You don’t have to be a trophy-winning, household-name auto racer to appreciate the aesthetics, appeal, and functionality of that slick sports car parked outside the coffee shop. The seductive curves pull your eye along the profile, giving you a second or two to enjoy the wind-defying aerodynamics of the various parts. When the engine starts you can hear, even feel the power, and you can almost feel the exhilaration of putting that vehicle through its paces.
And you don’t have to be an arena touring household name rock star to appreciate the quintessential guitar used in nearly all genres and all cultures, the Fender Stratocaster. Like the sports car, owning and using a Stratocaster takes a little thought, a little research, and a little understanding of why guitars are what they are, and we can start by looking at the Stratocaster from top to bottom.
Following the hard-earned successes of his three previous guitar game changers the Precision Bass, Broadcaster, and Telecaster, Clarence Leo Fender gave the world the Stratocaster in the fall of 1954. With the help of Freddie Tavares, Bill Carson, and George Fullerton, the next big thing for professional gigging guitar players was introduced that year and has been the next big thing ever since. It is hard to believe that we are approaching the 70th year of the Stratocaster almost unchanged, a testament to its utter fitness for duty in virtually all musical contexts from the first day.
From the radical (at the time) body curves to the appropriately contoured headstock, from the three pickups being the most in an electric guitar to date to the science fiction-like vibrato bridge unfortunately named “Tremolo”, the Stratocaster started life and has remained a truly revolutionary step in guitar evolution. The Strat has been a part of nearly every music genre since its inception. From the earliest Rock & Roll through the electrification of folk music to the arena-filling sound of the 70’s on through all of the shapes popular music has taken since; the Stratocaster has been in global use as part of the music of almost all cultures on the planet.
Attempting to list the greats that have wielded a Stratocaster is fraught with omission, there are that many great users of this great guitar, their greatness measured in record sales, influence, or songwriting, all done with a Stratocaster. For the moment, for this piece, let’s just think about why those artists use the Stratocaster, like the legend Jimi Hendrix. Let’s look at the parts of the sum to see just what about it makes it so very useful to so many guitar players in so many musical styles.
Whether plain maple or painted to match the body, the more petite vintage style, or the bold statement 70’s version, the nicely shaped headstock provides a great spot for the brand and model names, it ends the strings at the tuning machines. While there are enough types of tuning machines to fill an article of their own, it is a very good assumption that the vintage slotted, solid staggered, or locking type tuners found on Stratocasters up and down the range will provide a lifetime of consistent, smooth, accurate tuning. That hole burrowing into the neck you will see on most Strats? That is access to the truss rod, an important part of a properly functioning neck.
You will immediately notice the two very different looking fingerboards on the necks of the Strats in the local music shop. The lighter, original maple, and the darker rosewood, which was introduced in 1959 for visual reasons and to keep up with other guitar makers who were long-time users of rosewood for fingerboards.
The differences are endlessly arguable, but for your first Stratocaster the one that feels good to you is what matters, you will have plenty of time before you enter the fingerboard fray. The radius of the fingerboard, that is the slight curve across the front of it, the neck shape which refers to the size and profile of the back of the neck, and the frets themselves all make for what can be a plethora of neck types, all best decided upon by how they feel, saving the minutiae for another day.
The gentle curves and contours, slightly nipped waist, and delightfully asymmetrical cutaway horns all add up to the timeless visual appeal that is the Stratocaster. While there are as many woods used to make guitar bodies as there are makers and their reasons for each type, we will confine our thoughts to Ash and Alder, the two most common Stratocaster woods you will see.
Neither of these materials is better than the other and they both add up to about the same weight. They are simply different and used for different reasons, not least of which can be the cost, depending on supply conditions. For your first Strat, it is better to again play and feel them, asking the local shop for an example of each as they will no doubt have both on hand. Whichever wood is used, the body will have an equally delightfully curved large piece of plastic screwed to it, the pickguard. The pickups and controls are mounted to it, and it protects the body of the guitar from years of strumming and aggressive single-line lead playing that most guitar players inflict on their Strats.
