There are many areas of life involving choice where people frequently default to two immediate options. You want a burger? Fine – McDonalds or Burger King? Time to upgrade your phone? No problem – Apple or Samsung? Want to watch a scary film featuring face-hugging monsters and Sigourney Weaver at her most brusque? Easy – Alien or Aliens? Yeah, we know there’s two more films in the original series, but why would you watch either of them…
How about this one; need a new electric guitar? Simple – do I go Fender or Gibson? Despite the fact that there are many other companies manufacturing guitars out there, the two biggest names in 6-string history always leap to the front of most guitarists’ minds.
And why on earth wouldn’t they. Between them, Fender and Gibson have unquestionably been responsible for the most recognisable guitar designs seen in most of our lifetimes – just think about the Telecaster, Les Paul, Stratocaster, ES335 and ES175, all of which we’ve already discussed in our “A Brief Guide To Popular Guitar Models" article a few months ago.
But don’t forget that you can also get a burger from Wendy’s, buy a phone made by Motorola, or watch Alien Resurrection if you can’t think of a better way to waste 109 minutes of your life. And when it comes to electric guitars, there are so many other iconic models than the ones mentioned above…
You could be forgiven for thinking that Fender only ever produced two electric guitar models - the overwhelming popularity of both the Telecaster and Stratocaster since the 1950s does tend to eclipse the company’s other 6-string achievements. One of which is the seductively curved and marvellously electrically-complicated Jaguar, first launched in 1962 as a high-end instrument designed to convert Gibson players. Initially popular with surf bands, it later found favour with punk, indie and alternative rock acts – Kurt Cobain was a massive fan.
Gibson decided to re-style the Les Paul range in 1961, resulting in the Les Paul SG Standard – a thinner and more adventurous-looking guitar, featuring a flat top and twin bevelled cutaways in a contoured, one-piece mahogany body, which was considerably cheaper to produce. Unfortunately, they did this without consulting Les Paul himself, and his dislike of the instrument resulted in his name being removed from the headstock from 1962 onwards (since which it’s simply been called the SG, which stands for ‘solid guitar’). But legions of other people loved it, not least of all Angus Young, who is rarely seen playing anything else with AC/DC.
Possibly one of the prettiest guitars ever made, the 330 remains one of the most iconic and popular of all Rickenbacker’s 300 series of hollow-bodied electrics. From the crescent-moon cutaways to the slanted headstock, trapeze tailpiece and signature slash-shaped sound hole, this instrument represented a real departure from every other semi-acoustic available before or since. And the innovation was more than skin-deep, with dual truss-rods in the neck for maximum control of both twists and curves in the wood. Paul Weller and Johnny Marr are among many notable users.
Whilst they’re no longer fitted with the absolutely outrageous DeArmond pickups (replaced with the nearly-as-crazy Filtertrons in 1958), the 6120 remains one of the most beautiful and utterly uncompromising rock’n’roll weapons of all-time. This was the first model in Gretsch’s Chet Atkins series of semi-hollow instruments, sporting a Bigsby tremolo system below that fantastic Gretsch brand on the front as standard. And the uncompromising tone has found favour with some very uncompromising guitarists over the years – Eddie Cochran, Brian Setzer and Pete Townsend have all used them to great effect.
Fender designed both the Tele and the Strat to be easily mass-produced, reducing costs without compromising quality. But neither offered quite as much for quite as little money as the U2, a masterclass in effective use of budget materials. The poplar wood frame of this hollow-bodied beauty is backed and topped with Masonite (basically the same stuff your kitchen worktop is built from) before being bound with vinyl, the pickups are built into lipstick cases and wired in series when both selected (giving a very unique sound), and all hardware is as basic as you’ll find on pretty much any guitar. The result is one of the coolest-looking axes in the world – Brian Wilson and Amy Winehouse both used them, and they were really cool!
At the extreme opposite end of the budget spectrum from Danelectro, we find the sublime creations of American master luthier Paul Reed Smith, who debuted the first PRS Custom in 1985. And to gauge the impact this had on professional guitarists, you need only consider that Carlos Santana started using them exclusively just three years later. These high-end instruments are a cocktail of everything good about both Fender AND Gibson, and a lot more besides. The stunning figured maple and mahogany bodies are hand-carved, pickups are hand-wound and can be instantly switched to run as single-coil or humbucker, and all the hardware (much of which is patented) was designed in-house. If you need to ask how much they cost then you probably can’t afford one…
What is a ‘Superstrat’? Well basically it’s a Stratocaster-style guitar with added madness. These things started appearing in the early ‘80s, taking the immensely popular Strat body shape and three-pickup layout familiar to all guitarists, and then enhancing the instruments capabilities with longer fretboards, deeper horns to allow access to the extra frets, switching some (or all) of the single coils for humbuckers, upgrading the tremolo to a heavy duty locking system (such as the iconic Floyd Rose), and usually making the headstock a lot more pointy. One of the prime examples of these finely-honed rock scalpels is the Ibanez Jem, which manages to up the ante of crazy by carving a hand grip through the body of the guitar. Steve Vai must find this very useful when carrying his around.
Wrapping it Up
We fully admit to only just scratching the surface of how many iconic electric guitars you could list in an article like this. Fender and Gibson undoubtedly showed us the way nearly 70 years ago, and countless others have built upon their original vision of what makes an incredible instrument. Many more have yet to be created, and we can’t wait! Until next time…