Family Feud

The Les Paul Junior Tone Showdown

The Les Paul Jr. Tone Showdown

What’s All This Excitement About Les Paul Juniors?

First it was PAF-equipped Les Pauls, then dot-neck 335s. You know, all the really expensive, elitist “vehicles of tone.” I couldn’t be bothered with something as pedestrian as the single-pickup, student-targeted Les Paul Junior. Besides, P-90s were noisy and not particularly studio-friendly. My bias went so far as to allow me to purchase P-90-equipped Les Paul Specials by virtue of their two-pickup status, but a Junior’s single-pickup design limited both their versatility and my interest.

Boy, was I wrong!

With time, I realized the simplicity inherent in the overall design of the Les Paul Junior contributes to the superior tonal characteristics of this instrument and its effectiveness as a rock and blues guitar. What could be simpler than the surface-mounting of one dog-ear P-90 pickup on a slab mahogany body? Perhaps by accident, or maybe by design, it is this simplicity that contributes to the guitar’s ability to so consistently produce great tone. In fact, my experience indicates that it is really difficult to find a Junior that qualifies as an outright dog. Some may be heavier than you like and others may not have the perfect neck shape, but a very strong majority just sound great from the first riff.

A Little History
The marketing concept behind the Junior was quite ingenious and truly instrumental in the guitar’s rapid acceptance among the guitar buyers of the 1950s. Gibson’s strategy was to provide a single-pickup guitar without frills, constructed with the traditional high level of quality and attention to detail that characterized the company’s professional models, but at a very competitive price. This initiative was designed to bring younger players into the Gibson fold and build brand loyalty, which would pay the company back when these players matured and purchased higher-margin, professional-level Gibson instruments.

While Gibson’s margin of profit was very thin on these guitars, the Junior’s strong value credentials fueled substantial unit sales and overall profit. By offering the Junior at a popular price that enabled beginners to access characteristic Gibson tone quality, the company quickly realized a healthy share of the nascent solidbody electric guitar market.

But the Junior was also purchased by professional players who recognized the instrument’s high quality of construction for the money and the unique tone the instrument produced. Today, these are the same purchase criteria that contribute to the Junior’s substantial appeal among vintage guitar enthusiasts.

Simplicity – What A Concept!
The Juniors single pickup was purposely placed very near the bridge/tailpiece in an effort to produce a brighter tone. This design element has, in great part, helped define the aggressive voice of the guitar. My money says the folks at Gibson originally placed the pickup closer to the bridge in an effort to balance the darker tendencies of the solid-slab mahogany body dictated by the “economy status” of the Junior.

The surface mounting of a dog-ear P-90 on the body of the Les Paul Junior is another key design feature that differentiates the tone of the guitar from other P-90-equipped Gibson solidbodies. The surface mounting of the Junior’s dog-ear pickup decreases the distance between the strings and the pickup magnets, and increases pickup output, which may well explain the dog-ear pickup’s more aggressive tone compared to soap bar P-90 pickups.

The genius inherent in the design of the Junior was not fully realized until the guitar players of the late ’60s and early ’70s recognized the incredible rock and blues tone that a Junior’s dog-ear P-90 could produce when driven through stacks of high gain amplifiers. When played at high volumes, Juniors produce a heavily distorted sound with a distinct treble emphasis and crunch that has defined the unique voice of the instrument.

The Critical Elements Of Great Junior Tone
Over the years, there have been many theories regarding the elements critical to great Junior tone. You know; weight, resonance, neck mass, pickup resistance, capacitor type/value and string height over the pickup, plus other assorted minutiae. The showdown presented an opportunity to assemble a number of prime examples and the possibility of gaining a better understanding of what the key factors are behind great Junior tone.

Tone hounds will agree that great tone is the result of a combination of factors and it is pointless to try to determine the relative importance of each. An analysis of the characteristics of the four Juniors thought to have the best tone at the showdown proved this, by revealing significant inconsistencies across the factors believed critical to tone.

