So you've been banging away on your old acoustic for several years now. You've become proficient enough on your electric knock off that you are ready to take the leap. It's time to step up to one of the two things that all guitarists must have sooner or later: a real Fender or a real Gibson.
Like Ford versus Chevy, Coke versus Pepsi, or PC versus Mac, Fender versus Gibson is one of the all time imponderable quandaries that face a modern consumer. So just what is the difference and how does one decide. Gibson is the older company and was producing electric versions of its instruments prior to World War Two. However, the introduction of the Telecaster by Leo Fender in the early Fifties signaled a new era in amplified music. The Telecaster was heavy, cumbersome, and simplistic. It was also a stroke of utter genius. It was capable of sustain and volume that had not been possible before, and featured a trebly tone that cut through the sound of the big bands of the day.
Later in the decade Gibson would counter with the Les Paul, a guitar designed by the legendary musician and engineer of the same name. By decades end Fender had added the Stratocaster, with its then radical shape, to its catalog. The SG, which simply stands for solid guitar, would be produced by Gibson by the dawn of the Sixties. Though both companies produce a myriad of other models, these four have become the standard by which all electrics are measured and are essential elements of any collection.
So what's the difference? For the most part it comes down to two elements: the neck and the pickups. The pickups are the electromagnetic coils that convert the vibration of the strings to an electric signal. On a Fender you will normally find single coil pickups. These produce high end frequencies more efficiently and produce a distinctive tone that is usually described as bell-like. They are also susceptible to unwanted hum. The solution to this is Gibson's humbucker, a dual coil pickup which eliminates most unwanted noise. Its tone, however, is darker. It will also overdrive an amp at lower volumes, producing a dirtier sound.
Fenders feature bolt on necks. This makes them easy to replace if damaged or swap just for effect. It also contributes to Fender's generally trebly sound. Gibsons have through construction with glued on necks. This makes the neck difficult to replace but also adds sustain and contributes to a warmer, darker sound. In very general terms Fender necks are flatter and wider while Gibson necks are rounder and narrower. Against a ruler the differences might seem inconsequential, but in your hand they may be substantial. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal preference.
If your heroes include Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or some of the Country aces, a Fender is probably your best choice. If you want a slightly more menacing tone like Tony Iommi, Angus Young, or Billy Gibbons, then you may find satisfaction with a Gibson. In my opinion and that of many others, the ultimate answer to the question is easy. Get one of each.