No discussion of Stratocaster bodies would be complete without one of the most appealing qualities, the color and finish. From popular car colors of the ‘50s and ‘60s to the trend following looks over the decades since, Stratocaster colors inspire and please guitar players and casual observers like literally no other guitar. From high gloss lacquers to satin shades to clear natural finishes and classic bursts, all of them work with the seductive lines and soft, smooth edges to dazzle the eye with rich, enduring colors that seem never to go out of style.
The strings of the Stratocaster begin their journey by passing through the body, up and out on their way to the tuning machines through the bridge. This bridge was the pride and joy of Mr. Fender, and was nothing short of revolutionary for the time. The fulcrum plate, block, and springs in the back of the guitar allow the included arm to provide the shimmering warbles and startling up-and-down changes in pitch that have been the hallmarks of the Stratocaster since its inception, put to incredibly musical use by countless masters of the instrument.
Deceptively simple and mechanically complex all at once, this innovation in vibrato, the change to pitch, not only provided the “Synchronized Tremolo” function, it allowed individual string height settings and precise string length adjustment, allowing for proper intonation, the accurate tuning of a string along the entire length of the neck. At first glance, it can be technically overwhelming, but the proper setup and maintenance of this marvel comes fairly easily, and should not be a source of intimidation. It is a large part of what makes the Stratocaster the unique guitar that it is.
Since it is possible to encounter one or two in any Stratocaster search, it is important to note that there is also a “hardtail” Strat, that is, a bridge that is solidly mounted to the top of the body, not the Synchronized Tremolo bridge. This was more common a few decades ago but has become far less so over time.
The Pots, Switch, and Jack
The three knobs along the lower edge of the pickguard sit atop the single volume and two tone potentiometers, or pots, that control the sound. One volume controls all three pickups, and the two tone pots control at minimum the treble and bass response of at least the forwardmost (neck) and middle pickups, with more and more models wiring the rearmost (bridge) pickup to one of the tone controls. This is significant in that the early Stratocaster did not include tone control for the bridge pickup, a common modification starting in the ‘70s. Leo Fender did not see this as necessary as the average guitar player began to see it later on, and over the decades the company has been somewhat responsive to that option.
The usually white-tipped switch of the modern Stratocaster has 5 positions, the forward most, middle, and rearmost positions selecting the neck, middle, and bridge pickups, while the two in between stops provide either the neck and middle pickups at once, or the middle and bridge pickups at once. The variety of sounds on tap is yet another distinctly Strat characteristic and adds to the overall versatility of this guitar. Until 1977 this was a 3-way switch with only the individual pickups selected, while the in-between spots were a bit trickier to get, they provided a satisfying “quack” sound that the company saw fit to include in the 5-way switch operation.
Just below the pickguard sits the jack, arguably the least arguable part of the Strat. It’s where you plug the cable in that leads back to the amp of choice. It hasn’t changed since 1954, and there hasn’t been enough resistance to its utter simplicity and functionality to warrant much debate. Yet.
Finally, we get to those three rounded rectangular sticks under the strings, those parts that cause more in-depth discussion, spirited debate, and friendship-ending argument than any other part of the guitar, the pickups. While the types and uses of the dizzying array of pickups available for today’s guitar player would fill pages of yet another article, let’s look at the basics of this magic-making coil of wire wrapped around magnets.
The pickups found in a large majority of Stratocasters are single coils, that is, they are a single coil of wire wrapped many thousands of times around magnets of various compositions. The bright, airy sound of a single coil is unmistakable, and the crunchy, raw overdriven sound of a single coil is equally unique. Single coils are the pickups Stratocasters were born with, and to this day are the pickups of choice for the vast majority of Strat users.
But single coil pickups bring a certain, some would say necessary, level of noise, buzz if you will, to the sound as the pickups translate the vibration of the strings into an electric signal that is translated back into sound by the amplifier. Things like electronic devices, fluorescent lights, and even household appliances and light switches can noticeably worsen the apparent noise of single coils. For some guitar players, the noise component of single coil sounds is not an issue at all, for others it is not something they care to deal with, particularly for recording.
The other general type of pickup is called a humbucker, usually about twice the width of a single coil because it is essentially two single coils wired such that one cancels the noise of the other, leaving a noise-free translation of string vibration signals back into sound. There are quite a few models of Stratocaster that include a humbucker at the bridge position, and there are many varieties of single coil sized humbuckers and noiseless single coils to satisfy those that need, or just plain old want, silence from their pickups.
