Please explain today's Gibson and Fender guitar lineup?

OK, so I used to play guitar a decade or more ago. I’ve recently taken it up again, using a couple of old guitars I never got rid of, and have bought minor things like picks and cables and and such, some of it online. So, now I get a zillion catalogs from Musicians Friend and Guitar Center and such, which I like to call Guitar Porn.

Back in the day (late 70’s, early 80s), my recollection was that there were 3 or 4 Les Paul models out there (ignoring Epiphone and Melody Makers), and maybe the same for Strats. Today, my Guitar Porn catalogs lists no less than thirty models of Stratocasters, and a lesser, but similarly large number of Les Pauls models.

Can someone give me the basics on the Strats (ignoring Squire) and Les Paul varieties? It seems to me there are some number of “artist” models, and some really basic models, and then a huge, undifferentiated variety beyond that. Starting with Strats, we have several “American Vintage” (of various years) models, “Standard”, “American Deluxe”, yadayadayada. The prices range from $399 (“Standard”) to kSomeVeryLargePrice.

On the Les Paul side, the plethora of models is less severe, but still kind of nuts. Gibson seems to still relegate the <$1000 range to Epiphone, but there are still like 20 models of Les Pauls, from just above $1k up to $6000. Les Paul has always been a prestige instrument, so I know some of this is intentional, but jeezus.

What the hell is the difference? Are the number of models so numerous just to avoid comparison shopping and confuse buyers? Are there really quantifiable differences between the mid-range models? Is it mostly fit and finish and different paint jobs? Are there any usefulness or quality levels at all between the midrange models in each line, or is it just chaos marketing? Were there some rational steps in the improving the product line in the 80’s or 90’s that resulted in this many models, or is it all a matter of the manufacturers throwing a bunch of guitars out there and seeing what sticks?

Think of all the different ways that a manufacturer might alter a guitar without changing its basic configuration, and you’ll have some idea why there are so many varieties available.

Just for starters, you could change:

Neck shape and wood type
Fingerboard radius and wood type
Nut type and composition
Fret size, profile and composition
Body wood type
Type and number of pickups
Type of electronics
Type of bridge
Type and color of finish

with each category containing dozens of possible options. That’s a lot of potential configurations.

Since many players will feel the urge to customize their axe, it only makes sense for guitar manufacturers to try to capitalize on the need by offering lots of choices, instead of forcing their customers to get their needs met via either the aftermarket, or a competing guitar manufacturer.

As an illustration, and in answer to you question on the basic differences, check out this Stratocaster webpage. Click on any guitar, then scroll down and click on “specs”. Compare these to the specs on all other guitars, and what do you see? Endless variety!

Capitalism at its best. :slight_smile:

Sure, fine, its all buyer-wanted options. Stipulated.

Except, its not. Maybe its just me, but it seems like the very purpose of all the models is to intentionally obfuscate their differences, and perhaps nudge someone past the middle ground to the more or most expensive instruments.

I mean, jeez, if I buy a car, there are usually 2-3 basic models, and you can add things to it if you buy it new. If you buy a used car, its really pretty basic to understand what model and options you’re looking at.

For guitars, it seems completely backwards. Its as if there were 30 models of an Accord, all with different names (Accord Standard, Accord Custom, American Standard Accord, 60’s stickshift Accord, 80’s blond ashwood Accord, Accord Monolith, Accord WTF™, Accord Backfire, Accord InYourFace Custom VPedals, yadayadayada)

How the hell does a buyer make sense of this model insanity?

:: post snipped::

Well, part of the reason for the insanity is that guitar makers, in the past, changed options on the guitars from year to year. So a 1962 Strat and a 1963 Strat* might have very different necks or pickups or might have a different type of wood for the body. There are also style changes which can affect the sound, for example the headstock on the 70’s strat is larger than on other years which not only looks different but will affect the tone, balance and all sorts of other things. Check the size of the headstock on this guitar vs. this guitar.

So there are a ton of options that can be tweaked. But instead of ordering a Strat with a C neck, alder body, with a large headstock you order a 19whatever strat which came with that setup. Kinda dumb but there ya go. There is also the fact that vintage guitars are highly sought after and command big bucks. So the makers are making reissues of older models to cash in on this.

As far as the available options driving up the price, some of the options which cost more do sound different (I won’t say better, it is a taste thing) than the standard models. The wood used for the body can make a huge difference in tone. Some wood is more expensive than others of course.

Note, I just know the basics, maybe Wordman will pop in with better info than I can give.


*I’m not a huge gear head, the years 1962/63 are used for example only, for all I know they are exactly the same. But you get the idea.

This would take a long time to play out, and they change regularly - either by changing model designations/features to keep things fresh, or based on the outsourced, offshore manufacturing contracts that F and G maintain and move around.


