In the 20th Century, a thunderous storm was brewing in the world ofguitarmusic, a storm so fierce that it would result in a great war between two iconic rock figureheads: the luthiers Leo Fender and Orville Gibson.
As to a quick bit of history, it goes like this. In 1898, Orville Gibson developed and patented a mandolin acclaimed for its durability. Its success allowed Gibson to sell his instruments out of his workshop in Michigan under the name ‘Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Co. Ltd’. However, Gibson died in 1918 of endocarditis.
The following year, Lloyd Loar joined the company and developed the L-5 acoustic guitar, but he would ultimately leave in 1928. In 1936, under the stewardship of Guy Hart, the Gibson company introduced their first electric guitar, the ES-150. The Guy Hart era of the company is recognised as the pivotal moment in Gibson’s history, as they introduced a wide range of new electric guitars, including the Super 400.
In 1948, Gibson hired a new President in Ted McCarty after Chicago Musical Instruments had purchased them. McCarty oversaw the design and release of one of the most iconic electric guitars of all time in the shape of the Les Paul, which had been named after a famous 1950s musician.
Over the next 20 years, several Gibson guitars that we know and love today were released, including the ES-350T, the Explorer, The Flying V and the SG. Gibson also created their Tune-o-Matic bridge system and a new version of the humbucking pickup system, which would stick around in the decades to come.
As for Fender, they began in 1938 in California, under Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender and his ‘Fender’s Radio Service’ company. They repaired radios, instrument amplifiers and PAs, amongst other technologies. In the early 1940s, Fender began designing and repairing instruments, starting with a Hawaiian lap steel named the Champion. Leo Fender was convinced that manufacturing instruments was more profitable than repairing them, though his business partner, Clayton Orr ‘Doc’ Kauffman, was not so sure. Leo Fender split ways with Kauffman and re-established the company as the ‘Fender Electric Instrument Company’.
Throughout the ’40s, Fender experimented with several different electric guitar designs, such as the Broadcaster. However, their maple necks tended to bow in hot weather, so Fender decided to add a metal truss rod to the neck to alleviate the issue. The resulting design was named the Telecaster and was the first mass-produced solid-body guitar released in 1950.
Moving into the ’50s, Fender developed the first mass-produced electric bass (the Precision Bass) and some soon-to-be iconic electric guitars such as the Stratocaster and theJazzmaster. The latter had been intended to capture the attention of the jazz scene with its revolutionary vibrato system – though the surf-rock movement would primarily adopt it in the early 1960s. It should be noted that Fender tended to use a single-coil pickup system, as opposed to Gibson’s humbuckers.
Soon, however, jazz, surf-rock, country and doo-wop were replaced by the most significant genre of music ever to grace the earth: good old-fashioned rock and roll. This new sound would serve as the battleground where the war for the best guitar manufacturer would occur.
In the classic era of rock and roll in the 1960s and ’70s, it appeared that several renowned guitarists were using Fender or Gibson guitars. On the one hand,Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix used Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, while Jimmy Page, Duane Allman andBilly Gibbonstended to use Gibson. That’s not to say that Gibson players did not experiment with Fender guitars and vice versa; it’s just that it appeared that certain guitarists had a preference. When we close our eyes and picture Jimi Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth, it’s with a Stratocaster, not a Les Paul. Equally, envisioning Jimmy Page, we see him pulling his violin bow across a Les Paul, not a Tele.
The difference at the outset appeared to be versatility against the search for a specific tone. The humbuckers of the Gibson models lent very well to the distorted tones that had begun to dominate heavy rock. However, hearing a deliciously clean tone from the Les Paul or the SG was rare. By contrast, the Stratocaster could do it all, as endorsed byJeff Beck. It could play the lovely, jangly clean tones found in surf rock but was also more than adept at dialling in a dirty sound with the aid of a fuzz pedal or the gain dialled up on an amplifier.
