What is the best guitar for playing the electric Blues?  A Fender Eric Clapton Custom Shop Stratocaster or a Gibson Les Paul Standard?  I’m narrowing the Gibson vs. Fender debate to a couple of guitars since I have one of each in hand and I play The Blues on both.  Better men than I have been broken trying to make this comparison fairly sing — so I will do my best to give you a competent, if not persnickety, breakdown of
my experience.



Here are some of the things I think are important when you try to recreate the acoustic Blues on an electric guitar:

String Bending:  The Les Paul Wins hands down.  You can have 10s on both a Les Paul and a Strat and the Les Paul will always be easier to play because of the shorter fretboard length.  That shorter scale length on the Les Paul means you don’t have to press down as hard on the strings compared to a Stratocaster and that makes playing and string bending smooth and easy.

Frets:  For bending strings and not bottoming out against the fretboard, the Les Paul wins again.  The Les Paul has giant frets and they are tough-as-nails.  The Clapton Stratocaster has shallower frets and even after a few weeks of moderate playing you will notice some fret wear.

Versatility of Sound:  The Clapton Strat wins the ear competition:  You can growl, sound creamy, or bite with a Telecaster-like twang.  The Les Paul is a power grinder with tremendous output.  If you want to sing with a clear voice that cries just a little:  Clapton Strat.  If you want to shout and moan and beat your chest:  Les Paul.

Provenance:  Clapton gets it.  If you look at the history of the man in The Blues, you can see he has not only dedicated his style to the roots of the Blues, he’s also made several mainstream Blues albums and you can easily recreate his Blues Sound with a Clapton Strat. Les Paul also dedicated his life to honoring an ancient sound, but he’s more of a Jazz man than a True Blues dude in the down and gritty.

Playability:  Tie.  The Clapton Strat is built with a really low string action and the fretboard is made for shining speed.  The Les Paul gives you less distance to cover to play the same notes, so, by design, Les gets you there quicker — but you enjoy the feel of traveling farther on the Clapton.

Build Quality
:  Les Paul wins.  My Les Paul Standard is 100% perfect.  It is a solid and beautiful guitar.  While I love my Clapton Custom Shop Stratocaster, it does have some mineral stains on its white-hot, bone-white, fretboard and the high E string is almost falling off the fretboard — yes, I know all Claptons have that “design feature” for the E string, but mine seems a little more dramatic than usual.

Value:  Les Paul is a better value.  I paid around $2,200.00USD for my Les Paul Standard and my Clapton Custom Strat cost me around $3,000.00USD after a discount was applied for sending me the wrong color.

Amateur Ease:  Les Paul is the pick.  You can sit right down with the 2008 Standard and its asymmetrical neck and huge frets and sound really great.  The Clapton Strat, and its soft-V neck, takes a little more precision to master straight out of the box.

Professional Wants:  Clapton Strat takes the pro prize because of its preternatural playability and ability to create chameleon sounds.  Les Paul is what it is in sound and fury from moment one to the end of eternity.  The Clapton Strat is never what you thought it was because it always surprises you.

Portability:  Clapton all the way!  The Clapton Strat is thin, light and it feels fast and it fits your body better for long-term playing.  The Les Paul is heavy and chunky — even in its modern Standard “weight-relieved” or “chambered” or whatever they’re calling it today — body and that massive headstock is prehistoric and ugly.  You lug around a Les Paul, the Clapton carries you.

Pick One:  If I had to choose only
one one of these guitars for playing the Blues for the rest of my life,
I would pick to indefinitely defer that decision.  I suppose it’s a good
dilemma for me to have and I’m lucky enough to have the choices in hand to make.  For technically being able to bend and stretch The Blues, the Les Paul is better; but for getting that traditional Bluesy tone, the Clapton absolutely wins.  If I had to pick between ease-of-play and getting the right sound… I’d have to pick sound over
playing… and that means I’d take the Eric Clapton Custom Stratocaster as my one and only Blues guitar in the end.

25 Comments

  1. Re: the provenance comment.

    Clapton made his breakthrough recording with a ‘Burst Les Paul. He’s more responsible for the popularity of the LP than he’s ever been for the Strat… there were plenty of iconic players using a Strat well before he ever picked one up.

    Just my opinion.

  2. Sorry for coming late to the party, but this review turned up on Google and I had to comment. I recently got my first Gibson after being a longtime Strat hound. To me, the glaring difference is pick response. A Les Paul has harder wood and a more balanced output, so it will never respond to your picking dynamics like a Strat, which is the only true disappointment for me. I have to agree with you-I like everything about the Les Paul better…but I’d have to pick a Strat in the end because it conveys emotion in playing in a way that a Les Paul can’t.

  3. Either way, I think I’m going to start out with a medium priced Strat, and over the years expand to greater guitars. Basically, in 10 years I would love to have an LP, a Strat, and an SG.

  4. I have used both during the course of my life, and now have come back full circle to a Stratocaster..I just love the way I have to fight it for everything..It keeps me on my toes!!

    1. You make an excellent comment, scott. I, too, have revisited my Clapton Custom Strat this week and I am really loving its sound for Blues and Jazz. I have everything on the guitar turned to “5” — and the sound is just incredible and creamy and the guitar is just so easy to play!

  5. Just like you David, I have that chance to pick any one of these both wonderfull guitars every day … I agree with Clapton and you, it’s harder to get the best out of a Strat… I had to play mine several month before being able to “tame” her. If I can compare guitars with horses, the Paul would be the best quarter horse as the strat remains a free mustang!

  6. You know you can turn down the volume and tone controls on a Les Paul, right? There is more subtlety to the Lester than just “super high output” at all times. 11 isn’t the only volume option…listen to Page, EC, and more…pretty sure they knew how to coax multiple tones from a LP.

    Having owned a MIM Strat and MIJ Les Paul, I will pick the LP hands down, 10 lb weight or not (mine isn’t swiss cheesed, it’s straight African mahogany; the Strat is a sandwich of multiple different woods, no?). And whether you like the headstock is a STRICT matter of opinion – IMO, the Fender headstock is butt ugly, but I like the font. But does that make a lick sound any better???

    Anyway…IMHO, Les Paul is the one to pick. But it also depends on your skill, style, attack, amp and…your ears.

    Oh, and no 60 cycle from the LP. Just sayin’…

    1. I think it depends on the Gibson about how much volume and tone control you have. My “Modern” asymmetrical neck Gibson is so loud and so hot — there’s no way to get some tenderness of tone out of it. All it does is scream.

      My newer, VOS, models, do allow much more mellowness of tone and intention.