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When it comes to the Gibson line of guitars, the SG and the Les Paul are by far the most popular. Each of these guitars has played a vital role in being the choice axe for many famous guitarists.
But, which one is better? What is the difference between these two iconic guitars?
We’re going to take a deep dive into the similarities and the unique differences between these classic guitars.
Which Guitar Came First?
Out of the two guitars, the Les Paul is the guitar that was first produced by Gibson. In fact, the first model was made in 1952.
This guitar was actually the first solid-body guitar that Gibson produced. In a way, it was sort of Gibson’s answer to the success that Fender had with their Broadcaster (Telecaster) model.
Wondering how the Les Paul got its name? For those too young to know, Les Paul was a virtuosic guitarist of his time.
Much of the electric guitar technology we have today actually comes as a result of his research and hard work. During the mid-1940s, Les Paul had been in contact with Gibson regarding different ideas for an electric guitar.
Unfortunately, much of these original ideas had been turned down as being a bit unreasonable at the time. However, Leo Fender’s success proved that Les Paul might have been onto something.
Once Gibson came up with the prototype for the Les Paul as we know it, Les Paul himself endorsed it. That, in a nutshell, is the brief story of how the Les Paul came to be.
It was not until 1961 that a completely different guitar made by Gibson hit the market. At the time, Les Pauls were not selling well, and Gibson decided to try out a different guitar for size.
They noticed that double-cutaway guitar designs were performing quite well in the market.
Upon its release, this new guitar also donned the name of Les Paul. However, Les Paul himself didn’t like the guitar much and requested his name to be removed from the guitar.
Gibson then named this new guitar “SG”, which is short for Solid Guitar. This is how the SG as we know it came to be.
Which Guitar Is More Popular?
Both the SG and the Les Paul are absolute classic guitars in the lexicon of modern music history. Each of them has its own legendary status amongst guitarists, and for good reason.
However, in terms of sheer popularity, the Les Paul continues to be Gibson’s most popular and best-selling guitar. This is even despite the fact that the SG was introduced because Les Paul sales were lacking.
Although the SG is a popular guitar in its own right, it pales in comparison to the Les Paul’s popularity. In a way, the SG is sort of looked at like the Les Paul’s little brother.
This sort of view kind of makes sense, especially when you take into account the similarities of the guitar. However, that does not mean you should write off the SG simply because of this cultural viewpoint.
In fact, the SG can deliver in ways that the Les Paul simply cannot. And, the reverse is also true of the Les Paul.
Gibson, as a company, has done quite a few things over the last decade to improve its guitar sales. Much of this has been a complete and utter failure, causing the company to be the butt of many jokes.
However, one thing is true that will likely always remain true. The Les Paul is Gibson’s flagship guitar, and the SG is a close rival sibling.
Let’s take a closer look at these guitars in a side-by-side comparison. You’ll get an idea of how these guitars are very similar, but completely different animals to be dealt with.
What Are The Construction Similarities Between The SG and Les Paul?
If you take a look at these two guitars, your eyes will immediately notice some differences between them. However, the reality is that the SG and the Les Paul are actually quite similar guitars.
For instance, both guitars feature a body made of solid Mahogany. This has been a traditional feature of both guitars, and Gibson has not strayed away from this much at all.
Similarly, both guitars tend to feature a Rosewood fretboard. Both guitars also have a 24.75” scale length.
Depending on the model, the SG and Les Paul will tend to have acrylic trapezoidal inlays. However, some models do feature a traditional dot inlay.
The finish used for both guitars tends to be a nitrocellulose lacquer-based finish.
Another similarity between the two is the fact that they both utilize at least 2 humbucker pickups. In fact, many of the models have the same pickups between them, depending on the year.
You’ll also find that the electronics of each guitar are nearly identical as well. Each guitar has a 3-way selector switch for pickup selection.
In addition to this, both guitars have 2 volume knobs and 2 tone knobs. Each set of knobs applies to each pickup on the guitar.
The bridge system used on SG and Les Paul guitars is also essentially the same. Generally, these will be fitted with a Tune-O-Matic bridge that sits atop 2 anchor points.