  • Lowest = Squire; typically made in China or Indonesia. You can find maybe 1 in 100 that is decent; most are noticeably more toylike or off somehow.

  • Next = Fender Far East; says Fender but made in China or Indonesia or Korea. You can find maybe 1 in 25 - 50 that is decent. In the old days, the original Fender Japan were FAR better vs. the U.S. made and that rep somehow lingers a bit…some Fenders made in Japan for the Japanese market remain great.

  • Middle - Made in Mexico MIM - typically $400 - $700 depending on the model. You can find maybe 1 in 15 that is pretty decent. Some of the Teles are great - there is a model called a Baja Tele that has a great reputation and typically goes for about $600 - they have a medium neck that has a bit more beef vs. standard necks…

  • Lowest Topline = U.S. Standard - what folks think of when they think of U.S. Fender. You can find maybe 1 in 10 or so that is really solid (granted, the worst one of these is much better than the lower-grade models except for the MIM ones…)

  • From here there are various grades that get up to true Custom Shop which start in the few thousand dollar range. Every one of these guitars should basically play themselves, but I have come across some dogs…

There is acres more detail, but that sketches it out.

  • Lowest = Epiphone by Gibson; some can be surprisingly great but on average maybe 1 in 20 or so is decent

  • Next = Gibson Standard Series, I think - you really have to tell by price point: if it is lower than $1000 (maybe $1500) then it uses lower-grade, chambered wood for a typically solid-body design like a Les Paul, etc…

  • Next = various Historic (now called VOS for Vintage Original Spec) which can range from $2000 to $10,000 plus depending on how limited the edition was, whether it was relic’d by Tom Murphy, etc…

The late gun guru Jeff Cooper used to comment that gun manufacturers made new gun models not because they did anything new or useful or different, but to create dissatisfaction with the guns currently owned by their customers. That is, to create a desire for a new gun when there was no objective need for one.

Guitars are like guns in the sense that once you own a really good one of a particular class (solid-body electric, acoustic, etc.) you really never need another one. Some players may feel that they need a Fender and a Gibson electric, some may feel that they need a Gibson acoustic and a Martin, but having one high-quality guitar in each category pretty much takes care of your practical playing needs for life. So, at the high end of the electric market, we have Fender and Gibson trying to create demand among a group of people who already have what they need. The population of people who can pay over $1000 for a guitar is not huge. I think that the proliferation of high-end Strats and LPs is an attempt to persuade this population to buy something they really don’t need. I believe that sleestak is correct that many of these guitars have features of or are deliberate recreations of vintage models whose prices have become prohibitively high.

In the low to mid-range market, I find Fender much more confusing than Gibson, and I have given up trying to understand what they are doing. Between the Squier brand and the various Fender levels of Strat, I don’t know how consumers are supposed to figure out whether they are getting value for their money.

Gibson has always made a lot of Les Pauls. Juniors, Studios, Recording, Standard, Special, and Custom have all been around for a long time. I think that Gibson has done a fairly coherent job of offering guitars in their Epiphone line which mirror the Gibson line at decent quality and low prices. I own an Epiphone ES-335 ($400) which plays and sounds (to my hands and ears) as good as the $2000 Gibson version. I recently played an Epiphone EJ-200CE which was made in Indonesia. It played like the Gibson version, the fit and finish were flawless, and it sounded great.

Both companies have reissues and player signature models which, in my opinion, continue the trend toward creating demand among consumers who pretty much already have what they need, although these lines also give the companies a chance attract new high-end buyers to models which are slightly to extremely more expensive than their standard high-end models.

In response to a couple of things Wordman said:

In my experience, Fender’s Squier brand started out as a decent line of cheap, playable guitars. They have since deteriorated to cheap, nearly useless guitars. Most of the newer ones I have played would not even stay in tune. My experience with Epiphone has been much better. Leaving out the question of wood quality (humor me, Wordman), the Epiphones I have played have all been playable, usable instruments which sounded good to my ears. While I expect that tone experts would find that Epis don’t sound as good as their more expensive Gibson counterparts, I think that many players would find them indistinguishable. I wish that such high quality cheap guitars had been around when I was learning to play.

I find no argument with anything you say, Crotalus. You have to be careful with an Epi - the bodies are basically multi-part; I call them “sophisticated plywood” - so the variation is there and a bad one is bad - but as you say, a good one can be really good. I pulled a $99 Epi LP Junior off the peg at Guitar Center about a year ago and thought it totally rocked. And I would love to find an Epi 200 to check out like you were able to play…

With Fenders - I agree with the Squire assessment; hence my “1 in 100” statement above. The MIM Fenders are much closer in quality and price point vs. the bulk of the Epi by Gibson line and represent a fairer comparison in terms of being the common-man’s Chevrolet vs. both companies’ middle-tier US main lines and their “Cadillacs,” namely their Custom Shop models…

Is this the kind of thing where there are tons of models according to the manufacturer, but Guitar Center only carries ten of them so those are the only real models? And then if you want something a bit different, then you order a variant.

