Les Paul or Strat? Which is Easier to Play?

Experienced players have always compared and debated the playability of the Les Paul and Stratocaster. The words that come to mind with these noble axes are: ‘famous’ ‘iconic’ and ‘legendary!’

Their reputation and status go before them, yet they differ from one another in many ways: tone, looks, feel, playability, and charisma. However, both camps mutually agree, that both guitars are living legends and quite rightly so.

After owning and appreciating both guitars for years, the feel and ride on both guitars are completely different animals altogether.

Beginners and intermediates choosing between both of these iconic guitars (good choice by the way) will most likely ask “which one is easier to play?”

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to this question as ‘not one size fits all’, every guitarist will have their own preferences to what feels easier to play for them. ‘One person’s dream guitar can be another guitarists nightmare!’

Things to Note!

There is such variance between the Les Paul and Stratocaster’s design, specifications and construction (scale length, neck thickness, body shape and weight etc) all dictating how easy both guitars are to play. Not to mention the vast differences in sound and tone.

It has to be said, I can not speak for all variations of the Stratocaster and Les Paul. For example, Gibsons will feel and play different to Epiphones and likewise, the Fender Stratocaster will feel different to other affordable brands: ‘Squiers’, ‘Stagg’, ‘G&L’ etc.

Not to mention the many generations of Gibson Les Paul’s and Fender Strats over the years. However, the blueprint and outline of both guitars are still the same.

Outline of This Post

I will breakdown and compare both guitar’s playability in a few key areas: 

  1. Neck (shape and profile)
  2. Scale Length
  3. Comfort (How it feels to play)
  4. Weight
  5. Which is best for small hands and beginners
  6. What impacts the playability of a guitar
  7. Sound and tonal differences

Let’s begin with the neck

The Stratocaster Neck

In the red corner, The Stratocaster traditionally adopts a slimmer profile neck meaning a thinner and less bulky profile than the traditional Les Paul, benefiting players out there with smaller hands.

Another feature is the added curvature due to the traditional “C” shape giving the feeling of a more rounded grip without adding thickness to the palm. This curvature is great for fretting barre chords and feels smooth for horizontal lead playing.

The Stratocaster neck is praised for being one of the most comfortable necks which are easy to get around and very forgiving when playing.

The neck and fingerboard are traditionally constructed from maple, one of the most popular woods typical constructed for the Strat. Although it does not impact on playability, maple is known for a bright tone and is recognized by guitar players for being ‘snappy’ and ‘crisp.’

Bonus Feature…

Another great feature to the Stratocasters design is the versatility of the ‘bolt-on’ neck.

Own a Squire Strat but want to upgrade the neck to a ‘Fender’ or ‘Mighty Mike’? No problem, remove the current neck with a screwdriver and swap it for an upgrade to your preference (great customizable feature!) Your turn now Les Paul!

The Les Paul Neck

In the blue corner, the Les Paul neck is traditionally slightly wider and thicker in the palm of the hand. When it comes to playability, there are positives to the extra real estate.

The first being that some players may prefer the added control and grip when string bending. This flatter radius also prevents bends from fretting out when bending up, the second is added space in between strings meaning more separation, allowing for more room and control on the fingerboard.

Although the “U” shape neck is thicker than a traditional Stratocaster, the Les Paul neck is highly playable and a great ride for any guitarist. Luckily, the modern Gibson Les Paul neck has been on a diet and slimmed down significantly from the previous ‘tree trunk’ necks of the classic Gibson Les Paul vintage era.

Wood Material

The fingerboard wood of the Les Paul is usually mahogany with a few choices when it comes to fingerboard material. Fretboard materials can vary between the model with the main choices being maple, rosewood or ebony.

Keep in mind, ebony is a tough and more durable than rosewood. This makes a difference when it comes to touch. With rosewood, you can feel the slight grain of wood against your fingers compared to the smoother ebony.

These are small details I agree, but small details that all add up that depicts how a guitar feels and how easy it is to play. The neck in contrast to the Strat is a fixed or ‘set neck’ design, lacking in customization.