This bridge has a unique way of adjusting string height compared to Fender-style guitars. Each anchor pole has a set screw wheel that you turn by hand to adjust the string height.
In addition to this bridge, both guitars tend to utilize a similar stop bar tailpiece. The only difference with this is if the SG is utilizing a Maestro Vibrola tailpiece.
What Are The Construction Differences Between The SG and Les Paul?
If these guitars are so similar, what makes them unique guitars in their own right?
The biggest, and most noticeable difference between these two guitars is the body design. You’ll notice the Les Paul is a single cutaway, while the SG is a double-cutaway.
Even the necks have a slight bit of difference, as the SG has more of a thick D-shape contour. The Les Paul, on the other hand, has a slim C-shape contour.
Another thing you’ll notice is that the body thickness of the SG is much slimmer than a Les Paul. The reason is that the Les Paul actually has a Maple capped top in addition to a Mahogany body.
As such, this Les Paul design is more akin to a traditional archtop guitar. If you take a close look at a Les Paul, you’ll notice the top is, indeed, arched.
Because of this arching, the Les Paul’s pickguard is elevated off of the guitar’s surface.
The SG, on the other hand, is a much flatter guitar. Even the pickguard is flat against the surface of the body.
There are no arches to be found, though it does have bevels on the edges of the body.
Another difference is that the neck seems longer on SGs than on a Les Paul, despite the same scale length. The SG’s neck actually connects to the body at the 22nd fret, whereas the Les Paul’s connects at the 16th.
You’ll also notice that the 3-way switch of the SG is located by the volume and tone knobs. The Les Paul, on the other hand, has its switch in the shoulder.
Even the cable input is different between these guitars. The SG’s is located on the face of the guitar, while the Les Paul’s is on the side.
How Does The Sound Compare Between The SG and Les Paul?
Despite their many similarities, the SG and the Les Paul sound quite different from each other. Sure, overall, the two guitars are fairly comparable, but there is a noticeable difference between them.
When comparing the two, you’ll find that the Les Paul is much deeper in tone than the SG. The tone is especially rich in the low end of the EQ, with a fairly well-balanced tone overall.
On a visual level, the Les Paul’s tone could be thought of as having the mid-range EQ scooped.
If you were to play the SG in the same positions, you would not find the same thing. In fact, the SG is actually much more pronounced in the mid-range EQ.
The SG also has much more bite to its tone compared to the Les Paul. What could cause this difference in tone?
You’ve likely heard that tonewoods play no important role in the tone of the guitar. This type of message has been an evangelical topic preached by many YouTube channels.
However, when it comes to this specific comparison example, the wood actually does matter.
On paper, the SG and Les Paul are essentially the same guitars, minus their small discrepancies. However, because the Les Paul consists of more wood, it has a much deeper tone.
The Les Paul also has a slight bit more sustain to its notes. This has to do with the Maple top allowing for more resonation than a thin block of Mahogany can provide.
Sure, you might disregard this explanation as being an invalid reason if you believe that wood doesn’t matter. However, it is the only logical explanation for 2 guitars with the same pickups sounding different enough to be noticeable.
In disbelief? Try these guitars out and hear the difference yourself.
What Are The Pros Of The SG?
If you’re considering buying an SG, there are some things you’ll want to be aware of beforehand. The SG is a unique guitar, in that it does not exactly feel like other guitars you might have played.
In a sense, the SG is sort of a strange bird. It’s a traditional guitar through and through, but the playing experience might not be for everyone.
With that being said, there are quite a few benefits to this guitar. The first has to be its lightened weight.
Most SG guitars weigh around 7 to 8 pounds. This weight is fairly comparable to other guitars you will find on the market.
Its slim physique and its contours really do allow for the guitar to be tucked nicely against the body.
Another major plus is that the SG’s double-cutaway design allows for the higher frets to be accessed quite easily. You won’t have any sort of blockage when roaming up to hit the peak note on a solo.
The tones of this guitar are another benefit, despite its difference from the Les Paul. You’ll be able to emulate Les Paul tones without having to lug a Les Paul around.
Plus, there are just some tones that the SG provides that the Les Paul simply cannot produce.
What Are The Cons Of The SG?
