I recently tested new electric and acoustic guitars from Gibson, Taylor, and Epiphone.
The Gibson story has taken a fascinating turn: after declaring bankruptcy in 2018, the iconic company has revamped its lineup and is now offering guitars at a wider variety of price points.
Gibson-owned Epiphone has introduced two new versions of the Texan acoustic, a guitar made famous by Paul McCartney, who wrote "Yesterday" on the instrument in the 1960s.
Taylor, meanwhile, has continued to innovate under master builder Andy Powers and has extended it V-Class bracing technology to a new range of acoustic guitars.
Rumors of the death of the guitar are greatly exaggerated. In fact, sales of acoustic and electric guitars have picked up notably during pandemic lockdowns, as new players have taken the plunge and experienced axe-wielders have upgraded and added to their gear.
From my point of view, this is the best time in the history of music to be taking up the six-string. Entry-level guitars are now of remarkably high quality, consumers have a vast array of online buying options, and companies have created entire digital-instruction platforms, such as Fender Play.
Other big names have also stepped up. Gibson declared bankruptcy in 2018 after some ill-advised expansions, but since then the Nashville-based legend has been steadily revamping its lineup, opening up ownership to customers who might have previously thought the brand was out of reach.
And California's Taylor — the new kid on the block, started in the 1970s and going up against names that had been around for over a hundred years — has continued to relentlessly innovate with its acoustic designs.
Gibson recently let me borrow an electric guitar and a new acoustic from its Epiphone brand, while Taylor let me check out its latest creation, as well as a guitar made from wood that used to be considered trash. Here's what I thought:
The Gibson Les Paul Special Tribute is a stripped-down version of the classic. Gibson sent me an axe in "worn white satin," but cherry, black, and natural finishes are also available. This is a USA-made instrument for $999.
Les Paul's can be pretty snazzy, but the Special Tribute isn't. This is a no-nonsense guitar that's intended for rock-n-roll.
However, it doesn't lack for what you'd find on a far more expensive Lester. The quality of the hardware is high, and the volume and tone controls are responsive.
Simple, simple, simple. From the plastic-button tuners to the unadorned Gibson headstock, this Les Paul might signal "starter" guitar, and it has been built to a price point — there's no fretboard binding, for example — but it's solid enough to carry any player through a lifetime.
Mahogany, rosewood, maple, a nitrocellulose finish, 24.75-inch scale length, and a rounded neck carve that's neither too slim nor too fat — the Special checks every Les Paul box. It also comes with a nice padded gig bag.
The Special Tribute offers two pickup choices: mine had a set of humbuckers, but you can get P-90s, as well, if you're after a nastier tone.
When I took the Les Paul Special out of its case and gazed up the white finish, I immediately wanted to affix a few Steve Jones, Sex Pistols-vintage stickers to the guitar and get to some classic punk-rock chugga-chugga playing.
A few seconds later, I was plugged into my Marshall amp and doing just that.
A Les Paul, as befits its jazz-legend namesake, is a versatile instrument. But it's also defiantly so superlative at meat-and-potatoes rock that I cannot imagine why every single aspiring player in that framework wouldn't drop $999 on one of these immediately and never look back.
The Les Paul-Marshall combo is venerable, so you can run a completely basic rig with this axe and reap the rewards. With Marshall's default crunch, you'll sound more or less like what you want, should your jam be straight-ahead rock.
On to the acoustics! Taylor Builder's Edition 324ce takes the familiar cutaway Grand Auditorium style that the California company pioneered and expands on cofounder Bob Taylor's passion for seeking out sustainable sources of tonewoods.
The Builder's Edition 324ce uses "Urban Ash," a term that the company has come up with for wood salvaged from trees that have been culled from California's urban forests. This wood would otherwise end up in landfills.
The wood is actually "Shamel ash," and it's found all over the place in the Golden State. For master designer Andy Powers, the timber passed muster for building Taylor-grade acoustics, which are known for their exceptionally high quality and uniformity.
This guitar retails for $2,999 and even with the different wood choice, it's worth every penny: made in Taylor's US factory, with the company's new V-Class bracing under the hood, and decked out with every player-friendly feature the manufacturer has come up with.
The brass-tone Gotoh tuners might have been my favorite touch! Overall, the level of craftsmanship is superb, with basically ever edge rolled and finished beautifully. I sort of felt like the ash trees that ended up in this guitar has ascended to arboreal Elysium.
The antiqued tuners are a nice touch, but they also work like a charm. As with every Taylor I've tested, the setup from the factory was impeccable.
Taylors have a well-deserved reputation for almost extreme playability, a quality that comes from innovative, adjustable, bolt-on necks. Slim and fast, they can be tweaked to offer exceptionally low action that doesn't buzz.
Taylor's ES2 onboard electronics — "Expression System 2" — are my idea of an industry standard. Nothing against Fishman or L.R. Baggs (I use a Fishman soundhole pickup in one of my other guitars), but the ES2 setup is impeccable, and an in-house Taylor innovation.
Taylor isn't alone in seeking sustainable wood solutions, but Bob Taylor has demonstrated admirable leadership and is always looking for new ways to build great guitars that can be built great for years to come.
The Grand Auditorium design has always been a true player's guitar, and the use of Urban Ash is a revelation: Taylor has basically transformed what was always thought of as junk wood into something magnificent. The 324ce I tested was as comfortable as one would expect from a design optimized for comfort, but it also delivered familiar, abundant Taylor dynamics on the sound front. Getting up and down the neck was a joy. The guitar also looks very, very cool, in a sort of ravaged and reclaimed way that's a bit of a departure for Taylor, whose instruments tend to age almost too gracefully.
