Why the Fender Stratocaster is better than the Gibson Les Paul.
Design and Ergonomics
The Fender Stratocaster has been described as ‘The Perfect Electric Guitar’, an exercise in form following function. Not a single element on the instrument is superfluous, everything has a purpose. The belly cutaway (for comfort), the 6-a-side tuners and straight string pull (to aid tuning), the location of the volume control (for volume swells) and double cutaways (for better upper fret access). The Fender Stratocaster is a tool, a machine, a sleek modern player’s guitar. Years ahead of it’s time, some say this futuristic design has never been bettered, even today, and that Leo Fender essentially ‘Got it right’.
In comparison the Gibson Les Paul is an old-fashioned ornament, style over substance, a uncomfortable (and much heavier) brute. A log.
A Strat cuts through a band mix like a knife through butter, simple as that, It just seems to be voiced in just the right frequency band. The analogy is the Les Paul is the tank, having to rely on volume and power to be heard. The Fender Stratocaster is more like a Ferrari. A precision engineered tool which cuts through gracefully in style by applying just the right elements.
In addition to this, we now move onto the Gibson’s achilles heel: The Clean Tone. As mention in part 1, the newer Gibson’s do have a few tricks up their sleeve with the coil-tap and phase switches, but you’ll never get a Fender clean on a Gibson, not even close. In addition to this, the signature ‘out-of-phase’ positions 2 and 4 on a Fender Stratocaster are even further out of the Gibson Les Paul’s reach. Unfortunately for Gibson, these percussive, clucky, out-of-phase tones are some of the most loved (and recorded) in history. If you’re thinking about doing anything that relies on great clean tones (country, funk, soul, disco), then your only option is the Strat.
A great recent example of this out-out-phase sound is Nile Rodgers on ‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk.
Yes, the Gibson has a flatter radius and looser string tension, which should technically mean it plays better than the Fender, right ? Well, in practice, wrong!
The thing is, although the flatter radius allows for a lower action, our fretting fingers don’t lie flat over the frets, they’re curved. In other words, the 9.5″ radius fingerboard on the Strat actually falls under the fingers more naturally, then the flatter Gibson radius.
The result of this, in spite of the potentially slightly higher action and string tension, is that the Stratocaster is the more natural, faster, fluid player. You can zip over the fretboard with ease, Just look at the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen (and long before him. the one and only Jimi Hendrix no less), one of the many technique-orientated players that have turned to the Strat.
Durablilty and Tuning stability
By design, the Fender American Series Stratocaster is much more solid and stable guitar the Gibson Les Paul, and here’s why:
- Headstock. The Stratocater’s neck and headstock is hewn from a single piece of hard rock maple, with no angle at all on the headstock. Contrast this with the softer mahogany of a Les Paul with it’s 17 degree neck angle, a well known vulnerable point. How many tales of broken Stratocaster headstocks do you hear about? None.
- Tuning. In addition to the above, the straight string pull on the Stratocaster combined with staggered height tuners and roller string trees virtually eliminates string friction. Contrast this with the way the strings are splayed out over the Gibson’s headstock. Also the bolt-on neck has it’s advantages stability-wise, too.
- Simplicity. The Stratocaster’s one piece bridge, as opposed to bridge + tailpiece on a Gibson means effectively less to go wrong and less to break on the Stratocaster, from a stability and durability perspective.
In summary the Fender Stratocaster is a famously stable and durable guitar, drop it by mistake. It won’t break. Now throw it on the floor, It still won’t break. Look at how Hendrix and Townsend abused their Fenders. Now try dropping a Gibson Les Paul on it’s headstock……. game over.
Versatility and adaptability
It’s true, you can’t make a Fender Stratocaster sound exactly like a Gibson Les Paul, they are just too different, but you CAN get part of the way there. That’s because the Fender Stratocaster, besides being the more comfortable guitar to play, it is, and always has been, the most versatile sounding. It’s a cover band guitarists dream, possessing a chameleon like quality that can span a much wider range of styles than the Les Paul could ever hope to. Percussive funk? it’s there, clean, positions 2 and 4. If you want bite, the bridge pickup will cut through anything. But there’s also a few humbucker-esque sounds in there too by backing off the tone of position 2 or 4 and adding gain. Clean, the Strat is unsurpassed.
