I became a professional guitarist almost by default. I am a class-A guitar nerd, obsessed with the guitar in such a way that there was no other course of action but to play and be around guitars for a living. I love not only playing guitars but just looking at them as pieces of art.
Two guitars in particular that seem to get the most love and are two of the most popular brands in the history of the instrument are Gibson and Fender. There has always been brand loyalty around these two guitar makers that have a rivalry amongst guitarists not unlike Mac vs. PC, or New York vs. Chicago Pizza.
One thing that puzzles me, and maybe you, too, is the price difference. Even though they seem to carry relatively equal market share, demand equal respect, and they both produce some of the most iconic sounds in music, Fender usually comes out cheaper – sometimes significantly cheaper. What gives?
Fender vs. Gibson – A Brief History
Fender was founded in 1946 by Leo Fender and in 1950 they unveiled the first mass-produced electric guitar. The guitar was known as the Telecaster. 1954 saw the emergence of the Stratocaster. The Tele and Strat have been Fender’s signature dishes ever since.
Orville Gibson founded Gibson back in 1902. It was the year 1952 that Gibson came out with their first solid-body electric guitar, the Les Paul. Other guitar models followed such as the Flying-V and SG and saw great success as well.
Okay, so Fender was first to the electric guitar game with their Telecaster. Les Paul, who was one of the biggest pop stars at the time, received one from Fender. They were hoping for his endorsement. After all, the guy was selling out shows and his face was the front of all the magazines.
Well, Les Paul declined. Instead, he went to Gibson and told them to make an electric guitar like the Tele, otherwise, Fender would take over the world. Gibson did just that, responding with the Gibson Les Paul which had a richer warmer tone and had enough power to blow out an amplifier to the point of creating distortion – something neither Fender or any other electric guitar could do at the time.
Recently in an article from Business Insider, Ian S. Port, author of “The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll”, said that rock and roll guitar players now had a choice: “They could sound like Fender, or they could sound like Paul.”
Fender dominated in the 50s, but then Gibson took over in the 60s thanks in large part to Eric Clapton. Fender had a big comeback thanks to Jimi Hendrix, who made the guitar Gibson’s equal in the rock and roll sound. Hendrix’s impact was such that Eric Clapton actually switched to Fender.
Thus the rivalry was born.
Fender vs. Gibson Quality
It all comes down to materials and methods. Gibson had been making acoustic guitars and mandolins for half a century. They essentially used the same meticulous techniques when they started producing electric guitars.
Fender, however, designed their guitar with mass production in mind. With this method, the process has to be optimized for maximum efficiency as opposed to the tedious detailing of a custom-made instrument.
The typical Gibson electric guitar is made from a single piece of carved Mahogany. Fender uses a cheaper wood – either ash or alder – and is laminated using two to three separate pieces.
A Gibson neck will have a mahogany neck with an ebony or rosewood fingerboard on top with mother-of-pearl inlays. A standard Fender guitar will use a single piece of maple with a less expensive synthetic dot for an inlay. The Gibson neck will use an angled, set neck as opposed to Fender’s quick and easy bolt-on neck.
Along the fretboard and body, Gibson will often use a binding to go along the edges which is a complicated and time-consuming process. Fender does not use binding.
You can really feel these differences if you go to a music shop and just compare the weight of the two instruments. Gibsons Les Pauls are significantly heavier than the Fender Telecasters or Stratocasters. One of the main consequences of that difference is that the Les Paul is famous for its sustain.
Another reason for the differences in price can be noted in the electronics assembly. On a Gibson electric guitar, the electronics are soldered in place inside a cavity of the solid body. Fender electronics are pre-assembled on the back of the plastic pickguard before being dropped into the guitar. This is a much easier, quicker method which makes the process cheaper and the guitar less expensive.
Pickup construction is also more expensive on a Gibson Les Paul than a Fender Telecaster. Fender Teles use a single-coil pickup whereas Gibson uses a double-coil known as a humbucker. These are more expensive to make due to the added complexity of the double coil and the added time for extra winding.
The solid mahogany body and set neck of a Gibson makes the finishing process much more complicated and difficult, requiring the finishing to take place in one shot. Fender electrics can have their necks and bodies finished separately prior to assembly. The Alder bodies of a Fender will require less filler than the more open-pored mahogany of a Gibson.
All of that said, there are Fender guitars that will splurge on materials just as there are Gibsons that will skimp. There are custom-made Fenders and there are mass-produced Gibsons. However, generally speaking, the Gibsons will come out more expensive due to the more expensive materials and time-consuming methods used.
Let’s look at two different examples. We can start with a classic Fender Telecaster and Gibson Les Paul made in the same year: 1959.
First, the Fender Tele. A typical Tele from the early part of 1959 with a maple neck and fretboard, a “top loader” bridge, “lipstick” single coil pickups, and alder body. Today, one of these will fetch between $13,000 and $20k+.
The 1959 Gibson Les Paul has a mahogany body, rosewood fingerboard on top of a mahogany neck, and a couple of high output humbuckers. These bad boys will top $100,000 today.
Now, both of these guitars are in Holy Grail conversation. Collector demand and the regulation of Mahogany these days, of course, drives these prices so this comparison may not be entirely fair. If we compare the prices of 1959, the Telecaster was around $247 while the Les Paul was more like $300. In today’s US dollars, that is about $2196 and $2667 respectively.
A side note, in the latter part of 1959, Fender started using a slab rosewood fretboard on some models and the price increased up to about $265.
Fast forward to present day, let’s use the more popular Stratocaster with the still popular Les Paul.
In 2020, a new American Strat Ultra has either an Alder or Ash body (just like the 50s and 60s) depending on color choice, a rosewood fingerboard, maple neck, and new noiseless single-coil pickups. Add a few other little bells and whistles and a polyurethane gloss and the total comes to $2,000.
A new Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘60s has a mahogany body with a maple top, mahogany neck, and rosewood fingerboard. Sound familiar? Different from the Fender, this guitar is finished with nitrocellulose lacquer. Two humbuckers round out the sound and we get a price tag of about $2500.
Compare those two examples. Similar price differences and similar specs. Today’s guitars will feature a few changes like modern electronics, upgraded hardware, and more creative finishes.
Guitar makers harken back to the old days and have done so for many years. After all, if it ain’t broke…
But the price isn’t always indicative of how well something performs or sounds. It really is all about the preference of the individual player and what sounds are the most appealing. Price is simply an indicator of how much time it takes to make the guitar and how much the raw materials are.
The best way to judge to is to pick up a few of these babys and try them yourself. You may find you fall into one camp or the other, but you might just be a certified guitar nerd like myself and love both. I just don’t tell my Fender when I decide to play my Gibson. Shhh.