I think this indirectly brings up something missing in the OP. You can have a couple of guitars with exactly the same spec’ and one will sing and the other just plunk.

You don’t (if you’ve got any sense) buy a guitar the way you buy a car or a washing machine. You may know what neck dimensions, pickup configuration and finish you want but you don’t just take the first 50s neck sunburst Strat on offer, you want to try a load of guitars and wait for the one that says ME! And that might turn out to be a Tele or something even less Strat like.

Spot on. Versions of the exact same model can vary widely - sometimes due to the parts used, sometimes due to the hand-done aspects of assembly, sometimes due to basic quality of fit and finish. And sometimes just due to your personal preferences…

OK, thanks guys. This is really helpful information. comments:

Crotalus: Agreed, Fender is much more confusing. If you’ve given up trying to understand their lineup, I feel that way walking in. I’d like to buy a new instrument, but this kind of intentional obfuscation is driving away from the brand, and toward good second-tier makers like Ibanez. Point taken on the number of Les Paul models historically, but it still seems pretty weird on the Gibson side, but I agree that its much worse for Fender.

Wordman, I’ve heard you and others previously talk about some of the Fender guitars “leveling” based on where they’re made, and thanks for the summary above. What I find confusing is that Fender for the most part doesn’t say which instruments are made where, whether Far East, MIM or otherwise. With possibly the exception of “American” Stratocasters, but its not clear to me that that means they’re really made in America or not. How do you tell?

Small Clanger, point well taken re two models of a given guitar not being the same. I know, this is wood we’re discussing, so naturally there is variation.

My gut says that some of the Fender variants are made, a) just to create demand (per Crotalus, above) and b) to make it very hard to comparison shop. If one dealer carries an “American Standard” strat @ $1099, and a different one carries an “Americal Special” @ $1199, and each shop doesn’t carry the other model, how does someone compare them? Arguably, they’re different guitars (at least in name), so Joe Consumer can’t go in the other shop and argue that shop A’s prices are better, because there’s nothing or little to compare.

But, really there seems to be model insanity for its own sake as well, if for no other reason to take as much “shelf space” as possible and squeeze out other brands. Again, this is just a gut-level opinion.

AFAIK, you can check the front or back of the headstock and the neckplate (the metal plate used to bolt the neck onto the body for Fender-type guitars) - those places should have a “Made in XXX” on them somewhere.

Beyond that, **Crotalus ** is right - manufacturers are always coming out with New! Improved! Just Different Enough to Make You Think You Need it! variations of models. There is no easy way - ultimately you have to dive in and get to know what you like and what to look for.

  • a good friend of mine who is a long time player and knows exactly what he wants loves finding great MIM Teles and buying them for a song - he feels some are up there with the top stuff Fender makes - well, after he messes with them a bit once he gets them home…but he knows his stuff.

  • there is the “Harley” factor - sometimes you just feel better about having the right label on the guitar. Some folks don’t want a Squire because it doesn’t say Fender or an Epi Les Paul because it’s “not a Gibson” - you have to be square with that in your own head - some folks can get past that, and others can’t. Know which you are.

It is tough to know what to do without investing time yourself or getting someone you trust who knows their stuff to help you out, no doubt about it.

I’ve recently been shopping for guitars, and I must have tried out dozens of examples of of the models I was interested in. While there was some variation in action and minor fit & finish details, I didn’t notice any great difference in sound quality and overall playability among the examples of a particular model. Occasionally an example with a couple of rough frets or some noticeable cosmetic blemish that should not have got past QC. Is that what is meant by a “dog”? I get the impression that it’s more than that, a guitar that is irredeemably, unsalvageably bad in some way.

Also, what do guitar gurus mean when they say that a particularly good guitar “plays itself”? I kept hoping to find this holy grail, but at all times I was painfully conscious that it was in fact me playing the guitar.

Doesn’t that sometimes mean “Assembled in XXX from parts made in YYY?”

