We do seem to enjoy introducing a competitive element to our love of guitar music; which of two famous guitarists is the most god-like, which was the greatest solo of all time, the best riff, and so on. Value-judgements abound, and we can get just as combative about the guitars they, and we, like to play.
Guitar giants Fender and Gibson continue to compete for our affections and tweak the jewels in their sizeable crowns, with the Fender Elite Series Stratocaster representing, arguably, the most advanced production version of Leo Fender’s 50s masterpiece to date, while Gibson’s recently revealed 2017 Les Paul line-up looks set to help move the brand, and their most famous model, forward from the mixed-review offerings of recent years.
These supposedly ‘rival’ products, the Strat and the Les Paul, were both designed over fifty years ago and still command tribal loyalty and healthy worldwide sales. Few other industries could hold-up products that have survived, let alone thrived, so long in the market place despite remaining largely unchanged in design (and there are many other examples, from Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Riceknbacker et al).
But can the two six-stringed objects of desire in question be meaningfully pitted against one another? One strand of guitar-tone folklore opines that a Strat lets you sound like yourself, whereas a Les Paul makes you sound like… a Les Paul. It would seem likely this incendiary opinion was originally formed by someone with a strong subjective preference for the F-word over the G-word, and the counter argument could be that great players sound like themselves, pretty much whatever guitar they’re playing.
That said, legends have their origins and in fairness it is astonishing to think that Hank Marvin, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour and Nile Rogers all use (or used) basically the same instrument. I have picked these four as Stratocaster-playing examples purely because their music is so recognisable – you can just hear that it’s them, whether or not you are familiar with the track you’re listening to – and because they are so different from one other; no one could mistake Nile’s playing for Jimi’s or vice versa. Start adding in, to taste, Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Rory Gallagher, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson and many others, and you have a veritable smorgas-fret-bord (apologies) of guitar greats.
At first it seems harder to reel-off Les Paul players with anything like that variance of styles and tones. Certainly Slash, Gary Moore, Paul Kossoff and, of course, Jimmy Page spring to mind, but then how about Steve Jones of Sex Pistols fame? Reggae-Mesiter Bob Marley? Fleetwood Mac founder and post-Clapton Bluesbreaker Peter Green? Suddenly we’re building another vertical of six-string royalty. Are their tones as diverse as their Stratocaster counterparts? Perhaps not, but then at which point did versatility become the marque of a great musical instrument? Admittedly I don’t frequent violin blogs, but I doubt the Stradivarius gets judged thus; or those Rhodes and Wurlitzer one-trick-ponies over in pianoland. There is no necessary correlation between the versatility of an instrument, and the quality of the music played on it.
Inevitably, this now turns even more subjective, but to my humble ears the Gibson guitar sound delivered by the Sex Pistols’ Jones on the cultural game-changer Never Mind The Bollocks, was just fine. Actually it was perfect. Equally it would have been a travesty to have changed a single Fender-enabled note of Gilmour’s playing on Floyd’s mesmeric Dark Side Of The Moon. Surely the magic comes from that combination of musician and instrument, interacting with the other band members in that room, in that mood, on that particular day?
And when you listen to a classic guitar part, riff or solo, does the versatility of the instrument matter? We may like to hear variation to keep our interest through an album or live gig, but overall we like to hear a player’s signature tone, and that, in turn, to best serve the track. Most Slash and Nile Rogers fans would probably be disappointed if the two swapped guitar sounds for Sweet Child O’Mine and Le Freak. The truth might simply be that only the player knows if what is coming out of the speaker is what they intended, sonically and emotionally.
Can the Strat and Les Paul be made to sound like each other? There are ‘jobs’ that each of these guitars can do which the other can’t; obvious examples are the picky out-of-phase Strat tones found in positions 2 and 4 on an appropriately wired 5-way pickup selector switch (think Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler) and the ultra-thick’n’gutteral Les Paul refrains of, say, Mick Ronson during the early Bowie years. Also the tremolo bridge on the Strat offers enhanced possibilities in the hands of players like Jeff Beck, but even then, Gibson have offered Les Pauls with Bigsby vibratos (maybe not quite as player-friendly but hands-down winner in the retro-aesthetic stakes!).
One interesting point here is what happens when you install a humbucker at the back of a Strat, a much-loved mod datable back to the late seventies (Eddie Van Halen and Robbie Robertson were two early exponents). Rather than end up with a compromise between the two classic axes, you actually have a new sonic palette; edgy, growling but brighter and zinger than the Les Paul. Not better, just different. Similarly the occasional Les Paul has been offered sporting single coil P90 pickups; another great-sounding combination, but nothing like a Strat.