However, the Les Paul neck makes up for it with the extra sustain thanks to the ‘set neck‘ as opposed to the ‘bolt-on’ neck.

Scale Length?

The Strat sports the traditional longer scale length of 25.5”, this additional length (0.75”) from nut to saddle compared to the Les Paul. Changes the subtle dynamics on how the guitar feels when it comes to playability.

The extra length means added space in-between each fret, giving the fingers more surface area to aim for each note.

How This Affects Playability?

Guitar players have contrasting opinions which feel better to them for their playing. One camp enjoys the added fret length as there is more space and fret to aim for lead playing and solos as your fingers are less likely to stumble into each other when noodling around the higher frets making the instrument easier to play.

The Les Paul on the other hand, with the shorter 24.75” scale length, transpires the Les Paul with less fret length than the Strat. It has been noted that some guitar players with smaller hands usually prefer a smaller scale length.

The reason being a larger scale means stretching the fingers further to fret chords which can amount up to fatigue with a player with shorter fingers.

String Tension!

The scale length also affects another big factor….tension! There is much to discuss when it comes to tension.

The key point is that tension affects the tone and playability quite a fair bit. A guitar with a higher scale length produces more string tension.

For the Strat, this produces a brighter, sparklier and more defined tone. Combine this with the single coil pickups enhances the iconic bright and thin sound.

The Les Paul on the other hand, with its smaller scale length, results in the strings under less tension. Producing a warmer and rounder tone compared to the Strats brighter tone.

A string under more tension will also feel firmer and more sturdy to the touch whereas, a string under less tension will feel more fluid when string bending and using vibrato.

Comfort

The body of a guitar (shape, curves, cutaway, and thickness) will depict how comfortable a guitar feels to play sitting or standing up. Weight also heavily ties into this equation but we will get to that in just a second.

When guitarists debate the comfort between a Les Paul vs Strat… most experienced players will agree (although is still subjective) the Stratocaster is the more comfortable axe for playing for long periods vs a Les Paul.

So why do most players agree about this?

Strat Comfort

Well first it’s pretty apparent, the Stratocaster body is thinner and includes well-positioned contours placed at the back where your torso makes contact with the guitar.

Making for a more comfortable embrace. There are also curves in the corner of the body where the string plucking forearm rests, promoting less resting pressure.

These fetching curves allow the guitar to comfortably mold into the player’s body, perfect for playing for long periods of time.

Fret Access

When it comes to fret access, the Stratocaster body shape features a double cutaway (DC) design. A double cutaway opposed to single cut (SC) refers to how many contours the guitar has near the neck joint. How does this affect comfort and playability?

Well, it is quite simple, a double cutaway design allows for better access to the higher frets (18th fret and above) as it grants the thumb better access to the neck joint.

When fretting notes your thumb is the anchor, the closer the anchor is to the higher notes the, easier fretting and bending notes promoting more control without stretching the fingers in a compromised position.

If you look closely between both guitars the large cutaway on the Strat allows for full access to the 21st fret which is great for high access noodling.

It has to be said, this guitar doesn’t completely get away unscathed!

The only negative about the strat when it comes to comfort is the right-angled back plate where the neck meets the body. This plate can dig into the palm of your hand when playing the higher frets. I have seen Strats with curved plates which is a modern feature that is far and few between.

Les Paul Comfort

The Les Paul body vs the Strat body is….. a thick chunk of wood! I must admit, this extra beef does affect comfort. The normal assumption with Les Pauls is the body is wider than a Stratocasters.

However, If you were to hold these guitars side by side, you will notice that they are in fact similar widths.

The reason the Les Paul feels bigger comes down to the lack of contours on the back of the body. Portraying the importance of how subtle curves do make a big difference when it comes to playability and comfort.

I have played a few gigs with a Les Paul and will admit the lack of a curvex for my rest plucking arm results in a burn rash for where my arm rests for long periods.

It also has to be noted where the binding meets are at right angles compared to the Strats more curved and forgiving shape. Notice the image below, how the Strat just melts into my body when sitting. Clearly, the comfier guitar to play.

When it comes to cutaway design, the Les Paul body is alternatively a single cutaway compared to the Stratocasters double cutaway. I must admit, this means more of a stretch when reaching for higher frets due to the thumbs lack of access.