The next set of distinctions came in the 1980s and ’90s after the initial wave of rock had matured somewhat, and the tone vs versatility divergence raged on. With the advent of indie rock, a clean tone was desired. Few guitarists are as tied to a brand as the legendaryJohnny Marr. The Smiths guitarist most regularly used a Fender Jazzmaster, played through the cleanest of amps – the Roland Jazz Chorus – with a generous amount of reverb and an arpeggiated style that could only be his own.
Meanwhile, the birth of ’80s metal came to town. Naturally, its guitarists sought out the heaviest sound they could, which tended to come from Gibson – although, by that point, other manufacturers had begun to specifically cater to the metal scene, such as Ibanez, Jackson and PRS.
Some specific guitarists exemplified this tone/versatility contrast all on their own, none more so than U2’sThe Edge, who is equally conceivable with a Gibson Explorer in hand as he is with a Strat or a Tele. It all depended on which tone the sonic artist was going after. Even to this day, when U2 play live, Edge enviously swaps guitars after pretty much every song to achieve a specific tone – though admittedly, it is with the aid of an extensive set-up of effect pedals and rack units.
Later in the ’80s, the distinction continued to grow, with Jerry Cantrell of metal/grunge heroes Alice in Chains opting for Gibson. At the same time, his contemporary, Kurt Cobain ofNirvana, found a preference for Fender. Although Nirvana also played undoubtedly heavy music, Cobain also required a clean tone from time to time, which is most likely why he used Fender, as did Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins in the early ’90s.
Then, as the ’90s wore on, amazingly, rock music was still going strong, some 40 years since the advent of the Beatles, though it was now being delivered in either innovative or nostalgic manners. For example, Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar models had been keenly adopted by the ensuing ingenuity of the shoegaze scene, none more so than byMy Bloody Valentine’sguitarist Kevin Shields.
It could be argued that the genre immediately following the dreaminess of shoegaze was Britpop, and one band, in particular, served as the seamless bridge between the two. It was the psychedelically influenced Wigan band, The Verve. Their guitarist Nick McCabe would readopt the tone Jimmy Page and Co. had found in the 1960s with a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amplifier stack. It’s a tone utterly suited to filling out arenas and letting go.
This tone was later taken up by Oasis’Noel Gallagher, arguably the biggest ’60s revivalist since the 1960s. Gallagher’s Gibson-influenced style largely dominated the Britpop sound, but again, this was contrasted by their Britpop Derby rivals, Blur, where Graham Coxon tended to opt for the clean, jangle-friendly versatility of Fender.
All of this is to say that, ultimately, both Gibson and Fender are absolute monoliths of the guitar manufacturing world in their own right. It’s not accurate to say whether one is better than the other – though, as pointed out above, they both have stark benefits over one another.
Another aspect is that whether you prefer Fender or Gibson largely depends on your upbringing. My first guitar was a Stratocaster copy; it was comfortable and easy enough to play. When I graduated onto a ‘proper’ guitar, I opted for a Telecaster because it had a wide neck and was just so comfortable, having grown used to Fender’s designs. By contrast, when I’ve played friends’ Les Pauls and SGs, I have admired the tone and the craftsmanship (not to mention the cost), but they always felt alien to me, and I couldn’t really find a groove on them.
So the battle is likely to rage on. Fender and Gibson are, without doubt, the two big bullies in the guitar manufacturers’ playground. However, Gibson filed for bankruptcy in 2018, leading to rumours that they had seized production of their guitars, so their future stranglehold over the smaller guitar brands remains to be seen. As for Fender, their future looks bright, consistently releasing new models at each year’s NAMM show. Our recentInstagrampoll also showed that 66% of our readers preferred Fender to Gibson.
While the future of rock music is cast into doubt with hip-hop, rap and pop’s dominance in the marketplace, the only thing to suggest is to pick up one of the damn things, regardless of its brand, and get riffing.