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How to Choose between a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Stratocaster

Updated on July 1, 2011

How to Choose Between a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Stratocaster

As the two main powerhouses in the guitar world, Fender and Gibson have cemented their place in music history from their two best selling guitars, the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. While each guitar has its own shape and tone, the differences between the two are enormous. As an electric guitar aficionado and self proclaimed tone snob, I can usually tell the difference between a fender and a gibson when heard live or while listening to a recording. Although there is a bit of tone change when amplifiers, guitar effects pedals and atmosphere is involved, the basic characteristics of each guitar still shine through in most instances. Both guitars produce amazing sounds and can be appreciated for their specific qualities.

Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul - Choosing the guitar

Fender Stratocaster with Maple fretboard
Fender Stratocaster with Maple fretboard

Over the years, I have owned a number of quality guitars including American made Fender Stratocasters as well as Gibson Les Pauls and can tell you it has been a pleasure to spend time with both of them to learn the uniqueness of each one. Although there are several versions of Les Pauls, and Stratocasters, I wanted to highlight some of the most obvious differences and features of each to help in choosing between purchasing a strat or lp.

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At first glance, one of the most obvious differences between the Stratocaster and Les Paul are in the appearance. The Stratocaster is a double cutaway type guitar which leads to easier access to some of the higher positions on the neck as opposed to a Les Paul, which is a single cutaway and has limited access to some of the higher frets. These two body styles are hands down the most popular guitar body styles. Part of the appeal of the two guitars is the outward appearance, so you should look closely at each guitar to see which style fits your taste.

Gibson Les Paul - Les Paul Premium Plus with a Naturall Finish

Gibson Les Paul Premium Plus
Gibson Les Paul Premium Plus

While appearance is important to some degree, the sound and tone of the guitar is one of the most important deciding factors in choosing a guitar. Just as one person may be drawn to a particular flavor of ice cream, people are generally drawn to a particular sound and tone of a musical instrument. In terms of tone, the complete guitar is what makes up the total sound and tone. From varying types of wood, density of wood, thickness of the finish, type and gauge of strings, even the age of a guitar can affect the sound or tone of the guitar. The electronics used including magnetic and ceramic pickups down to the control knobs and the miscellaneous electronically controlled internal components.

One of the characteristics of the Fender Stratocaster which defines its tone, looks as well as added functionality is that they tend to be a "bolt-on" configuration where the body and neck are bolted together. Not only does the bolt-on feature impact the tonal capabilities of the guitar, but also allows for the guitar to be taken apart, upgraded, reconfigured and a wider range of customizable options in the future. The Les Paul on the other hand featured a "Set Neck" where the neck and body are permanently attached for the life of the guitar. As a general rule, a set neck guitar will have the benefit of longer sustain and a more solid feel. The downfall of a set neck is that if the neck were to break, it can be difficult to repair and/or salvage.

Gibson Headstock
Gibson Headstock

Making the decision

Gibson or Fender

What I consider to be one of the most significant differences between a Stratocaster and a Les Paul is in the pickup configuration. Les Paul's are most often equipped with a humbucker pickup in the neck and a humbucker pickup in the bridge. A toggle switch controls three configuration options while each pickup has its own volume and tone control and the two pickups share configurations when the toggle switch is in the middle position for a total of 3 pickup positions of varying volumes and tones. A Stratocaster, on the other hand is generally configured with three pickups, usually single coil pickups with a primary volume knob along with two tone knobs. The Stratocaster features a 5 position switch for a total of 5 unique pickup configurations with varying volume and tonal options.

Although both guitars cover a wide range of the spectrum, each one has its own characteristics and options. Due to the set neck configuration, wood type and pickup options, the Les Paul tone can be characterized as a full or heavy sound when compared to a Stratocaster making it an excellent choice for a classic rock or thicker sound. A Stratocaster, on the other hand tends to have a thinner sounding profile which are some of the most regarded when it comes to its clean tone. Due to the nature of the single coil pickups, stratocasters tend to be a bit noisy when near certain electrical devices and frequently associated with hum. The term humbucker is in reference to "bucking the hum" which are associated with Les Paul guitars. With dual coil pickups, hum is essentially eliminated making for an excellent choice for live performances where hum may be a problem. Many top performing artists prefer Stratocasters due to their highly upgradeable and customizable features and easy maintenance.

As you can see, there are numerous differences between a Stratocaster and a Les Paul. Although not every feature and option are covered in this article, I hope some insight was given to help making the decision in choosing your next guitar purchase. For further information, feel free to check out my blog. Either way, I hope you enjoy your guitar purchase and would appreciate any comments or feedback regarding how I was able to help in your decision making process.

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    • profile image

      TanoCalvenoa 4 years ago

      I like both but own just a Fender Stratocaster.

    • tobydavis profile image

      tobydavis 4 years ago

      Great lens - I'm a Telecaster man myself... can't play any other type of Electric Guitar. ...it's silly, I suppose, but the Tele just feels right in my hands.

    • profile image

      Didge 5 years ago

      Wonderful lens gearhead82 and a good addition to Squidoo! Thanks for sharing!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      great lens. I am a Les Paul fan all the way

    • JK Sterling profile image

      Jim Sterling 5 years ago from Franklin, Tennessee

      Nice article, thank you.