The Gibson Les Paul and Fender Stratocaster are classic instruments. They have been used by legendary guitarists in every music genre, and both have a reputation as fine, American-made guitars built with the highest quality in mind. How to choose from the two?
Both guitars are amazing instruments and both sound superb, so how can you possibly go wrong? What is it that draws some guitar players to gravitate to one over the other?
Imagine.. Stevie Ray Vaughan playing Texas Flood on a beat-up Gibson. Or, Jimi Hendrix playing Little Wing on an upside-down Les Paul. Or Slash, onstage back in the glory days of G N’ R, top hat on and Stratocaster slung low.
Choosing between a Strat and Les Paul has everything to do with sound, play-ability, and attitude. Let’s take a closer look at each guitar….
The Gibson Les Paul
The Gibson Les Paul is a thick, heavy guitar, both physically and sonically. It features a mahogany body with a maple top, and a set mahogany neck. Mahogany is a very warm-sounding tonewood, and accounts for the depth and resonance Les Pauls are known for.
The maple cap helps to add some clarity to the tone, as maple is a brighter wood. Most Les Pauls have 22-fret rosewood fingerboards, but some feature ebony, and in some recent years Gibson has been using some interesting alternatives like baked Maple.
This traditional combination of woods has served Gibson well over the years, and made for some classic instruments. Les Pauls are more elaborately constructed than Strats, with binding around the neck and body, and block inlays in the fingerboard.
Les Pauls have two humbucking pickups, specially made by Gibson. Each pickup has one tone and one volume control, and there’s a toggle switch that flips between the pickups, or allows both to be active simultaneously.
The bridge is a Tune-o-matic with a stop-bar tailpiece. The tailpiece, along with the wood and set neck, gives the Les Paul great sustain capabilities. The simple bridge also means it tends to stay in tune fairly well.
A new Gibson Les Paul costs several thousand dollars, but Epiphone, a company owned by Gibson, also makes Les Paul guitars to Gibson specs. These are less expensive versions of the Gibson Les Paul, and fine instruments for the money.
They feature the same qualities as the Gibson version, with downgraded pickups, hardware and materials. This enables players on a budget to get into the Les Paul sound at a price they can afford.
5 Factors to consider about the Les Paul
Gibson guitars are so beloved for their distinctive tone. When it comes down to resonance, depth and that dark, guttural tone you can only get from a Les Paul. Mahogany is my favorite tonewood, and Les Pauls employ it in their bodies and necks. This, along with the set-neck build, means deep, rich tone. Stratocasters are typically made with alder bodies and they sound great, but if deep, mean, gut-rumbling resonance is what you want they fall a bit short. Even Strats with ash or basswood bodies can’t match a Les Paul, if that’s the sound you are after.
Tuning and Setups:
While it is true that a Strat is easier to modify, and less of a problem when it comes time to replace parts, when it comes to everyday maintenance you might find Les Pauls a bit less worrisome. The issue comes down to the tremolo system on the Stratocaster, where the LP has a stop-bar and Tune-o-matic bridge. This can potentially mean the Les Paul has better tuning stability, and fewer issues when changing strings. For players who are skilled at working on and setting up guitars this doesn’t matter much. But for new players and those whose guitar maintenance skills are less evolved it means a little less stress.
Veteran Strat players likely have nothing to complain about when it comes to sustain. Fender guitars are just fine in that department, but I do think many Gibsons are a notch above. Again, this has to do with the way the guitar is put together. Guitars with bolt-on necks tend to be a little punchier, where guitars with set necks have better resonance and sustain. The bridge plays a factor too, as with a stop-bar the strings are anchored more solidly to the guitar body. All of this may or may not matter to you, and this is just one factor to consider when choosing between these two guitars.
Both guitars are made in the USA by two of the finest guitar builders in the world. When I compare craftsmanship here I’m not talking about the quality of the guitar that comes out of the factory. In both cases it is superb. When I’m really talking about, again, is the difference in the build techniques. In many ways it can be argued that the Les Paul is a more finely crafted guitar. The Standard version features pretty bindings, a carved top and block fretboard markers. By comparison, the Standard Stratocaster is much more utilitarian. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, so how much this matters is up to you.
Gibson humbuckers are legendary. Guitarists in genres from metal, to jazz, to blues to country utilize stock Gibson pickups in their guitars to get the sounds they want. If you need that hot, hard-rock bridge humbucker sound, or that smooth jazz neck humbucker sound, you’re not going to get it in a Stratocaster. Of course there are Strats equipped with humbuckers, but they sound like exactly that: Strats with humbuckers. If you want that Gibson roar there is only one place to find it. Of course the opposite is also true. Fender single-coil pickups are the best in the business, and even Gibson P-90s aren’t going to get the same vibe.
The affordable Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO features all the great stuff that has made the Les Paul one of the greatest guitars ever made. Many intermediate guitarists and working guitarist love it for it’s sound and value.
