Gibson vs Fender: Who makes a better guitar? The iconic Gibson Les Paul or a versatile Fender Strat? Maybe even a Tele? Here’s to the eternal debate…
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.
It truly does seem to be a boxing match, and the ongoing Gibson vs Fender debate is an eternal part of our guitar aficionado community.
Who Has Superiority?
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 we’ve singled out the two most prominent players specifically in today’s guitar market.
Who’s Guitars are Better – Gibson or Fender?
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?
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.
Tone Wars – Fender vs Gibson
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.
In the very early 50s, Fender started using pine and ash. By 1952, the Telecaster had come into it’s own and can be purchased, basically unaltered in design to this day.
One of the best values on the market today that still captures the essential sound that first originating from a small factory in California is the Squier Classic Vibe 50’s Telecaster. Take this modern descendant, make some modest upgrades and you have a killer tone time machine.
Read our full Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster review here.
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 its 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.
As with their Fender counterpart, the Epiphone Les Paul has taken up the reigns as the more affordable version of the classic Les Paul.
Read our full Epiphone Les Paul review here.
Both companies were built on the backs of their namesakes who came from an entirely different era of manufacturing.
While Gibson may have been first of the two to be an instrument builder, time, production methods and market stratification have levelled the playing field for both companies dramatically.
Whether we like it or not, corporate decisions now reign supreme when it comes to continually producing instruments, or developing new products, or determining what gets to market and what does not.
With the now infamous, and very hard to watch, Firebird X destruction video released, you have to wonder why a major manufacturer would do such a thing. Especially hot on the heels of their Chapter 11 debacle.
Is it really quality control? Or a publicity stunt to create a new “buzz” for the company.
Orville Gibson’s original vision was to create an aesthetically beautiful superior built instrument, a mandolin, that reproduced the sound he wanted.
What would he think of his beloved company today?
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.
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.
Here’s a really cool vintage video tour of the fledgling Fender Plant in Fullerton:
The two brands use very different approaches to instrument structure, 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.
Typical Fender and Gibson Pickups
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 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, 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 its warmer, thicker tone.
For more on choosing a great pickup for your own guitar, read our helpful Best Guitar Pickups Guide here.
The Guitar Body
Typical Gibson Design
Gibson models such as the Les Paul Standard and it’s more affordable Epiphone sibling only have 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.
Typical Fender Design
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.
Weight of the Instrument
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.
Neck feel can be very subjective. But one constant remains a critical determining factor – fretboard radius.
Many players who have smaller hands like the thinner neck profile of the Fender Precision Bass, Telecaster or Stratocaster, and related Squier models. Some players also like Fender’s old school vintage 7-1/14″ radius fretboard which has a tight curve, or the updated 9-1/2″ and 10″ radiused counterparts.
The typical Fender type neck being made of maple also adds a particular brightness to the overall tone.
Fans of Gibson and Epiphone models such as the ES-335 design, 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 :)
Fender vs Gibson Guitar Price Points
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. Genuine Fender products can be in the range of the the high hundreds, whereas traditional Gibson products easily breach the mid-teens.
But the times do change.
Realizing they had to produce more cost-effective instruments, Gibson released it’s dressed down Les Paul Studio series in the 80’s, subsequently re-released in 2013, in an attempt to keep prices more in line with the competition.
Subsequent releases such as the “Faded” series have helped to level the playing field for Gibson in general.
Furthermore, entry level instruments from the Epiphone and Squier brands respectively, and highly commoditized, often cost less than a couple hundred dollars or so. They do serve their purpose as not all players wanting to pick up the instrument can afford the best right out of the gate.
Historically, both companies have tinkered with budget friendly, cost effective models to capture market share.
What’s Old is New
More recently, Fender has released a “new” line of instruments under the VINTERA label. But aren’t they really the same instruments with new lipstick?
What really hasn’t changed is the learning curve for the instrument. To one-up Gibson, Fender now offers an online guitar lessons lessons service to help foster new players – brilliant.
Historically speaking, both companies are guilty of trying to sustain their presence by re-introducing tried and true iconic instrument designs over time – but at what cost?
How Much, is Too Much?
Have a few bucks to spare? Both brands have put out plenty of extraordinary instruments at the top end of their manufacturing capabilities:
At the high 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.
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 Hendrix, 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 its 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.