All four guitars sounded ridiculously strong and large, but some were heavy, others light. Some had very strong pickups, others were weak, and some had a significant distance between the strings and pickup, while others’ strings lowered right over the top of the pickup. In fact, except for the presence of bumblebee capacitors in all of the guitars under consideration, the only characteristic that was consistently found among the best sounding models at the showdown was a very high degree of resonance in both the body and neck.

The importance of resonance to great Junior tone is supported by the very impressive acoustic quality of the double-cut TV model. However, the lack of consistency in the characteristics of the guitars suggests the factors that contribute to great Junior tone are, in part, intangible, and the only way to predictably find great Junior tone is to plug the guitar in and turn it up. But then, this has always been the best evidence of the genius inherent in this guitar’s design.

The Showdown
Having gotten this far, it is probably evident that in my day, I have encountered a few truly dedicated Junior enthusiasts, and it was not difficult to drum up interest in an event built around finding the ultimate Les Paul Junior tone. I asked each willing participant to whittle his considerable pile of Juniors down to their three best sounding examples. Effectively, the rules for entry limited each contestant to two mahogany-bodied guitars, but allowed a third maple-body instrument, if available. The contestants were also instructed to enter only 100 percent original instruments, with the exception of refretted examples.

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, the group gathered at Montana Studios in Manhattan, where a total of 14 Les Paul Juniors were entered in the showdown. The guitars are owned by Freddie Fry, Terry Punia, Ronnie Kushner, Eliot Jacobs, John Santoro, Jim Donahue and yours truly.

The axes were selected from a total of 40 instruments owned by the contestants, which was a large enough sample to ensure that the guitars submitted for consideration would all be very worthy competitors. Preliminary discussions between the enthusiasts revealed that a strong majority shared the opinion that single-cutaway Juniors have better tone. Accordingly, nine of the 14 guitars entered in the contest were single-cutaway models.

Amp Of Choice
Ken Fischer’s Trainwreck amplifiers were chosen because of strong industry recognition of their superior ability to accurately reproduce guitar tone, without obscuring the voice of the instrument.

Fischer helped arrange an impressive array of Trainwrecks; one Express, one Trem-Rocket, two Liverpools and a special-voicing Liverpool amp were gladly submitted for consideration by Jeff Crumando, Adam Apostolos, Peter Min and Eliot Jacobs.

The first order of business was to select an amplifier that all of the guitars would be played through, in an attempt to provide an unbiased means of evaluation. Accordingly, the group randomly selected a ’58 single cutaway and auditioned each of the amps through the same 4 x 12 25 watt pre-Rola cabinet. After all amps had been reviewed, the group went back over several models for a second round of A-B comparisons, before selecting the regular-voicing Liverpool head as the best amp for producing Junior tone.

Selecting the best Trainwreck was definitely an enjoyable task. It was also a good way of warming up everyone’s critical listening skills prior to moving onto the main event. As testimony to the remarkable performance across the entire Trainwreck line, there was a considerably greater degree of comparison testing required to reach group consensus regarding the selection of the best amp versus the best Junior.

The Guitars Speak
After each of the 14 Juniors were numbered for purposes of identification, the party began. Jacobs, Crumando, Apostolos and Fry all took turns working out the bad boys of tone. While some inconsistencies in amplifier volume and tone settings were noted, due diligence in maintaining commensurate volume and tone settings was applied to a very strong majority of the guitars auditioned. After each guitar had been cranked for a couple of minutes, the nine voting participants (four amp sponsors and the five Junior owners) were asked to rate the tone of the instrument on a scale of 1 to 10.

When each guitar had been given its due, the group was asked to review their notes and select the four instruments that had the best overall tone. The results of the group’s selections were surprising to say the least; one ’57 single-cut, one ’58 double-cut, and two ’59 double-cut TV models advanced to the final round.

