From its iconic double-horned shape to its contoured 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 an impact.
So why has it been so popular? You’re about to find out.
In this article, we deep dive into why the Strat has been so popular, what makes it so special (its design) and if you’re in the market to buy one, we give you advice on what to look out for as well as review the best Stratocasters on the market.
At a Glance: Our Favourite Budget, Mid Range and Premium Strats
- Squier Affinity Series
- Squier Classic Vibe 50’s
- Fender Standard
- Fender American Special
- Fender American Original ’60s
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
- History of The Stratocaster
- Stratocaster Design Features
- Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
- Product Round-up & Mini-Review – Best Stratocaster
- So, Which Should You Choose?
History of The Stratocaster
The Stratocaster was born in the Fifties but as Alan Di Perna wrote:
“it 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”
For a time in the mid-50s, the Strat and Telecaster were the only two guitars on Fenders books. However, while the Telecaster sold pretty well, 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.
“caused more Stratocasters to be sold than all the Fender salesmen put together.”
As well as establishing itself as a great guitar for blues, it was also used by The Beach Boys and Dick Dale for west coast Surf music, and Bob Dylan used one when he ‘went electric’ in 65 at Newport Folk Festival.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Beatles 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), as did British blues invasion players (Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, etc.).
We’re so familiar with the Strat that we take its design for granted. At the time of its release, it was heralded as a design masterpiece. In the words of Shadow’s guitarist Hank Marvin:
“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.”
It’s also got a full-scale length guitar (25.5″ inches long), as opposed to the Les Paul which is considerably shorter – which makes it easier to play up the neck.
Stratocaster Design Features
According to legend, Leo Fender was working on an iteration of the Telecaster when he came up with the Strat design we all know and love. It owes many design elements to the Tele (check out our in-depth article about Teles), but is a step up in a few ways:
The classic Strat has three single coils pickups (neck, middle and bridge) with switching and controls that offer you superb tonal versatility. In contrast to the Tele’s single tone knob, the Strat has dedicated tone knobs for the middle and bridge pickups. You sometimes find humbuckers in the bridge position too.
Strats from 1954 until 1977 shipped with a 3-way switch which let you toggle between the neck, middle and bridge pickups. Some savvy guitarists realized that jamming the switch in between the first and second position or second and third position gave them two different dual-pickup combinations with a rich and distinctive sound. A trick they called playing “out of phase”. To their credit, Fender listened and altered the switch to become a 5-way in models from 1977.
Tom Wheeler in his book The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat writes about these in-between positions:
“They discovered that balancing the pickup selector in between the notched positions provided additional sounds, typically described as thin, delicate, honky, quacky, hollow, and especially funky.”
We’re so familiar with the look of the Strat, that it’s hard to imagine people’s reaction when they first saw it back in 1954. It was unlike anything that had come before, a thing of “a thing of sculpted beauty” according to Dire Straits frontman and player of the Strat, Mark Knopfler.
The sculptured look of the Strat comes from the fact it’s contoured to nettle into the player’s body, making it supremely comfortable to play. It also features a cutout on the upper horn which affords the player better access to the upper notes.
Like the Tele, the Strat is a long 25.5” scale with 22 frets, which along with the double-cutaway body, puts the upper frets within easy reach.
The neck is bolted to the body, with a thin headstock and six single side tuners – a larger version of the headstock was introduced in the late 60s to accommodate a bigger Fender decal (CBS, the then owners of Fender, sticking their oar in where it wasn’t needed.) In 1982, with CBS out the picture, Fender returned to the smaller headstock.
One of the standout features is the innovative bridge with its two-point tremolo system (aka the whammy bar).
Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
Now you know a bit about the history and design characteristics, we’ll know look at key considerations if you’re looking to purchase one.
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.
Where Was it Made?
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, 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
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 a big headstock, and a great looking finish.
Who is this suitable for?
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.
- 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
- 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.
Check it out:
Squier Classic Vibe 50’s
Slightly more expensive, the Squier Classic Vibe range gives you superior features than the Affinity.
For a start, this has a solid alder body (the same timber you’d get if you bought an original American Strat) with vintage-voiced single-coil pickups.
A 9.5″ C style shaped, maple neck isn’t in keeping with a 50’s version (would be slightly bulkier) but the slimmer profile improves playability, so we’re all in favor of that.
Of course, on an original 50’s Strat you’d have a 3-way switch – but keeping with the times this has the 5-way to make the “out of phase” option easy to get.
Who should buy this?
This is ideal for the beginner to intermediate player who has a few more dollars to spend.
- Vintage voicing single-coils 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.
- For the price, it packs a lot of punch
- It’s not a Fender, but as with the Affinity, it’s still amazing value.
Take a listen:
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.
- 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
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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).
Take a listen…
Fender American Original ’60s
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?
- 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 🙂
- 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 is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.