looking Cadillac shiny now, but ages more rapidly for later. These two year old covers could already pass for 15.
The execution hasn’t gone quite as well for the pleasantly chunky bridge and tailpiece, both GOTOH parts. When brand new these have a subdued, vintage matte vibe to fit with the rest of the guitar, but it’s just a quick cover up, a thin coating on top of regular shiny hardware. The result: as the matte finish wears off through use, revealing gleaming chrome, the Edwards may sport the only hardware to paradoxically appear newer the older it gets!
Adding to the vintage aesthetic is a layer of nitrocellulose on top of the poly finish. The LT in LTS stands for Lacquer Taste, and that’s all you get, a taste! A poly finish with a spritz of nitro on top obviously does nothing to imbue the guitar with easy breathing vintage tone, but it’s enough to give a 50s replica a nice muted appearance instead of the glassy, boiled candy look you get with modern poly goop. [Incidentally, look at this great guide on mylespaul.com about making poly finishes appear much more agreeable and nitro-like.]
The only questionable design choice is the truss rod cover, a steam iron shape which isn’t even close to the Gibson bell. Replacements can be gotten cheap if this bugs you; the headstock will even take a full Gibson Les Paul headstock veneer if you just can’t make peace with being seen with a non-Gibbo LP. A great guitar is a great guitar. It could say “Pajamas” on the end for all I care.
Edwards don’t cost a whole lot, especially for what you’re getting on paper, and so waiting for mine to arrive I couldn’t fight off concerns that it would feel weird in some way; cheap, or just wrong. But it’s heavy, solid, tightly assembled. The routing is surgically clean. The frets are smoothly finished on the ends and feel good. Inlays, spotless. The hardware’s heavy and strong. The thing feels formidable, like a battle axe.
What can we pick on? The rosewood is a little dry, a little light? I’ve found the same grade on Standards and Classics. Some people like to change out the pickup selector washer for a true Gibson. Several swap the ceramic caps for vintage spec ones. That truss rod cover. Cheap upgrades, one and all.
ESP has saved some money in one feature you are powerless to upgrade: the flamed maple top. It is real, and beautiful, and bookmatched, but it is still a veneer, with plain maple making up the rest of the cap beneath. I can’t see this having any effect beyond knowing it’s there (I always get pissed at furniture companies trying to fool us with less and less detectable veneers over their junk reconstituted wood) but this and the mostly-poly finish do deviate from old Gibson spec, so it’s worth knowing.
I’ve seen purists take issue with the binding stain continuing up onto the nut, but this rubs off with a little work if you’re really that picky, my God.
Edwards Les Pauls are famously, profoundly, almost suspiciously resonant guitars, and I’ve no option but to add to this mystique here. A chord or two immediately declared the E-LP-98LTS as the loudest of any unplugged electric guitar I’d played, save for hollow semi-acoustics. The sound is similar to playing a guitar while coupling it to a much larger piece of wood, say by touching it against a table. (Is it just me who does this?)
Why “almost suspiciously resonant,” though, with italics and everything? Because such great resonance puts people in mind of chambering, or hollowing out guitar bodies, to compensate for the burdensome weight of mahogany, an evil practice that Gibson’s been involved in since 2006 and certainly not something we want near a 1959 replica. No doubt about it, there is a woody, acoustic type plink to the broad unamplified tone, but ESP spokesmen in Japan have clearly stated the Edwards are neither chambered (practically hollow, like current Gibsons) nor weight-relieved (missing several round plugs from the mahogany, a less extreme method used on Gibsons for 30 years) and that they just choose good woods. And you have to eviscerate yourself if you lie about business there, so think about that.
It’s so resonant that in fact the neck pickup vibrates sympathetically, or something under it does, which is a shame, but I’ve little doubt it’d be a quick fix if I got in there instead of just playing the thing. (Update: This turned out to be loose string saddles rattling on the stock TABR-1 bridge, a common enough problem with vintage style tune-o-matic bridges on many guitars. The old fix of a dab of clear nail polish beneath the saddles eliminated it. Intonate first! You don’t want to move the saddles after applying the polish.)
Whatever the secret of the absurd resonance, whether chambers or woods or design, it translates to sweet, lingering sustain when electrified. On and on it goes, letting you play around meaningfully with the end of notes; allowing a bend to moan softly back down to pitch, say, or sliding up and down a 3rd from the last note in a phrase after you’ve let it linger. The same magic (or trick) eliminates dead spots, too. You get an equal woody breadth and sustain from every area of the neck, which is just plain unusual.
Music comes off the Edwards in dollops: thick, creamy, rich, like cookie batter off a wooden spoon, especially when served by the stock Seymour Duncan ’59 in the neck position. One of my favorite pickups, well suited here, the ’59 sounds like it has enough width to do justice to what’s coming out of the wood.
Edwards installs a JB pickup in the bridge position, a baffling choice to many of us with its fatiguing upper midrange, a sort of Celestion V30 in pickup form. Consider that I, a lazy, dilatory person, was moved to swap this out within a week, and you’ll have an idea how poor a fit the JB is. I replaced it with an Alnico II Pro, which you can read all about in that review. Suffice to say: much better. If you’re aware of Appetite for Destruction you’ll know the Alnico II Pro has a happy history making killer tones in ’50s Les Paul replicas (yes, Slash’s Appetite guitar was a replica, too).
In The End
An instrument that offers so much at this price asks only if you can accept it. I just wanted a mahogany/maple guitar for that tone, and a Les Paul soon emerged as the simplest option. I was prepared to buy a Gibson, but wasn’t impressed by what I found. Starting optimistically with a Studio, it felt like a cheap Indonesian toy; a $3,500 Standard was better, but still felt nothing like its price tag. Gibson fans will tell you they had to try 30-50 Les Pauls out to find a keeper; everyone acknowledges there is a Quality Control problem at Gibson. The Edwards — read the reports — are, in that stereotypical Japanese way, very consistent. You can order one and know that it will be right. There’s less romance in that, and in the idea of a replica in general, so it’s a question of how much you want to punish yourself in reverence of name and origin.
In the endless discussion thread about Edwards guitars on The Gear Page forum, a user called _pete_ responded thoughtfully to the assertion that the only real Les Paul is a Gibson:
I used to feel that way. I’ve owned a number of Gibsons but they never really were all that I hoped they would be. One day I realized that the Gibsons of today are copies too. They’re copies of the real LPs, SGs, and 335s of the ’50s and early ’60s.
The stuff they make today is built by different people, in a different factory, in a different city & state, with different machines, and built to different specs. How is that any different than Navigator, Edwards, Tokai, Bacchus, Greco, or Burny?
Compare the weight, feel, top carve, neck angle, and materials of a ’50s LP to today’s Gibson LP. They aren’t even close. The high end Tokais and Navigators are closer. No, today’s Gibson is just another company cranking out copies. I prefer to pay less for the same product. I’m not hung up on the name that’s CNC’d into the headstock.
This is all I have right now, a little blues on the neck pickup, with the color balance all wrong, from a webcam right into YouTube. Not good enough. I will work on some clips. Caveat: as mentioned, I am lazy.
Update Aug 25, 2010: Not that lazy! Here’s a better demo, with a few different tones, a proper camera, and the cab mic’ed up.
Internet Hotlinks! ¬_¬
The epic Edwards thread at The Gear Page. Enormous, informative. Recommended. (Don’t be confused by the prices early in the thread; they’ve risen quite a bit since then.)
That thread on dulling poly finish guitars (such as Epiphones or the Edwards E-LP-92SD.)
The official Edwards site is Japanese, but the specs are readable.