Nuances of different electric guitars
The electric guitar is probably the paramount symbol of American culture, at least during the height of the Pax Americana. Everything from rock and roll to 'acoustic' jazz had the electric guitar (the 'acoustic' refers to the bass and piano), and every player was dying to get their hands on one. Many manufacturers and companies around the world, including CBS, tried to cash in on that at various points. However, the majority of the innumerable brands out there today base their products off of the designs of two classic builders: Fender and Gibson.
If you're considering investing in an electric guitar, chances are, the model you have your eye on is somehow related to something created by one of these two brands. Wether your guitar heroes are Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, or John Scofield; an axe with your name on it is out there. It's probably based off of one of the following makes/models:
1a.) The Fender Stratocaster
The Strat is probably the most easily recognized, well known guitar, where even Aunt Betty recognizes it and has some story relating to it. Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, and many others have all used this classic guitar. The alder or ash bodies have a unique character, with people using the term 'bell tones' to describe it. Ash has a more visible grain to it, and the highly figured bodies of the 50s and 70s were made of ash. Alder has a tighter, less visible grain, which was seen in the strats and teles of the 60s.
Three pickups give a huge amount of possibilities for tone, and in positions 2 & 4 (where 2 of the 3 pickups are on) the term people use to describe the sound is called 'quack'. A single electromagnet for each pickup, hence the term 'single coils', is also a huge part of that sound. In positions 2 & 4, a coil facing north/south and a coil facing south/north are both active. Hum cancelling (see below) is possible with most modern strats and teles.
Stevie Ray Vaughan's renditions of 'Little Wing' and 'The Sky is Crying' are often referred to as quintessential strat tones.
1b.) the Fender Telecaster
Not as aesthetically flashy as its younger sibling, the Tele does have a bit of an overlap in tone with the Strat. Having the strings feed through the body into the bridge and the lack of a vibrato bar (misnamed as a tremolo bar by Fender) greatly increases the resonance, as well. Although generally associated with country music, the string-through body construction generates thick tones people often assume are coming from a Gibson. The guitar solo on 'Stairway to Heaven', 'The Immigrant Song', and all of Led Zeppelin I were recorded on a Telecaster. Guitar players from The Police, The Clash, and The Rolling Stones all preferred teles as well. The way they're wired, and having 2 pickups, it's possible to have both on at the same time, creating a very unique out of phase tone.
2a.) The Gibson Les Paul
Les Paul was not only a remarkable jazz musician, but also pioneered the art of multi track recording. Before him, you put one mic in a room with the band. By the 60s there were albums with dozens of different tracks for different instruments, and a mic on every piece of the drum kit.
Les also pioneered the idea of a solid body guitar, which greatly reduces the feedback encountered when playing jazz boxes at high volumes. The Les Paul was simply his signature instrument, like so many other great jazz guitarists (and players of other styles) had before and after him. The body was solid mahogany, a dense, heavy wood with a tight grain. Mahogany enhances bass frequencies, so to counter that they were (and still are) topped with maple, to enhance more treble as well. There was also a Les Paul SG model (for Solidbody Guitar) that did not meet Les' approval, and his name was dropped and it simply became the SG.
The Les Paul also featured Gibson's newly patented humbucking pickups (the most highly sought after models have the earliest version of the pickups with the 'patent applied for' sticker on them, or PAF's). A guitar pickup is basically an electromagnet, an alloy of aluminum, nickel and cobalt (Alnico) surrounded by thousands of turns of copper wire. They are susceptible to noise, though, particularly from neon lights; but even bad wiring can create uncomfortably audible levels of 60 cycle hum. An engineer working for Gibson in the 50s named Seth Lover had the incredibly insightful, simple idea of adding another coil with the magnet's poles facing the opposite direction. The pickups with two magnets, one north/south, the other south/north, effectively 'bucked' the hum.
2b.) The Gibson ES-335, 345, 355 family
It was not necessary to have a completely solid body guitar to eliminate feedback experienced by jazz boxes. Simply adding a block of wood to the center of a hollowbody also greatly reduced feedback (I read an interview with Ted Nugent, arguably as terrible a guitarist and songwriter as he is a human being, where he said he stuffed a t-shirt into his hollowbody). The wooden version of this modification was done to the ES-330 (ES stands for electric Spanish guitar) and became a very popular line of Gibsons played by everyone from Chuck Berry, BB King, and Eric Clapton to Larry Carlton (aka Mr. 335), Warren Haynes, Bob Weir, and Dave Grohl. The 335, 345, and 355 model numbers indicate aesthetic appointments; with the 335 having the least of them.
Mahogany bodies with maple tops and humbucking pickups (though there were models with Gibson's single coil P-90 as well) make for a thicker tone than Fender, they do still have the unique woody quality of sound that full depth hollowbody guitars have.
3.) Comparison and contrast
By and large, the Fender tone is very different from that of what Gibson does. They're far different than Coke and Pepsi's rivalry. These are two very different manufacturers of two very different products for the same market.
The ash and alder used in strats and teles is very lightweight, accentuates high end, and is referred to by it's fans as 'bell tones', 'quack', 'spank', and other odd terms. In my opinion, the best part of the strat is the lightweight contoured body, which makes practicing for hours on end or playing a never ending gig very comfortable.
Those who aren't fans of the alder/ash single coil construction methods complain that the guitars sound too 'thin', too 'brittle', and that they lack bass. They complain about lack of sustain as well( which I believe is something easily remedied the right amplifier).