Given the group’s strong disposition towards single-cut, prior to the showdown, it was particularly enlightening that three of the four instruments selected to advance to the finals were double-cutaway models. The strength of the double-cutaway’s performance was underscored by the fact they only accounted for five of the initial 14 entries. The strong performance of double-cutaway TV Juniors was also surprising. Only three of the 14 initial entries were TV models, however they were all double-cutaways, and two advanced to the finals. It should also be noted that the two double-cutaway TV models that advanced to the finals were a mere 13 serial numbers apart.

The King Of the Hill
Alright, but which guitar was king of the hill? We deferred the selection of the “Junior with the best overall tone” to Leslie West, who was kind enough to overlook our obsessive trappings. To be honest, when he first walked into the studio, Leslie did ask if we had a club. And several times that evening, he did look at the pile of Juniors, conveying some disbelief.

Leslie spent approximately five minutes playing each of the four guitars that had qualified for the finals through the same regular-voicing Liverpool amp and 25-watt pre-Rola cabinet combination. Leslie’s diligent testing of each guitar’s rhythm and lead capabilities brought smiles to the faces of all of the Junior enthusiasts. In between guitars, Leslie indicated his preference for single-cutaways and suggested we should really have two independent contests to select the best single-cutaway and double-cutaway model, because they are different animals.

After auditioning the top four contestants, Leslie expressed disagreement with our selection of the Liverpool amp, which he believed had too clean of a sound. In deference, we hooked up the Express amp through a 30-watt pre-Rola cabinet and asked Leslie to go through the top four one more time. Based on Leslie’s range of expressions while playing, the Express seemed to fit the bill.

He gave the finalists an even more thorough second audition before selecting the 1959 double cutaway TV model bearing the serial number 9 9014 as the Junior with the best overall tone. Leslie candidly admitted his difficulty in selecting a double-cutaway model as his favorite overall guitar, because if he was going to play one on stage, it would be a single cutaway.

He indicated that the winning double-cut TV’s lead tone wasn’t too overdriven, while also maintaining sufficient clarity to compliment chord work. When queried further as to why this particular Junior was his favorite, Leslie opined that there was a generous distance between the strings and the pickup, which many of the others lacked, and which allowed the pickup to breath and contribute to the guitar’s tone. Finally, Leslie also praised the winning Junior’s significant resonance and acoustical qualities.

The consensus of the showdown was that the double-cutaways sounded larger, with better overall tone. It was gratifying that the consensus extended to include the group’s selection of three double-cutaway guitars among the four finalists, and Leslie’s selection of a double-cutaway guitar as the winner of the showdown.

I think the double-cutaways sounded larger because they have a more pronounced low/midrange emphasis compared to the single-cutaways, which more effectively relay the instrument’s natural tendency toward strong treble response.

Last-Minute Perspective
The contest was initially envisioned as a means of catering to the league of Junior gentlemen’s favorite obsession, and having some fun. However, one week after the showdown, I found myself taking the results too close to heart. Driven by the rabid acquisition of double-cutaway TV models, a sweeping reorganization of my Junior collection ensued, which of course, was justified by my promise to sell several of my prized single-cutaway examples in a classic borrow-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario.

While coordinating this activity, I did not play any of the single-cutaways in my collection. Another week went by, and after an extensive workout on my ’59 double-cut TV that had all but coasted to the finals of the showdown, I found myself wondering if I had made the right decision to significantly bias my collection to the double-cuts.

So, I picked up my former favorite, a ’58 single-cut that had been knocked out of the showdown early on. After the first bar, it was clear that through the ’58 Super, the ’58 single cutaway’s tone was beyond that of my ’59 double cut TV.

Typical? Well yes, but more importantly, this last-minute perspective serves to effectively underscore the important contributing role the amplifier plays in generating great Junior tone.

