You are currently viewing Les Paul vs Telecaster – Don’t Choose The Wrong One…

Last Updated on March 6, 2024 by Teemu Suomala

Author: Santiago Motto

Aka. Sandel. Telecasters and all-mahogany Martins lover.

Besides that, Sandel is a professional writer, guitar player, confessed guitar nerd, and all-things-guitar consumer. He has been playing for 25 years which makes him a nineties kid with serious low-tuning youngster years, and a pop palate for melodies, ballads, and world music.

Whenever Santiago is not pouring all that experience and love for the instrument into articles, you can find him playing live shows supporting his music and poetry books as “Sandel”. If he’s not doing either of those, you can also find him gigging with his band, “San Juan”, writing, reading, or enjoying the Sun.

displays Edward Bond and Gibson Guitar

Editor: Edward Bond

Edward has been playing the guitar since 2002. So Edward has over 20 years of experience as a guitarist, has authored 15 guitar books, has written for renowned music blogs, and spent a decade teaching music. He began merging his passion for writing and music in 2020 and has written for big guitar websites such as Guitar Head Publishing and KillerGuitarRigs.com.

Originally from Seattle, Edward moved to Norway in 2021 for a master’s in music. He’s studied at the Jazz Institute Berlin and Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and currently resides in Trondheim. His education includes a European Jazz Master’s, a diploma in Film and Game Scoring from Sofia, and a Bachelor’s in Jazz from University of Oregon.

Edward has played in numerous bands and currently, Edward works on his own project Starship Infinity


The Gibson Les Paul and Fender Telecaster are two of the most popular solid body electric guitar models by two of the biggest guitar brands in history. And although they are physically quite different, the old Les Paul vs. Telecaster faceoff is still important today.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience these guitars at home, on the stage, and in the studio. Moreover, I’ve played vintage originals, modernized versions, and stock factory ones. Hence, I can say that I have first-hand experience to compare them.

But I won’t just go over the specs. On the contrary, I will talk to you from player to player so you can understand what all that mumbo jumbo actually means.

I want to help you decide which of these instruments is the best for you.

Read on, learn the differences, and take home the best guitar for your playing style.


Summary of Les Paul versus Telecaster (for Those in A Hurry)

  • Both guitars were introduced in the early 1950s as revolutionary solid body electric guitars.
  • The Les Paul line continues the legacy of its predecessors as a luxurious instrument made of precious tonewoods with high-end appointments and a rich, low-end sound.
  • The Telecaster was a revolutionary creation by a brand-new guitar brand. It was designed as a musician’s workhorse like the Ford A of guitars. It’s a durable, easily serviceable guitar with a bright, crystal-clear sound focused on the midrange and upper registers.
  • Telecasters are bolt-on neck guitars, originally with dual single-coil pickups. Modern version have other pickup combinations.
  • Les Pauls are set-neck guitars with dual P-90 or humbucker pickups.

Les Paul vs Telecaster – Guitar Tone Comparison

You Should Choose A Les Paul Over A Telecaster If You

  • Gravitate toward rocking sounds.
  • Love to hear the low end of your instrument.
  • Will use distortion often.
image showing Gibson Les Paul Studio Plus in Bourbon Burst
Gibson Les Paul Studio Plus – Bourbon Burst. This is a Sweetwater Exclusive issue!

You Should Choose A Telecaster Over A Les Paul If You

  • Need a guitar that can endure the harshness of the road.
  • Like playing chords and arpeggios, and are a songwriter.
  • Will play mainly clean and mildly overdriven tones.
image showing Fender American Vintage II 1951 Telecaster Electric Guitar in Butterscotch Blonde
Fender American Vintage II 1951 Telecaster Electric Guitar – Butterscotch Blonde

*Consider all links in this post to be affiliate links. If you purchase, at no additional cost to you, we may earn a small commission. It helps us to keep the lights on, thanks! 🙂

A Small Disclaimer Before We Start

Before we start, I want to clarify something: I’ll be talking about the early, traditional Telecaster and Les Paul Models. This means Teles with: 

  • Two single-coil pickups. 
  • A maple neck.
  • A rosewood or maple fretboard.

