The ever-raging question, Fender or Gibson? Who is the king of guitars? Which company (or their design) is better? Whose cuisine reigns supreme? (Wait a minute, that last one's from Iron Chef... sorry). But all FoodTV shows aside, a very significant portion of guitars out there today are based off of one of Fender's or Gibson's designs. So, as we delve into the deeper aspects of this matter, keep an open mind if you are set on one company or another.
One point worth noting before I continue is that Fender and Gibson are not the only companies out there. There are plenty of good guitar makers in existence, like Ernie Ball/Music Man, Paul Reed Smith, Ibanez, ESP, and Gretsch, among the others. The reason why I'm comparing Fender and Gibson here is that they are the two most popular companies, and they vary so much. Also, this is a long-standing debate between the two.
I'm not going to go into the histories of each company (as my history on Gibson is a little foggy at the moment, hope that'll change soon), but basically, to understand and compare the companies, I will take note of all the prominent instruments made by each company, as well as their tonal characteristics.
Let's start with Fender, as they are first alphabetically. Today, the two most prominent guitars are the Stratocaster and the Telecaster, with the bass line consisting mainly of the Precision and Jazz basses. Fender also has classics of older models, like the Jaguar and Jazzmaster. Gibson, on the other hand, offers it's famous Les Paul, SG, Flying V, Explorer, Firebird, Electric Spanish (ES), and the Melody Maker. Both have a custom shop, as well as derivatives and classics of each model. Fender's tone has that famous, treble-y bell tone that is commonly associated with the Stratocaster as well as single coil pickups. Gibson, on the other hand, has a mellower tone highly related to humbucker tone, clearly exemplified in the Les Paul. Various elements go into the differences in timbre, such as the pickups, tone woods, body shape, and other various design differences. Gibsons are known for their warmer, crunchier (especially when distorted) tone whereas Fender has the bright, famous bell-like tone (the now famous Fender tone) achieved by single-coil pickups.
Fender's tonal qualities are mainly dictated by their body woods and the single coil pickup. Fender most commonly uses ash and alder, both of which give a medium, slightly bright tone as it is. Both woods are fairly light, producing Stratocaster bodies of about four to five pounds, adding to its appeal to Fender. Plus, both woods are commonly found in America and fairly inexpensive, making them ideal for production. The single coil pickup has the infamous 60-cycle hum (which oddly enough I've come to love as part of a vintage tone; I don't know why, it's just so cool) yet emphasizes brightness on Fender's guitars. The tone is best described as, once again, bell-like, and is the sound Fender is famous for. Stratocaster bodies were originally designed to compete with the Bigsby vibrato system, as well as add comfort with the body contours. Telecasters were derived from Leo Fender's original Esquire model, which had a single-coil in the bridge slot.
On the other hand, Gibsons are quite different. Gibson uses mainly mahogany for their bodies. Mahogany is a denser wood, offering darker tone and thick, warm, crunchy sound often loved by many guitar players. The Les Paul is quite possibly the epitome of the electric guitar, being the longest-made production model; Gibson began producing the guitar in the '40s. The SG came along in '61, as a custom version of the Les Paul. Because of it's small body, Gibson named it the Spanish Guitar (hence, SG). Gibson at first used the P90 design, which is basically a single-coil pickup, though it's not as bright as a standard single coil. P90s offer a much darker, smoother alternative to the standard single coil. Incidentally, Gibson developed the humbucker at the same time as Gretsch, and implemented said humbucker in 1957 with the Les Paul. Since then, Gibson's name has often been associated with America and classic rock n' roll tone. In fact, Geddy Lee of Rush once told guitarist Alex Lifeson that the only guitar he should ever play is a Les Paul, because it offers the best rock n' roll tone, in his ears. The ES model has made its place in music everywhere, from blues to jazz to classic rock; it offers slightly snappy tone and resonance with a hollow body, along with the mellow Gibson tone. The Explorer, although ahead of its time at first, has become a favorite among metalheads, and the Firebird and it's space age curves were designed by an automobile engineer.
So, finally, which is better? I'm going to say again what I have continuously said in the past. Which one is better is always subject to one's personal tastes. Whatever you like should be the one you should choose. If you like the classic bell-tones of Fender, choose them. Or, if you want that thick rock tone, follow Gibson.
Between the two, though, Fender has my vote. It's not only the tone, which I'll get into later. Whenever I see a Fender, even if it's not mine, something strikes a chord (no pun intended) inside of me; I feel inspired, and go to an intellectual place not attainable with another instrument. Whenever I pick up a Gibson, I don't get the same feel. Inspiration, to me, is key in choosing an instrument; if you don't feel that the guitar will portray what you want it to do, then chances are it's not the right axe. Although, I will admit that I sometimes do crave the Gibson tone, and that the Explorer is one of the most comfortable guitars I've ever played. But that's later in the article.
The Fender tone, to me, is uplifting and amazing; I love the clarity and brightness in a Stratocaster. If you look at any famous guitarist, chances are they either play or own a Fender. Also, my affinity for Fenders may come from my influences; when I first started playing, I was (and still am) into Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and The Edge (of U2).
There is a longing in me, though, that begs for the mellower Gibson tone at times. There has been more than one occasion where I wished I were the owner of an Explorer because of the feel and the classic Gibson PAF-tone. It sounds amazing where necessary, and can truly sing.
Though, there is always a part of me that will always love Fender, no matter what.
So who wins the battle? It's up to you. I say that you should go with what you feel, and for me that is Fender.
by Nikhil Deshpande