Why the ‘Legend’ Les Paul Can Play Jazz (Quick Guide)

When most guitarists think of the Gibson Les Paul, they categorize it as the heavyweight for rock, blues, and even metal genres.

And with this, a common question I’m asked is… can the Les Paul be used for jazz?

Players ask whether a Les Paul is versatile enough to produce a ‘mellow’, ‘smooth’, and ‘traditional’ jazz tone.

While also playing and feeling great for smooth jazzy lines and lead phrases. Well in this post I will conclusively answer why the Les Paul is ideal for playing the smooth and silky sound of Jazz.

My Short Answer

The Les Paul makes for a great jazz guitar with the right configuration and amplifier settings. It can sound warm, defined, and produce a dark, rich clean tone ideal for jazz. Even the legendary Les Paul, the inspiration and namesake of the guitar, was primarily a jazz musician himself.

While the bulky hollow-body and semi-hollow guitars are viewed as the ‘traditional’ jazz guitar, as they naturally sound warm, hollow, and mellow offering that ‘classic’ jazz tone.

However, guitars such as the Les Paul are rising in popularity within the modern wave of jazz musicians. These players are opting for the solid-body guitar as opposed to the traditional ballroom hollow guitars.

But why is the pendulum swinging in the direction of the solid-body guitar for modern jazz? Well, there are many reasons why a Les Paul can be a great choice for this genre…

8 Reasons Why The Les Paul Can Play Jazz

  1. Naturally produces a warm, rich, and dark tone (Ideal for jazz)
  2. Can produce a rich, bassy, and woody clean tone
  3. Versatile in sounds due to double humbucker and pickup selection
  4. Versatile choice of clean tones with volume and tone selection knobs
  5. Warmest sounding solid-body guitar due to thick body design and humbucker pickups
  6. More comfortable compared to hollow body guitars
  7. Versatile for playing other genres of music
  8. Historic and classic guitar with legendary status

How to Make a Les Paul Sound Jazzy

Through its volume and tone knobs, pickup selection, and amplifier, a Les Paul guitar can achieve a wide variety of tones and handle many different genres.

If you’re looking for a jazzy sound with a lot of tone variety and a comfortable, sleek design, the Les Paul is a terrific choice.

As we know solid-body guitars are rich in ‘high frequencies’ which is not ideal for the thick, mellow, and bassy sound of jazz. So there are a few key steps for tweaking the Les Paul in order for achieving an ideal jazz tone.

Steps For a Jazzy Les Paul Tone

First, make sure the neck pickup is selected. The volume knob can stay at 10, but the tone knob should either be turned all the way down or no higher than 3.

If you’re looking for a jazzy sound with a lot of tone variety and a comfortable, sleek design, the Les Paul is a terrific choice.

By choking off the tone, the high frequencies will be removed from the sound. The result is a warm, bassy sound perfect for jazz guitar. When the tone is left on 10 or above 6, the sound gets too tinny and bright for a traditional jazz sound.

The versatility the Les Paul offers is that you can choose to include these higher tones if you’re going for a different sound. Maybe tinny is your thing and you dig having your tone on 8 while you play.

Or if you’re more of a jazz fusion player, perhaps you prefer playing on the bridge pickup with some gain added. The point is that playing a Les Paul broadens your tonal options when playing jazz, an advantage that hollow body guitars lack.

Example of a Les Paul Jazz Tone

Now put this all together, below is a fantastic example of a killer Jazz tone using the classic Les Paul sound with a jazz twist. (Watch Below!)

Notice how thick, creamy, and smooth it sounds with a touch of reverb (delicious!) Notice the ‘full‘ sound of the neck pickup with some highs dialed off, for a dark and silky rich tone combined with good playing of course.

Why Humbuckers Produce a Jazzy Tone

Another pro for Les Paul’s in the jazz department is their use of double-coil or ‘humbucking’ pickups. Humbuckers are pros at delivering deep low-end richness, making them ideal jazz pickups when the tone knob is rolled off.

The guitar comes with a 3-way pickup switch, allowing for both the neck and bridge pickup to be active at the same time.

While this produces an obvious brighter sound, it’s another tool in the kit adding to the guitar’s versatility. Double-coil pickups are stronger and beefier, making them ideal for a rich, bassy and dark clean tone for jazz playing.

Other solid-body guitars like Fenders utilize single-coil pickups, which produce thinner, twangier tones.

