Why the Gibson Les Paul Is Better Than the Fender Stratocaster

Introducing the Heavyweight Contenders

In the left corner we have the Gibson Les Paul, and in the right we have the Fender Stratocaster. For comparison let’s not mess about with the myriad of different versions and go for the latest versions of each Standard USA model. E.g the 2015 Gibson USA Les Paul Standard and the 2015 USA Fender American Standard Stratocaster. Both champions, but which one is better ? Firstly the case for the Les Paul…….

2015 Gibson Les Paul Standard

1. Scale length

The Gibson has a shorter scale length to the Fender, meaning looser string tension and therefore easier playability, particularly on bends. You also have the option of upping the string gauge to 10’s or 11’s which’ll give you an even bigger tone and more stable tuning, whilst still being manageable. With the Strat higher string tension means you have less options as a higher gauge becomes unplayable, so you have to compromise your tone by using lighter gauge strings to save your fingers.

2. Construction

The Gibson Les Paul is constructed with ‘tone woods’ e.g a thick slab of mahogany with a maple cap and a glued in mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard. On the flipside the Fender Stratocaster features a thinner alder body with a bolt on maple neck and choice of rosewood or maple fingerboard. The Gibson is ‘crafted’ using the finest materials in the traditional way. On the other hand the Fender is bolted together just like any budget guitar you care to mention.

In fairness to Fender the Stratocaster was designed to be easily constructed, easily upgradeable and serviced, which is why the Fender feels more like a ‘tool’ and the Gibson more like an ‘instrument’.

Guns ‘n’ Roses: November Rain Solo

Dire Straits: Brothers in Arms

3. Tone/Sustain

Because of the construction, a Gibson Les Paul Standard with it’s more powerful humbuckers will out-sustain a Fender American Series Stratocaster (and just about anything else) all day long, with no single coil-hum. Note’s wont die out on you like on a Strat so you can be as expressive as you like with a bit of overdrive. A Gibson Les Paul bridge pickup is your archetypal bread and butter crunch/rock tone that can take you anyway you want it to for rhythm/lead applications. It’ll punch through with all the authority you could want. And with the neck pickup the classic ‘Woman Tone’. Nothing else can pull off the classic ‘November Rain’ solo.

Manipulation of the volumes/tones gives wide palette of textures. Listen to ‘Brothers’ In Arms’ and ‘Money for Nothing’ by Dire Straits. A masterclass in Les Paul volume/tone manipulation by Mark Knopfler.

With a Strat, you’ll be constantly trying to emulate these tones, you’ll be piling on the overdrive, experimenting with pedals, pickups, strings, setups, and end up with a noisy thin unusable facsimile of the real deal.

The Fender Stratocaster needs work, patience, modifications, time, experimentation, and outboard gear to get it to sing, The Gibson Les Paul just sings.

Some will say the Gibson Les Paul’s tone is too dark and/or full sounding, too indistinct, not clean enough and with not enough cut, but as you can see in point 5, most of the Les Paul range now incorporates coil-splitting options, so now you have access to thinner, brighter tones if need be.

4. Issues with the Fender Stratocaster

Here’s a list of problems associated with the Fender Stratocaster that you’d never hear about on a Gibson Les Paul.

  • The Bridge Pickup is too Bright. Although the newer Stratocasters have a solution to this in that the tone control is now wired to it and can also be bypassed.
  • The Neck Pickup sounds like a ball of wool. Under gain and with a tone setup to tame the bridge pickup, the neck pickup as a result becomes very woolly.
  • Single Coil Hum. Not a problem on the Humbucker equipped Les Paul. Fender’s ‘solution’ to this are the hum-cancelling positions 2 and 4, which forces you to use these clean friendly positions when gain is applied. Obviously the bridge pickup would benefit from hum-cancelling the most as 2 and 4 mush out under gain anyway.
  • String Breakage. Higher string tension and less break angle over the bridge leads to more breakages.
  • Control’s are easily knocked while playing. Get carried away on a strat and rest assured the volume will get knocked.
  • Impossible to create a stuttering affect with the volume. Only one volume control on a Strat as opposed to the Gibson’s two.
  • Not enough output. You’ll find a lot of players replacing the single coils with higher output humbuckers or single-coil sized stacked humbuckers to try and emulate the Gibson sound. Why not just buy a Gibson?

5. Control Layout and Tone Options

As mentoned above. even though the Gibson Les Paul has one less pickup, the control layout of volume and tone for each pickup is a lot more versatile than the Fender Stratocaster, Here’s why:

  • Ability to setup 2 distinct, switchable tones with the tone selector. E.g, a rhythm/lead tone with two different volumes.
  • Ability to create a stuttering affect. Turn one pickup off and rapidly switch between them. This effect is used on many records (e.g. Down by the Tubestation by the Jam). Impossible on a Strat.
  • Kill switch. Similar to the above, Just turn one pickup off.
  • Other hidden extras. A newer feature of Les Paul Standards is the ability to achieve single coil tones via coil-taps, an out-of-phase setting and a ‘blower’ setting on the bridge pickup where (similar to old Strats) the pickup is wired directly to the output jack to give the purest tone possible.

6. Setup

The 2015 Gibson Les Paul Standard had a compound radius fingerboard of 10″– 16″, whereas the Fender American Series Stratocaster has 9.5″. In other words the Les Paul has a flatter radius neck, which becomes even flatter towards the higher frets. A flatter radius equates to a lower action and better playabililty. On top of this Gibson utilizes a ‘plek’ machine when setting up new guitars, meaning the action is setup as low as possible.

7. You get what you pay for

Look at workmanship and features on a Gibson Les Paul Standard compared to the cheaper Studios, Epiphone’s etc. You can tell the difference in quality.

Now look at bewildering array of Fender and Squier Stratocasters. Yes the American Series is the standard, but the difference in quality is much narrower here. Rumour has is that even old ’80s Squiers were on a par with USA Fenders at the time. This says a lot

Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) with a Gibson Les Paul Standard

Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) with a Gibso Les Paul Standard

The case for the Gibson Les Paul rests.

In summary, the Gibson Les Paul has better playability, construction, sustain and tonal options than a Fender American Series Stratocaster, but none of the problems. You’ll try and emulate the classic rich sustaining Les Paul sounds on a Stratocaster but I’m afraid you’ll never get there with a maple bolt-on necked guitar with single coil pickups designed to be produced quickly and easily modified.

I know, because for 20 years I’ve tried.

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