If you’ve made it this far you’ve already demonstrated a keen desire to separate the chaff of opinions from the wheat nuggets of history, facts, and experience regarding the Stratocaster, in order to hopefully help you find one of these classics for yourself.
Where To Buy A Stratocaster Guitar?
A large local shop or one of the many huge musical instrument department stores is a great place to start. Authorized Fender Dealers will have a whole mess of Stratocasters of various countries of origin from Mexico to Asia to America, and they will hang right next to Squier by Fender models. The differences in materials, construction, production, and cost of the variety of makes and models, particularly the Squier/Fender differences, are worthy of many pages, so our focus here is on Fender Stratocasters. Budget is nearly always the driver in such a decision, particularly for new players, and Fender branded guitars begin in the mid $800s and travel on up to the several thousand dollars for the Signature, Custom Shop, and various one-off types available. Ordinary American-made Stratocasters can be had beginning at around $1500, with most of the bigger shops having a mix of Strats of American and Mexican origin.
It can help a lot to have a more senior guitar player acquaintance or potential bandmate go along with you. It is intimidating to be confronted with them all, and the eyes and voice of reason that go along with some general guitar experience is invaluable in helping you sort through the options to find what works for your skill level, intended use, and budget.
If you are a younger new player, you have no doubt already begun exploring the other seemingly endless variety of online dealers. Buying online is a valid and legitimate way to go, especially if you don’t live near one of the big stores, and again, advice and help from a guitar player with a bit more experience can help make the job a little easier and help you avoid the fake Stratocasters out there.
As with a brick-and-mortar store, an Authorized Fender Dealer is a must for online purchases. Be sure to ensure a decent return policy, something like 30 or possibly 45 days. A guitar is a very personal buy, and sometimes what looks great and seems right just isn’t when you finally get it in your hands, and you don’t want a bunch of hassle if you find it isn’t right for you. There is no harm in that because it happens. Remember that if it defies your other finds, that the price just seems too good to be true, it is usually because it actually is too good to be true, so tread carefully and thoughtfully.
Finding a large assortment of Fender Stratocasters is difficult only for the most left-handed among us. Fender only produces approximately 10% of their guitars in left-handed versions, which happens to match the approximate ratio found in the general population. Fortunately, a quick search will find specialty shops online that deal in only left-handed guitars.
Final Thoughts on The Stratocaster
So there you are, hopefully, armed with enough of the basics of what makes this classic, world-renowned guitar the world-renowned classic it truly is. Head out to the shops, or into the online world with at least a little more confidence and a lot less confusion about such an exciting thing to own and use, in any musical way you choose, for a lifetime of musical good times, as these things are designed to provide just that. Above all, have fun finding your Fender Stratocaster.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a Fender Stratocaster worth it?
The rugged dependability, versatility, and sheer joy of playing are just the foundation of the value found in these instruments. Add to that the fact that they are a key element in the sounds that define quite a few styles and genres of music, that the Fender Stratocaster is high on the list of must-haves for most guitarists, and the answer is a resounding Yes, they are worth every penny.
Is the Stratocaster good for beginners?
The physical characteristics of the Stratocaster alone make it a comfortable, well-balanced guitar for beginners, whether sitting or standing. The variety of sounds available helps a new player find the tones of most music quickly, and that helps keep the beginner motivated and feeling successful. A Stratocaster is a great place to start one’s guitar journey.
Why are Stratocasters so popular?
Two words: They Work. The Stratocaster can satisfy nearly all the sound needs of any guitar player. The sum of its parts performs night after night for decades, becoming an integral part of the guitarists’ expression. The fact that it has remained virtually unchanged for almost 70 years is just one testament to the enduring popularity the Strat enjoys.
What to look for when buying a used Stratocaster?
Stick with guitars with little or no modifications. Changing parts is a personal choice, and not everyone wants the same things in their guitars. The original brand and model markings, along with a clearly readable serial number are important. Avoid obviously uncared-for guitars, it doesn’t take much to clean and maintain them, a necessary part of having a solid, reliable performer. And lastly, if your quick looks around at comparable models and versions make the potential purchase seem just a little (or a lot) too good to be true, pass. There are too many great Stratocasters out there looking for a good home to take such a risk.
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