If you’ve spent much time on our site here at KGR (of course you have…right?!?) you most likely will have come across a few of our reviews on various Epiphone Les Paul models (such as the Studio and the Custom Pro), and you’ll know that we think they are mighty fine guitars in their own right.
While we really do believe that to be true, there’s no faking the fact that Epiphone Les Paul guitars are simply lower-cost versions of their much higher priced Gibson counterparts. But were you aware that – with a few fairly easy upgrades that you can do on your own – you can get that Epi to sound and play just about as well as a true Gibson (even more than they already do right off the rack)?
We may be stating the obvious here, but to get the price down to that ‘sweet spot’, Epiphone did have to make some compromises on part and component choices.
So, what is our recommendation?
Take a few minutes and check out our Ultimate Epiphone Les Paul Upgrade guide below. No matter if you choose to do all of our suggestions, or only a few of them, you’re sure to reap the benefits and turn that Epi into something much more than it was that day you pulled it off the rack.
By the way, if you’re just here for the pickups, check out our dedicated rundown of the best Les Paul pickups.
Where to start and what to upgrade first
This is the most common question for anyone with a budget guitar – what’s the most crucial upgrade to start with. Most musicians will tell you to upgrade parts that affect the tone most while luthiers and seasoned players highly recommend playability.
The answer to give your Epiphone Les Paul a good playthrough for a week or more and pay close attention to your instincts. Listen to what feels off and what bothers you the most. This way, the guitar will let you know what’s the most ideal mod to do first and what upgrade is best for later.
If the sound is your focus, head to the pickups. If you want your guitar to stay in tune and feel better, start with the nut and then consider the tuning keys.
The following below is what I consider the most ideal way to mod or upgrade your Epiphone Les Paul. You can work your way back and forth on the list depending on what you currently need and prioritize.
This is the most impactful mod to the sound of your Les Paul as well as the most personal.
Most guitar reviews focus on the pickups alone and for a good reason. Pickups are the most important element of your guitar’s sound. They are the heart, voice, and soul that most people will hear and they’re the ones responsible for reflecting your playing. A good-looking Les Paul is as good as its era-defining sonic qualities.
Changing The Pickups
If you decide to upgrade, we recommend putting most of your budget on a great set of pickups since it makes almost 80% of your guitar sound and sound is what really defines the Les Paul and player behind it. A great set of humbuckers will make your Epiphone Les Paul sound indistinguishable from it’s more expensive cousin.
When it comes to choosing pickups, the world is your oyster.
If you love classic Les Paul tones, PAF-inspired pickups are your best bet. Vintage sounding humbuckers usually have alnico magnets on them. Seymour Duncan has a lot of vintage-voiced humbuckers like the ’59 Model, Pearly Gates, and Antiquities to name a few. Dimarzio also has a lot of vintage output pickups in their lineup such as the EJ humbuckers, PAF 59s, PAF Masters, and the PAF Anniversary. Bare Knuckle’s Boot Camp Old Guard humbuckers and Suhr’s Thornbucker and Thornbucker Plus are also classic-inspired humbuckers worth considering.
If you opt to go for a more modern sound, pickups with ceramic magnets would be ideal. These tend to be brighter, have higher output, and be very articulate. Bare Knuckle’s Juggernaut and Ragnarok, Seymour Duncan’s Alpha and Omega, or a set of EMGs give you a wide range of sounds that cut well through a mix.
Heading towards an unconventional route has always been fun and exciting. Luckily, we live in an era where the choices are wide and the possibilities are endless. Easy to mount humbucker-sized P90s and FilterTrons are widely available if you want to go for a unique sound. Choosing these kinds of pickups will definitely make your Les Paul stand out from the rest.
Ditch The Pickup Covers
The Les Paul humbuckers at this price range struggle with pickups that sound muddy, lacking in clarity and sensitivity (though the newer Custom models are an improvement over say the 100). Many players get a quick and cheap improvement by removing the pickup covers on their humbuckers.
The pickup covers are thought to roll off the top end characteristics of a pickup. Players found out that pickups that have exposed pole pieces tend to have more clarity and are more sensitive to your picking attack.
Rock legends like Slash use humbuckers without pickup covers in order to cut through the mix more effectively with improved top-end presence.
On the other hand, Jimmy Page’s “Number 1” 1959 Gibson Les Paul has a bare bridge pickup and a covered neck pickup. This allows the Led Zeppelin legend to have full access to the bright grit of the bridge pickup and the warm, dark tones of the neck humbucker.
By doing this simple DIY mod, you may discover sweet spots of the stock pickups that well suit your playing. This is something to consider before deciding to spend on a new set of humbucking pickups.
The problem with most budget guitars is that they stray out of tune so easily, mainly because of the way the nut is cut. While a good setup can help, a lot of cheap nuts are never going to sound right. This usually hinders a player from practicing more or even picking up the instrument.
