In the political world you have republicans, and you have democrats. In automotive circles you have Ford people, and you have Chevy people. In the fishing world you have those who prefer inshore fishing, and those who are fans of off shore angling. In the guitar world, you often have two opposing legions. Stratocaster players verses Les Paul supporters.
It is, of course, not all black and white, and there are always off-shoots in any discipline. Politics has its independents, cars have Toyota and Honda fans, anglers have fly fishermen, and guitarists have Ibanez, PRS, Yamaha and more.
But quite often, the world revolves around two opposing forces, day verse night, high tide verses low tide, summer verses winter – all with varying degrees of “in-betweeness”. Back in the day, when I first started playing guitar, the picture was much clearer. If you played rock and roll, you were either a Strat guy or a Les Paul player. Nothing else would do.
To the un-trained eye these two guitars have quite a lot in common. They both are hunks of wood with six strings, that plug into an amplifier to make music. But to the guitar aficionado the differences are many. Some of the comparisons that can be made between the Strat and the Les Paul involve differences in:
5. Amp Compatibility
1. Tone – The first most apparent difference between the two guitars lies in the tone that each produces. A Les Paul “sounds” distinctly different from a Strat. This is largely due to the pick up configuration, that we will cover next, but the Les Paul tone can be described as a more “meaty” of thicker tone, and the Strat as a “sweeter” of thinner tone.
2. Pickups – A Strat pickup configuration typically consists of three “single coil” pickups. These pickups are known for producing that “sweeter” tone that many players prefer. The Les Paul normally has two “humbucker” pickups. Each humbucker pickup is, in essence, two single coil pickups put together. Humbuckers are a higher output pickup and result in more distortion, hence the meaty or thicker tones. The Strat comes stock with a five-way pickup selector switch, the Les Paul comes with a three way (See our article “Playing Guitar and the Pickup Selector Switch”). Because the Strat has three pickups it is capable of producing five distinct tones through adjustment of the selector switch. The Les Paul, with two pickups, is capable of three distinct tones.
3. Feel – Play the two guitars and you will immediately feel the difference. The fret board of a Strat typically has a more “rounded” or contoured shape. The Les Paul fret board is typically more of a flat plane. The pluses and minuses of the two can be argued, depending on who you are talking to, but most would agree that the feel of both is decidedly different. In addition, Stratocasters often are produced with either a rosewood fret board or a maple fret board. The darker rosewood has a slightly different “feel” and produces a bit of a thicker tone favored by many rock players, and the lighter colored maple fret board has a bit of a thinner tone preferred by many country players.
4. Weight – The difference in weight between the two guitars is considerable. In my early days as a touring musician, I was a Les Paul guy. I spent many years with a Paul strapped on my shoulder six nights a week until the discomfort from the weight became nearly constant. Then one night, on a lark, a fellow band mate let me play his Strat on a gig. It felt like a feather on my shoulder compared to the cinder block of the Les Paul, and I was instantly hooked on Strats.
5. Amp Compatibility – Many consider the perfect marriage in tone to be a Strat plugged into a Fender tube amp. There is an unmistakable “clean” tone when these two are put together that is instantly recognizable. Although Fender amps are not usually known for great distortion, a good stomp box is a common cure, and worth the sacrifice for the ultimate clean tone. Conversely, the Les Paul is often paired with a Marshall tube amp for the ultimate distortion tone. Favored by many guitarists from heavy metal to hard rock to grunge, the Les Paul / Marshall combination is often considered to be rock and roll “nirvana”.
Other differences between the Stratocaster and the Les Paul include floating verses fixed bridges, differences in headstock shape, volume/ tone switch placement, body shape and contour, and input jack placement.
All these add up to generations of loyal followers of one style and design, or the other. Which is better, the Stratocaster or the Les Paul? Who knows. It’s all a matter of personal taste and preference. Talk to ten different guitar players and you’re liable to get ten different answers, and all of them are right!
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