Showdown: Leo vs Les
By Greg Gagliano
Copyright 1999, 20th Century Guitar Magazine.
The Fender Broadcaster (Telecaster) heralded the age of the solid body electric. Gibson didn't want to miss the train and countered with its Les Paul solid body model. While the Telecaster remained relatively unchanged, the Les Paul evolved until the renowned Les Paul Standard emerged in 1957-58. These two guitars co-existed happily and, for the most part, non-competitively until 1982 when Leo Fender took square aim at the Les Paul Standard with his G&L G-200.
The main features of the Les Paul Standard include mahogany body with maple cap, mahogany neck with 24 3/4 inch scale, tune-o-matic bridge with stop tailpiece, tone and volume controls for each pickup, and those amazing Seth Lover-designed humbuckers. The body shape is reminiscent of Gibson's archtop guitars and the appointments are archtop fancy, too, right down to the ES-150 trapezoid inlays and set-neck.
Leo was never one to copy a design outright. Instead he would "borrow" ideas or features and incorporate them into his own unique design. So it is with the G-200. The body is mahogany, but without a maple cap. The body's silhouette is similar to a Les Paul, but has an additional cutaway on the bass side, a 6-on-a-side headstock, and a bolt-on maple neck. The neck's scale length is a Gibsonesque 24 3/4 inch and the G-200 is the only G&L produced to date with a non-25.5 inch scale length. The fingerboard is ebony compared to the LP Standard's rosewood board. The G-200 also sports a pair humbucking pickups, but these are of the Magnetic Field variety.
The Les Paul does many things well from rock to jazz. The round profile neck is very comfortable and makes string bending a breeze. The 490R and 498T pickups have alnico magnets and are an updated version (hotter, more high end) of Gibson's venerable PAF humbuckers of the late 1950s and early 1960s. These produce a warm, pleasant and clean sound when the guitar is lightly strummed. Increasing the pick attack drives a tube amp to the edge of overdrive for a more diffuse, but creamy tone with noticeable compression. Sawing away with abandon sends the amp into full blown overdrive as the bottom frequencies drop out a bit and the highs increase. For a solid body guitar, it behaves surprisingly like an archtop at times, too.
The G-200 does many things well (how's that for succinct?). The oval neck profile is very Fendery and quite comfortable. The 12-inch fingerboard radius prevents fretting out during wild string bending. The Magnetic Field pickups have ceramic magnets and the guitar produces a “harder” and brighter sound that doesn’t compress like alnico humbuckers. And since they are bright, there is no need for the body to have a maple cap. The maple fingerboard and ebony neck add some zip to the tone as well. The coil splitter allows the G-200 to operate in “single coil mode” thus expanding its tonal repertoire.
For the test drive, I played each guitar through a reissue Vox AC-30 and a blonde Fender Bassman with a Fender Reverb Unit. Both guitars were capable of easily overdriving these amps pretty much on demand by increasing the pick attack or strumming force. With the Vox, the Les Paul was able to instantly delivery classic British overdrive tone of the '70s. That thick Les Paul sound is pretty neat! The G-200 was able to come close to the Les Paul's tone, certainly within 85%, but the Magnetic Field pickups stay cleaner and more articulate than the Paul's humbuckers when driven hard. It's sort of like a high output, fat sounding single coil. In fact, I found this characteristic rather appealing since I prefer the tone of single coil pickups to humbuckers.
While the Les Paul gets the nod in the jazz department (you'd think it was an archtop!), the G-200's crisp, articulate sound is best suited for rock. Both guitars work well for blues and a flip of the coil splitter switch on the G-200 lets it sing with woman tone. Shhhh… can you hear that? Both guitars are still sustaining. Quick, somebody tell Nigel Tufnel!! One more thing to note: the G-200 fed back more easily than the Les Paul, which was great fun for me, but my Dachshund didn't appreciate it very much. He's okay, though, not to worry.
One final observation: at 9.5 lbs the Les Paul is not exactly light weight (I have bass guitars that weigh less!) and the weight distribution is such that it is bottom heavy. This combined with the body shape make it difficult to play while sitting without a guitar strap… unless, of course, you like to play all hunched over to keep the guitar from falling off your thigh. The G-200, on the other hand, weighs less (about 8.3 lbs) and is not bottom heavy. It sits well-balanced with the waist resting on a player's thigh.
While the guitar is really fine in its own right, Leo's G-200 didn't hit the "LP Killer" mark. Heck, it wasn't even on the same firing range and to add insult to injury, ol' Leo didn't like the G-200! And that's why only a little more than 200 were made. In some respects, the guitar was a victim of circumstances. The G-200 was introduced at a time when superstrat models and vintage-style models were becoming popular with players. Though it vaguely resembled a Les Paul, the G-200 neither fit the vintage nor shredder category. Still, the G-200 has a lot going for it including tone, versatility and rarity.
On the other hand the Les Paul is the benchmark in the "solidbody, humbucker" category that is not likely to be dethroned anytime soon, though Paul Reed Smith might disagree. Leo may have designed two of the most popular solidbody guitars (Strat and Tele), but some of his later works, though innovative, were just too unconventional to be commercially successful.
In next month's Showdown, Leo takes aim at his own creations in "Leo vs Leo".
About the author: After this month's comparison, self-avowed humbuckaphobic Greg Gagliano isn't afraid of Les Paul Standards any more and he actually owns one. Greg "Gibson" Gagliano can be contacted by e-mail c/o TCG.