There are some drawbacks to the SG. The biggest drawback is the fact that the guitar does not have a very balanced feel.
In fact, it’s an often occurrence with these guitars that the neck will take a dive bomb to the floor. This can really catch you off-guard if you aren’t paying attention.
Why does this happen? The weight of the neck is not in balance with the lighter weight of the guitar’s body.
An easy way to imagine this is to picture how a teeter-totter works. A balanced weight on both sides at an equal distance should provide a balance.
When you increase the weight on either side, the tendency is for the teeter-totter to favor one way. Increasing the length of the lighter side allows for balance despite the weight difference.
As mentioned earlier, the neck on the SG does feel a bit longer. In fact, compared to the Les Paul, it is positioned a bit further out.
This neck positioning likely has something to do with this off-balance factor. However, it can be a major benefit to those who have longer arms.
If you don’t have long arms, this neck positioning might feel a bit awkward when playing in a standing position.
Also, the input jack on the SG can be a bit of an annoyance. Due to its design, the cable will stick out from the guitar.
Of course, an angled cable can provide an easy remedy to this. However, if you’re not used to this design, you’ll need to allow time to become acquainted.
There are also not many color options usually available with the SG. For the most part, you are limited between black and a form of heritage cherry.
What Are The Pros Of The Les Paul?
The biggest plus of the Les Paul is, without a doubt, its tonal versatility. There is a reason why this guitar remains one of the most popular guitars of all time.
You’ll find that the Les Paul has a distinct, sweet charm that just cannot be found with other guitars.
Another major benefit to this guitar is that it has a very balanced feel. You won’t encounter the neck dive issues that you will with the SG.
The Les Paul just has a very ergonomic design that just feels right. In terms of design, this is one of the few that have stood the test of time regarding its application.
If customization is your thing, the Les Paul definitely offers quite a bit of different color options. You can choose from a large number of different colored sunbursts as well as solid colors.
What Are The Cons Of The Les Paul?
Despite the Les Paul being an absolute classic guitar, there are some drawbacks. However, whether these are of importance to you is another matter.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to the Les Paul is its weight. On average, a typical Les Paul can weigh up to 10 pounds (or sometimes more depending on the year).
If you’re a guitarist who performs regularly, slinging this kind of weight will take a toll on your body. There is no denying that 10+ pounds will make your back and shoulder sore after a 3-hour gig.
Gibson has done different things over the years to try and cut down on the Les Paul’s weight. These include drilling holes in the body for the sole purpose of removing excess weight.
Some people claim that these types of drilled guitars lack the sustain heard on regular Les Paul guitars. However, like anything sound-related, this is a purely subjective opinion.
If weight is an issue, there are some Les Paul guitars that have chambered bodies. These are sort of like a semi-hollowbody in a sense, but without the soundhole.
Some guitarists also have an issue with the single-cutaway design when playing higher frets. This shouldn’t be much of an issue, but the SG is easier in this realm of play.
What Famous Players Have Played These Guitars?
Both the SG and the Les Paul have had an innumerable amount of guitarists donning these instruments. This adoption is what has helped cement these instruments into modern music history as some of the most important guitars.
If you’re thinking of buying one of these guitars, it can help to know some people who have played them. This will give you a good idea of how each has been used over the years.
It’s often said that beginner guitarists will mimic their guitar idols. Quite often, their first guitar will be the same model as the guitarist they look up to.
The reality is that, no matter what the skill level is, all guitarists tend to do this to some degree. Don’t feel bad if you find yourself in these shoes!
Here is a list of some of the most famous SG players of all time:
- Robbie Krieger (The Doors)
- Angus Young (AC/DC)
- Frank Zappa
- Derek Trucks
- Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band)
- Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
- Jerry Garcia (particularly in the early years of The Grateful Dead)
- Eric Clapton (during the Cream years)
- Sister Rosetta Tharpe
- Mick Box (Uriah Heep)
Let’s also take a moment to recognize some of the most famous Les Paul players to ever play the guitar:
- Bob Marley
- Pete Townshend (The Who)
- Slash (Guns N’ Roses)
- Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)
- Ace Frehley (KISS)
- Joe Perry (Aerosmith)
- Adam Jones (Tool)
- Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society, Ozzy Osbourne)
- Stone Gossard (Pearl Jam)
- Alex Lifeson (Rush)
- Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple)
- Les Paul (of course)
What Styles Of Music Are These Guitars Appropriate For?