For Les Pauls, this means guitars with: 

  • Original P-90 or humbucker dual-pickup configuration. 
  • Mahogany body and neck.
  • Rosewood or maple fretboard.

If, at any moment, I refer to modernized, modified, or different versions of these guitars, I will make it clear.


Sound

Let’s start this section with a bit of history. The Gibson company was famous for making some of the best jazz instruments on the planet. The Les Paul is a signature guitar for a virtuoso jazz player.

Therefore, the sound of the Les Paul guitar was initially designed to produce a dark tone with a bright top-end that a hollowbody guitar could not make, without the feedback problems due to the high volume.

The Telecaster started as a reliable, road-worthy, cheap-to-make instrument for the jazz musicians on the road. But instead of making traditional jazz-approved tones, it’s an instrument that focuses on the midrange and the higher frequencies. In trying to recreate a known sound, Leo created a new era in guitar tone. 

What is the 1959 Les Paul Sound

The Feeling of the Guitars

As a player, the guitar suddenly appears in the mix whenever you plug in a maple-neck telecaster. Regardless of what other instruments are playing, the guitar will cut through.

On the other hand, by 1957, the Les Paul got its almighty humbucker pickups and distortion became an option. You get some serious growl if you combine those high-output pickups with the big mahogany body and neck.

Gibson Les Paul Studio Plus showing the traditional Dual Humbucker configuration
Gibson Les Paul Studio Plus showing the traditional Dual Humbucker configuration

You can think of Jimmy Page’s uncanny sustain and power or the thick tone from players like Slash, Joe Perry, or Gary Moore.

Sound Differences

Sound-wise, these guitars are very far apart from each other.

These guitars can classically be used for different genres. The Telecaster adds clarity, spank, twang, and high-end to any riff or chord. The Les Paul adds a beefy low-end that can add the thickness and punchiness heavier rock and roll requires to breathe.

How to Get the Classic Fender Telecaster Tone

Which is More Versatile, the Les Paul or the Telecaster?

While both guitars have their traditional uses and roles, both guitars are capable of a range of sounds outside of their respective idioms, especially considering the guitarist, their preferences, amplifiers, and effects.

So, in the sound versatility department, I call it a tie.

Here’s Mr. Joe Bonamassa proving that point with a Les Paul, ripping some country tones!


Playability

What do we talk about when we talk about playability on a guitar? Let’s break it down into these three items

  • Ergonomics.
  • Weight.
  • Scale length.

Ergonomics

When talking about the body style of a guitar, like the early Telecaster, we talk about a body that has no contours. It is a flat top guitar with no rounded edges.

More modern iterations of the guitar, like the American Ultra Series by Fender, have body contours like a Stratocaster.

image showing Fender American Vintage II 1951 Telecaster demonstrating pickup configuration
Fender American Vintage II 1951 Telecaster demonstrating pickup configuration

On the contrary, the carved top is a distinctive Les Paul characteristic, even for the beginner player. This makes the guitar’s strings, pickups, and bridge higher than the controls and the switch.

For some, that’s as comfortable as it gets. For this guitarist and writer, it’s very uncomfortable. I guess it’s a matter of getting used to it.

Weight

Mahogany is heavier than alder. This makes a typical Les Paul heavier than the typical Telecaster.

There have been several attempts to lower the weight of the Les Paul by adding chambers and weight-relief holes. Although successfully lowering the weight of the guitar, purists hated the idea, and Gibson is now making solid Les Pauls again.

Scale

Scale lengths between most Gibsons and Fenders are different. This is an important difference between the two guitars.

  • Fender Telecasters typically use a 25 ½” scale.
  • Gibson Les Pauls typically use a 24 ¾” scale.