In a gigging situation with a Strat, you have easy access to 3 pickups and 5 sounds as opposed to the 2 pickups and 3 sounds of the Gibson. The Strat’s layout is so intuitive too, with the single volume positioned right under you little finger, allowing for much easier volume swells and manipulation than a Les Paul. And of course, Let’s not forget that the Fender Stratocaster’s ace card, the patented ‘Synchronized Tremelo System’. If you have a Les Paul and the song dictates some tremolo arm technique you are bang out of luck. Fender have tweaked and honed the design of this tremolo system over the years and now it performs right up there with the best non-locking systems you can buy.
Price and resale value
The Fender American Series Stratocaster retails for around the £1000 mark, whereas the 2015 Gibson Les Paul Standard retails for just under double that.
What’s more, a current Fender American Series Stratocaster will hold onto it’s value, whereas the 2015 Gibson’s with their robot tuners, adjustable nuts and ‘holograms’ have already divided opinion and may not.
Looks and Desirability
To some, the Les Paul is the ugly duckling. old-fashioned, unwieldy piece of heavy furniture, in contrast to the nimble, iconic, futuristic 50’s Americana of the Strat. As mentioned before, the American Stratocaster is seen by some to be the definitive electric guitar, a product of the American dream, the blue-collar hero.
Gilmour, Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, Knopfler, Malmsteen, Blackmore. All Fender Stratocaster Players playing a variety of genres. They can’t all be wrong can they?
The Case for the Fender Stratocaster rests
The Fender Stratocaster is a better designed guitar than the Gibson Les Paul Standard. It has superior ergonomics, is lighter, is more stable/durable and plays better. Sonically it’s more versatile with classic clean sounds but also the ability to cover a wider range of musical styles. It can mimic Les Paul whereas the Les Paul can’t mimic the Strat
The Stratocaster is played and endorsed by some of the greatest players of our time, some of which, (including Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton) who have move over from Gibson. This has elevated the Strat to an iconic status.
Lastly the Strat is half the price of the Gibson, whilst incorporating more features (e.g. the Tremolo).
The Final Verdict
First of all, it’s worth mentioning again that I have owned and loved both guitars for different reasons.I’ve also argued the case for the Gibson Les Paul in another of my blog posts Why the Gibson Les Paul Is Better Than the Fender Stratocaster.I’ve tried to put across a critical, rational argument for each contender based on my own experience more than what I’ve read, but unfortunately there are still a number of contradictions which I will now clear up in this final verdict. I’m going to keep this very simple and break it down into what we all essentially care about as players……
Which Guitar plays the best? The Fender Stratocaster.
Which Guitar sounds the best (Clean) ? The Fender Stratocaster.
Which Guitar sounds the best (Overdriven) ? The Gibson Les Paul.
Which Guitar is the most versatile? The Fender Stratocaster.
Personally, I’ve constantly switched between Gibson and Fender, I once had a Gibson Les Paul that was not versatile enough and too muddy, so I switched to a Strat. Then I started gigging and the hum and thinness of the Strat bothered me, so I switched to a lighter Les Paul Studio for over 10 years. Durability and stability started to play a factor, so I experimented with various other makes/models before switching back to the Strat to try and make it work, but hankered for the sustain of the Gibson again.
If you’re playing mostly clean to mildly overdriven, the Strat wins hands down, whereas if you play from mildly overdriven to heavier rock/metal, the Les Paul clearly wins. I play mostly in the middle ground, a little clean, mainly overdriven + a bit of sustaining lead and the Strat has always been too thin/weak sounding for me here, which is frustrating as the Strat is clearly the better designed, more versatile and easier to play instrument with far superior cleans (and a tremolo). The overdriven Strat tones are clear and do cut, but, for me they just don’t naturally ‘sing’ like a Les Paul. Maybe I just haven’t got the time or patience to make a Strat work for me, or maybe I just can’t. so…..
The Winner (for me) is…….