The two most iconic electric guitars are the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.  As I type this, the entry level price for an American-made Strat or Les Paul is about $1,000.  Fortunately, both companies have lower priced versions.  The Fender Standard Strat is made in Mexico and you can pick up a used MIM Strat for about $300 to $400.  And Gibson owns Epiphone and license them to make Les Pauls, so a used Epiphone Les Paul can be purchased in the $250 to $350 range.  So for those of us on a BUDGET, these are good platforms to look into.

I believe that the best way to go if you want a Gibson Les Paul is to find a used Gibson Les Paul Tribute or Studio.  If you work at it, you can probably find one in the $500 to $650 range.  But if that’s too much money, then a used Epiphone is the way to go.

When buying a used electric guitar, make sure the neck is straight.  Look for cracks anywhere on the neck.  Check the electronics (play the thing) if possible.  And if you’re really nerdy, bring a small screwdriver and collection of hex wrenches and make sure the truss rod moves.  All of the used Epiphone Les Pauls I’ve seen were fine, because they’re fairly well-made guitars, but be cautious.  A warped neck makes the guitar useless in this price range.

Once you have your new Epi Les Paul, here’s a list of upgrades to consider:

  1. Bridge pickup swap.  I like Seymour Duncan pickups.  They’re not cheap, but they’re fairly inexpensive compared to actual Gibson pickups.  My favorite humbucker is the Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates.  They sell for around $129, and if you put one of them in your Epiphone Les Paul you’ll transform it.  Especially if you want to be able to achieve all of those classic Les Paul tones of the classic rock era.  It can also give you more modern tones.  This is the most important mod.  Epiphone pickups have improved, but they still strike me as being a bit muddy and lacking in detail.
  2. Nut.  Be careful with this one.  I like to say that changing the nut improves six notes on your guitar and does not impact any of the other notes.  I have replaced the nut, an it was a little tricky.  Removing the old nut ended up removing a little wood with it, and that made life challenging.  If you’re not experienced working on guitars or doing woodworking, I’d leave the original nut.  But YMMV.
  3. Frets.   I’ve replaced the frets on both of my Epi Les Pauls.  The good news is that it’s easy – Epiphone does not glue its frets.  You can pop them out fairly easily.  Then it gets interesting.  I’ve put in medium and jumbo frets, and honestly medium frets work better.  Obviously a refret isn’t a novice mod, but it’s good to know how easy the frets come out.
  4. Bridge/Tailpiece.  The two piece bridge/tailpiece assembly that comes with the Epi LP is decent quality.  Replacing them with higher quality parts isn’t a bad idea, but don’t expect a major difference in sound.
  5. Pots.  If your Epi comes with tiny pots, it is possible that replacing them may brighten your guitar a little bit.  It’ll definitely make it more reliable.
  6. Caps.  This is a good one – replace the caps with Orange Drop caps from StewMac.  They really make a big difference if you want to turn down the tone control and get a nice “cocked wah” type of sound.
  7. Output Jack.  If you replace the output jack plate with a nice metal plate, you’ll be happier in the long run.  The plastic output jack plate will eventually break on you.  This will not impact the sound, but might save a gig.
  8. Tuners.  The Grover tuners that come with most Epi LP’s are just fine.  I don’t see the point in upgrading them.
  9. Remove finish from back of guitar neck.  This is a mod I’ve tried, and it worked out great.  If you don’t like the thick gloss finish on the back of the neck, sand it all off.  Caution – use some form of sander.  If you don’t, your arm might fall off.  Once you’re down to the bare wood, seal it with something.  I chose Tung Oil.  Worked great.  Some people thing this wrecks the look of the guitar.  I guess it kind of does, but it does make the neck easier to play.
  10. Round the neck binding edges.  You can do this with some fine sandpaper.  If the neck edges are too sharp, getting rid of the sharp edge will give the guitar a more “played” comfortable feeling.  In many cases you won’t need to do this, but you can.

If you can’t do some of the mods yourself, you can either learn how or find someone else to do them for you.  Mostly you can throw out the entire list except for number 1.  Replacing the bridge pickup is going to change the sound of the guitar the most.  Individual pickup preferences are very personal, but I can strongly recommend the Pearly Gates.  If you want a more aggressive tone, I like the Dimarzio Super Distortion.  But there are a billion pickups out there, and you might have to purchase a few before settling on your own fave pickup.