The Taylor Grand Pacific Builder's Edition 717e is a top-flight example of Andy Power's latest vision: a premium slope-shoulder dreadnought ($3,199 list) with a Sitka spruce top and Indian rosewood back and sides, undergirded by the V-Class bracing design.
The guitar comes with a gorgeous, tooled-finish hard case.
I'm actually not a huge rosewood fan, but there's no debating its history as a material of choice of acoustics. It's also entirely lovely on this guitar, complementing the wonderful honey burst top and sapelle binding.
The V-Class bracing design delivers a balanced musical rendering of the guitar's sound: it solves the historic trade-off between volume and clarity.
The guitar is a departure tonally for Taylor, which is known for a bright sound. For me, the instrument was bliss — among the best guitars I've ever played, and a majestic choice for fingerstyle.
The ES2 system was also onboard, and it really can't be beaten. But I'd tempted to order the acoustic-only version, simply to have a pure example of a guitar that could go down in history and end up being highly collectible some day.
The Grand Pacific Builder's Edition 717e is the best acoustic guitar I've played in years. It was interesting to test it right before I sampled the new Gibson G-45 because many folks have pointed out that the GP line, with its slope-shoulder design and sonic departure from Taylor, suggests Andy Powers' take on the classic Gibby J-45.
But the guitars are actually quite different, and the GP 717e does a lot of things the J-45 doesn't, while the J-45 (and G-45) do things that they're supposed to do. The GP both summarizes much of what came before it, in terms of the classic, earthy slope-shoulder sound, but improves on everything from fat necks that were hard to play to the uneven tonal character of big git-boxes, which could deliver way too much bass, intonated poorly, and lacked compelling dynamics.
The Grand Pacific design is definitely reminiscent of the legendary Gibson J-45, a slope-shoulder guitar that is an icon of guitar-making. The J-45 arrived in 1942 and has gone on to become Gibson's bestselling model of all time. But it's around $2,700 for a new model, so enter the G-45.
The Gibson G-45 Standard I sampled is $1,299, a bit more expensive than the $999 Studio model that has captured the music world's attention.
The G-45 Standard delivers something new in a design that's one of the two best known in the history of the acoustic guitar (those would be the J-45 and the Martin D-18/28).
A nice Gibson hard case comes with the axe.
The G-45 Standard features the traditional 24.75-inch neck, with a Sitka spruce solid top paired with solid walnut back and sides (the J-45's are mahogany).
The G-45 is also a bit less deep than traditional dreadnoughts, making it more comfortable to play.
The Gibson logo is emblazoned on the headstock in a simple manner. The rosewood fretboard plays like a dream, and the neck is slim but not skinny.
The G-45 is meant to appeal to a new generation of players who revere the Gibson name but lack the bank account to purchase a new J-45.
A serious musician could not possibly go wrong with the G-45 Standard. An American-made, all-solid-wood instrument that updates the J-45 sound for a modern context? Sign me up! What dazzled me about the G-45 wasn't its found-in-and-old-barn soulfulness, a signature of the J-45, but rather its exceptional versatility.
This thing can do it all, from country blues to pop. The short-scale length enhances comfort and playability, and you can explore a broad dynamic range, from delicate fingerstyle to hard-driving rock to bottleneck slide in open tunings. The G-45 wants to sing, and the design is as suited to the professional stage as it is to a suburban sofa.
Purists might not appreciate the added sparkle, but there are also plenty of folks who find the J-45 to be limited: gotta love that dry bass-y thump for chording, but leave the solos to somebody else. Plus, the Sitka-walnut combo could end up aging into something interesting in a few decades.
The Fishman Sonitone electronics offer a straightforward plug-and-play option for performing musicians. Tone-wise, the G-45 is lovely, but it's also crisp, lacking some of the dry, thumpy bass the J-45 is known for. It makes up for this by being an exquisite player — and a guitar that records exceptionally well.
Now for a real treat: the all-new Epiphone Masterbilt Texan. Epiphone is Gibson-owned and in the midst of a renaissance. The Texan can be had in either a natural or sunburst finish.
This slope-shoulder jumbo has a storied history: Paul McCartney performed "Yesterday" on a 1960s-vintage version. Gibson now makes a pricey update at its Montana factory, but this Masterbilt model is manufactured in Asia and priced at $699.
It oozes vintage cool, but it's also remarkably well made, with a Sitka spruce top and mahogany back and sides — an all-sold-wood guitar at this price is pretty stunning, and the build quality was stunning. The electronics are the serviceable Fishman Sonitone system.
The large Epi headstock isn't for everyone, but it is faithful to the brand's long legacy. This guitar has a bone nut and saddle, and the fretboard is Indian laurel.
The Wilkinson Deluxe tuners have a vintage vibe, with plastic bean buttons. To be honest, I had a hard time putting this guitar down. It might not be the first choice for a serious musician, but it sounds like what the Texan has also sounded like: a J-45 with a longer, punchier 25.5-inch neck. For under $1,000, you can have an axe that looks incredibly cool (I'm a sucker for the parallelogram inlays) but also offers a rather gorgeous tone and is a slick player over the entire fretboard.
Epiphone has a bumpy history as Gibson's "budget" brand, but the name has its own considerable legacy (in addition to Paul McCartney, Peter Frampton was also a Texan player, and vintage examples enjoy a cult following). Of late, Gibson has decided to restore Epiphone's mojo, and for my money, the Asia-made Texan is the opening salvo.
True, the US-made version is the one that a lot of Epi enthusiasts have been waiting for, but the Masterbilt has spectacular build quality, is all-solid wood, exudes copious rock-n-roll attitude (Oasis's Noel Gallagher and the late Kurt Cobain were fans), and is a true Epiphone guitar, as opposed to the Epi-fied version of a Gibson acoustic.
It might be the best deal one can find in the guitar universe, circa 2020.
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