Best Stratocaster – Time to Pony Up the Cash For One of These?

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Our Pick for Best Budget Strat in 2020

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Squier Classic Vibe ’70s

Our pick for best budget Strat is the Squier Classic Vibe 1970’s. Ok, we’d all prefer one of the MIM or American Strats we review further down on this page, but if you want one at a sensible price, this takes a lot of beating.CHECK PRICE

With its iconic double-horned shape and contoured body, the Stratocaster – or rather the ‘Strat’ as its commonly known – is the most iconic of all electric guitars.

If you’re looking to buy one, you’re in the right place.

In this article, we walk you through the key things you need to consider, and we recommend our favorites at various price points.

At a Glance – Our Pick of the Best Stratocasters on the Market

Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.

What is a Stratocaster?

The Stratocaster was built by guitar maker Leo Fender in 1954.

Its phenomenal success is largely down to how it manages to combine these three things:

  • it looks great (“sculpted beauty”, according to Mark Knopfler)
  • it’s incredibly easy and fun to play, and the whammy bar opens up a whole load of new possibilities
  • it sounds amazing, thanks in part to its single-coil pickups

It’s incredibly versatile too, used in rock, country, reggae, you name it. It’s especially great for blues.

Countless famous guitarists have played the Strat, including Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, George Harrison, Jeff Beck and of course Jimi Hendrix, who according to Fender salesman Dale Hyatt, “caused more Stratocasters to be sold than all the Fender salesmen put together.”

Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations

Budget

The great thing about these guitars is there is one available at every price point. You can spend thousands of dollars on an American Original (see below), or just a few hundred on a Squire and you’ll still end up with something that looks, feels and plays like a Strat.

We can draw a parallel with Gibson Les Pauls. You’ll pay into the thousands for an original Gibson LP, but there are tons of Les Paul Copies on the market that play much like the original.

The only difference is they’re made in parts of the world where labor is cheaper and constructed with budget materials.

If you buy a cheap one will you regret it in the future? Perhaps, but remember any guitar however cheap can be modified by switching out things like the pickups and the pots which will have a seismic impact on the sound. So it’s not the end of the world, you can always change it up at a later date.

Origin

Strats are made in a variety of locations, but the general rule of thumb is the best are made in the US (superior in build, quality, and materials), after that the best are made in Mexico, then finally made in South East Asia (Indonesia, Taiwan, etc.).

Don’t think for a minute that the made in US models are the only ones worth considering. It simply isn’t true.

As we’ll see, there are some great ones come out of Mexico and the far east.

How do you know where they’re made? On the headstock, you’ll see an abbreviation:

  • MIM (made in Mexico)
  • MIA (made in America)
  • MIJ (made in Japan)

Product Round-up & Mini-Review – Best Stratocaster

Squier Affinity Series

Fender 6 String Solid-Body Electric Guitar, Right Handed, Black (0310602506)

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The first on our list is the Squier Affinity Series, their second cheapest guitar (after the Bullet) and a competitively priced, classic looking, 21 fret Strat.

Manufactured in Indonesia, this has a rosewood fingerboard and alder body. But a word of caution: the body is not full thickness, which could be an issue if you want to make mods in the future.

In terms of electronics, it ships with three single-coil pickups and the 5-way toggle switch as standard –  the good thing is the in-between positions (neck and middle/middle and bridge) and both hum-canceling which is sheer bliss for players familiar with the hum in these positions.

As for hardware, it has stock standard tuning machines with a 6 screw vintage trem system.

It’s incredibly light for its price, reminiscent of Custom Shop Strats that sell for lots more. It also has the larger headstock and a great looking finish.

For its price, this one is a great choice for beginners to learn and grow into, and even modify later down the track (e.g. add a better set of Strat pickups, upgrade the selection switch, etc). With its reasonable price tag, more experienced players could use this as a project guitar too.

PROS

  • Value – In terms of sheer playability and bang for buck, it’s hard to beat
  • Noiseless – Hum canceling in-between positions
  • Light – Feels as light as a Custom Shop model, at a fraction of the price

CONS

  • Pickups – may need switching out as the player improves
  • Large headstock – Strat purists tend to prefer the earlier 50’s smaller headstocks, but it’s a matter of taste, not a show stopper.


Squier Classic Vibe ’70s

Squier 0374023506 Classic Vibe 70s Stratocaster HSS, Maple Fingerboard, Black w/

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Slightly more expensive, the Squier Classic Vibe range gives you superior features than the Affinity.

