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 an impact.
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
- 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
The Stratocaster 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.
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.
However, all that changed in the 1960s, when 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.” 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.).
By now, it had secured its role as the undisputed king of them all.
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 allows for ample ‘neck space’ to work with.
Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
Here are some quick things you need to know about Strats to aid you with your purchase:
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.
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
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.
- 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
Squier Classic Vibe 50’s
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.
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).
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 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?!
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.