By Ray McDonald
From the time I bought my first Rolling Stones record at age seven, I’ve been convinced of one thing: you can’t rock without an electric guitar.
Now don’t get me wrong, you don’t need one to make great music. There’s an entire galaxy of musical instruments out there to enjoy. But for sheer sonic power, I’ll take a six (or 12)-string guitar run through a stack of amplifiers.
But which guitar? For the past six decades, two models in particular have fought for supremacy: the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.
Marketed since 1954, the “Strat” bears an iconic double-cutaway shape. It’s been used in many genres, from rock to country to jazz, always enjoying great popularity.
Fender Stratocaster (AP photo/Matt York)
First sold in 1952, the Gibson Les Paul has led a turbulent existence. It bears the name of the great guitar innovator Les Paul, who helped design it. By 1960, it had lost so much market share to Fender’s Stratocaster that Gibson took it off the market. During that time, however, blues-rock devotees such as Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, and Peter Green re-discovered the Les Paul and its thick, meaty tone. Manufacturing resumed in 1968, and continues to this day.
Gibson Les Paul (AP photo/ Alice Keeney)
So, what separates these two noble combatants? Musician Keith Dean lists five areas where they differ:
1) Tone. The Stratocaster boasts a sweet, stinging sound, while the Les Paul possesses a thicker, more sustaining tone.
2) Pickups. Strat pickups typically consist of a combination of three single coils, producing that sweet tone. Les Paul guitars normally use “humbucking” pickups, enabling more distortion.
3) Feel. The guitars have differing fret boards, with the Strat typically more rounded and the Les Paul flatter.
4) Weight. The Gibson Les Paul is decidedly heavier than the Strat. In 1961, Gibson began selling its own lighter, double cutaway model, the Les Paul SG. Les requested his name be removed owing to a design issue with the neck, and today it’s simply sold as the SG.
5) Amp compatibility. Keith Dean says many Stat players consider a Fender tube amp perfect for its clean, stinging sound. Les Paul players, he says, often prefer Marshall tube amps for their distorted qualities – the choice of many hard rock and metal performers.
So, who plays what? Most of the world’s most famous guitarists have spent time with one of these instruments – or both, as in Eric Clapton’s case. He helped revive Les Paul sales during his stint in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers before switching to the Strat in the 1970s. Other Strat wielders include Jeff Beck, Billy Corgan, The Edge of U2, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and let’s not forget Jimi Hendrix. The left-handed Hall of Famer preferred to play a right-handed model flipped upside down.
Some of hard rock’s biggest names claim allegiance to the Les Paul. Among them are Slash of Guns ‘N Roses, Pete Townshend of The Who, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, and Neil Young, who crafted many of my favorite solos on “Old Black,” his 1953 Les Paul.
So there you are – even in this era of sequencers and synthesizers, the timeless battle for guitar supremacy continues. But I’d say if you’re a rock lover like me, we’re the true winners, either way…or both.