The Gibson lovers champion the 'growl' of the humbucker/mahogany combination. They love the sustain the instruments get naturally through the dense wood and overall construction. The bass frequencies enhanced with the mahogany are great for hard rock, and the woody tones of the semi hollows can easily be used on jazz, blues, and rock gigs.
The detractors hate how heavy the mahogany gets after a long gig. They complain of the muddiness of all the bass due to the mahogany. Gibson's headstocks are 2 pieces of wood glued together at an angle and break easily, especially on the Les Paul (google 'Les Paul headstock repair').
The standard scale length of Fender guitars is 25.5", for Gibson its 24.74". Again, people love it or hate it; or don't particularly care. The Fender scale makes a punchier, snappier sounding instrument. But some people say the strings feel tight. The Gibson scale feels a bit more 'slinky' with a more rounded tone. Paul Reed Smith uses a 25" scale, which I've found pleasing since it does make playing chords with wide ranges a bit easier. Additionally, it doesn't make one's hands feel cramped in the upper register.
4.) All the other guys
By the 1970s, poor management resulting in declining quality at both Gibson and Fender created a market for cheaply made, but very high quality imports. Mainly from Japan, these guitars even had the logos made to look like the Fender and Gibson logo from a distance. Eventually, there was a lawsuit and the foreign manufacturers were bought out.
The builders who weren't acquired began making instruments of their own style, but rooted in the traditions established earlier in the 20th century.
Ibanez, for example, went from making very good knock offs to being a force to be reckoned with in the guitar world. George Benson, Pat Metheney, Joe Pass, John Scofield, Steve Vai, and Paul Gilbert all have signature instruments. They vary from traditional jazz boxes to shred metal superstrats (typically a 24-fret, strat style guitar with humbuckers).
After Leo Fender left the Fender instrument corporation he went on to found Music Man and then G&L, who both make very high quality Fender-like guitars for less cost.
A few Gibson luthiers went rogue and started their own company called The Heritage, again, offering very high quality instruments for less money than what a similar Gibson model would cost. Gibson decided to move the factory to Nashville, but these guys said 'no way'. Guild and Gretsch also build very high quality guitars similar to what Gibson does, and have been around just as long. Imagine the guitar market today if Clapton wound up with his hands on a Guild Starfire rather than a 335 during his Cream days; or perhaps a Jazzmaster rather than a Stratocaster.
Paul Reed Smith gained notoriety as a luthier when Santana started playing his guitars in the 80s after leaving his Yamaha endorsement. The goal of PRS was to combine the greatest aspects of a strat and a Les Paul; including a halfway mark between their scale lengths, as mentioned above.
5.) Gear Acquisition Syndrome
If you've taken your search for the right tone this far, you obviously care a great deal about the instrument you're considering investing in, the money that you'll spend, or both.
Think of what tones inspire you the most, and find out what that guitarist was playing, on that specific part of that specific song. There is probably something comparable that's within your price range.
Aesthetics is a very important thing to consider, given you're going to look at this thing every day for a very long time. I recommend going with sunburst/natural finishes first, then get the metallic blue/red/green/purple guitar. But my first good guitar (MIJ strat from 1984-ish) was metallic blue, and it never bothered me. Yet, I hate candy apple red (why am I like this???). Ultimately you know yourself.
Like it says in the tag line of all my blogs-- I prefer strats, but if money were no object I'd have 3 or 4 of everything. What I love most about strats, as I said earlier, is the contours which make them very comfortable to play for a long time. The loss in bass is more than made up for by the fact that it's comfortable to have it strapped around my neck all day. Another thing to consider is how a good amplifier (perhaps the subject of a future blog) can make up for tonal limitations of a guitar. Despite what the set-neck mahogany crew will argue, I have gotten infinite sustain from a guitar with a bolt-on neck.
A great amp can make a decent guitar sound great, and vice versa. Then get your effects in the right order (see my effects pedals blog), and you're on the way to recreating the tones that inspired you; as well as learning to create your own voice on the instrument. The infamous scene in spinal tap with all of Nigel Tufnel's guitars starts to make sense: you won't get SRV's tone on little wing with a 335 through a vox amplifier, but that'll get pretty close to John Scofield's post-'A-Go Go' tone. This song needs a clean tone semi hollow sound with a vintage style phaser.. This song would be great for a tele bridge pickup with tone knob rolled down.. Get them all, a sunburst and custom color for each guitar.. Amps all behave differently, need a few options in that department.. Effects do so much, it's good to have that option... Go for it. Treat yo self.
In all seriousness, tone comes from your fingers. David Gilmour played a Les Paul on 'Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) plugged directly into the mixing console (it was re-amped through one of his amplifiers, though. Stevie Ray Vaughn played a 335 on an album he did with his brother. Hendrix was playing a Gibson Flying V towards the end of his life. They all still sound like themselves. And, any of those guys could pick up a ukelele and make it sound amazing. There's an old joke about the musician blaming his equipment for the poor performance. Don't be that guy. Don't think having the same guitar as your favorite guitar player will mean you're as talented as them.
Remember that learning music is 10% talent and 90% hard work.
Adam Douglass has been playing guitar for 25 years and teaching for a good 20. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York where he is an instructor; and plays with his band doing his original music, jazz standards, or whatever other gigs might come his way. His guitar of choice is the Fender Stratocaster, though if money were no object he'd have 3 or 4 of everything. He prefers tube screamer-like overdrives and clean boosts, with touch of analog delay. Hit him up at firstname.lastname@example.org, as he is always happy to discuss interesting topics.