Gibson vs Fender
And In This Corner…
Gibson lovers - who will nearly go catatonic at the mere hint of a beautifully carved top with just the right stripe and hue.
In the opposing corner...
Fender fans who believe their choice of six string razor is the ONLY choice that qualifies one as a knockout guitar player.
The ongoing Gibson vs Fender debate is an eternal part of our guitar aficionado community.
Anyone who gets bitten by the guitar bug will develop a burning fever for a particular manufacturer. It's an entirely subjective and intensely personal choice that resonates with their musical senses.
In this case I've singled out the two most prominent players specifically in today's guitar market.
These two massive brands have been as much a part of the history of rock and roll as the iconoclast guitarists that played them. But overall, does Gibson or Fender win this age-old fight?
- Who has superiority?
- Who’s guitars are better?
This article will examine the differences between the two brand's most iconic models that have made each the go-to guitar for many of rock's most famous personalities and inspired guitar enthusiasts for decades.
One of the biggest topics in any Gibson vs Fender debate are the signature tones that emanate from two guitar brands. And of course, any discussion on their respective tones wouldn’t be complete without reference the type of tone woods used to construct the instruments.
Starting in the 50s, Fender started using pine and ash. Here’s a superb example of one of the best values on the market today that captures the essential sound that first originated from a small factory in California; a Squier Classic Vibe 50’s Telecaster by Fender. Take this modern descendant, make some modest upgrades and you have a killer tone time machine.
While pine was certainly light and cost effective, ash gave Fender guitars its signature sound: light, bell-like and relaxed, yet twangy when the player desires that effect. This is due to the malleability of ash wood, which added to the easy feel of Fender guitars. In the 50s and 60s, Fender also experimented with alder wood.
Gibson, on the other hand, primarily uses mahogany for it’s solid bodies, a much denser wood. This contributes to the thicker, warmer tones of models as the Les Paul Standard. Gibson also uses maple tops on these guitars which imparts a crisp, light sound. When mixed together, they produce the familiar Les Paul sonic footprint.
While Gibson may have been first of the two to be an instrument builder, time, production methods and market stratification have leveled the playing field for both companies dramatically.
Orville Gibson’s original vision was to create an aesthetically beautiful superior built instrument, a mandolin, that reproduced the sound he wanted.
Leo Fender on the other hand needed to sell amplifiers so he developed a guitar that was cost effective, serviceable and user friendly for the average working musician of the day.
Here's a really cool vintage video tour of the fledgling Fender Plant in Fullerton:
Totally different approaches, and yet the build quality of each company’s guitars remain more or less on par with each other by today’s production standards. Using state of the art machinery, they are both capable of producing stunningly superior guitars.
Structurally, the major difference would be Gibson's set neck design compared to Fender's bolt on style. Obviously one is more mass production friendly than the other.
Conversely, a more hands-on approach to marrying neck to body will require more attention to detail, but at a higher cost.
You can't have a good Gibson vs Fender debate without discussing pickups, the engine of any electric guitar.
The two companies differ in the type they use.
Fender uses single coil pickups such as these Original Vintage Telecaster Pickups, which give the user a raucous sound heavy on the treble. These guitars are great at showcasing the instrument’s natural bell-like tone for which it is famous. The Fender Telecaster was descended from Leo Fender’s Esquire model, which featured a single coil pickup in its bridge slot.
Gibson guitars are known for their humbuckers such as the Gibson 57 Classic Plus Humbucker
, a pickup that features two coils attached by a magnet. They “buck the hum” by not picking up nearly as many stray frequencies and unwanted tones as the single coil variety. The signature Gibson humbucker tone is a dark and relaxed sound that help give the Gibson Les Paul Standard it’s warmer, thicker tone.
The Guitar Body
Gibson models such as the Gibson Les Paul Standard only has a single cutaway. Some players will find access to the upper frets a bit of a challenge because of the massive neck joint. The benefit is in solid sustain, but you have to work for it. Suck it up buttercup.
In terms of weight and feel, the Fender Standard Stratocaster is lighter than your typical Gibson which conversely, tend to be considerably heavier due to the mahogany. Built for comfort, the Strat also has a tummy cut, nicely rounded contours plus two cosmetic cutaways on its body which allows for easier access to the guitar’s higher notes.
For guitarists who are uncomfortable with the extra weight, Les Pauls are a huge turn-off but...
Regarding (over) weight issues, the seventies were renowned as a decade for putting out substandard product on both accounts. Fender was using body material which was not within it's normal specific gravity tolerances. Some of the instruments were so heavy they could stay in the ring with a Les Paul any day.
Many players who have smaller hands like the thinner neck profile of the Fender Standard Precision Electric Bass, Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster. Some players also like Fender’s old school vintage 7-1/14″ radius fretboard, which has a slight curve to it.
The typical Fender neck being made of maple also adds a particular brightness to the overall tone.
Fans of Gibson models such as the Gibson Custom ES-335 like the increased width of the neck, the woody tone from the neck’s mahogany construction and the flatter 12″ radius which makes for easier note bending.
It's important to note that original 50's necks, particularly Gibsons, were not just pumped out of a CNC machine. They were each hand carved by very skilled craftsmen who were careful to stay within tolerance but still imparted that random human element.
The resulting neck profiles still had a wide range from instrument to instrument. Do yourself a favour and keep that in mind the next time you're discussing a specific "50's" style neck profile :)
With respect to the original incarnations, the advantage has to go to Fender whose models such as the Fender Precision Bass and the Fender Strat can often be less than half the price of a Gibson Les Paul or a Gibson 335.
In the 80's, Gibson released it's dressed down Les Paul Studio series, subsequently re-released in 2013, in an attempt to keep prices more in line with the competition.
Historically, both companies have tinkered with budget friendly, cost effective models to capture market share.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Custom Shop and signature models like Gibson’s Custom Aged Ace Frehley “Budokan” Les Paul Custom – only $10,000.00 plus…
or Fender’s Custom Shop David Gilmour Stratocaster Signature Series that will command considerable premium dollars – only $5000.00 and up.
Hey, wants a couple of bucks between brands right? You can’t take it with you.
So Which Brand is Better?
Whoever you want it to be.
I know, how anticlimactic is that...
The better guitar is determined by what you're looking for in your axe. If you want the bright, bell-like, powerful sound that has catapulted legends such as Eric Clapton and Ritchie Blackmore to stratospheric heights, go with Fender.
If you want the mellow tone that has defined the sound of rock and roll since it’s inception, go with Gibson. Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi sure did.
Whichever corner of the Gibson vs Fender ring you stand in, just know that the right guitar is whichever one makes you a better player.