Best Stratocaster – How to Choose the Right Strat for You

From its iconic double-horned shape to its ‘comfort contour body,’ the Stratocaster was and still is the most iconic of all electric guitars. No other guitar, except for perhaps the Les Paul or Telecaster, has made such a humongous impact.

In the words of Hank Marvin of the Shadows, the Stratocaster “was like something from space; really, it was so futuristic in its design. The contoured body was very comfortable, and it’s not a heavy instrument. So you could swing it around a little for posing and leaping about. It lent itself very much to the visual aspect of rock n roll.”

Stratocaster

So why has it been so popular? In this article, we’re going to look at the best Stratocaster on the market. If you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick peek of the ones we review.

At a Glance: Our Favourite Budget, Mid Range and Premium Strats

PREVIEW PRODUCT FEATURES

Squier by Fender Affinity Stratocaster Beginner Electric Guitar - Maple Fingerboard, Black

Squier Affinity Series
  • Includes a six-screw Synchronized tremolo bridge
  • Impressive color palette
  • Classic electronics
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Squier by Fender 303000503 Classic Vibe 50's Stratocaster Electric Guitar - 2-Color Sunburst - Maple Fingerboard

Squier Classic Vibe 50’s
  • Maple fretboard
  • Clear and bright sound
  • Comfortable playing and string bending
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Fender Standard Stratocaster Electric Guitar - Maple Fingerboard, Arctic White

Fender Standard
  • Comes with ‘Fender Custom Shop Fat ’50s’ pickups
  • 22-fret fingerboard
  • Maple and Pau Ferro fretboards
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Fender American Special Stratocaster Guitar - Sonic Blue

Fender American Special
  • US made
  • Greasebucket tone circuit
  • 22 jumbo frets
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Fender American Original '60s Stratocaster - Olympic White

Fender American Original ’60s
  • Rosewood fretboard
  • 65 single-coil pickups
  • Gloss Nitrocellulose Lacquer finish
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History of The Stratocaster

It was born in the Fifties but “refuses to grow up. Having participated in many of rock history’s greatest moments, it’s still running with the young punks. It remains the ultimate playing machine—ergonomic, responsive, sexy” said Alan Di Perna.

The Stratocaster was first released in 1954. For a time, the Strat and Telecaster were the only two guitars on Fenders books. However, while the Tele did ok, the Strat struggled to make a name for itself. In the late fifties, it was briefly popularised by Buddy Holly before his untimely death in 1959. A 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, another player of the guitar, also tragically perished in the same airplane crash. With the introduction of it’s newer, trendier looking Jazzmaster sibling in 1958, the future for the Strat didn’t bode well.

However, all that changed in the 1960s, and it became the guitar of choice for Jimi Hendrix who, according to Fender salesman Dale Hyatt, “caused more Stratocasters to be sold than all the Fender salesmen put together.” The Beach Boys and Dick Dale made it their go-to guitar for west coast Surf music, and moptops John Lennon and George Harrison used a pair of sonic blue Strats on the album Help! (the ‘A’ note played by Lennon on “Ticket to Ride” was played on it). Bob Dylan used one when he ‘went electric’ in 65 at Newport Folk Festival, as did British blues invasion players (Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, etc.)

Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations

Here are some quick things you need to know about Strats to aid you with your purchase:

Budget

The great thing about these guitars is there is one available at every price point. You can spend thousands of dollars, or just a few hundred, and you’ll still end up with something that resembles a Strat. The more you pay, the better it will be of course, but it will still have used many of the design features we’ve already mentioned.

Where Was it Made?

Strats are made in a variety of locations, but the general rule of thumb is the best Stratocasters come out of the US (superior in build, quality, and materials) – these are also the most expensive. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have to get a made in the US though – some great ones come out of Mexico and the far east. How do you know where they’re made? On the headstock, they will be an abbreviation: MIM (made in Mexico), MIA (made in America), made in South East Asia (Indonesia) and China (which don’t appear to have an abbreviation).

Product Round-up & Mini-Review – Best Stratocaster

Squier Affinity Series

Squier by Fender Affinity Stratocaster Beginner Electric Guitar - Maple Fingerboard, Black

You want a Strat, but you don’t want to break the bank to get one. Ok, so first things first. For a budget price, you aren’t going to get an American build Strat. You’re looking at a South East Asian model. Here’s the good news: if you can get over the fact they’ve come from a production line in China, you can get a decent enough Strat.

PROS

  • The price obviously includes a six-screw synchronized tremolo bridge and classic Stratocaster electronics.
  • An impressive colour palette – tons of colors to choose from.
  • A great first Strat while you save up for an American one.

CONS

  • Manufactured in China and utilizes less expensive components to cut down on cost.
  • It only says ‘Fender’ on the headstock in super small writing, but what can you expect for the price.
  • Comes with the large 60’s headstock – Strat purists tend to prefer the earlier 50’s smaller headstocks – but it’s a matter of taste, not a show stopper

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Squier Classic Vibe 50’s

Squier by Fender 303000503 Classic Vibe 50's Stratocaster Electric Guitar - 2-Color Sunburst - Maple Fingerboard

Moving up the price points a bit, the Squier classic vibe range gives you a bit more bang for buck than the Affinity Strats. You get a genuine alder body with a gloss polyester finish (the Affinity is a cheaper Polyurethane finish)

PROS

  • Maple fretboard
  • Custom Vintage-Style Single-Coils versus the Standard Single-Coils found on the Affinity. They give you a clearer, brighter sound, with decent sustain.
  • The 9.5″ radius neck offers comfortable playing and string bending – ideal if you play with the thumb on the back or side of the neck.
  • Smaller headstock

CONS

  • Fender in super small letters on the headstock (for fans of Fender, this could grate on you)
  • Made in China – some people just have an aversion to that. To many, this still beats the slightly more expensive ‘Standard’ Strats that are made in Mexico.
  • Even though the pickups are better than the Affinity, many people end up switching them out for higher end ones.

 

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Fender Standard

Fender Standard Stratocaster Electric Guitar - Maple Fingerboard, Arctic White

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)

 

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Fender American Special

Fender American Special Stratocaster Guitar - Sonic Blue

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).

 

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Fender American Original ’60s

Fender American Original '60s Stratocaster - Olympic White

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.

 

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So, Which Should I 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?!

 

Image Credits: Featured image source: stomas / CC BY-SA 2.0

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