For example, bending on a 24 ¾” scale is way easier than a 25 ½” scale. Believe me, if you’re used to playing a Telecaster and move to a Les Paul, it will probably feel like you’re playing pure butter and you can suddenly bend a whole tone or a tone and a half!

On the other hand, a longer scale guitar like the Telecaster has a higher string tension, and thus, the guitar is more stable. If you go from a Les Paul to a Telecaster, you might play faster, but bending will be a quite different experience.

Which Is Easier to Play, Telecaster or Les Paul?

Whether a guitar is easy to play or not depends a lot on the player. For example, one of Gibson’s most popular guitars, the SG is lighter and has a higher neck joint. Still, some players swear by their Les Paul.

Why is that? Well, in my opinion, nothing feels quite like a distorted Les Paul when you’re hammering a riff or amid a wailing solo. You feel like you’re playing a giant rock machine, Zakk Wylde style. You suddenly feel like punching your chest like a caveman with an ax.

That’s not at all the feeling a Telecaster gives you. Yet, there’s no better chord-friendly guitar out there, in my opinion. The Telecaster is a songwriter machine in which chords and arpeggios sound clear, crisp, and cut through the mix. The Telecaster is a very stable, high-tension songwriter machine.


Hardware

A guitar’s hardware is a big part of its feel and playability. Let’s compare the traditional hardware on a Les Paul and a Telecaster.

Bridges

To begin with, the traditional ashtray bridge on a Telecaster, with its classic brass saddles, can add some warmth to the resulting sound. This works great, bringing a mellow element to the high-end-oriented tone of the Telecaster.

Also, the Telecaster bridge receives the strings from below (string-through-body design). This enhances the guitar’s resonance, tone, and sustain. Finally, some people find the ashtray bridge with its side walls annoying since hitting it with the pick or hand is common.

image showing Telecaster string through body "ashtray" bridge
Telecaster string through body “ashtray” bridge

A Les Paul, on the other hand, is a TOM-bridge-equipped guitar. TOM stands for tune-o-matic, a Ted McCarty invention. This kind of bridge replaced the wraparound bridge of the early days and allowed players to perfectly intonate their guitars.

image showing close-up of les paul tune-o-matic bridge
Les Paul Tune-o-Matic bridge

Also, the distance between the bridge and the tailpiece increases the guitar’s tuning stability and improves sustain.

Every Gibson guitar should be like this…

Both instruments are hardtail with no factory tremolo but can have one installed. Perhaps the most common tremolo to see on both models is a Bigsby. That being said, Fender and Gibson offer models with floating bridges and Floyd Rose tremolos.

Tuners

Besides different bridge types, the Telecaster and Les Paul have different tuners. On the Telecaster, you’ll find a six-in-line headstock, while the Les Paul is a 3+3 kind of guitar.

Some models, like the American Ultra, come with factory-locking tuners. Although you can buy aftermarket locking replacements for any Les Paul model, it’s not a factory appointment for Gibson.

Pickups, Hardware, and Music Styles

The Les Paul and the Telecaster have been copied and transformed countless times.

For example, the pickups on a Telecaster Deluxe, Ritchie Kotzen, John 5, or Jim Root signature models turn them into high-gain machines. These guitars are great for playing metal, rock, and heavy music.

Nevertheless, the midrange from the alder body and the maple neck cuts through, and gave birth to an entirely new sound that was quite different from that of a Les Paul.

On the Les Paul side, you can find instruments with higher-output pickups (like the pair of active EMGs on Zakk Wylde’s Bullseye), P-90s, or mini-humbuckers. The Les Paul is a rocking machine, and the low growl from the thick mahogany body and neck is difficult to get out of the equation.

What is the P.A.F. Sound?

Both guitars can be customized to play other styles, but the most likely scenario is that they produce a unique sound when you swap parts and pickups.


Body Shape and Design

The Les Paul and the Telecaster are both single-cut designs. This means that you can only access the higher frets from the bottom.

