Pros: Good solid Les Paul style guitar, excellent P90 pickups that's vintage, yet contemporary.
Cons: There's probably imported guitars that are a better value in this price range.
The concept of a Les Paul Junior Special in the 800.00 price range would have had Gibson afficianados rolling on the floor laughing their heads off in the 70s. Back then, it was a quality beginner guitar that commonly had only one P90 pickup at the bridge in the 100 dollar price range.
The massive price increases due to the boom in 90s collector market most certainly wiped the smirk off our faces, and we saw old Melody Makers hitting the thousand mark (unless it was mint, then it was more).
That created a period of prosperity where we even saw Fender start pricing their standard line at over 1000.00, but then the inevitable happened; more and more people started buying other brands. In particular, a whole new generation of musicians started using old catalogue guitars like Airline and Silvertones, and even Oasis got their start using one of the cheapest Epiphones in the product line.
The old philosophy of the 60s was that you learned on whatever guitar you could afford, and moved on to a Fender or Gibson as soon as possible.
The problem was, what if that next step was no longer a 250.00 Fender Telecaster, but one that cost 1000.00?
Most sane human beings looked elsewhere, and thus the mid-price range became truly competitive as even the premium brands didn't dare not have a model line to compete at every price range.
Frankly, Fender so far has done the best job. Once they came to their senses and started using alder again in the lower price range and improved the electronics, their lower pricedmodels became popular even among those who own the American made versions. Fender owners have always tinkered with their guitars anyway, and a low priced strat made of alder made an ideal project guitar.
On the other hand, while Gibson has rarely had trouble selling out runs of cheaper made guitars, the only rave reviews have tended to come from guitar magazines dependent on advertising and beginners thrilled to have a Gibson for a few hundred dollars (and more power to them).
The trouble with making a cheap Gibson is that it's essentially a crafted guitar, even the simpler models. The necks are all set, so you can't take a cheaper one and bolt on a better after market neck, and their standard use of nitro and shellac makes omitting that from the guitar to save cost look like a real loss of quality, even if it results in a better value.
Which it isn't, but Gibson built up the whole aesthetic of set neck sound quality, carved bodies and quality nitro finishes and found that trying to convince the believers that a Les Paul without a finish on it was a great deal was a harder sell than they thought.
One thing that has to be considered when judging Gibson's attempts to come out with a lower cost guitar, is that part of the mystique is that it's American made. There's just certain shortcuts they can't take.
There's been other low price model lines they introduced that going into more detail about would make this review too long, but suffice to say, Gibson has had trouble competing with Fender in the 500 to 800 range.
The Gibson Les Paul Junior Special is a great move. Sure, it was a beginner guitar in the 50s, but when the originals are costing thousands of dollars, 800.00 dollars seems a lot more reasonable now.
What also helped is that popular groups like Green Day use this model, and it has a history that goes all the way back to Leslie West of Mountain in the 60s. In other words, it's a model with mojo, simpler to make, and it can be called a real Gibson with a straight face.
Keeping the P90 pickups, at least on some of the models was also a good move. The humbucker equipped Juniors use Gobson '57 pickups, and are great guitars, but do have a noticably different sound. This model sounds nice and vintage, which is going to be an important selling point with this model.
The reason for the "Special" tag is that it is technically a Les Paul Special and not a Junior, which would only have a pickup at the bridge like most old Melody Makers and SG Juniors. What makes it a Special is that it has the standard two pickup configuration and without the 50s styling on the pickguard and 60s style neck, would be pretty much like a Les Paul Special from the 90s.
The simplicity makes it easier to use the traditional nitro finish, which in this case is a very cool yellow (other colors available of course), and with the vintage type pegs looks like a real retro winner.
There are some modern changes. The fretboard is baked maple, which makes it harder than rosewood, but in my case, isn't a problem with a guy who owns two Telecasters with maple necks. Also, the famous thick "baseball bat" neck is gone, replaced by a 60s style tapered neck which for most players is easier to play. Beginners in particular will like this neck.
The body is slab mahogany with a quarter sawn neck of the same material, like the original. It sits well on the body either sitting or standing, and is noticably lighter than the traditional Les Pauls and Les Paul Studios. The workmanship is clean, nothing fancy, but nothing sloppy either.
There is a little bit of hum from the pickups at some settings, as can be expected from single coil pickups, but the reward is a sound that can only be described as immortal. Turn up the gain and sound like an classic rock God, or tweak the settings and go punk like Green Day, it can do pretty anything you need except metal (at least modern metal, you can certainly do Black Sabbath, etc).
In clean mode, it does a great job of blues style rock. I wouldn't call it a great pure blues instrument as we know blues today, but put it on a small amp or play it dirty and you'll have a grand old time doing the old 50s style blues. Which is more fun any way than trying to sound like Eric Johnson or something. Most young players would tend to go White Stripes anyway in terms of blues, and this is a perfect guitar for that.
Even better, the guitar sounds great even when playing just simple chords and notes. That makes this one a great one for beginners who can get a hold of one used, or can find one on sale. It's got a great tone, and it'll make the guitarist sound better.
I had experimented with Fender guitars with their MP90 pickups, and liked those quite a bit, but after a couple of months felt something was more or less missing. The basic sound of the Gibson style single coil was more or less there, but missing that little extra something in the midrange or something.
When I tried out this Gibson Les Paul Junior Special, I found that little something extra, and realized again that Fenders are Fenders, and Gibsons, even the less expensive one, are definitely Gibsons.
With that feeling again, the guitar world certainly feels like it's back in balance.