This final perspective does not seek to contradict the results of the “tone showdown.” The dominance exercised by the double-cutaways was very real. However, it is critical to note that while the Trainwreck circuit’s unique approach to amplification may well provide the most accurate means of judging a guitar’s tone, it is significantly different than the approach of the myriad of amplifiers that guitarists’ more typically plug a Junior into.

This may well explain the double-cutaway model’s surprisingly strong performance versus the single-cutaways at the showdown, while suggesting that a tone contest which employed a different amplifier standard would likely produce significantly different results from those reported here.

Finally, given the strong incidence of amazing-sounding Juniors, and the significant number of killer tube amplifiers available today, there are probably a multitude of Junior models and tube amplifier combinations capable of producing truly great Junior tone. Here’s hoping that you’ll have as much fun as we did finding your own ultimate expression of Les Paul Junior tone.

Leslie West On the Junior
More than any other guitar player, Leslie West’s seminal guitar work in Mountain, and later in West, Bruce and Laing, defined what a Les Paul Junior could do. From the screaming leads of “Mississippi Queen” to the melodic runs of “Theme From An Imaginary Western,” the intensity and range of expression apparent in West’s guitar work inspired many players to pick up a Les Paul Junior to see what was behind this legendary guitarist’s selection of a “budget” instrument. In the midst of the tone showdown, West was very forthcoming with his opinions regarding the guitar.

Vintage Guitar: How many Juniors do you have?
Leslie West: Actually, now only two. I used to have more. I gave one to Pete Townsend and I traded about four. I had one of those double-cutaways, which I never liked.

Why do you like the single-cutaways better?
The single-cut guitars were always easier for me to play. I kept buying the double cuts anyway. Every time I bought a double-cut and it didn’t work out, it became a slide guitar.

What was it about the double-cutaway Juniors?
You know why these double-cut guitars are not my favorite? (Strums a chord and bends the neck out of tune).

What made you start playing a Junior?
You know why? To me, it was like a piece of wood and a microphone.

Have you found that some Juniors are better suited to specific types of playing?
I used to use guitars that were good on the first three frets in the studio and then I used ones that I just played solos on. I never had one, except the one Junior I used on stage, that I could use for everything. And it was right down the middle, you know? You see, some have a better tone on the top strings and others have better tone on the bottom strings, some are better on chords.

You never found one Junior that did it all? Lead, chords, woman tone, everything?
The Junior I played on stage, the one I gave to Pete Townsend. The best one I ever had is going to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame from November to April, as part of a Hard Rock thing with Felix’s bass.

How do you like to have a Junior set up?
When I play a guitar, I like the action at an angle so the top strings are set higher up so I can get under them. A lot of people set the action too low on these guitars. If you leave the strings away from the pickups, you get the air in between, and better sustain. I like the E, B and the G strings to be away from the pickup, so you can get under the strings. Otherwise, it slips right back and it dies. See, the action on this guitar (he holds a ’54 Jr.) is the way I like it. It’s very high and it doesn’t hit the frets. Also, it’s easier to play with the action away from the pickup. You’ve got to have air between the strings and that pickup.

Were there any modifications that you made to your Juniors?
We had to change the gears. That was the first thing I remember at rehearsal. Felix said “…you’d better go buy some Grover gears or this thing will never stay in tune.” Dan Armstrong used to take the tone control totally out. Actually, he took the capacitor out.

What about the theory that says the really great Juniors are the ones that have been really played. That people left the bad ones in the cases.
You’ve got to realize that most of the Juniors that I got, I bought from pawn shops that some old guy played and beat the living **** out of. You couldn’t put new frets on the guitar or it would fall apart.

Did you ever use some of the Epiphones with P-90s?
Never used them.

There is a picture in the Mountain book…
A double-cutaway?

For that same reason. You can pull on the neck. I pull on that neck and the intonation goes in and out. You can’t pull the single-cutaways out of tune.

So, you’re saying that you like the Juniors with fat necks?

Special thanks to Richie Friedman, Leslie West, and Ken Fischer.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’00 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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