The biggest difference between these guitar bodies is that the Telecaster has a flat top body, while the Les Paul features an archtop body. This is not only a difference in terms of weight but also ergonomics. Playing an archtop can be daunting if you’re very used to playing flat top bodies.

Build Quality & Process

Regarding build quality, Fender and Gibson continue to make history for a reason: their instruments have defined the history and foundations of electric guitars. That being said, the manufacturing process is very different. I’m not just talking about the body shape and the tonewoods, but also the inclusion of a maple top on a mahogany body in the case of the Les Paul guitar.

The Process: Episode 1 – How Guitar Bodies Are Made at Gibson USA

This takes extra steps and gives the guitar a different level of finesse. Indeed, making a Les Paul is a more intricate process than making a Telecaster. This doesn’t necessarily translate into having easier-to-play guitars, but guitars that look, feel, and play as a more luxurious instrument.

Basic Dimensions of a Les Paul and a Telecaster.

Les Paul

  • Body Dimensions: 40″ x 13″ x 2.”
  • Neck Dimensions: Scale: 24 ¾” and nut width: 1.693.” 
  • Average Weight: 9 to 12 lbs.

Telecaster

  • Body Dimensions: 17″ x 13″ x 1.75.”
  • Neck Dimensions: Scale: 25 ½” and nut width: 1.65.” 
  • Average Weight: 8 lbs.

Neck and Fretboard

Any advanced player will tell you that the neck on a guitar is a deal breaker or a deal maker.

Yes, it’s the part of the guitar’s anatomy that’s more in touch with the musician. Therefore, the scale, radius, and frets are critical to your playing experience.

I remember working at a music store and having a local blues star feel the neck of every Strat in the shop until he found “the right one.” Yes, finding the right guitar neck is a task so difficult that you should call Indiana Jones to discover its whereabouts.

Neck Angle

The neck angle on a Les Paul makes it a more fragile instrument. I sadly speak from experience here. If you drop a Les Paul and the neck hits the ground, the headstock will likely snap. Furthermore, you can’t simply bolt in another neck since it’s a set-neck guitar.

All of that is very different for Telecasters. Necks made of maple are more resistant. And, since there’s no angle, they’re very hard to break. Moreover, if you ever do, you can swap the neck using the 4 bolts on the back.

image showing the more traditional neck angle of a Les Paul guitar
The more traditional neck angle of a Les Paul guitar

Proof of this is Jimi Hendrix playing Monterrey Pop and trying to destroy his guitar. If you pay attention, you can see he tosses an entire guitar neck into the audience. Even after he broke the body.

Wild Thing (1967) (Monterey Pop Festival)

The Feeling of the Necks

Finally, different guitar necks affect playing styles. How so? Well, the higher tension of a Telecaster translates into a spanking sound. If you hit a Tele or Strat hard enough, you’ll get that percussiveness that’s so characteristic in funk and blues (SRV, Brad Paisley, Neil Rodgers, Cory Wong, and Jimi Hendrix).

As a player, this can take your picking hand to different territories.

A Les Paul is very different in that sense. The shorter scale length makes it softer to the touch and easier to bend, but it doesn’t react to a heavy-hitting picking hand like a Tele. On the contrary, playing a heavy riff with a Les Paul requires a lighter touch. You can think of Jimmy Page or Slash. If you look at their playing closely, you’ll see their right-hand moves delicately.


Pricing & Value

There’s a big price difference between these two guitars. This is partially because a set-neck guitar is more expensive to make than a bolt-on guitar. Also, the tonewoods used by Gibson for the Les Paul are more costly and precious than those used by Fender for the Telecaster.

There’s evidence about this when you think of Epiphone and Squier, for example.

The cheapest Les Paul guitar in the Epiphone line is a bolt-on design with a maple neck. This means Gibson cut corners to compete with the entry-level Squier Telecaster guitars.

