I'm lefty, and good lefty guitars used to be very rare. I bought the first lefty Les Paul I ever laid eyes on: a used black 1986 les paul custom. I gigged/toured in three different bands with it. It's seen a lot of use. I realized it sounded quite dark some years back and had the soap bar covers removed from the stock pickups. Sadly, the bridge pickup subsequently became damaged when the small string got hooked under the edge of the pickup a few too many times and eventually broke through the coil. I replaced it with a dimarzio super distortion dp100, which I hoped would give it a brighter, crunchier sound.

I later acquired a used 91 Les Paul Standard, which sounds a LOT brighter. It has become my preferred guitar. When I say brighter I mean without even plugging it in. Just press your ear against it and play a few notes and the wood of the 91 Standard is much richer and brighter than the 86 Custom. I don't know what wood is used in either guitar and would appreciate it if someone could help me figure that out. I've seen conflicting posts all over the internet about which wood Gibson used when for which Les Pauls and would much prefer to take a look inside the guitar to know for sure, rather than relying on common wisdom or hearsay. I'd be willing to bet that my two LPs are constructed differently and that the 86 custom is all mahogany and the 91 standard has maple in it.

Plug them in and the difference is even more noticeable. The 86 Custom just sounds abysmally dark and dull compared to the 91 Standard (which has Seymour Duncan SH-1 pickups). The neck pickup on the 86 Custom sounds OK with suitable settings (sorta like the Peter Green), but the bridge pickup--the one I use almost exclusively in my playing--is very disappointing. The result is that I never play the 86 Custom.

So I'm wondering if I should try and modernize the 86 Custom to get a crunchier, more modern sound out of it or if that's a fool's errand. Perhaps I'd be better off staying as vintage as possible with it to try and preserve resale value? I still have the stock Gibson HBR/HBL pickups from 91 Standard and the 86 Custom still has the stock neck pickup, but the 86 Custom has seen a lot of use. The finish is dinged, it needs at least one replacement tuning head, I replaced the original strap buttons with Schaller S-Locks, and I removed the pickguard, which is long gone. It still has the original case -- the big square monstrosity, but one of the buckles is gone. It might not have a lot of resale value, and its value to me is largely sentimental.

I would mention that I'm really hoping for a bright, crunchy sound good for chugs and tasty prog metal chords, bristling with rich harmonics. I'd be more than happy with a sound like Matt Pike gets for Sleep/High On Fire. Can this guitar achieve a modern sound? I've seen folks recommending a rewire kit and this video seems to offer a pretty good idea of what I might expect. This adjustment seems significant to me, and I might go further by installing some bright, modern pickup like a Seymour Duncan Nazgul or Pegasus or something. Or maybe a Dimarzio X2N? Is this drastic and ill-advised? Or a good way to draw out more character from the dark wood of the guitar?

  • Embrace yacht rock. May 27 '19 at 19:00
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    So many possible factors and subquestions here it’s hard to get a grip on this. Almost anything could be contributing to the sound of an electric guitar. Definitely pickups are high on the list, with any or all of the capacitors and the tone pot values also being part of it. Of course the wood has an impact and it might be that no amount of electronics changes will get you the sound you want. It’s hard for us to tell you what to expect when there’s too many variables. Easiest route is to sell it and buy a guitar that sounds how you want. May 27 '19 at 19:05
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    @YourUncleBob Never! Although I must say, this guy is making the best of his 86 LPC.
    – S. Imp
    May 27 '19 at 19:06
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    It’s pretty certain your custom has a maple cap. Maple alone won’t make a dark guitar bright and all the Gibson literature says 86 customs have maple caps. May 27 '19 at 19:23
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    I wonder why everyone is focusing on pickups when the question says the acoustic tone is different. Anyway, I had the exact same problem with an Epiphone and replacing the bridge fixed it. If it doesn't work, you can drop in the original bridge and keep the thing original spec.
    – ojs
    May 29 '19 at 8:55

Your guitar can definitely get that modern sound. A lot of the tone is the pickups, with the other major parts being the amplifier and cabinet. The guitar design and woods, while having an influence on the tone, are probably the smallest part of the equation. I'd suggest trying out some passive pickups that players you like are using. It sounds like the Nazgul / Pegasus or Sentient combo would be a good choice for you.

Fortunately swapping pickups is fairly easy if you know the basics of soldering, and you can always resell them if you don't like them.

  • Changing pickups is apparently not enough. As I noted in my original post, I did put in a Dimarzio Super Distortion DP-100. This didn't really change anything. I think I'll need to change out the pots with some kind of pre-wired kit, but am truly wondering which modern shred pickup might match the wood profile.
    – S. Imp
    May 27 '19 at 19:02
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    get some advice from a luthier. but you might find there is a different value of capacitor you can use in the tone circuit. This would cost pennies to try. start here guitar.com/guides/essential-guide/vintage-les-paul-tone-guide, but there is a lot of advice on Google May 28 '19 at 9:26
  • @bigbadmouse I really appreciate that link you sent. However, I'm not looking for a vintage sound at all. On the contrary, I have a 33-year-old guitar and want a more modern sound. Also, the issue is the pots more than the capacitors. Sadly, I opened it up and the pots are firmly attached (soldered?) to a metal plate. Seems like it'd be tricky to try and swap out one pot.
    – S. Imp
    May 30 '19 at 0:02
  • @S.Imp Pots don't make that much difference except in clarity. I wasnt trying to push you to a vintage sound, just trying to suggest that a simple change of capacitor can give you a changed sound without the expense and hassle of pickup swapping. If you look on google there are a lot of pages where they indicate what kind of sound a given value of capacitor might give you. May 30 '19 at 7:21

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