Gibson SG vs Les Paul: What's the Difference and Which is Better?
Classic Gibson Guitars
The Gibson Les Paul and SG are two of greatest guitars ever made, and some incredible players have slung these instruments over their shoulders through the years. Trying to choose which one is better than the other is no easy task. Of course the choice will come down to several factors specific to you and your needs, but to make the right decision you need to be armed with all the information.
In this article we’ll take a look at these two iconic guitars and see what they have in common, and what makes them stand apart. Is one really better than the other when it comes to tone, construction and playability?
I’ve been playing guitar for 30 years, so I’ve had a long time to think about this stuff! I also realize not everyone has the budget for a Gibson, so we’ll take a look at the Epiphone versions of these classics too.
As you probably know, Epiphone is owned by Gibson, and the only company in the world authorized to make guitars using Gibson’s designs and specs. These are two of the top guitar brands out there, but they compete on very different levels.
Speaking of Epiphone, before we begin here’s a quick history lesson. I promise it’s relevant!
Gibson Guitar History
Back in the old days, Epiphone and Gibson were competitors, and between them they made some of the best guitars on the planet. There was a pretty good guitar player at the time by the name of Les Paul. He built one of the first ever solid-body electric guitars called the “Log” at the Epiphone factory, but Epiphone wanted nothing to do with it.
Paul took his design over to Gibson, but they didn’t like it so much either. But when Fender started marketing solid-body guitars in 1950, Gibson enlisted Paul to help them create a new model. This time they put his name on the headstock.
The new Gibson Les Paul model was moderately successful at first, but by the late ‘50s it was getting crushed by the Fender Stratocaster in both sales and popularity. So Gibson fiddled with the design, made it lighter and gave it a double-cutaway like the Strat. In 1961 a new Gibson Les Paul model was born.
Les Paul himself didn’t like it though, and asked to have his name taken off the guitar. So Gibson called it the SG, which stands for “Solid Guitar”. A few years later the original Les Paul design was in demand again. The Les Paul came back strong, but the SG stayed, and by that time Gibson had absorbed Epiphone.
And that’s why things are the way they are.
On to the guitars!
Tone, Wood and Design
Let’s start out by looking at what these guitars have in common. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll compare the modern “Standard” models of each guitar throughout this article.
The biggest similarity across the board is the wood, mahogany to be specific. Mahogany is a warm, resonant tonewood with a rich brown color. Both the Les Paul and the SG have mahogany bodies and set mahogany necks. This, combined with the Gibson humbuckers, is what gives both guitars that thick, fat tone that sounds so great through an overdriven amp.
Both models are still incorporating rosewood fingerboard in their designs, though Gibson and other manufacturers are beginning to step up efforts to find alternatives. Ebony is becoming a more common fretboard material in many Gibson models, and in recent years they've tried newer ideas like Baked Maple and Granadillo.
The bridge is also similar on both guitars, the classic Tune-o-matic with stop-bar design. Set up correctly, this allows for tremendous tuning stability and sustain. Through the years both guitars have used various bridges on different models. There are even variations of both available with a Floyd Rose, if that’s what you’re into.
Both guitars have 3-way pickup switching with separate volume and tone knobs for each pickup. A lot of players like the control this offers compared to guitars that have pickups with shared volume/tone knobs.
So what about the differences? Here’s a look at each guitar, and what makes it unique.
Gibson Les Paul Standard
The Les Paul has stood the test of time over the years, and shines in every genre of music. It has a thicker body than the SG, partly due to maple cap slapped on top of the mahogany. The maple helps add a little bite to the resonant mahogany design. And, it looks great through the finish.
The size and shape of the body contributes a lot to the Les Paul’s tone, but it also makes the guitar fairly heavy. The single-cut design can limit access to the upper frets for some players with smaller hands, but a slim-taper neck may offer a little relief.
Over the years, Gibson has experimented with different ways to make the Les Paul more comfortable, but the bottom line remains if you want to play a Les Paul, you have to deal with the weight.
For 2016 Gibson has returned to their roots with the Les Paul Standard T. This is in the wake of some interesting ideas over the few years that weren't so well received by some players. You can still get the bells and whistles in the HP version of the Les Paul.
The pickups are Burstbucker Pros with coil split. It's basic, effective and pretty much what most players expect from a Les Paul.
Overall, the Les Paul remains one of the best guitars in the world when it comes to tone, craftsmanship and appearance. It’s tough to beat. So how does the SG stack up to this legend?
Gibson SG Standard
Back in 1961, the reason for Gibson’s redesign of the Les Paul was to create a guitar that sounded just as good, but eliminated some of the flaws of the original instrument. Of course, now we know those “flaws” are what make the Les Paul sound so great. But the SG didn’t fall short by any stretch of the imagination, and to this day it remains an outstanding option for players who love that thick Les Paul sound, but have some issues with other aspects of the original design.
While the SG still has that mahogany body, it’s a thinner piece without the maple top. This makes the guitar lighter, and, along with the flat top (instead of the Les Paul arch top, which was originally more in line with hollow-body guitars) it makes the SG a bit more comfortable for many players.