A “dog” just doesn’t sound or play right for some reason. After I have tuned a guitar, checked it for obvious playability / basic set up flaws, etc., I just play it. I have things over the years that I tend to favor playing when I check out a guitar and I see how that one does. From there, the first, most obvious question is: Do I feel like playing this guitar - does it inspire me? After doing this for a few years, you tend to get an obvious answer Yes or No. From there you can ask yourself if it is because the guitar isn’t working for you in some way (i.e., is a dog) or if it is a new guitar design for you that you need to get used (see the current thread on switching from acoustic to electric for my thoughts there). You don’t have to completely geek out and know exactly why it doesn’t work for you - although it helps to learn - but you really should play each guitar long enough to decide how you feel about it. Practice doing this by trying two examples of the same model. Try as many examples of the same model as you can and really pay attention. I mean, yeah, some with have flaws that make then obviously inferior, but really try to pay attention to differences in feel. I tend to do this unplugged - I rely more on my hands and keep things simple that way.

A guitar that “plays by itself” - well, IMHO there are a few characteristics that matter:

  • super well set up: neck, action and intonation all spot on. It is easier to hit and hold bends or keep a note sustaining, etc. when you have a well-set up guitar

  • provides you feedback: truly great guitars are far LESS forgiving that so-so guitars. So if you play sloppy, they sound like shit. But if you play better, they sound better - obviously, clearly better. When I found my #1 guitar, the payoff I get when I played forced me to clean up my technique, bend more cleanly, pick more accurately - and the payoff in terms of my tone has been great. BUT - that implies that you are a solid enough player that you can: a) hear the difference; and b) clean up your technique to better suit the guitar. It is my understanding that Tiger Woods uses hand made clubs that aren’t nearly as forgiving as those new-fangled clubs that folks buy to help them hit over 200 yards - but you have to be as good as Tiger to take advantage of such special tools. That can be what playing a truly great guitar is like.

  • Makes you want to play it. I love Fender Telecasters, the first truly mass-produced, designed for manufacturability solidbody. Now a Tele is a tool designed to be made by a machine (for the most part) with the simplest ingredients you could imagine. But playing a truly great one vs. an average one is obvious and clear - I couldn’t tell you exactly why (well, I probably could if you gave me a minute - but I am geek), but man I just want to keep playing it!

Think of it like learning to appreciate art - while knowing all the geekery can help, at some fundamental level you simple have to go with your gut and ask “do I like this? Does it affect me emotionally in a way that is clearly the intent of the artist?” Getting in touch with your fundamental impressions can cut through a lot of clutter and focus you on the basics. Same with trying a variety of guitars - do I like this? Does it make me want to play it more? Learning to listen to your gut along those lines is key…

Does that help?

It sure can - yeah. Duesenbergs are a new model of guitar assembled in Germany from parts from all over, but I believe mostly Korea (whose manufacturing quality can vary a lot, but is sometimes quite good).

To my knowledge, Fender makes a lot of its parts intended for U.S. guitars in Mexico. Going back to the Baja Tele, I think that is a reason a lot of folks like those guitars - you get the neck profile of a U.S. made Tele (almost like a big-necked Custom Shop Tele called a “Nocaster Reissue” - I can explain the name if you care) but for a fraction of the cost…

To take your last question first, I think that the “plays itself” phrase is just poor writing. It is probably inept shorthand for a guitar which presents no impediments to playing for that particular guru.

On the subject of great or lousy examples of a particular model, what the gurus are usually talking about is tone, not playability. A lot of the discussions about this sound like wine-tasting discussions to the uninitiated. Suffice it to say that among a randomly selected group of 100 American Standard Fender Stratocasters with nominally identical wood and features, there will be a couple of guitars which have a bit more sustain, just the right amount of single coil pickup tone, that just sound a bit better somehow than the other 98. Their bodies and/or necks might have been made with a “better” piece of wood. Their pickups may have been wound just a bit differently. Many players either wouldn’t notice the difference or wouldn’t have a preference even if they did.

If you find a guitar that sounds good to you and which plays well, buy it. Most playability issues can be fixed by you or the shop where you buy. Frets and neck thickness and shape are pretty much permanent, but action issues are easily remedied.

Well, I don’t qualify as a guru, but I think you are right about “plays itself” as being crude shorthand - even though I was the one who used it in this thread! I think your example of breaking down 100 Strats is spot on and I hope my lengthy reply adds value, too…

There’s going to be a bell curve of quality for any model, mostly average, a few good examples, and a few dogs. For the most part the more you pay the better the average quality, an average American made PRS is going to be better than an average Korean PRS but there may be some overlap at the worst/best extremes.

As for an individual guitar having a particular fault. I have an American PRS which would be a terrific guitar except that the neck is really sensitive to the weather (heat/humidity) it doesn’t make it a dog it just means I have to keep adjusting the truss rod, daily sometimes. As far as I can recall I last set the truss rod in my Tele in about 1985.

I’m no guru, but I’ve been playing a long time. Sometimes a guitar just sits in your hands and it feels effortless* to play. Some guitars put up a bit of a fight, which is OK for some things.

  • effortless after a few years of practice obviously.