Meaning, the Les Paul is not the easiest guitar to reach and bend on the higher frets (17th and beyond) due to this extra chunk of wood, especially for players with smaller hands.

Although this seems like a design flaw and a high access hindrance, the extra wood is where the Les Paul gets its familiar ‘thick’ and ‘mid-range’ sound, compared to the Stratocasters thin and bright tone.

Les Paul fans know themselves it’s not the most comfortable guitar in the word. However, they just get on with it and enjoy the sound.

Fret Access

When comparing fret access, the access contour starts at the 19th fret compared to the Stratocasters 21st fret. There is also a block of wood that meets the neck join that compromises access to the neck joint similar to the Strat.

On the surface, the Les Paul vs Strat when it comes to comfort is a clear runner up. However, although it seems a hindrance this extra beef is what gives this guitar it’s iconic look and sound which most players just seem to ignore and embrace (including myself!)

Les Paul vs Stratocaster Weight

The Les Paul standard depending on the brand, model and year, can weight anywhere from a lofty 8.5lb on the low end and 11lb on the high end (mainly vintage models).

These classics are known for being heavy brutes which makes all the difference when it comes to comfort. This becomes apparent when playing standing up for gigs for long periods.

Many guitar players complain about the weight of the Les Paul when sporting them for 1 hour + gigs. Especially with shoulder and back issues forcing them to reconsider their axe choice due to its mass.

If you have ever played a gig with a Les Paul for 2 hours you may have felt much lighter after the gig. Almost like hoisting a small sack of potatoes off your back when taking it off.

Why the Les Paul is So Heavy?

The Les Paul gets it weight from it’s the mass of mahogany wood which is dense add in the combination of 2 humbucker pickups, hardware and wiring. Now you have a heavy guitar!

However, ‘man up’ and you will be rewarded with heaps of Les Paul sustain thanks to chunks of wood. Not many people know this, but humbucker pickups are actually heavy, they can contribute to a significant proportion to the weight to most guitars in fact.

Stratocaster Weight

The Stratocaster on the other hand, is a much lighter and forgiving 7lb in contrast. That may not sound like much, but for total comfort and playing for an hour or more will make a difference. The lightness is down to the less wood and lighter pickups compared to heavy humbuckers of the Les Paul.

Therefore, when it comes to Les Paul vs Strat weight….the Stratocaster is a clear winner for being the lighter and thus more comfortable to wear when standing.

However, it depends if you view weight as a factor when playing. For example, players believe it or not actually enjoy and prefer the heavy weight of a guitar.

Some guitar players like the feeling of working against a guitar which I suppose is all personal preference and individual taste.

Top Tip!

Make a heavy guitar lighter by using an elastic guitar strap as opposed to a traditional strap. Elastic straps are known for being more comfortable by dispersing the weight more effectively between your shoulder and back than the standard strap materials.

My recommendation is ‘Levys MN01 original elastic strap’ which feels great and will certainly make your heavy guitar feel much lighter, thus being more comfortable for playing gigs (give one a try!).

Les Paul or Strat for Small Hands?

Unfortunately, I can speak from experience here! As a fully grown male adult, I am a member of the ‘small hands club!’ I’ve also provided a flattering picture below in all of its stubby glory.

So while I own both guitars and a pair of girl’s hands (thanks Mum and Dad) I am fully qualified to discuss this topic.

Fetching!

For a beginner, on the surface, it seems a big issue and something that needs to be taken into consideration. However, the reality is very different! The truth is, small hands and big hands can be an advantage and disadvantage for beginners whatever way you look at it.

For example, the ‘C chord’ is known as a struggle for smaller hands on a beginner due to the 3 finger stretch. In contrast, beginners with larger hands struggle to fit all 3 fingers into a simple A chord.

Its all about using whatever you have to your advantage and working on your disadvantages.

You must NEVER let it put you off from learning the guitar completely!

Learn From My Experience

Fortunately, having small hands doesn’t simply mean you will struggle with the neck of a Les Paul or Strat.

