The most iconic guitars of all time are still made by guitar giants, Fender and Gibson. When a guitarist is asked to think of a well-known single-cut model, they’re probably going to be thinking of the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Telecaster. When you ask them to name the first double-cut they can think of, it’s probably going to be a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson SG. Gibson’s daughter company, Epiphone, also make versions of legendary Gibson models while Fender’s daughter company, Squier, does the same with their iconic models. Fender or Gibson, Squier or Epiphone, what’s the difference between them and which one will win out for you? It’s these two definitive questions that we shall attempt to answer in the following blog.
- 1. Beginners & Budget Guitars: Tips
- 2. Gibson vs. Fender: Arch Enemies?
- 3. Gibson: For Full-Fat Sound
- 4. Fender: For Sharp Focus
- 5. What’s Your Dream Body?
- 6. Which Neck Sits Best in Your Fret Hand?
- 7. Scale Length and Radius: Fast Playing or Solid Grip
- 8. The Bridge: Which Way to Go?
- 9. Looking Further Than the Neck
- 10. Follow in the Footsteps of the Greats
- 11. But… Appearances Can be Deceiving
- 12. Gibson or Fender: One of Life’s Most Important Decisions
- See Also …
1. Beginners & Budget Guitars: Tips
We’ll start off with a few tips for beginners who are simply looking for a great budget guitar to fall in love with. Please feel free to look over the information laid out below (although … it might be a little on the dry, educational side), but please note that if you’re just starting out with an entry-level guitar, you may not notice the differences just yet. When it comes to picking out your guitar, what we can say is, definitely go for something you love. It may sound simple but, if you’re going to be spending a lot of time practicing with your guitar, you’re more likely to pick up a guitar you love the look of than something you can’t stand the sight of. Also, the look of a guitar will usually give you a good idea of how it’s going to sound and feel. For example, if a guitar looks like it’s made for Metal, then it’s likely to have a Metal-style sound and playing feel. Also, as a beginner looking for your first guitar, maybe skip to part 10. of this blog, ‘Follow in the Footsteps of the Greats’, to get an idea of the kind of guitar that might suit you best. If you’re a little more ambitious and have more cash to spend, then maybe check out part 9 of this blog, ‘Looking Further than the Neck’, for some more in-depth tips. Whatever kind of beginner you are, it’s definitely worth starting by taking a look at our made-for-purpose guide, How to Choose the Right Electric Guitar.
2. Gibson vs. Fender: Arch Enemies?
The well-known and much discussed Gibson vs. Fender problem usually frames the two guitar makers as ancient arch-enemies. But if you actually look at the guitars, you quickly realise how impossible it is to say that one is definitively better than the other. Each of the four iconic models produced by these two companies come with their very own unique features and each of them have helped to define distinctly unique genres of music. As such, you could say that Fender and Gibson have a kind of peaceful coexistence and that they simply get on with their own thing. In any case, we’re going to lay out the most important differences between the four most famous guitars of all time: the Gibson Les Paul and Gibson SG, and the Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster. These differences also apply to the similar, more affordable versions made by Squier and Epiphone and, since Gibson don’t make many bass models when compared to Fender, we’ve left bass guitars out of the argument – especially since the best known and loved bass models (the Precision and Jazz) are both made by Fender.
3. Gibson: For Full-Fat Sound
It might be obvious but it’s worth saying that sound is the most important thing when it comes to making guitar-based music (actually – pretty much any music), but if you’re looking for the warmest possible foundation sound, then it’s advisable to go for a guitar with a mahogany body. Since Gibson make many of their models with mahogany bodies and necks, and a glued-in neck contruction only backs up this warmth, the choice may already be made for you. The humbucker pickups of SG and Les Paul models also deliver that brilliantly thick, full-fat guitar sound, making them perfect for the heavier guitar work of more brutal metal, straight-up rock and raw blues.
4. Fender: For Sharp Focus
If you prefer a slightly brighter sound that still has some solidity to it, then you’re likely to prefer the tone created by an ash body and a bolt-on maple neck. And yes, when it comes to building guitars, Fender use this construction a lot. Also, the famous Stratocaster and Telecaster models usually come mounted with single-coil pickups. Compared to the humbuckers (also known as double-wound or double-coil pickups) often seen on Gibson guitars, these single-coils shape a more focused, pointed sound. A standard Tele will have two of these pickups while the standard Strat comes with three – but there are many models that have a varied pickup configuration. If you’re looking for the most flexible and multi-dimensional guitar sound possible, then the Fender Strat is the undisputed, all-out winner. Even the most famous of Gibson Les Paul ambassadors, Slash from Guns ‘N’ Roses, agrees with this. Since the Strat comes loaded with the most pickups, it offers at least five different pickup configurations that produce five different tonal profiles. But, if you’re looking for a specifically Country or New Wave style twang, or a Rock or Indie style bite, then you’ll be much better off with a Tele.
5. What’s Your Ultimate Body?
It’s also pretty important that your guitar feels comfortable and natural against your body. If you like a solid feel and tight edges, then both makers offer something for you in the shape of a Gibson Les Paul or a Fender Telecaster. While both models are on the heavy side, it’s worth knowing that the Les Paul is a touch heavier. However, Matt Heafy of Trivium is a good example of a guitarist that actually prefers to play a physically heavier model. If this is not your jam, but you still want either the Les Paul or Tele sound, thankfully there are some lighter, ‘weight-relief’ versions available. The Gibson SG is also a lighter weight model and has a slimmer and more contoured body than the Les Paul, while the Stratocaster has maybe the most ergonomic body-shape of them all. The so called ‘belly-cut’ contour on the backside of the body is designed to sit comfortably snug and a contour on the upper side of the lower bout gives your playing arm a nice, natural feeling resting place.
