Design Icons: The Gibson Les Paul & Fender Stratocaster

The Gibson Les Paul & Fender Stratocaster: probably the two most iconic guitars in the world. Photo by Christopher Bowley. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Go into any musical instrument shop and you will be literally spoilt for choice by the plethora of guitars available, and to the uninitiated that choice could be overwhelmingly confusing. Dozens of manufacturers from all points of the globe offering solid bodies, semi-solids, laminates, composite bodies, hollow bodies – and that’s just the structure. After that there are numerous types of wood to choose from including ash, poplar, ebony, maple and mahogany; not to mention the exotic hard woods introduced over the last thirty years. Woods with names like bubinga, sapele and zebrawood. Styles of bodies like cutaways, double cutaways, jazz models, arch tops, flat tops, and both six and seven string varieties: the list goes on and on. But going back from the 1950s right through to the 1970s however, things were a lot easier, and for a long time the battle for ultimate electric guitar supremacy had only two real front-runners.

Headstock signature on a Gibson Les Paul model. Photo by Jamie Pfister. Licensed by Creative Commons.

It is generally understood that the inventor, or maybe the perfector of the solid body electric guitar was Jazz master and electronics innovator Les Paul: one of the few people whose brilliant, long and distinguished career as a musician was almost eclipsed by his own design. The Les Paul guitar was a collaboration between Les Paul and Ted McCarty, an experienced guitar designer and Vice President of the Gibson Guitar Corporation based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The nature of this collaboration has been hotly contested over the years, with McCarty playing down the amount of input Les Paul actually had in the design. But once their most famous guitar was named the Les Paul, it was always going to be associated with only one man.

Historically musicians began experimenting with ways of making their instruments louder as a consequence of the big bands coming into vogue in the 1920s and 1930s, and swamping the relatively quiet acoustic guitarists with a deluge of brass instrumentation. When microphones came into use, it was only a matter of time before guitarists became restless with merely placing them in front of their guitars. They soon snatched them up and found ways of attaching them directly to the guitar. Early telephone transmitters were fitted to instruments in a bid to get some volume. This practice was not the most effective as it often caused horrendous feedback due to the resonance of the hollow bodied acoustic guitars. Although Rickenbacker, Epiphone, Audiovox and many other guitar manufacturers developed their own brands of early electric guitar, it fell on the shoulders of Les Paul and Leo Fender to develop the first commercially successful solid bodied electric guitars.

Gibson Les Paul model with typical twin humbucking pickups for powerful, ‘fat’ sound. Photo by Dineshraj Goomany. Licensed by Creative Commons.

The impetus of the Les Paul/Gibson collaboration was partly due to the immense success that Leo Fender’s company had been having with its Telecaster guitars. Leo Fender worked out of an electronics repair shop in Fullerton, California, where he repaired and then began designing amplifiers and pickups. With his partner Doc Kaufman, the story goes that they built a crude test rig for their pickups which was heard and soon borrowed by local country guitar players who liked the clean sharp sound it gave. Leo Fender saw the potential and began perfecting his own brand and design of electric guitars loosely based on other models on the market at the time.

The original or prototype Les Paul guitar was nicknamed ‘The Log’ and constructed from a 4×4 inch piece of pine with a neck attached and developed on a kitchen table in Paul’s apartment in Queens, New York, where he almost electrocuted himself on at least one occasion in the process. Les took his ideas and prototype to Gibson and together they created a legend. In only a few short years both Les Paul and Leo Fender had perfected and went into production with their two very different but equally iconic instruments.

The distinctive ‘hockey stick’ headstock of the Fender Stratocaster: here a 1976 model. Photo by Freebird. Licensed by Creative Commons.

While Les Paul worked with established guitar manufacturers Gibson, Leo Fender already had a background in manufacturing amplifiers for musicians and he went into production himself. The  guitars he made were of a more modular design than Gibson’s Les Paul model, and were developed with mass production and easy repairs in mind. Where the Les Paul had exotic curves, an arched top and seamless glued in neck to give it endless sustain, the Stratocaster was basically a flat ash body with curves cut in at the back (known at the time as the “Comfort Contour Body”) coupled with a screwed on maple neck for ease and speed of assembly. The woods chosen and the pickups used were very different, giving each model their unique tone and  placing the guitars in very different sonic landscapes.

The Stratocaster was developed out of Fender’s first forays into guitar production. From the Esquire model to the Telecaster and then on to the Stratocaster, Leo Fender’s guitars improved organically. The design of the Stratocaster worked so well because of several factors all coming together at once. The artistic design took references from the styling prevalent at the time with American automobiles: long curves, exuberant fins, space-age lines and utilised bright automobile laquer colours from Dupont which screamed for attention. The relatively thin body, three single coil pickups and the floating sprung tremelo bridge gave the Strat a unique sound, full of tonal possibilities.

The classic 3-pickup/ 5-way control layout of the Fender Stratocaster with floating, sprung tremolo bridge. This is a ‘lefty’ in a typical bright blue paint finish. Photo by Duncan Brown. Licensed by Creative Commons.

The Les Paul guitar by comparison was a little more traditional in its construction; its single cutaway echoing the Jazz guitars of earlier decades. It was a quality instrument from an established musical instrument manufacturer and was more akin in lineage to a violin or mandolin in its aesthetics. The combination of solid body, glued-in neck and strings mounted on the body rather than through the body gave it a quality tonal range that was deep and rich with endless sustain, while P90 and humbucker pickups supplied unprecedented power. Although originally available in Gold Top and then Custom Black, Gibson developed a wide range of coloured and natural finishes to fit a wide range of prices.

Throughout the history of Jazz, Blues and especially Rock and Roll, guitar players could often be separated into two camps: those who played the Fender Stratocaster and those who played the Gibson Les Paul. Some players would have dalliences with both guitars over the years, but most stayed loyal to one or the other for their signature sounds.

Gibson alumni included Jimmy Page, Gary Moore, Slash, Paul Kossof, Marc Bolan, Frank Zappa and Mick Ronson. The Fender camp was represented by Hank Marvin, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Blackmore, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Robert Cray, Rory Gallagher, Bonnie Raite, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Mark Knopfler.

All of the these artists produced magnificent and often ground-breaking music over the years, but in all cases it’s safe to say that the instruments they chose to play often inspired and influenced the way they played and the music they produced. Much of the history of Rock music indeed, belongs to these two design icons.

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