Take me for example, I learned for most of my younger years on the thicker and wider neck of the Les Paul. My hand size was never something that crossed my mind when I first started, and should not be on your mind or any other aspiring guitarists out there.

The “paralysis by analysis” mindset is very easy when learning anything new. Both guitars are fun and very playable guitars to learn your craft.

Look at it this way, there are fricken 6-year-old kids on YouTube shredding on ‘full-sized guitars!’

Which one Would I Choose?

However, If hand size was a genuine concern, and felt you wanted everything in your favor when first starting out for more of a psychological boost.

If I had to choose a Les Paul or Strat with small hands for a beginner, I would agree the Strat would be a better choice with the slightly thinner neck (for fretting) and more comfortable body.

With that said, it is not going to make or break your commitment to learning the guitar. Especially if you are new and have only just started the journey.

The key point here is, the more hours you invest, the further your technique will develop meaning over time you will be able to fret and play chords on any instrument. The thing you need to do is just start!

Instead of thinking “which guitar would be easier to play for small hands?”, change your mentality and ask yourself this…

”which guitars sound and look inspires me the most, so I will commit everything to learn and practice and reach my desired level of ability?”

Here are the main factors that impact on the playability of a guitar…

What Makes a Guitar Easy to Play?

String Height 

known as the distance from the string to the fretboard known as the ‘action’. A guitar with a lower action is easier to play mainly because less pressure is required from the fingers to fret notes and chords.

For a beginner, a guitar with a low action would be best suited until hand and finger strength is established. ‘Shredding’ electric guitars (Ibanez, Dean, ESP etc) promote the lowest action as possible as it promotes faster technical playing for solos and riffage.

Having the action too low however can cause the dreaded ‘fret buzz’ or ‘open string buzz’ which is super undesirable.

High string height is present on ‘classical’ and ‘steel string’ guitars which is to promote string vibrations across the fretboard for low register chord strumming.

Learning on a cheap acoustic can sometimes derail beginners, as it can be more difficult to fret notes making it a difficult first guitar to learn on. Dispelling the whole ‘acoustic before electric’ myth.

Radius of the Fretboard

The ‘radius’ simply refers to the curvature across the width of the Fretboard. This is difficult to describe so here’s a helpful image below. If you look closely, some fretboards are completely flat while others have a slight curvature across the width.

There are lots to discuss with fetboard radius requiring its own article for another day. However, the bottom is when it comes to playability, the general notion is ‘curved fretboards are preferred and easier for playing chords.’

Whereas a ‘flatter Fretboard is better for single not playing and string bending’. This is not exactly set in stone, as every guitarist will have their own preference to what radius is best for their playing style.

Scale length

Scale length is quite a biggie! It refers to the distance between the nut and the saddle of the guitar. Why does a bigger scale length affect playability?

Well, simply a bigger scale length means the gaps between the frets are wider, resulting in more space to place your fingers in-between each fret.

A smaller scale length means the frets are smaller requiring the player to be slightly more accurate with finger placement compared to a larger scale length.

So which one is best when it comes to playability? Well, a guitarist with smaller hands may prefer a smaller scale length, whereas a player with bigger hands may require a bigger scale length for added comfort.

The Thickness of the Neck

A thicker neck feels bulkier in the palm of your hand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as some players prefer the added chunk in the palm for extra grip. On the other hand, (see what I did there) some players with smaller hands may prefer a thinner neck so it’s easier to wrap their fingers around to fret notes and chords.

Comfort

Simply how does the guitar feel on your lap and standing up? Does the shape of the body comfortably mold around you? There’s a big difference between a chunky bodied acoustic and a thin electric on your lap.

A chunkier body means wrapping your forearm around the bulk of the guitar to pluck the strings. What about access? Does the shape of the body allow for good access to the higher frets?

Is there a chunk of wood in your way when bending on the higher frets (18th and above). Good access is required for soloing in the higher register notes for sustained periods of time without fatigue.

Weight

Heavy guitars are fine when sitting down, however standing up is another story. Has anyone out there played a 2-hour gig with a heavy guitar?