Of course a myriad of signal processing tricks can be employed to get somewhere near to cross-mimicry. I think we guitar players forget our relative good fortune at having so many tone-mangling options at our service. Obviously this extends far beyond instrument and pickup choice, into amps, pedals and software. Anyone who has played in a function band will know the joy of this versatility – the feeling of calm when seeing an Oasis song next to a Sister Sledge dance classic on the set list – but tight set-up time or a cramped stage can necessitate compromise. And the central question remains; why do you want the musical instrument you’re holding to sound like a different one? The answer usually comes down to convenience, budget or both. Wouldn’t we all, in an ideal world, have two or more instruments to turn to for those seismic style changes?
Those fortunate to spend some, or all their time, making their own music, will possibly have found their signature instrument – their go-to weapon-of-choice (cue the clichés; ‘extension of yourself’ etc.) but there is something to be said for the familiarity of a long term relationship with a musical instrument. Others will prefer the ‘arsenal’ approach and will own a range of instruments which inspire them in different ways on different days, or perform different duties in recording or gigging environments.
Either way, the Les Paul and Strat have provided tone, attitude and credibility to countless musicians over the past six decades.You may have a preference for one over the other depending on your playing style and the sounds you like to make, or you may be fortunate enough to own both, and enjoy each for the inspiration they provide. They are two wonderful, and different, musical instruments.
So let’s take a quick look at an example of each – the very latest incarnations of these iconic instruments – more by way of celebration than comparison.
The Fender Elite Series Stratocaster
Familiar features include a 25.5″ scale length with choice of maple or rosewood fingerboards, an alder body with gloss polyurethane finish plus a two-point synchronized tremolo. The overall aesthetics remain true to Strat lineage too, although there are some cool new colours available.
Closer inspection reveals some significant changes. The Elites have a compound radius fingerboard (this means it flattens out as you move up the neck, making soloing and string-bending easier). This is nothing new, but these models also have a compound neck shape – flattening from a ‘C’ to a ‘D’ shape to add to upper-register comfort and speed.
Flip the guitar to see the neck heel has been reshaped, giving better access to the high frets. This redesign has resulted in an asymmetrical four bolt neck-plate.
Locking tuners have meant Fender can keep the string posts short on the Elites, meaning better string-angle to the nut.
The fourth generation noiseless pickups are Fender’s finest yet. It has been a long battle to reduce the inherent noise problems of single coil pickups whilst retaining the tonal characteristics Strat players crave. Previous incarnations have tended to accept a degree of compromise between the two, but these sound the part and do a good job of reducing hum, if not quite living up 100% to the ‘noiseless’ tag.
The controls look traditional enough from a distance but close-up you’ll see Fender’s S1 switch built-in to the master volume control. This does different things across various models, but on the Elite Strat it provides a whole array of new tones by using series/parallel signal path, phase and Fender’s ‘No Load’ tone circuit. For example, there’s a setting where you can have all three pickups growling at once, impossible on most previous Strats.
The controls are also rubberised, improving grip for those who like to tweak while they play.
The Elites have replaced the American Deluxe Series in the Fender range. Other options include an HSS version, equipped with a Shawbucker humbucker in the bridge position.
The Gibson 2017 Les Paul Standard HP
Gibson’s high-end 2017 models are offered in ‘T’ (Traditional) or ‘HP’ (High Performance). The HP, like Fender’s Elite, is the modern evolution of the core model, with a classic aesthetic disguising some innovative new features.
Gibson have also played around with the neck heel shape on the 2017 flagship models, giving better access to the high frets. The guitar sports chrome hardware and an exotic AAAA-grade maple top on a mahohany body, with extra weight relief to make this lighter than many Les Pauls, and a 24.75″ 22 fret compound radius fingerboard with asymmetrical slim-taper neck profile.
The ‘HP’ model includes cutting-edge features like the G-Force automatic tuning system, a zero-fret with adjustable nut and titanium saddles.
The bridge is an aluminium TOM (Tune-O-Matic) with titanium saddles. The guitar is powered by a pair of high-output Burstbucker pickups with push-pull controls for coil-taps, splitting and phase reverse, plus a 5-way DIP switch for treble bleed and transient suppression – all in all a veritable gaggle(?) of tonal options.
So there’s a glimpse of what these two classic guitars have evolved into. Traditionalists should probably look at the new ‘T’ models in the Gibson range, and check out the Classic and Tribute models, which give more than a nod to the Les Pauls of the 50’s and 60s/70s respectively. Similarly vintage Fender fans might want to check out the American Vintage range of faithful repros from bygone years.
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