6. Which Neck Sits Best in Your Fret Hand?
Your fret-hand is also going to have a big say in which model works best for you. If the neck immediately feels uncomfortable in your fret-hand, it’s never going to get comfortable, so it’s a good idea to find out what kind of neck-profile best suits you. A lot of guitarists will swear by the modern C-profile necks made by Fender. While this is very similar to Gibson’s Slim-Taper necks, the Slim-Taper can feel wider and thicker. If you have a ‘bluesy’ playing style, then you might want to try the classic Fender V-profile neck, which almost automatically guides your thumb to the right spot. Alternatively, if you were born with larger-than-average hands and could do with a neck that actually fills your palm as you grind out riffs and solos, then both makers offer a variation on what’s affectionately referred to as the baseball-bat-profile. This can be found fitted on the vintage 1958 Les Paul originals and reissues, or the original and reissued versions of the Telecasters made in the ‘50s – the necks on these could also be used to shovel coal … in case you ever need to.
7. Scale Length and Radius: Fast Playing or Solid Grip?
How the strings feel against your fingertips is also pretty important. If you’re devoted to a specific string gauge and want a light and easy feeling action, then a Gibson model with a 24.75-inch scale length (the measurement between the string nut at the start of the head and the bridge at the bottom of the body) is likely to do it for you. If you want a touch more tension in your strings or have no problems playing a slightly longer neck and heavier strings, then the 25.5-inch scale length of a Fender will probably feel better. The next thing to pay attention to is how the fretboard radius feels beneath your fingers. Traditionally, the now vintage Fender guitars built in Fullerton, USA, had a relatively convex or bulging fretboard radius of 7.25 or 9.5 inches. More recently, however, Fender have been producing models that come closer to the flatter 12-inch radius found on average Gibsons, and some get even flatter. As the measurement of the fretboard radius gets higher, the fretboard gets flatter, and your soloing usually gains a faster feel. While a rounded fretboard does offer more grip when playing chords, that’s not to say that you can’t play fast. Just check out how fast Ritchie Blackmore from Deep Purple was able to play the rounded fretboard of his Strat – not to mention Hendrix.
8. The Bridge: Which Way Do You Go?
Since your playing hand also has a lot of say in what guitar feels best, it’s worth trying out models with different bridges. If you use a lot of vibrato, then the classic six-point or modern two-point tremolo bridge of a Stratocaster will make your playing hand happy. If your playing is more on the extreme side, or you just love playing classic-style solos, then the two-point bridge will suit you best. If you find a tremolo arm nothing more than an annoying add-on, but like the strings to sit as close to the body as possible, then you’ll probably like the feel of a Telecaster. For dedicated rhythm guitarists or guitarists with a heavier playing style, a tune-o-matic bridge with a stoptail tailpiece might work out better. Most Les Paul and SG models will come fitted with one of these, and more basic Gibson models with ‘wraparound’ bridges should also feel pretty good. For a mid-way feel that you can add lighter vibrato effects to, there are various Telecasters, Les Pauls, and SGs available with a fitted vibrato tailpiece like a Bigsby or a Vibrola.
9. Looking Further Than the Neck
Coming back to our very first point: looks do matter. Whether you’re looking for a budget-friendly model that will help you get to grips with your first chords, or a stage and studio ready life-partner, you need to enjoy looking at it, just as much as you need to enjoy playing it. So, make sure it feels right just as much as it looks right. It’s no coincidence that online second-hand stores like Gum Tree are full of models being sold by guitarists who didn’t find out that the playing feel didn’t suit them until after they’d already bought them. So, it’s always worth choosing wisely.
10. Follow the Footsteps of the Greats
We’ve said this plenty of times across this site, simply because it’s true. The sound of your favourite band or guitarist is going to be the sound you want to hear, so take a look at what they’re playing and see if it’s for you as well. Legends like Slash, Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac, and Gary Moore all played their biggest numbers on a Les Paul. If you want that heavier, but no less classic, sound of AC/DC, then get the Gibson SG that Angus Young famously toted. If you prefer Status Quo, the driving blues style of Danny Gatton or even the orchestral aggression of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, then you actually need a Telecaster. And, naturally there’s the Stratocaster – seen in the hands of legends, Jimi Hendrix, Hank Marvin from The Shadows, and guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen.
11. But… Looks Can Be Deceiving
If you think that Jimmy Page played a Les Paul on the first Led Zeppelin album, you’d be wrong – it was a Telecaster! And while Eric Clapton is usually seen glued to a Stratocaster, when he was still a member of Cream, his weapon of choice was always an SG. And, when he was a proud member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, he played a Les Paul. If you know the solo of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ by The Beatles, you might be surprised to know that it was also played by Clapton, on a Les Paul named ‘Lucy’, that he had previously gifted to his best friend, George Harrison. Prince even honoured the iconic solo in 2004 while playing a Telecaster. Appearances can therefore be deceiving. So, always make sure that your favourite guitar not only looks great but has exactly the sound and playing feel you want.
12. Gibson or Fender: One of the Life’s Most Important Decisions
If you’re already seduced by a Fender or Gibson guitar but the neck or body isn’t feeling as snug as you thought it would, then maybe have a chat with one of our specialists, or walk into one of your local guitar stores. They’ll be able to guide you in the right direction and help you pick out a guitar that you might never have even considered. Over the years, it might be that you’ve developed a leaning towards an entirely different model, or feel pretty comfortable playing any of the four models we’ve mentioned. No problem. Eric Clapton felt the same way so, choosing one model now doesn’t mean you can’t try everything.
Are you a dedicated Fender supporter, fully devoted to Gibson, or lie somewhere in the middle? Let us know your preference and why in the comments below!