This is just about the best alternative to a Gibson Les Paul you are going to find.
The Les Paul Sound
The Fender Stratocaster
The Fender Stratocaster is a much thinner guitar than the Les Paul, with a body made from brighter woods such as alder or sometimes ash. It features a bolt-on maple necks with either a rosewood or maple fingerboard.
The Stratocaster sounds thinner too, but for Strat lovers this isn’t a bad thing. The legendary Strat sound is more biting than the Les Paul sound, and very distinctive in its own right.
Strats usually have three pickups. The classic Strat design features three single coils (SSS), but they are widely available with a humbucker as well (HSS). A 5-way switch activates the pickups in several different combinations, and each position of the selector switch presents a unique sound, from bluesy to rock to chickin-pickin country.
In this way, a Strat offers a greater variety of tonal possibilities compared to the Les Paul.
The hardware on a Strat is a little more complex than a Les Paul. Strats have bridges with a vibrato feature. This can be an interesting effect, but can also account for tuning instability and a little extra TLC when it comes to maintenance and setup.
On the positive side, working on a Strat is generally easier than a Les Paul. For instance, replacing a neck on a Les Paul would require work by a professional luthier, where you can replace a Strat neck yourself in a few minutes.
Like Gibson, Fender has a less-expensive version of the Stratocaster available for a fraction of the price of the USA-made Strat. The Standard Stratocaster, called by players the MIM or Mexican Strat because it is made in Mexico, Fender’s lower-priced Stratocaster is a great inexpensive guitar. Again, the difference is in the hardware, electronics and wood.
5 Factors to consider in choosing the Stratocaster
Stratocasters are somewhat lighter guitars. While it will vary dependant on year, model and body materials, Les Pauls typically come in around 9-11 pounds, where Strats weigh around 7-8 pounds. It may not seem like much of a difference, but when you have the thing strapped around your neck for three hours it matters. For this reason, some players concerned about back health or simple comfort prefer the Strat.
I have broken Stratocasters down to individual pieces and put them back together many times. It’s pretty easy, and replacing individual parts is possible for anyone who can turn a screwdriver. Not so much with Les Pauls. With their more complex build techniques you may need the help of a luthier to replace a broken neck, or even to change your pickups if routing is needed. The way Strats are built means parts are easily interchangeable.
Only your own ears can tell you whether or not a Stratocaster sounds better than a Les Paul. However, I do think it is accurate to say a Stratocaster is capable of a more versatile array of sounds. The three single-coil pickups can be combined in 5 different ways, and every position has something to offer. Stevie Ray Vaughan was a good example of a guitarist who really utilized the varied textures of the different pickup positions. He often switched between different positions in the same song or even the same solo. With a Les Paul (leaving coil taps out of it) you get three choices, and they are all somewhat similar.
Necks and Fingerboards:
Like sound, playability and feel are highly subjective topics. Nobody but your fretting hand can tell whether you like the feel of a Strat or Les Paul. However, the Strat does have a certain selling point you just can’t get with the Les Paul. The one-piece maple neck and fingerboard is found on many guitars these days, but it originated as a Fender design. They do it right, and if you love that slick, smooth feel it is quite probable you won’t be happy with a Gibson. Even Strats with rosewood fingerboards have a decidedly different feel than rosewood fingerboard Gibsons.
Brand new, a Standard USA-made Fender Stratocaster costs around half of what you’d pay for a new Gibson Les Paul Standard. For some players this is all they need to know. Some of the things mentioned above account for this discrepancy, particularly the difference in build techniques. Certainly don’t take it as an indication of quality, as these two guitar giants are neck-and-neck in that regard. When we compare the Fender MIM Strat vs the Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO we see a closer contest, with both guitars coming in at similar price points.
You can grab a Mexican-made Standard Strat for a fraction of the price of the American version. It’s a quality guitar worthy of the Fender name on the headstock, and like the Epi Les Paul it is revered as one of the best values in the guitar world.
If you want a Stratocaster but you are on a tight budget, this is the guitar to consider.
How to Decide between the Stat and Les Paul
Les Pauls are heavy guitars with a thick sound great for any style of music. Strats are lighter-duty guitars with a wider array of available sounds great for any style of music. Both are well made, and come in a variety of beautiful finishes. Both guitars will hold their value for years to come. So really, the answer as to which is best lies with the player.
Once you’ve been around the block a while, you find yourself gravitating to one camp or the other in a quest to find your perfect sound. The deep tone of the Les Paul, or the rip of the Stratocaster: the choice is ultimately yours, and the best part is there is no wrong answer.
How do you make your choice? Now that you know the basic differences between them, go and play a bunch of each. Let your hands and ears decide. Listen to famous musicians you respect and try to discern where their tonal magic comes from.
And, this is all kind of a trick question when you think about it. Les Paul or Stratocaster: Which Guitar is right for you? How about both! Remember, even though you can only play one guitar at time, you can own as many as you want!