As you can see by the list of guitarists who play these guitars, the main genre tends to be rock. The SG and Les Paul are both predominantly known to be very effective in rock-based music genres.
You could think of rock-based genres as essentially any sort of music genre that is rock-oriented. This includes genres such as blues, funk, and soul/R&B, and heavier genres such as metal.
However, these guitars have a side to them that you might not necessarily think of initially. As such, you’ll find that both the SG and Les Paul can be used for other music genres as well.
Because the SG has a bit of a bite and twang, it’s perfectly suitable for country rock. In fact, you’ll find many guitarists playing an SG where a Telecaster would traditionally be.
The bridge pickup position on the SG is far more twangy than what a Les Paul could ever produce. But what about that beautiful Les Paul?
You’ll find that the Les Paul can actually produce jazz guitar tones exceptionally well. This sound is very apparent on the neck pickup.
In a sense, the Les Paul is essentially a solid-body version of the traditional jazz box guitar. So, if you’re a jazz guitar player, a Les Paul might actually be a great fit for you.
Which Guitar Is Right For Me?
When it comes to the actual decision of what guitar you should buy, it depends on your preferences. There are people who are divided into each camp who hate the other guitar.
Then, there are guitarists who actually love both guitars for their unique offerings. It is not uncommon for a guitarist to own both for this specific purpose.
Let’s be real here, most guitarists tend to own more than one guitar anyway.
However, if you’re limited to just one, go and try these guitars out for yourself. Take the time to hear how they sound and get a feel for how they fit your hands and body.
Both the SG and Les Paul are suited to cover a wide range of music genres. However, the guitar that is more suitable for your musical preferences will likely be the better choice.
To give a personal example, I actually own both an SG and a Les Paul. I find that both are suited specifically for different purposes.
When it comes to playing live, I tend to favor my SG, as it’s a much lighter load to carry. In the studio, I might opt for either the SG or the Les Paul.
However, you are your own musician with your own musical tastes and preferences. Go with what truly calls out to your heart and soul.
What Are Some Affordable Options Regarding These Guitars?
There is no question that the prices of SG and Les Paul guitars can be outside the budget of most. Rising production costs, material costs, and supply chain costs have only helped prices to rise astronomically.
If you’re working with a tighter budget, there are some options that might be a viable choice for you. In fact, the value and playability of these guitars might parallel the standards on some levels.
Epiphone, a subsidiary company of Gibson, makes affordable versions of Gibson guitars that anyone can enjoy. Many guitarists actually favor Epiphone guitars over Gibson because of quality control issues.
For many years, Epiphone has been producing excellent Les Paul guitars at a serious fraction of the cost. The Epiphone Les Paul Standard ‘60s model is a perfect example of this.
Similarly, the Epiphone 1961 Les Paul SG Standard is a very worthwhile budget SG option.
Both of the aforementioned guitars are reproduced to reflect the vintage schematics of these classic guitars. Overseas production and slightly lower-quality components essentially allow these to be much more affordable.
However, despite their affordability, these guitars do not fall short of the aesthetic value the originals are praised for.
Also, do not discount the used guitar market. Used Gibson SG guitars can actually be quite affordable depending on the year, model, and condition.
However, used Gibson Les Paul guitars might not be as affordable as the SG models. But, you might get lucky, and you’ll never know if you don’t look.
Many seasoned guitarists today would likely agree with the sentiment that newer Gibson models don’t play too well. However, the “golden era” of these guitars is likely from decades far outside the budget level for anyone but professionals.
SG Vs Les Paul, Final Thoughts
Despite Gibson’s attempts at trying to stay relevant in the industry, the SG and Les Paul will always remain so. Sometimes, there is really no need to mess with a winning formula.
Guitarists will likely always seek out the SG and Les Paul guitars due to their iconic history and sleek designs. Be sure to try both of these classic guitars out to discover their subtle, yet noticeable and unique, differences.