I’m sure they will tell you it’s tough on the shoulder and back. Personally, I prefer light guitars which I think are always the best companion for gigs. However, some players enjoy the weight of a beefy guitar which is all personal preference at the end of the day.

Tuning

I would not consider a guitar ‘easy to play’ if I had to constantly tune up after every wave of heavy strumming or aggressive string bend. A playable guitar is one that holds its tuning and intonation.

Les Paul vs Stratocaster Sound

Although this post is focusing on the playability of both guitars, we can not have a comparison against these iconic axes without brushing over the sound and tones. Which believe it or not, is a factor when it comes to playability.

As a guitarist: you ‘play what you hear!’ For example, You express through feel and touch which the guitar responds accordingly with your individual sound.

Both guitars produce very different sounds and knowing what sounds styles and genres of music you are aspiring to play is vital.

Here’s a great video to see and hear these great guitars for yourself!

Les Paul Tone

The Les Paul sound is iconic for being beefy and thick with a pronounced mid-range compared to the Strat. Partly due to the guitar sporting additional wood and utilizing double humbucker pickups.

This construction combined with great sound has made it very versatile in many genres: blues, rock, punk, country etc.

The humbuckers are superior when combined with distortion for playing heavier music such as hard rock and metal compared to the Stratocaster. The reason being that humbuckers combine well with distortion and are designed to cancel excess noise from the guitar signal.

I will admit, the Les Paul handicap is that bright and articulated clean tones are not its strong point compared to the Strat, mainly due to the thick body and beefier sounding humbuckers.

  • Thicker tone
  • Pronounced Mid-range
  • Bassier sound
  • Rounder tone

Best for

  • Rock
  • Blues
  • Country
  • Metal
  • Jazz
  • Reggae
  • Punk

Guitar Heroes

  • Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)
  • Slash (Guns n Roses)
  • Joe Perry (Aerosmsith)
  • Zakk Wylde (Ozzy osbourne)
  • Ace Freeley (KISS)
  • Billy Gibons (ZZ top)
  • Rhandy Roads (Ozzy osbourne)
  • Noel Gallagher (Oasis)

The Stratocaster Tone

The Stratocaster, on the other hand, has a bright and thin tone with more clarity compared to the Les Paul. Largely to do with the single coil pickups, scale length and construction that give it a unique voice.

It has to be said the Stratocaster clean tone is epic and it unrivaled to that of its brother the Telecaster. It can also produce a great rock tone when you slap some distortion on-board to get a sweet sounding rhythm or lead tone.

Its versatility in sound due to its pickup configuration is the reason why this axe is known for being the most versatile guitar ever.

To be noted, because of its thin and bright tone and pickups, this guitar does not take ultra-high distortion well. This is because it sounds too harsh and the pickups do not cancel noise very well so it will constantly feedback.

Meaning this guitar is not suited for playing any form of metal or punk unless you modify the pickups. The Stratocaster is basically is the way to go when looking to play a host of different styles and genres of music excluding any form of metal or punk.

  • Thinner
  • Brighter
  • Sparklier
  • Defined sound

Best for

  • Rock
  • Blues
  • Country
  • Jazz
  • Funk
  • Reggae
  • Pop

Guitar Heroes

  • Jimmy Hendrix
  • Eric Clapton (Cream)
  • David Gilmore (Pink Floyd)
  • Jeff Beck (The Rolling Stones)
  • George Harrison (The Beatles)
  • John Mayer
  • Stevie Ray Vaughn
  • Eric Johnson

Which to Choose?

The obvious thing to do it to go out and try both guitars at a guitar store or at a friend or relatives and ask yourself this…

  • Which guitar feels more comfortable to you?
  • Which guitar tone sounds best to your ears?
  • What genres of music do you want to learn and play?
  • Which guitar visually appeals more?
  • Which one inspires you the most to continually practice?
  • Does your guitar hero play one of these guitars?

Final Thoughts

The Les Paul and Stratocaster are both the most popular guitars on the planet. They play, look, sound great and are both living legends to the industry.

I have discussed a lot about the playability of both guitars and as you can tell, highly appreciate their differences. Hopefully, this post has given you some new information and maybe have helped decide which guitar would be right for you. Thanks for reading!

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