Fender Stratocaster Buyers Guide

February 23, 2021  
Posted by Sam Ash Music
Fender Stratocaster Buyers Guide

What is a Strat?

Ask someone to name an electric guitar and the overwhelming response will be the Fender Stratocaster. Since its introduction in 1954, Leo Fender’s innovative Strat has become a worldwide icon. There are lots of reasons why, but it begins with the Strat’s many original breakthrough features, including:

  • Double Cutaway “Comfort Contour” Body
  • Three Single-Coil Pickups
  • Patented Synchronized Tremolo Bridge
  • Recessed Input Jack Socket
  • Iconic Color Options

Why a Strat?

The Fender Stratocaster has a long, rich history as one of the first and most enduring electric guitars ever made. So, just what is it about the Fender Stratocaster that makes it so popular? First and foremost, Strats sound great because, well, they sound like Strats! Regardless of what pickup configuration you might choose, the Fender Stratocaster has a distinguishable tone that sets it apart from other models and brands. They are also incredibly comfortable to play. But there’s even more to the Strat’s appeal. Let’s face it, Stratocasters just look cool. Very cool. And it doesn’t hurt that so many great guitarists—from Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, to Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Yngwie Malmsteen—have made music history with the help of a Fender Stratocaster.

So whether you’re just starting out, or have been playing—or collecting—for years, there’s a Strat that fits exactly what you’re looking for. And how much is a Stratocaster? Well, the great thing is that there are Stratocasters for every budget and level of player, from absolute beginners, to rock stars. They range from about $150 for the least expensive Squier Stratocaster, to the medium range Mexican made Fender Player Stratocasters, to upwards of $2000 for certain American made models. Custom Shops stretch much higher, into the thousands of dollars.

Classic Stratocaster Features

Before we get to all the families and variations, let’s take a look at some classic Stratocaster features:

  • Ash or Alder Body
  • Double Cutaway “Comfort Contour Body”
  • Bolt-On Maple Neck
  • Maple or Rosewood Fingerboard
  • Three Single-Coil Pickups
  • Five-Position Pickup Selector
  • 1 Volume Control and 2 Tone Control Knobs
  • 25.5″ Scale Length Neck with 21 or 22 Frets
  • 9.5″ Fretboard Radius (Modern) or 7.25″ Fretboard Radius (Vintage)
  • Synchronized Tremolo Bridge with Vibrato Arm

Stratocaster Families

There are four major “families” in the Stratocaster line. The major differences in the families are the places where they are built, the quality of the components, and the build technique. Some are more inexpensively made and others are handcrafted by masters using the finest available materials. The four families of Fender Stratocasters are (listed from lesser to greater quality): Squier Stratocaster, Player Stratocasters (made in Mexico), American Stratocasters which break out into various series including American Performer Stratocasters, American Original Stratocasters, and American Professional Stratocasters. The final family, and the most coveted, is Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters. Keep in mind that Fender Artist Model Stratocasters are found in each of the five families.

Squier by Fender

The Stratocaster line begins with the entry-level Squier by Fender. These guitars are lower priced, but they aren’t knockoffs — they’re genuine, high-quality Strats made to Fender specs in the Far East (commonly Indonesia).

Squier quality has made huge improvements in recent years and several well-known players have begun to use them. Though Squier guitars aren’t outfitted with the absolute best pickups or electronics like higher-priced Fender models, they are still made with quality components that will give you a great electric guitar sound. They are also quite comfortable to play, thanks to the classic Strat comfort contour body.

The Squier line starts at Mini Strats for the very young player and goes next to Bullet Strats—a full-sized model, modestly priced for beginners. It’s capped by the most expensive (but still very affordable) of the Squiers, the Contemporary. Here’s a list of the Squier Strat models currently available:

That may seem like a lot, but each one has very subtle adjustments and stylistic differences which, even to the untrained eye, you can often pick up on by looking at them.

