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By Rhys Lett

Fender Stratocaster vs Gibson Les Paul

Understanding which electric guitar is the one for you as a beginner is intimidating. In this article we will help you understand the main differences in electric guitars by looking at two models, the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.  These two guitar designs are the most copied electric guitar models. Other companies make guitars in the shape and style of the Gibson Les Paul or the Fender Stratocaster. Essentially all electric guitars are modelled after these two designs.

Origins – Fender Stratocaster vs Gibson Les Paul

Fender and Gibson designed these guitars in the 1950s, perfectly timed to coincide with the emergence of rock and roll music. In 1950 Fender introduced the radically innovative Fender Telecaster model to the musical market, and the solid-body electric guitars craze began. A solid body guitar was desirable as the semi hollow electric guitars on the market at the time would cause undesirable feedback when volume was increased.

Gibson released the Les Paul model in 1952. It was named after its co-designer, guitarist Les Paul. Les Paul was a respected innovator who had been experimenting with guitar design for decades to benefit his own music style. The model struggled for popularity until mid-60s when Eric Clapton famously used a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall amplifier on the Bluesbreaker album. The most collectable Les Paul guitars are the sunburst coloured models released between 1958 and 1960. Today, a 1959 Les Paul Standard in good condition can be easily priced between $US200,000 and $US750,000, making it the most valuable production model electric guitar ever built.

Fender released the Stratocaster in 1954. It was a radical design departure from the previous Fender Telecaster model and the Gibson Les Paul. This guitar model was popularised instantly through rock stars such as Buddy Holly and The Beach Boys. Much like the Les Paul, collectors prefer the vintage instruments over the newer models. This has lead to Fender making reissued guitars recreating the specifications of Stratocasters made in the 50s and 60s.

Body – Fender Stratocaster vs. Gibson Les Paul

The body of a guitar contributes to the depth and character of the sound.

The Les Paul closely resembles a traditional guitar shape. The curves of an acoustic guitar are visable in the upper body with a cutaway on the lower side of the body. The cutaway allows some access to the higher frets when soloing. The Les Paul is a much heavier guitar as it has a thicker body.

The Fender Stratocaster design is much more unique featuring a double cutaway. This allows easier access to the highest frets when soloing than the Les Paul. The Strat was designed with the comfort of the player in mind and therefore has a slimmer body and contoured panels.

Pickups – Fender Stratocaster vs. Gibson Les Paul

Pickups are magnets that detect the sound of the string. The differences in the pickup system on each guitar contribute to the unique sound. Pickups are activated by a selection switch mounted in the body.

A Fender Stratocaster uses single coil pickups that are noted for its bright, clean and ‘twangy’ sounds. There are three single coil pickups mounted into the body of the guitar. The neck pickup has a mellower sound compared to the brighter and sharper tone of the bridge pickup. The middle pickup provides a sound somewhere between the two. The Stratocaster has a switch that allows 5 different sounds to be accessed.

The Les Paul introduced the humbucker pickup which revolutionized the sound of the electric guitar, and eliminated the mains hum, which had previously plagued guitars with single coil magnetic pickups.

Headstock – Fender Stratocaster vs. Gibson Les Paul

The headstock is where the strings come to rest and where the tuning pegs are attached.

The Gibson Les Paul continues the look of acoustic guitars with three per side tuning pegs.

The Fender Stratocaster has the six tuning pegs aligned.

Dials – Fender Stratocaster vs. Gibson Les Paul

The Gibson Les Paul has four dials. There is a volume and tone control for each pickup.

The Fender Stratocaster has three dials, one voume that is wired for all three pickups and a tone control for the neck and middle pickups.

Sound – Fender Stratocaster vs. Gibson Les Paul

The Unique design features of each instrument affect the sound produced by the guitars.

The Fender Stratocaster has a thinner but edgier sound, making it highlight the treble sounds. This makes it very favourable to funk music as well as blues and pop styles. Stratocasters are great to use for lead guitar playing as the biting tone they produce cuts through the noise of a rock band.

The Gibson Les Paul has a bolder and smoother tone, highlighting mid and bass sounds. The humbucker pickups allow greater distortion to be used so is perfect for rock and metal guitarists. Jazz guitarists also like the smoother sound of humbuckers when playing with a clean tone.

These ideas of the sound of each guitar are generalisations but are a useful base in deciding which model is suited to the sound you are looking to create with an electric guitar. Check out this great video below for an excellent demonstration of the difference in sound between these two models.