The nut is often overlooked by many musicians. This is probably the most crucial upgrade to get the best performance out of your Epiphone Les Paul. Always remember that the nut is one of the two critical anchor points that transfer vibrations from the strings to the body. Having a great quality nut will not only improve the tone and sustain of your open notes but also the the overall playability. One way of knowing a good guitar is by how well cut and perfectly fitted the nut is.
Most musicians will say that a bone nut is probably the your best go-to since it gives a more “organic” sound but bone nuts tend to be expensive and inconsistent. These days, graphite or synthetic bone nuts work beyond well at a price that won’t break the bank. You can read more in our guide to choosing a bone nut vs tusq.
This mod is best done with a luthier or guitar tech since it requires precision to get it right and perfect. Luthiers have the necessary tools needed to cut, file, and fit the nut. Some guitars may also need wood filing to better fit a nut. This way, the luthier could specifically shape the nut suited your setup preferences and the string gauge you use.
Epiphone Les Pauls usually have a 1.68” nut slot and GraphTech Labs has a wide range of material choices from graphite to synthetic bone. Their well-known TUSQ nuts have been used by boutique and high-end brands such as Suhr, Anderson, Knaggs, and many more.
Les Paul Electronics
Almost every guitar player rushes to upgrading the pickups first. It is arguably true that the pickups make up 80% of the guitar’s tone and getting great sounding pickups can take your tone from basement-only to stage-worthy.
That being said, it is best to first upgrade the factors that help shape the sound of the pickups, and this is where upgrading your Les Paul electronics will pay off in spades.
Switches or Pickup Selectors
Switches or pickup selectors play a vital role in getting the widest tonal variety from your guitar.
Switching between pickups on a budget guitar can be bothersome. We often hear loud pops that would cut through the mix when we are playing. Selectors at this budget are also prone to failure, and they have a high chance of breaking on stage.
A good toggle like Switchcraft will help you switch smoothly between pickups and will stand up to continued rough use.
- Short Frame Toggle Switch
- 3 Position for 2-Pickup Guitars
- Perfect for Semi-hollow, or narrow solid body (non-carved top) Les Paul's - Epiphone and Juniors
- Black Switch Tip Included
- Please note!! Lugs are tinned at the Factory for easier soldering.
The output jack is also an underrated upgrade. Almost every budget guitar has a faulty output jack. This can lead to dropouts and buzzing in your signal. A good quality output jack and plate will help you get rid of those problems and will make your performances worry-free.
- Perfect for electric guitars & basses (Input jack), original or replacement
- Metal construction for durability
- Easily fits into guitars, basses, wall plates, rack panels and jack dishes
- Mates with standard 1/4" plugs (Guitar/Instrument Cables)
- Perfect for speaker cabinets (Input/output jacks), original or replacement
Potentiometers And Capacitors
Next, we head to the volume pots, tone pots and capacitors. These affect the sound of the pickups the most.
Cheap potentiometers are known for their drastic taper which makes it difficult to dial into the sweet spots of your pickups. A good set of 500k pots from CTS or Bourns will greatly improve the sound range of your pickups.
Capacitors also contribute to the tonal quality of the pickups and it’s best to match them with the tone pots and the pickups you use.
Most Les Pauls use capacitors with values 0.022uF. It’s nice to experiment with different values to get the tones you want.
If your pickups sound too bright, you might want to consider 0.047uF capacitors and if they sound too dark, 0.022uF caps are your best bet.
If you plan on installing coil-split switches on your guitar, 0.033uF caps work well for both single-coil and humbucker sounds.
Sprague orange drop capacitors are high quality and easy to get hold of.
If you’re confident enough to solder, you might want to try out the 50s-style wiring mod. It is one of the simplest and cheapest mods you can do to your Epiphone Les Paul.
Gibson hooked things up this way until 1962.
By connecting the tone control to the middle or output tag of the volume rather than the outer or input tag, the volume and tone controls become more interactive because it allows you to turn down your volume without muddying up the sound.
The stock Epiphone die-cast tuners work surprisingly well already but it’s always worth upgrading if you have the budget.
Upgrading to new tuning machines can be confusing with all the different kinds of tuners available. Unless you are changing to tuning machines with the exact same specifications as the stock ones, there are going to be necessary modifications such as widening the peg holes or even drilling additional mounting screws in order for them to fit nicely.
Most Les Pauls in the Epiphone range have peg holes that vary from 3/8″ to 10mm while more of the vintage-inspired Epiphone Les Pauls have 1/4″ to 11/32″. A good rule of thumb is you replace your tuners with the same kind of tuning machines.
Like pickups, there are a variety of tuning machines to choose from. The most ideal upgrade would be a set of locking tuners. Grover, Hipshot, Gotoh, and Graph Tech has a tons of options that are ideal upgrades if your Les Paul has the die-cast stock tuners.