(Side note) If you are thinking of using a different solid-body guitar for jazz? Let’s say the mighty…Fender Telecaster?

I have an awesome post you have to read…”Can The Telecaster Play Jazz.” It’s my compressive guide answering whether the Telecaster can be an ideal Fender jazz machine.

Neck Comfort and Feel

Les Paul’s usually come with mahogany necks, but some models do have maple necks. For jazz, the rich darkness of mahogany works better than the crisper, brighter tone of maple.

The necks are skinny and compact for fluid and fast playing, making arpeggios and quicker phrases simple to execute.

This is in contrast to the fatter, wider necks found on many hollow body model guitars. While this can be a pro for players with larger hands, wide necks can be cumbersome when navigating the neck.

The Les Paul Body Design

Every aspect of the Gibson Les Paul was designed for comfort, versatility, and maximum tone capabilities. It’s a solid-body guitar, meaning that it is not hollow inside. This allows for its body to be smaller in size than a hollow body.

Mahogany is the wood of choice, capped off with a maple top. Mahogany delivers an overall balanced tone, flat if you will. This means that all highs, lows, and mids are accounted for with none taking center stage. The maple top allows for brighter tones and enhanced sustain.

When both woods are combined they accent each other’s strengths, allowing for a diverse range of sounds. When the high frequencies are removed or taken back, the rich warmth of Mahogany’s low ends can shine in your jazz playing!

Les Paul’s are traditionally made with a single cutaway, which is a groove cut in the wood near the top of the neck. This is to allow the hands easy access to the higher frets on the fretboard, allowing for higher melodies to be played with ease.

Why Choose a Les Paul Over a Hollow Body?

While a hollow body archtop produces the distinct low end yet vibrant jazz tone, they don’t come without a few drawbacks.

For one, due to their hollow design, they are quite large and cumbersome. They’re also quite limited in the tone they can produce and the genres they can play.

Hollow Body’s don’t take a lot to sound full and loud since they can resonate through the body of the guitar and not just the pickups. This, however, can make it difficult to play through a loud amp and not get overrun with feedback.

The Les Paul differs in that while it is not exactly known as the most comfortable solid-body guitar compared to a Stratocaster or Telecaster for example. I guarantee the Les Paul is far more comfortable than a bulky hollow-body.

String and Pick Choice for Jazz

If you’re going for a jazzier tone, thicker strings are what the doctor ordered. Once again, jazz is all about rich, thick, and bassy clean tone.

Thinner strings produce bright and vibrant high frequency sounds perfect for country and rock, but they lack in definition and output compared to thicker strings.

Mike Stern is a famous and incredible jazz player, who uses solid-body guitars notably the iconic Telecaster. He preaches heavy strings (11-12s) on solid-body guitars for a classic, warm, and thick jazz tone.

They don’t have to be super Stevie Ray Vaughan thick, but definitely not Billy Gibbons light. Basically, gauges .08 to .09 are way too thin, so aim for the .011 to .012 range for the ideal jazz thickness.

Shorter, stubbier picks are also ideal not only for tone but for the added accuracy in playing faster lines.

Thin, flimsy picks fall victim to the same fate than thin strings do, too many high range frequencies. Dunlop Jazz III picks are optimal, and even have jazz in the title. They’re short, stubby, and help produce that thick warmth we keep talking about.

Using The Right Amp

Keep in mind, you’ll want to make sure you’re running through a clean amp, preferably with no added effects (Only a touch of reverb.) The EQ settings on the amp should favor bass with a smidgen of mids and almost no treble.

Whether it’s a tube, solid-state, or digital it doesn’t really matter, a good clean tone is difficult to over complicate.

Tube amps were the ‘go-to’ for a true and classic tone back in the day, while solid-state amps are the popular choice for modern gigging jazz players.

Check out my post… “7 Awesome Solid-State Amps for Jazz” if you are in the market for picking up affordable and awesome jazz amps for gigging.

Final Thoughts

While there’s no perfect jazz guitar or perfect guitar for any genre, it all comes down to personal preference.

The best jazz guitar is the one that delivers the best sounds, feel and playable experience to you.

However, given all the tonal versatility and excellent jazz tone the Les Paul can achieve, there’s no reason not to list it among the line-up of worthy and great jazz guitars. Thanks for Reading!

If you liked this post, you should check out my other awesome post “7 Reasons Why the Les Paul Can Play Metal!” It is the Les Paul guide to why this legendary guitar can be a fantastic axe for playing metal and its many sub-genres.

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