I tried the original double-cut SE and the less orate fancy one (Santana III - I love the more orante II that Carlos used but it would be a bit over the top for me to have all that, and the III I saw was at, in hindsight, a quite reasonable price). Both were good guitars. My sort of guitars -- Les Paul-ish but double cutaways. Both had similar shape and necks.
They had a fairly thick neck, like a Gibson 59 Les Paul neck. I have seen the SEs on sales as cheap as $299 (when new models were coming out - I preferred the look of the earlier models)a few years ago, $399 was pretty easy to find. (In the UK they are twice the price - obscene.) I almost got a black SE at that price - but in truth really didn't need another guitar. The finish of the cheaper guitars is good but rather bland and uninspiring compared to the expensive model (as you might expect).
I plugged the Santana III into a Boogie in the store (can't recall which model), it sounded & felt awesone. ALthough when I tried it again the following week it was good but didn't have the same magic -- perhaps it was just me or the settings had changed. The III had the build quality and feel of a good Les Paul. I think the headstock makes it feel perhaps a little shorter(?), which I liked. For both guitars, I didn't use the tremelo - but think about it: a really good Les Paul, with a really good tremelo and double cut-away...sounds like a winning combination to me.
The soapbar looks like a good bet. Seems like a lot of serious guitarist like to own a soapbar equipped guitar but for most its not their first (nor second I suspect) guitar, so they are willing to try a cheaper model. I tried a soap bar guitar once and liked it - like a thicker-sounding, powerful single coil or trebly humbucker? Another option that I like the sound of: mini-humbuckers, as used on the Gibson Les Paul Deluxe -- can't believe they aren't more popular, they sound great to me (v. similar to Les Paul Standard pick up - pre-BurstBucker). I think its just a fashion thing.
If you love the Les Paul shape (its grown on me over the years), there is the Mark Tremonti model too.
Brian Robertson,Page,Santana,Clapton,King,King,King,Scott Gorham,Berry,Waters,Hendrix,Kossof,Vai