The Stratocaster guitar is the most iconic of all rock and blues guitars. The Gibson Les Paul and Fender Telecaster come a close second, but the Stratocaster takes first prize for its role in sonically shaping modern guitar based music.
In the words of Alan Di Perna, the Stratocaster or ‘Strat’ 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”.
So what’s so special about the Stratocaster? Why has it been so popular, and why should you consider buying one? We’ll cover all this and more in this article dedicated to the splendour of the Strat. We start with the Strat’s origin story, who played it and why they liked it so much, then we’ll discuss things you need to consider if you want to buy one – then finally I’ll recommend some of the best new Strats available today.
If you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick peek of the Strat’s we review further down:
At a Glance: Our Favourite Budget, Mid Range and Premium Strats
Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster
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Squier Classic Vibe 50’s Strat
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Fender Standard Stratocaster
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Fender American Special Stratocaster
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Fender American Original ’60s Stratocaster
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- The 1950’s – The Fender Stratocaster is Born
- The 1960’s onwards – Rise of the Strat
- What Makes the Stratocaster So Popular?
- Buying Guide: What to Consider When Buying a Stratocaster
- Product Round-up & Mini-Review – The Best Stratocaster Guitars
The 1950’s – The Fender Stratocaster is Born
The Stratocaster is synonymous with rock n roll itself, being released in 1954 (Rock n Roll was pretty much born in 1955). For a time, the Strat and Telecaster were the only two guitars on Fenders books. However, the Strat struggled to make a name for itself initially and was bizarrely targeted at the western music scene. In the late fifties the Strat was briefly popularised by Buddy Holly before his untimely death in 1959. A 17-year-old Ritchie Valens, another player of the Strat, also tragically perished in the same airplane crash. Things were not looking great for the Strat, and along with the introduction of it’s newer, trendier looking Jazzmaster sibling in 1958, the future for the Strat didn’t bode well.
The 1960’s onwards – Rise of the Strat
The 1960’s saw the humble Strat literally rise from the ashes and become the genre defining instrument it is today. The Strat became the guitar of choice musical luminaries such as:
- The Beach Boys picked up Stratocasters, their infectious sound selling a lifestyle, helping he Strat become the go-to guitar for west coast Surf music (Dick Dale also played a Strat)
- Bob Dylan (his guitar of choice when he ‘went electric’ in 65 at Newport Folk Festival)
- The Beatles (John Lennon and George Harrison had a pair of Sonic Blue Strats used on the Help album – the “A” note played by Lennon on “Ticket to Ride” was made using a Strat). Strats also featured heavily on The Beatle’s Rubber Soul and Revolver albums.
- The Strat played a central role in the British blues invasion: Pete Townsend of The Who and Eric Clapton in Cream both played them.
- Most famously Jimi Hendrix who in the words of longtime Fender salesman Dale Hyatt “caused more Stratocasters to be sold than all the Fender salesmen put together.”
- Who else played a Strat? From David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler, Pete Townsend , Jeff Beck, Jack White to the Arctic Monkeys, the list goes on.
What Makes the Stratocaster So Popular?
So there must have been something special about the Strat that made it the guitar of choice for so many great musicians. Yes, there was. The Strat had (and has to this day) the perfect trio of:
In the words of Hank Marvin of the Shadows (who helped to popularise the Strat in the UK in the early 1960’s), the Stratocaster “was like something from space, really, it was so futuristic in its design. Also… 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.”
Strats are bright-sounding instruments that are relatively easy to hold, tune and play. The double horned shape is perfectly counterbalanced allowing musicians’ fingers to roam freely up and down the neck and fretboard. The guitar’s ‘comfort contour body’ fits comfortably into the torso.
The three pick-ups allow three very different sounds while the tremolo arm offers that distinctive waver.
Buying Guide: What to Consider When Buying a Stratocaster
Here are some quick things you need to know about Strats to aid you with your purchase:
- 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, workmanship and materials).
- These abbreviations are used:
- MIM (made in Mexico)
- MIA (made in America)
- Some are made in South East Asia (Indonesia) and China (which don’t appear to have an abbreviation)
- The budget line of Fender is called Squier, but they are still made by Fender.
Product Round-up & Mini-Review – The Best Stratocaster Guitars
1. Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster
You want a Strat but you don’t want to break the bank to get one. I hear ya. Ok, so first things first. For a budget price you aren’t going to get an American build Strat. Just isn’t going to happen. 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 an okay Strat.
- 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.
- 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
2. Squier Classic Vibe 50’s Strat
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)
- 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
- 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.
3. Fender Standard Stratocaster
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 easier 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)
4. Fender American Special Stratocaster
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 being picky at this price point).
5. Fender American Original ’60s Stratocaster
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 pick ups 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. Basically the guitar ages with you. What better airloom to give your kids than you’re beaten up well worn (and well loved) Strat.
- Rosewood fretboard
- 65 single-coil Stratocaster pick ups
- 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. You’re bank account isn’t gonna know what’s hit it.
So there you have it folks. The Strat is an awesome machine; design icon, cultural relic, baby boomer still kicking it with the young folk – it’s the ultimate guitar really. It’s almost a crime for any self respecting guitarist not to own one of these babies. The good thing is, there’s a Strat for every price point really. 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 folk out that kind of money yet, be patient young Luke, you’ll get there. If you have the spare money, what are you waiting for? Will you regret it? Does the car fanatic regret buying that Porche 911?
Of course not!
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.