Whopper or Big Mac? iPhone or Galaxy? Chevy or Ford? Let’s be honest; whatever our personal feelings or preferences may be regarding these competing brands or products, they’re basically all designed to fulfil the same purpose. Whichever burger I choose to eat will make me less hungry, whichever car I choose to drive will get me from A to B, and whichever phone I buy will enable me to call or text my friends. They’re simple tools for a simple job.
The same essentially applies to guitars, although this area of choice tends to bring out even more divisiveness between users than McDonalds or Burger King customers. And the ultimate polar choice for electric players, more-or-less since the advent of the solid-body axe around 70 years ago, has been between the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul – unquestionably the two most iconic and enduring designs in electric guitar history.
However, whilst both are 6-string instruments, designed to be plugged in and rocked hard, that’s where the similarities end in the minds of many guitarists. That’s certainly the case with two of my closest friends, one of which has gigged and recorded through his entire professional life on no less than three different Stratocasters (two Japanese, one American), whilst the other has used the same Les Paul Standard as his primary guitar on stages throughout the world for the past 15 years. Neither would trade instruments under any circumstances, and both frequently lecture me on why their choice is the right one!
But in reality, making any kind of judgement about which is the better instrument is both impossible and pointless for countless reasons. So let’s highlight these reasons through simple comparison of these two champions of the electric guitar world...
- Stratocaster: Leo Fender (1909-1991) who also invented the bass guitar and the synchronized tremolo system.
- Les Paul: Ted McCarty (Gibson president), John Huis (Gibson factory manager), and various other Gibson company members. Advice and endorsement came from guitarist Les Paul (1915-2009) who also invented tape delay and multitrack recording.
- Stratocaster: A reasonably lightweight, machine-carved, one-piece ash/alder body with twin cutaways, featuring an extended upper horn, offset waist, deeply contoured back, a recessed output jack socket set into front, and a cavity which houses the tremolo springs in back. A large scratchplate screws directly to the front of the otherwise unbound and cosmetically unadorned body. This design was intended to be light, comfortable, and easy to cheaply mass produce.
- Les Paul: The bulk of the Les Paul’s heavyweight body is mahogany, supporting a carved maple top, the whole thing featuring single cutaway and decorative binding around the front edge. A small scratchplate (when fitted) floats above the front, with a bracket attaching to the lower edge. This design was almost certainly created to contrast with Fenders mass-produced approach, focussing instead on Gibson’s reputation for craftsmanship.
- Stratocaster: Like most Fenders, Strat necks are bolt-on maple designs, usually capped with a maple or rosewood fretboard, although early models featured frets simply hammered straight into the main body of the neck! Originally fitted with 21 frets, but it’s now possible to find either 21 or 22 fret necks fitted to standard model instruments. All feature simple dot inlays created from a variety of materials, all are available in a range of axial profiles (‘C’, ‘U’, and ‘V’ shapes of various dimensions), all can be ordered with a variety of fret sizes (narrow, jumbo, tall, short, you name it), and any of which can be removed or attached inside of one minute! There are 40 different necks on the Fender website at the time of writing this article, and those are just for the Stratocaster...
- Les Paul: Pretty much all Gibson guitars feature a set-in neck, with the Les Paul being no exception. Typically hand carved from mahogany with a rosewood fretboard (although various other options have been available), equipped with 22 frets since its first release, and most commonly fitted with mother-of-pearl inlays - either ‘block’ (rectangular) or ‘crown’ (trapezoid). Les Paul neck profiles and thicknesses varied with era, but you’ll usually find them broadly categorised into ‘50s (fatter) or ‘60s (slightly slimmer) styles. And they obviously can’t be switched around with any kind of ease!
- Stratocaster: One-piece synchronised tremolo unit, featuring adjustable saddles, built into body. This design has remained virtually unchanged throughout the history of the Stratocaster.
- Les Paul: Most commonly a tune-o-matic bridge with adjustable saddles, and separate tailpiece to anchor strings. Earlier models featured various alternatives, including ‘trapeze’ units anchored at the base of the body.
- Stratocaster: Traditionally three single coil units, with bridge pickup installed at a slight angle. Other options over the years have included Lace Sensor, humbuckers (usually only at the bridge position), and Fenders own active units on some anniversary and deluxe models.
- Les Paul: Usually two PAF humbucking pickups (since 1957), although originally launched with P90 single coil units that remain a popular option. Various other pickups have also been available, including mini humbuckers and Alnico, and some Les Paul models have featured three humbuckers.
- Stratocaster: One volume and two tone controls, with five-way selector switch, all contained within front-routed cavity and mounted on the scratchplate. Early models were fitted with a three-way selector switch, but players quickly began ‘jamming’ the selector midway between two positions to obtain different sounds (frequently using a matchstick to hold the switch in place!) Fender eventually responded in 1977 by making the 5-way switch a standard feature.
- Les Paul: One volume and tone control for each pickup (mounted within lower rear-routed cavity), three-way selector switch (mounted within upper rear-routed cavity).
- Stratocaster: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, John Frusciante, Mark Knopfler, Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Eddie van Halen
- Les Paul: Jimmy Page, Slash, Joe Perry, Gary Moore, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler
- Stratocaster: None, as far as we’re concerned!
- Les Paul: And again, none that we can think of!
What do you mean no limitations?!?
We mean that there’s really no limitations in terms of what you can do either a Stratocaster or Les Paul. And if you don’t believe us, check the names of notable users. Both Clapton and Knopfler have frequently used both models, and the cocktail of blues, rock and metal players associated with both instruments is equally varied.
Yes, the two greatest solid-bodied electric guitars ever made are clearly worlds apart on just about every conceivable physical level. But the fact that guitarists have managed to use them in just about every conceivable musical situation is truly a testament to the genius of both designs. And either – or both – might be perfect for you...
The real question is which one do you prefer? We’d love to know!