The Stratocaster guitar is without the doubt the most iconic of all rock and blues guitars. The Telecaster and Les Paul come a close second, but the Stratocaster takes first prize for its role in sonically shaping modern guitar based music. So what's the best Stratocaster for your needs? We take a look here.
The Stratocaster is the ‘ultimate baby boomer’ too. 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 even though you’ve probably ‘already got enough guitars’ (according to your missus)?
If you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick glance at our favourite Strats for different price points:
At a Glance: Our Favourite Budget, Mid Range and Premium Strats
Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster (Budget Choice)
Fender American Special Stratocaster (Editor's Choice)
Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon. If you do purchase something we get a small commission, which has absolutely no effect on the eventual price that you pay.
The Fender Stratocaster - A quick history lesson
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 - The Return 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.”
So what made / makes the Strat so popular?
The Strat has the perfect trifecta of:
- Looks - in the words of Hank Marvin of the Shadows who helped to popularise the Strat in the UK in the early 1960’s “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.”
- Comfort - 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.
- Sound - The three pick-ups allow three very different sounds while the tremelo arm offers that distinctive waver.
1960’s to modern day - who played Strats?
It's almost easier to say who didn't play Strats. From David Gilmour who's on albums such as Dark Side of the Moon to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Mark Knopfler, Pete Townsend , Jeff Beck, Jack White to the Arctic Monkeys, the list is endless.
Ok history lesson over, let's look at some Strats.
So What's The Best Stratocaster Guitar? Let's Take A Look...
1. Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster (Budget Choice)
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.
Squier Affinity Strat - Fender shop
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)
Squier Classic Vibe 50’s Strat - Fender shop
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.
Fender Standard Stratocaster - Fender shop
4. Fender American Special Stratocaster (Editor's Choice)
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 (I hear ya) but doesn't want to remortgage their house to do it.
American Special Stratocaster - Fender shop
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 your 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.
American Original 60's Stratocaster - Fender shop
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.