For a start, it fashions the large-headstock style from the 1970s which looks pretty cool. Sure, it says ‘Squier’ rather than ‘Fender’, but it’s nicely done.

This model ships with Fender-designed alnico pickups, and a vintage-style tremolo bridge for some whammy bar action. All the hardware is nickel-plated too, which is a nice touch.

A 9.5″ C-shaped neck profile makes it super comfortable to play, ideal if you play with the thumb on the back or side of the neck.

This is ideal for the beginner to intermediate player who has a few more dollars to spend.

The body has the classic Fender auto-body paint look, and the vintage-tint gloss neck finish is nice too.

If you can’t afford an American or MIM made strat, this will do very nicely.

PROS

  • Cool 1970s headstock with markings.
  • Comfortable 9.5″ C shape neck perfect string bending.
  • For the price, it packs a lot of punch

CONS

  • It’s not a Fender, but as with the Affinity, it’s still amazing value.

Fender Standard

Fender Standard Stratocaster Electric Guitar - Maple Fingerboard, Arctic White

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Let’s look at slightly pricier models. First up, we have what is known as a ‘MIM’ Stratocaster, ‘MIM’ standing for ‘Made in Mexico.’ In Strat circles the debate between MIM vs. American made Strats is never-ending.

PROS

  • The Standard Strat comes with full-sounding ‘Fender Custom Shop Fat ’50s’ pickups
  • 22-fret fingerboard and a slimmer neck make for more comfortable playing and choke-free bends (the Affinity and Vibe series are both 21-fret).
  • Maple and Pau Ferro fretboards

CONS

  • Made in Mexico
  • Rosewood fretboard (not necessarily an issue, depending on how purist you want to be – because the originals had maple fretboards)


Fender American Special

Fender American Special Stratocaster Guitar - Sonic Blue

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You’ll find as we get to the upper echelon of Strats that they’re all American made. This one is the entry-level US made ‘Pro’ guitars, and it’s a real beauty. It’s for the person who wants to buy an American Strat but doesn’t want to remortgage their house to do it.

PROS

  • US made
  • Three Texas Special single-coil Stratocaster pickups
  • Greasebucket tone circuit (rolls off highs without adding bass) for thick overdrive, crunch, and tone
  • 22 jumbo frets
  • Comes in cool Sonic Blue color

CONS

  • Body finish is gloss polyurethane – for this price I tend to prefer the Nitrocellulose finish which ages with the player (we’re picky at this price point).


Fender American Original ’60s

Fender American Original 60s Stratocaster - Olympic White

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Ok, you’re not messing about. I get it. You want to push the boat out and get the best new Stratocaster money can buy. Look no further, the American Original 60s is that guitar and will blow yours and everybody around you’s socks off. Standout features are the pure vintage ’65 single-coil Stratocaster pickups and the Nitrocellulose finish that lets the body breathe with its true tonal character. Jimi Hendrix famously loved 60s Strats, so if you’re a fan of his (who isn’t?) then another good reason to get one of these.

The body also ages and wears in a distinctively personal way. The guitar ages with you. What better heirloom to give your kids than your well-worn (and well-loved) Strat?

PROS

  • Rosewood fretboard
  • 65 single-coil Stratocaster pickups
  • Gloss Nitrocellulose Lacquer that ages with you. Will look seriously great once it’s aged with you – it will probably better than you 🙂

CONS

  • The hole in your bank account
  • The constant grin on your face for days, weeks, months after buying one of these. Could be misinterpreted as smugness (LOL).
  • The other top-end gear (amps, pedals) that you’ll be forced to purchase to match the sheer awesomeness of this guitar. Your bank account isn’t going to know what’s hit it.


So, Which Should You Choose?

So there you have it, folks. The Strat is an excellent guitar; design icon, cultural relic, baby boomer still kicking it with the young people – it’s the ultimate guitar. It’s almost a crime for any self-respecting guitarist not to own one of these.

The good thing is, there’s a Strat for every price point. Even the cheaper models like the Affinity still pack a lot of punch for the price. We all aspire to have one of the top-end ones – if you’re not in a position to fork out that kind of money yet, be patient, you’ll get there.

If you have the spare money, what are you waiting for?!

Ged Richardson

Ged is the Founder of Zing and guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango'. When he's not writing or noodling, he's tinkering with his vintage Campervan.