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Fender vs. Gibson: Age-old Comparison Never Fails For Good Argument June 12, 2010

Posted by vsap in Blogroll, Uncategorized.
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Which do you prefer, Fender or Gibson guitars? Is it the thrill of hearing Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Johnson, Robert Cray, or Mark Knopfler on Stratocaster or Telecaster pump your adrenaline? Or is it Jimmy Page on classic Les Paul, Albert King’s Flying V or BB King’s Lucille (ES-355, also used by Larry Carlton), Bob Dylan (acoustic & electric), and Johnny Smith (classic single cut away) that gets all 8 pumping for you.

It’s an age-old comparison that never fails for a good argument.

That’s not to put the other brands on the shelf. My personal affinity is for the Gretsch White Falcon. Most frequently seen in the company of Chris Isaak, Reverend Horton Heat and Brian Setzer in recent times. Chet Atkins’ “Country Gentleman” model comes to mind. Then there were those who, like most Fender and Gibson players, added the Gretsch to their collection. Stephen Stills and Neil Young in their Buffalo Springfield and early CSN&Y days frequented their Gretsch guitars for different flavor and texture.

I will mention one more of my favorites before I move back to the Fender-Gibson argument. John Lennon (325 Capri) and Roger McGuinn (360/12) put Rickenbacker guitars on the map for me. Later, and most currently, Tom Petty has become more or less the godfather of Rickenbacker players. That distinct “jangle” makes it one of the most unique sounds in all guitardom.

There are so many excellent electric guitar makers: Washburn, Taylor, Godin, Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, Epiphone, and Hagstrom (my first electric guitar), that all I will do is tip my hat to their artistry and sound and move back to the argument at hand: Fender or Gibson.

At the outset, I admit most people would say it is subjective, one sound is preferred over the other so there is no argument. The brands peacefully coexist. After all, don’t the likes of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stephen Stills move fluidly between brands as a set or a song call for a certain sound or feel? Yes, but that doesn’t mean a preference doesn’t exist.

Nikhil Deshpande opined in October 2007 on UltimateGuitar.com:

“Fender’s tonal qualities are mainly dictated by their body woods and the single coil pickup. Fender most commonly uses ash and alder, both of which give a medium, slightly bright tone as it is. Both woods are fairly light, producing Stratocaster bodies of about four to five pounds, adding to its appeal to Fender. Plus, both woods are commonly found in America and fairly inexpensive, making them ideal for production.

“Gibson uses mainly mahogany for their bodies. Mahogany is a denser wood, offering darker tone and thick, warm, crunchy sound often loved by many guitar players. The Les Paul is quite possibly the epitome of the electric guitar, being the longest-made production model; Gibson began producing the guitar in the ’40s. The SG came along in ’61, as a custom version of the Les Paul. Because of it’s small body, Gibson named it the “Spanish Guitar” (hence, “SG”). Gibson at first used the P90 design, which is basically a single-coil pickup, though it’s not as bright as a standard single coil. P90s offer a much darker, smoother alternative to the standard single coil. Incidentally, Gibson developed the humbucker at the same time as Gretsch, and implemented said humbucker in 1957 with the Les Paul.”

So, a significant difference is in the wood. Some might say the difference is between commodity domestic and exotic woods. My first memories of what I considered typical Fender play was from country music in the 1960s. It had an unpleasant and tinny sound to my ear. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Fender was Clapton’s guitar of choice. It didn’t have the cheap characteristics of the Nashville sound. I began to appreciate it more when I heard Jim Messina play it with Poco and later with Loggins & Messina. He kept the country twang without making it cartoonish, as I believed most country musicians couldn’t help but do. Nashville’s Music Row has some pretty strict rules even today, notwithstanding the “outlaws” who have kept just out its grasp.

Desphande continued: “The Fender tone, to me, is uplifting and amazing; I love the clarity and brightness in a Stratocaster. If you look at any famous guitarist, chances are they either play or own a Fender.” But he added, “There is a longing in me, though, that begs for the mellower Gibson tone at times. There has been more than one occasion where I wished I were the owner of an Explorer because of the feel and the classic Gibson PAF-tone. It sounds amazing where necessary, and can truly sing.”

I suspect all players can become equally conflicted.

In May 2007 “Monkeyman” on Yahoos Associated content compared the Les Paul to the Stratocaster. He came to this conclusion:

“While both of these guitars have their own unique factors and qualities, they are both extremely versatile. I don’t believe that you will be able to find two guitars that can switch between jazz, classic rock, blues, and even metal and still sound amazing. People such as Eric Clapton and Joe Perry have played both of these guitars throughout their career, and for good reasons. They will both be able to handle being played live well, but the Gibson can put a serious strain on your back. The Fender is very easy to move around with, weighing much less then the Les Paul, but at times doesn’t seem as sturdy.”

Nonetheless, he recommended the Strat for purchase.

Tom Servo, on the same website as Monkeyman, in May 2007, commented on how these two standards play:

“The scale length is length between the nut and the saddle. The Fender Stratocaster has a 25.5 inch scale length, and the Gibson Les Paul has a 24 ¾ inch scale length. What does that mean? Well, it has a lot to do with the difference in the sound between the two guitars. It also has a lot to do with the playing “action” between one another. A shorter scale length produces a looser string tension, which makes it easier to bend the strings. The scale length can also effect the tuning stability.” He concluded: “Stratocasters have a thinner, more open sound; and Les Pauls have a thicker, fuller sound. I would not suggest playing a Stratocaster in a metal band, but you could probably get away with using a Les Paul. Nonetheless, with enough tweaking, you can make a Strat sound thick like a Les Paul, or make a Les Paul sound crisp and punchy like a Strat.”
Well, which side of the argument do you land on? I’ll take Gibson, even Gretsch and Rickenbacker before Fender. What say you?


1. Shawn - January 7, 2011

“SG”, which stood for ‘Solid Guitar’ not Spanish Guitar. And Clapton, Beck and others used Gibson’s when they recorded many of their biggest or most well know hits. (Clapton with Cream for example.)

2. What do lemurs and guitars have in common? « The Gloucester Blues Project - February 10, 2011

[…] At the crux of this story lies rosewood: the material of choice when it comes to the fingerboards found on many electric guitars (it’s also used to make acoustic guitars). Since I’m a guitarist with green inclinations, I’m pretty interested in where this wood comes from. Which is why I decided to do a bit of research to see which manufacturers use wood from well-managed forests. In the process, I also inadvertently settled that age-old debate in the musical fraternity: Gibson vs Fender. It turns out that the question of which of these two major guitar manufacturers is better actually has a pretty clear-cut answer, at least from an eco perspective (debates about playability, quality and tone rage on). […]

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