It looks like a Les Paul. It plays like a Les Paul. But does it sound like a Les Paul? Alex Wilson investigates.

Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #132Subscribe to our print edition here!

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Bill Collings was a lowkey legend in the world of lutherie when he emigrated from the Midwest in the '70s. He’d eventually find a home in Austin, Texas, and set up shop. Initially know for his work with acoustics, Collings eventually branched out into electrics and by the '90s business was good.

Wide-ranging innovation hasn’t tended to be the focus of the company’s guitar designs. It would be more accurate to call Collings a connoisseur, someone who displays fastidious understanding and appreciation for the finer points of his craft.

The Collings City Limits (CL) is a testament to this – it’s his take on a standard Les Paul. What sets it apart is in the details. Because while it really does look like an LP, the CL is by no means a straight copy. It takes good ideas from the classics and runs in a different direction with them.

The homage to Les Paul’s original design is most apparent in the CL’s aesthetic. While being a very faithful imitation, it’s also a very beautiful one. The guitar is put together with a great deal of taste, with the colour palette appearing particularly warm and inviting to look at. However, it’s not an attention‑grabber. Anyone wanting to perform with a guitar with a time‑honoured look will feel very comfortable with the CL.

We’ve reviewed a few of the company’s guitars in these pages. Suffice to say that the CL lives up to the quality that we have come to expect from Collings instruments. There is a Deluxe model that sits above the one under review in the company’s product catalogue, but I’m pleased to say that the pared-back model didn’t disappoint.

Looks are one thing, but an instrument truly lives or dies on sound. As an LP lover I was keen to see how it stacked up against the Les Paul archetype in my head. Very well, as it turns out. At a broad level, the CL sounds as satisfying expensive Les Paul copy should. Clean, it’s on the mellow side – not dull, but woody.

It’s noticeably brighter than a standard LP, which plays into a trade-off between low-end and articulation. On the plus side: the extra brightness makes the guitar feel especially responsive – a hallmark of Collings instruments – and allows even more tonal depth and harmonic response to be extracted from rolling the tone back and digging in with the fingers.

On the negative: there is somewhat less of the heavy, thick, low-end oomph that Les Paul’s are known for. The CL is by no means a wimpy sounding guitar, and does have it’s own kind of throaty bellow – it’s just not as gut-busting as the biggest of them. I read a comment online describing how the CL at times feels like a Les Paul blended with a Strat, which helps articulate the low-end attenuation and overall cleaner vibe one feels when playing.

I personally felt this absence the most when throwing down big rock riffs with the CL. An explanation might be that the sheer girth of older Les Paul designs went hand-in-hand with the tones that have come to define certain styles. And that a lighter, more refined instrument like the CL will, by dint of physics, offer something different. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to discourage rockers from buying this instrument – or jazz cats, or blues dads for that matter. Each pickup position delivers a great sound, assisted by the sensitive tone and volume controls for each.

So overall the guitar is stylistically capable and would suit any player who prioritises responsive articulation and high rather than low midrange.

The CL is built from seasoned maple top with a Honduran mahogany neck and body. The neck is C-shaped, covered with a Rosewood fingerboard and attached with a hand-crafted extra-long mortise and tenon joint. This is an ancient and bespoke woodworking technique.

This seems as good a place as any to say that while the neck is on the thicker side, it is very comfortable. Even with heavier strings on, they still bend relatively easily. The frets, which are also smooth and comfy, are medium nickel-silver. The bridge and tailpiece are from Kluson and the tuners are from Gotoh.

Gear nerds will be interested in the PAF pickups from Lollar. PAF, standing for “Patent Applied For”, denotes a style based on legendary humbuckers that shipped with Gibson guitars from late 50s onward. Like so many elements of gear mythos, nailing down precisely what sets PAFs apart and gives them their unique character is a messy business.

As far as I can tell, it comes down to quite technical aspects to do with the manufacturing process that can result in a quite wide range of sounds. Collings themselves state that the CL’s circuit results in “airy top end and balanced midrange” as well as “tight bass response with the full bodied character and complex overtones of the best original PAF pickups”.

Gentle jabs at guitar company PR aside, that is a pretty accurate representation. Whether or not they’re aware of the mystique behind this or that pickup, many players should appreciate the CL’s courting of a rich, complex and brighter Les Paul sound. The pickups, Standard Wind Imperial Humbuckers, from Lollar, certainly live in the old-school world of pre-heavy metal pickup design. They are gentler, mellower and smoother than modern pickups.

Someone who can afford an expensive Les Paul, but wants something a bit different. Players who really rely on blues, classic rock and jazz articulation in their playing are likely to benefit most from the CL’s emphasis on dynamic response and judicious use of the tone and volume knobs.

Granted, there are many players of more raucous styles that could coax their All-Time Tone from this beast, but there may be fewer of them.

For a non-deluxe model, one still nonetheless feel like Collings have pulled out all the stops to make the CL a fantastic instrument. There is no part of the guitar that works poorly in an objective, mechanical sense. In terms of build quality, it passes with flying colours.

This is really a guitar that you want to play before you buy. While it looks strikingly like a Les Paul, it’s different enough in a sonic sense that you’d want to hear yourself on this instrument before throwing down the cash. While you’re not likely to find any unpleasant surprises playing the CL, you'll want to know whether this particular kind of Les Paul copy is for you.

Gladesville Guitar Factory

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