It’s cheaper to make a bolt-on guitar with a maple neck.

So, regarding price and value, Gibson guitars are pricier but are also more expensive to make. Indeed, you get a luxury guitar with a corresponding price tag attached to its headstock when you buy a Les Paul. This is not the case with Telecasters.

There’s a big price gap if you compare the Gibson Les Paul Standard ($2,999) and the Fender Telecaster American Professional II ($1,699).

This gap can be explained by construction and material costs.

Both instruments are aimed at the intermediate player.


Famous Guitarists Using Les Paul and Telecasters

Let me start this list with my favorite players using both:

  • John Frusciante (RHCP).
  • Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top).
  • Jimmy Page.
  • Jo Perry (Aerosmith)

My Favorite Telecaster Players

  • Keith Richards.
  • George Harrison.
  • Joe Strummer.
  • Jonny Greenwood.
  • Danny Gatton.

My Favorite Les Paul Players

  • Gary Moore.
  • Duane Allman.
  • Steve Jones.
  • Joe Bonamassa.
  • Mick Jones.
  • Peter Green

My Favorite Les Pauls and Telecasters

These are my Les Paul and Telecaster recommendations for entry-level, intermediate, and professional musicians.

Les Paul

Telecaster


Conclusion

Before wrapping this piece up, let me give you a little old gossip. The Telecaster almost became the Fender Les Paul signature model. Yet, it struck Les Paul as being too simple and unappealing. But Leo Fender tried to convince Les Paul to be the face of the brand and model.

Can you imagine how different the guitar world would be?

After that little gossip, our Les Paul vs. Telecaster rundown has come to an end. Let’s briefly summarize what we’ve just gone through:

  • The Les Paul is a more fragile, luxurious, and expensive instrument made of precious wood (mahogany, rosewood, ebony, flamed maple). The Telecaster is the working musicians’ guitar. It’s more durable, less expensive, and made of common woods such as alder, ash, and maple.
  • The sound of a Telecaster is focused on the midrange and the upper register. It’s also a guitar with dual single-coil pickups and a longer scale, which makes it more percussive and stable. The Les Paul has a bigger bottom-end and hotter pickups, which makes it more prone to distort and fill more sonic space.
  • The Telecaster’s bright, clean sound is suited for clean and overdriven sounds that work great with blues, pop, funk, and mild rock.
  • The Les Paul, with its heavy sound and powerful pickups, is a great rock machine that can also be used for Blues, jazz, and punk.

FAQ

When Was The Les Paul Invented?

Les Paul debuted his signature guitar on stage in June of 1952.

When Was The Telecaster Invented?

The Telecaster went into production in late October 1950.

Is Telecaster Good for Metal?

Although it’s not the most common guitar on a metal stage, Slipknot’s Jim Root and John 5 are two famous endorsed artists who play metal on a telecaster.

Is Les Paul Good for Metal?

Les Pauls have been used to play metal since the musical style was born. Perhaps the most popular players in that regard are the late Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, and Ace Frehley.

Which Is Better for Beginners, Les Paul or Telecaster?

The Telecaster is a more durable, easy-to-play, lighter, and affordable instrument than the Les Paul. Hence, beginners might be better off with a Tele than a Les Paul.

Can a Telecaster Sound Like a Les Paul?

The Telecaster Deluxe debuted in 1973 and is the closest crossover between a Telecaster and a Les Paul Fender ever made. The aforementioned Jim Root and John 5 Telecasters can also sound comparable to a Les Paul.

Nevertheless, if you plug both guitars into the same amp, they will always have tone differences.

Santiago Motto

Aka. Sandel. Pure Telecasters and all-mahogany Martins lover. Besides that, Sandel is a professional writer, guitar player, confessed guitar nerd, and all-things-guitar consumer. He has been playing for 25 years which makes him a nineties kid with serious low-tuning youngster years, and a pop palate for melodies, ballads, and world music. You can connect with Santiago on LinkedIn or just email him.
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