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If You Could Have Just One Electric Guitar... The Les Paul Versus the Stratocaster
This article is about one of rock's great debates -- whether the Gibson Les Paul or the Fender Stratocaster is the greatest electric guitar ever made. Having played both at one time or another during a 40-year career on stage and in the studio, I have my own opinion. Here's an overview of the competition for guitarists and fans alike.
The Les Paul's sound is generally solid and heavy and was often chosen by Led Zep's Jimmy Page; the Strat has a brighter, more stinging tone and was made famous by Eric Clapton and many others. Both guitars are classics and have been around for decades, and each has its admirers and its detractors. While I am not exactly what you'd call a guitar geek, I still have a strong bias which I'll try to keep from showing (but I will say right here that I'm a Page rather than a Clapton man). As far as specs and pick-up coils and so on are concerned, I'll leave those last-detail assessments to the luthiers and true experts. I'm a guitar player, not a guitar tech! I've had the pleasure of playing a wide variety of these great guitars, and much of what I've picked up is reflected in this piece.
Gibson versus Fender? Everyone has an opinion. So let's strap on, plug in, and get ready to rumble...
The Fender Stratocaster -- an American Classic
Ask any guitarist, and he or she will likely have a preference for either the sharp, bright tones of the Stratocaster, or the fatter, heavier sound of the Les Paul. This is a 2003 Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan signature Stratocaster, a real beauty that personifies the classic styling of the Strat. The three single-coil pickups, which are basically electromagnets that "pick up" the strings' vibrations, give the player a wide variety of choices for tones. The neck pickup has a bottom-heavy sound, and the bridge pickup sounds brighter and more "trebly." The one in the middle, of course, has qualities of both. Most Stratocasters have a 5-way toggle switch that goes between these pickups, combining their distinct tones for a truly amazing breadth of sonic output.
One thing to consider when choosing the Strat over the Paul, though, is the fact that Strats, older models especially, have "single-coil" pickups, and here's why it matters: single-coil pickups tend to buzz and hum in the vicinity of electric circuits and lights, especially fluorescent lights. Any musician who has ever played a gig with a Stratocaster in a club with fluorescent lights, or worse, a refrigerator coil nearby, knows what a pain single-coil pickups can be. Studio work is even worse! Les Paul, as we will see in a minute, discovered that placing a second coil head-to-tail next to the single one canceled out the hum. It also created a pretty heavy tone.
Eric Clapton and the Fender Stratocaster
Eric Clapton, one of the world's best-known guitarists (Yardbirds, Cream, Derek and the Dominoes), played Gibson guitars until 1969, when he switched to Fenders. He became associated with the Stratocaster, and the guitar's bright, singing tone has graced his work from then on.
Simply a Great Guitar
I played a Gibson for many years, before I discovered that Fender is actually better suited for my style and comfort. This beautiful guitar has a humbucker (Les-Paul-style pickup) on the bridge position, which gives it extra versatility. A great guitar far a serious guitarist.
- Alder Body with gloss finish; Flame Maple top
- Tobacco Sunburst
- One player Series humbucking Bridge pickup
- Two player Series single-coil Stratocaster middle and neck pickups
- “Modern C"-Shaped neck profile
- 9.5"-Radius Fingerboard
- 2-Point tremolo Bridge with bent-steel saddles
The Gibson Les Paul -- Heavy, Very Heavy
The Gibson Les Paul
Thanks to the electronic "hum" produced by the Fender Stratocaster's single-coil pickups, there was a demand in the 1950s for an innovation in electric guitars. Les Paul, one of the world's most famous pop guitarists at the time, stepped up with an elegant solution: he placed a second coil next to the single one. This canceled out the magnetic field of the first coil, and killed the hum. Paul called these "humbucker" pick-ups, and guitarists everywhere loved them. These new pickups also produced a heavier sound than the thinner, twangier single-coils. And the guitar itself was no lightweight, either -- a thick, solid slab of hardwood that left your shoulder aching after a couple of sets onstage. The solid wood supposedly gave the Les Paul longer, sweeter sustain, but in reality it was probably the Marshall amp pushed into overdrive that provided the scream.
Paul also pioneered the single-cutaway design. The idea was to let players reach the top frets with ease, but it also looked pretty cool. The classic Les Paul design, illustrated above in a bright sunburst finish, gained millions of followers, including some of the greatest guitarists of all time.
Jimmy Page and the Les Paul
The genius behind Led Zeppelin chose a Gibson Les Paul for most of his greatest performances. Heavy yet nuanced, metal yet melodic, the music of Led Zeppelin made the Les Paul seem like the obvious choice for rock guitarists everywhere. My first choice for many years was a Les Paul Studio ( a little less expensive than a straight-up Les Paul, and just about the same features). With the right amp, the Les Paul can be almost as versatile as Fender's most wide-ranging guitar, the Telecaster.
Strat Masters -- David Gilmore
Pink Floyd's guitarist shows how it's done on this live clip from "Comfortably Numb."
"I needed to take a piece of wood and make it sound like the railroad track, but I also had to make it beautiful and lovable so that a person playing it would think of it in terms of his mistress, a bartender, his wife, a good psychiatrist - whatever."
— Les Paul
Les Paul Masters -- Jimmy Page
Page the showman is in full swing in this clip of the (very long!) solo from "Heartbreaker."
Les Paul Masters -- Slash
Ripping live solo by Slash of Guns n Roses. Check out the voice box -- Peter Frampton never sounded quite like this.
Les Versus Leo
The Gibson Les Paul came about in 1950 as a joint venture between Gibson Guitar Corporation and Les Paul, who was a well-known guitarist as well as an inventor and innovator. The Fender had just been introduced and was creating a very profitable and very public wave of enthusiasm for the new solid-body electric guitar -- every guitarist had to have one. In order to capitalize on the new idea, Gibson Guitar president Ted McCarty asked Les Paul to act as a consultant as they created their own solid-body. Paul was no stranger to innovative ideas about instruments -- he had already designed and built a protoype solid-body electric that he nicknamed "The Log." The Log was made from a solid pine block and was essentially a wooden board or plank with a pick-up and a bridge at one end. In 1945, Les Paul had approached Gibson with "The Log" prototype, but Gibson turned him down. When the Stratocaster showed a demand for the solid body design in 1950, they had a change of heart and asked him to help them compete.
The guitar Paul helped invent was designed to be a well-made and pricey instrument -- not a knock-off Fender. The new Gibson solid-body had a more traditionally curved body shape than the Fenders; in addition, it featured a glued, "set-in" neck, as opposed to the bolt-on neck of the Fender. The pickups were known as "humbuckers," because their double-coil design canceled out electrical interference. The Les Paul lagged behind the Fender in Sales but still sold respectably, especially among serious musicians and studio guitarists.