The double-cutaway design allows for easier soloing, but the neck joint is also moved forward to make the upper frets more accessible. Like the Les Paul, the SG Standard T version gets back to basics for 2016. This is the classic SG look and design, and there a reason it’s stuck around all these years.
One more thing worth mentioning about the SG has to do with your wallet. A brand-new Gibson SG Standard will cost about half as much as a new Les Paul Standard. This alone makes the decision for many players. The difference has to do with production techniques, and the added labor involved in the Les Paul’s arch-top design. To you, it might mean you get something like that great Les Paul sound for about half the price.
Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO
Of course if you want to save even more cash you can always go with an Epiphone. In this economy it’s sometimes tough to justify spending a thousand bucks or two on a guitar. Epiphone cuts that cost in half, and you can land one for under $600 in most cases. These are among the top intermediate-level electric guitars in the world.
Gibson guitars are made in the USA, where Epiphones are built overseas. This in part accounts for the low cost, though, as we’ll see, there are other reasons.
Epis sometimes get a bad rap among the gear snobs out there, but they’re solid guitars made to Gibson’s standards. They won’t hold their value like a Gibson, and they won’t sound as good, but compared to other guitars in their price range they are fantastic.
The Epiphone Les Paul Standard PlusTop PRO looks almost as pretty as its Gibson cousin, but there are some key differences in design. One big one, as you can expect, is the wood used. Epiphones are still constructed out of mahogany, but not the select pieces that would be used for a Gibson. Instead of the thick maple cap, they have a maple veneer, which looks great but doesn’t influence the tone in the same way.
But Epiphone Les Pauls have come a long way in recent years, and one big step forward can be seen in the ProBucker pickups used here. These are a significant upgrade from the old Alnico Classics, and while they still don't quite have the bite and clarity of Gibson pickups they are pretty darn good.
The bottom line is, if you want a great Les Paul without dropping a lot of cash the PlusTop PRO is the way to go. It shakes off a lot of the old stigma that used to accompany Epiphone guitars, and has the sound to do the job for any level of player.
Guitar World Looks at the Epiphone Les Paul PlusTop PRO
Epiphone G-400 PRO
The Epiphone SG model is called the G-400. Like the Les Paul, it looks an awful lot like a real Gibson at first glance, right down to the inlay on the headstock. But, like the Les Paul, Epiphone will incorporate cheaper woods into the G-400 than are used in the SG. Because it’s a simpler design it doesn’t matter quite as much.
The Pro model G-400 skips the Gibson Classic pickups for a set of Alnico humbuckers and a coil tap feature. Some players will be happy with their stock Epi while other will look to swap out pickups and other electronics or hardware.
The G-400 is a great guitar, and a real bargain at the price. Like all Epiphones, the value will be in the eye of the beholder.
The G-400 is also very affordable, even more so than the Epi Les Paul PRO above. This is guitar good enough to take to the stage or studio, but it still leaves you with a few bucks in your pocket for lunch.
Like other Epiphones in this price range, the G-400 PRO has seen improvements like a locking Tune-o-matic bridge and a sturdier output jack. Epiphone has done a great job of addressing many of the quality issues that concerned guitarists in the past, and the Epis of today are more reliable and better sounding that those a decade ago.
So, is the Epiphone G-400 PRO vs the Gibsons SGa fair comparison? Of course not! But the G-400 is a great guitar for the money, and worthy of serious consideration if you think the SG design is for you.
Should you go with the Les Paul or the SG? Should you shell out the cash for a Gibson, or save your money and get an Epiphone? Well, here’s how I see it:
Even though I seem to have become more of a Strat guy in recent years, I love the sound and look of the Gibson Les Paul. It’s a classic for a reason, and there is no mistaking that incredible tone. The SG has a similar sound, but maybe not quite as thick. Either way you can't go wrong, and for you it may come down to other factors like body shape and weight.
Epiphones are great guitars for the cost and sound better than most other instruments in their price range. It’s just hard to compare them to Gibsons. It’s hard to compare any guitar to a Gibson, so it really isn’t fair.
While Epiphones have improved tremendously, the electronics aren’t as good as the Gibson, from pickups to pots and switches, but many experienced players claim by installing better pickups in an Epiphone they end up with something indistinguishable from a real Gibson. The same can be said for the hardware, while both the hardware and electronics are outstanding for a guitar in the price range.
Of course many players, even seasoned veterans, see no need to change anything about their Epiphones. If you find the right one, you can land a great guitar for a fraction of the cost you would have spent on the Gibson.
I’ve owned a few Epiphones too, and I was very happy with them. If you don’t have the cash for a Gibson, there is absolutely nothing wrong with going the Epiphone route.
As for choosing between the SG design and the Les Paul design, well, if your wallet and your back don’t decide for you, it really just comes down to taste. What design do you like better?
The decision isn’t easy, but it’s a great problem to have. SG or Les Paul? Which will you choose?