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Gibson Baritone Les Paul Studio Guitar

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This is one of the coolest guitars I’ve ever played… but if you decide you want one too, you’ll probably have to firewalk an even greater distance over still more incandescent coals than I did.

Several yeas ago, I came upon a Taylor Baritone GS acoustic guitar, which remains a singular instrument. Tuned a fourth below a conventional guitar, it’s dark, powerful and brooding. After playing it for a while, I began to think that an electric counterpart would be a useful voice.

Nothing rocks quite like a Les Paul – elegantly understated, fluid and expressive, the known universe’s first electric guitar remains my decided favorite. I was delighted to learn that a baritone Les Paul did indeed exist. At least, it used to.

In fact, there were two of them.

The first of the baritone Les Pauls appears to have been created by Epiphone, a corporate subspecies of Gibson that builds less expensive instruments based on Gibson’s designs, hailing from the far east. The Epiphone baritone Les Paul first saw daylight circa 2004. While it was available in a number of finishes, the most common manifestation of it saw something resembling a World War I German iron cross painted across its top.

Crosses have never entirely worked for me.

Epiphone guitars represent a circus of many performers. Their high-end instruments, such as the Epiphone Prophesy GX, are rapturous to behold and breathtaking to play. Their inexpensive guitars make nice lamps. Regrettably, all accounts place the Epiphone baritone Les Paul – with or without its goth interior decorating – well down the great tree of life. I never actually tracked one down, but the reviews I found of it and several people I encountered who’d owned one suggested that it suffered from finish imperfections, funky electronics and a decidedly rough sound.


The Gibson Epiphone Les Paul was a Gibson – flawlessly crafted, engineered by guitar gods, timeless in its simplicity and unmistakable once everyone stopped admiring it and it got plugged in. It only ever came in one color – the “honey burst” finish illustrated at the beginning of this post – and if I’d thought of it a year earlier, I could have bought one.

By the summer of 2012, both instruments had been discontinued.

A baritone guitar is, in its simplest sense, an instrument with heavier strings than a conventional guitar, allowing it to be tuned way down without flapping in the breeze. The usual string gauges for a baritone guitar are .013 to .060 inches. While in theory any guitar could be modified to accept a baritone string set, a conventional instrument has a scale that’s too short to allow the bass strings to maintain reasonable intonation, and the whole works would sound like a sack of cats. They’d be very deep, resonant cats with a commanding presence, but no one would actually want to listen to them.

A dedicated baritone guitar has a slightly longer neck than would otherwise be the case.

In that this is a review rather than a lament, I should note that I eventually found a Gibson baritone Les Paul – the epic quest for one will unfold in a moment.

The Gibson baritone Les Paul is very much in keeping with a traditional studio Les Paul – it has a carved maple top and a mahogany body. It features a glued-in mahogany neck with a somewhat fatter profile than is usually found on contemporary electric instruments – while I suspect that this neck would feel a bit excessive on a conventional axe, it works well for the larger strings of a baritone.

The chrome hardware and nitrocellulose finish serve to make it appear faintly retro, without getting it within a lightyear of the in-your-face-neo-pawnshop-faux-antique apprehension of many deliberately period instruments.

The neck of the Gibson baritone Les Paul has 24 frets over a 28-inch scale, inlaid with acrylic dots. Its Grover tuners have a fourteen to one gear ratio, allowing them to be impressively precise without requiring that you clamp each one in an electric drill and wind for a quarter of an hour to change strings.

The baritone Les Paul has two impeccable humbucker pickups, and the traditional four knobs and three-position switch electronics that have appeared on Pauls since the dawn of time. The Tune-O-Matic bridge feels like it’s been milled from the core of a collapsed neutron star, and offers an optimum level of sustain. The guitar lives within a robust hardshell case… there was an attractive “Made in Canada” sticker on mine.

The instrument itself is made in Tennessee.

The baritone Les Paul is, not surprisingly, a peach to play. It does require a few minutes to get used to its slightly longer scale… ‘specially if you’ve never picked up a baritone guitar before… but the half-century of refinements and history behind it will be apparent with its first notes. Its action is tight, and its sound has the texture and presence of a conventional Les Paul… and none of the infinite sustain and pretension of some of its cousins.

The Quest for the ‘Tone

When I realized that I’d missed the window for buying a baritone Les Paul through the music shop in town, I decided to dial up cyberspace and search further afield for one. It seemed reasonable that there must have been a guitar retailer somewhere in North America with one hanging on a wall, unnoticed and unsold. In that Gibson’s web page has a dealer directory, and most of the dealers therein have web pages, finding a baritone Les Paul appeared to be a simple matter of e-mailing a whole lot of them until one turned up with the right guitar.

I know better now.

I eventually lost track of all the musical instrument stores I e-mailed… it must have been dozens, and it could have been hundreds. Some of them didn’t reply at all… which probably meant that they didn’t have one. Some e-mailed back wishing me luck. Quite a few replied to say that the guitar I wanted was discontinued, no longer existed and was a serious antiquity. They all claimed to have checked with Gibson to be sure that my quest was authentically hopeless. They then set about trying to interest me in an alternative.

There are actually other in-production baritone electric guitars as of this writing, including:

  • The Danelectro Wild Thing, which is agreeably inexpensive and looks like it belongs in a Salvador Dali painting.
  • The Gretsch Guitars G5265 Jet, which is way retro.
  • The Gibson Explorer Baritone, which sounds quite respectable… but it screamed “reunited circa-1982 girl band” every time I looked at it.
  • The PRS SE baritone, which is a Korean shade of Paul Reed Smith’s more expensive toys. It’s a decidedly sweet instrument, especially considering its price, although it wasn’t what my fingers wanted to play.

As I eventually realized, almost all the dealers who claimed to have contacted Gibson to check stock on the guitar I wanted actually just checked the Gibson web page, noted that the baritone Les Paul was history and moved on to more pressing matters. Only two of the retailers I e-mailed appear to have called Gibson, and both of them were told that there were in fact three of them left in Gibson’s warehouse, awaiting departure instructions.

The guitar store I ultimately bought my baritone Les Paul from was Hugo Helmer Music, of Burlington, Washington. I’ll confess to never having heard of them before I began questing. With the quest having reached its conclusion, I’m disappointed that I’ve pretty much blown my guitar budget for the foreseeable future. These guys were such a treat to do business with that I almost want to buy something else there, just to feel the vibe again.

Unlike most of their competitors, Justin from Hugo Helmer Music got back to me within a few hours of my original e-mail. He discovered the remaining baritone Les Pauls, and provided me with an easily-comprehensible all-inclusive price for one, with no additional sneaky charges or subsequent sticker shock. The guitar was shipped to Hugo Helmer Music from Tennessee… whereupon Justin discovered what he felt was an imperfection in the finish. He e-mailed me to apprise me of it, offering me a refund if this was a problem. His e-mail included a picture of the beast… which could also have been a stuck pixel in his camera’s image sensor. Justin’s eyes are clearly in much better shape than mine – I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t been alerted to its existence.

It certainly wasn’t an issue, but I was blown away by Hugo Helmer Music’s level of attention to details.

The guitar showed up here a week later, exactly as promised, in an authentic Gibson box that made the Fedex driver jealous. It’s had little rest since.

The epilog of this tale is that “no” doesn’t always mean “no” when you’re shopping for obscure stuff – doubly so for obscure guitars. Persistence rocks… or more to the point, persistence is an efficacious filter for separating retailers who’ll just take your cash and move on from those who are prepared to warp time and adjust the orbits of nearby planets if that’s what it takes to get you what you’re after.

Those latter people are really worth knowing.