If you want to preserve the vintage looks of your Epiphone Les Paul, Gotoh offers the Gotoh SD90 MG-T which is the perfect replacement for your vintage-style machines. They function the same way as other locking tuners but at the front of the headstock, they look exactly the same as your beloved classic Gibson tuning pegs. The Gotoh SD90 MG-T offers both vintage looks and modern fuction.
On the other hand, if the stock machine heads already work well for you, you can consider replacing the tuning buttons. Replacing the buttons on your stock diecast tuners with plastic Kluson-style buttons is highly recommended since it will not only take off weight on the headstock but it also gives your Les Paul a classy vintage aesthetic.
Bridge & Tailpiece
Like the stock tuners of a good Epiphone Les Paul, the stock bridge and tailpiece performs well too. But if you still run into problems such as tuning issues and string breakage even with a new nut installed then you might consider upgrading your bridge and tailpiece.
The bridge and tail piece make up the second anchor point that transfer the string vibrations to the wood. They are responsible for transferring the vibrations from the string to the body making it a critical factor on your instrument’s acoustic sound.
Upgrading your bridge and tailpiece will further make your Les Paul perform and play better, but make sure to check that the replacement bridge fits in place of your existing bridge. Firstly, you’ll want a bridge with metric posts (typically import guitars are metric, domestic guitars are imperial), then you’ll want to measure the spacing between the posts. You’ll want to make sure you choose a bridge that fits those measurements, or you’ll end up sending it back.
Once you have all of your measurements figured out, TonePros, Gotoh, Callaham, Wilkinson and Graph Tech have a number of tune-o-matic bridges and tailpieces that would snug perfectly on your Epiphone Les Paul.
Graph Tech also has graphite String Saver saddles for Les Pauls, they contribute to a bright resonant tone and are self-lubricating which will save you from breaking your strings in the future.
You can also try top wrapping when installing your strings. From the pickup side, you insert your strings through the tailpiece and wrap them over the top. This will not only reduce string breakage by reducing the break angle but also lessen the tension, making your strings slinkier and a lot smoother to bend. This is a technique and mod that requires zero cost. Joe Bonamassa is known to do have a wrap-around to make his 11s strings feel like 10.5s.
The options don’t stop there, we can get to crazier upgrades. Les Pauls are known to have a fixed bridge. If you’re one your a fan of vibrato bars, then the guitar world has got you covered. The company, Vibramate, has a Bigsby tailor-made for a Les Paul and requires no drilling for it to fit. This is a mod that can be done in minutes on your own.
Stetsbar also has their own tremolo system designed for a Les Paul and Schaller also has their “Tremolo Les Paul” which no extra holes are needed for it to fit.
Sand The Neck
Most Epiphone Les Pauls, just like the Gibsons they’re modelled after, have gloss finish on their necks. This is a turn-off for most players because gloss necks tend to be sticky and can hinder your playing. You can start by sanding it with 600 grit sand paper and moving your way up to 800 grit and finally 2000 fine grit.
While you’re sanding at 2000 grit, you can also sand the edges of the binding. This will round the sharp edges off and will allow you to play smoother and worry-free.
Replace The Frets
In due time, the frets on your Epiphone Les Paul will wear out causing strings to choke out when bending, a lot of buzzing, and intonation problems.
This mod maybe the last thing you’ll do if you bought your Epiphone Les Paul brand new. If your Les Paul was bought second-hand and was played significantly by the previous owner, this mod is highly recommended because it will make the guitar feel buttery and easy to play.
It is recommended that the frets are replaced along with a nut replacement and is best done by a luthier. The luthier has all the precision tools and experience needed to install your frets perfectly along with a well-cut and fitted nut. The nut is also cut, filed, and fitted based on your preferred fret size and height.
Guitarists find medium-jumbo to jumbo frets great on a Les Paul but if you prefer narrow and tall frets, then no one’s stopping you. Fret material depends on your personal preference. Nickel frets tend to give off a warm tone while stainless steel has a noticeable top end sparkle.
Stainless steel frets are much harder than nickel frets. Due to it being a harder material to work with, fitting your guitar with stainless steel frets will cost more than nickel fretwork. Modern guitar players love the feel of stainless steel frets because it is smoother to bend on them and they will practically outlast your lifetime. Nickel frets, on the other hand, offer you the vintage feel that the original Gibsons had.
Jescar is known for their high-quality frets. They offer nickel-silver alloy frets, stainless steel, and even gold frets to add bling to your guitar.
When upgrading parts, make sure to keep the stock ones because they will come handy in the future.
Upgrading a guitar can be costly and time-consuming but it’s also an opportunity to explore, discover, and develop creativity. Note that not every part of your Les Paul needs an upgrade. Modifications only apply to areas that need it the most and to your suit preferences.
With every mod and upgrade on your guitar, it will develop into something that is personal and will eventually be a reflection of your artistry. Have fun upgrading!
Main Image Credit: Roadside Guitars/Flickr. Image edited for size.