By the way, since Squiers are made to Fender specs, you can upgrade most Squier parts with equipment made for American Stratocasters, especially the pickups and electronics. If your looking to purchase a guitar for a beginner, you should strongly consider our Squier Electric Guitar Packages that include a guitar amplifier and other essential guitar accessories like an electric guitar gig bag, guitar picks, a guitar strap, an instrument cable, a guitar tuner and more.

Fender Player Stratocaster Guitars

Just 200 miles from Fender’s U.S. factory in Corona, California is Fender’s other North American factory in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. There’s a constant flow of traffic between the two factories, carrying parts, wood, and personnel. Both factories make guitars and amps bearing the Fender name, although the highest quality products are made in the U.S. Nonetheless, Fender’s factory in Mexico produces excellent Fender instruments and amplifiers, at a somewhat lower price. The Fender Player Stratocasters are made in this factory. Certain artist models, like Jimmy Ray Vaughn’s, as well as a few limited edition guitars, are also part of this Fender family.

Fender American Stratocaster Guitars

Fender American Stratocasters are made in Fender’s factory in Corona, California. This is where you’ll find Fender’s master builders and where the most coveted Stratocasters are made. The American Performer Series represents Fenders most affordable line of instruments that are made in the United States. They provide an excellent value offering features like Yosemite pickups and the Grease Bucket Tone circuit for additional clarity. Upgrading to the American Elite line give you fourth generation Noiseless Singe coil pickups and the popular compound neck profile.

Many famous artists’ signature guitars and some great limited-edition models are American made and fall into this high-quality Fender family.

Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters

Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters are made to honor a specific musician’s tastes or a specific instrument from the past. Built for expert players and fine guitar collections, these instruments are envisioned, designed, and hand-crafted in the United States by Fender’s legendary master craftsmen. These special instruments are unique, valuable, and incredibly playable. Because they are usually offered for a limited time or in limited quantities, they can even increase in value.

There are also plenty of Fender Custom Shop models in our Guitars of Distinction program, which you can learn more about from Sammy Ash himself!

Common Variations in Stratocaster Features

Today, Fender offers a large variety of features, options, and finishes within the Stratocaster lines, which vary between Strat families, price points and series. Yet, all Stratocasters retain the classic design which makes them instantly recognizable. Here are some of the variations that make one Stratocaster different from another:

Wood: The Stratocaster’s solid body is typically made of ash or alder, though other woods like poplar and basswood are also used from time to time on cheaper models. Different woods affect the guitar’s tone in subtle ways.

Color: There are many finish options for the Strat. In addition to standard colors and bursts, Fender also offers custom colors, and on occasion, has offered flame tops and limited edition designs.

Neck Profile: A large majority of Stratocasters sport a “C” neck shape, with some artist’s models occasionally using a Modern “C” (Yngwie Malmsteen), soft “V” shape (Eric Clapton) or a “U” shape (Ritchie Blackmore).

Fingerboard Radius: Most modern Strats have a 9.5″ fingerboard radius, which has a comfortable curvature that provides great playability. Vintage-style Strats have a more curved 7.25″ radius, while a few models sport an even flatter 12″ radius. Several models have a compound radius starting at 9.5″ near the nut and slowly changing to 14″ up towards the bridge. The radius near the nut is helpful for forming chords, while the flatter shape nearer to the bridge is ideal for string bending and soloing with increased comfort.

Pickup Configuration: The classic Strat has 3 single-coil pickups, denoted by “SSS.” Some models add a humbucker at the bridge position (HSS), have only two humbuckers (HH), or have humbuckers at both the bridge and neck position with a single-coil in the middle (HSH). There are also different types and series of pickups. Some well-known single-coil pickups include the Alnico 3, the vintage noiseless, the Texas Special overwound, and the Yosemite found on American Performer Series instruments. There are a few variations of humbuckers in use with Fender Strats as well. Notably, the American Performer HSS Strat boasts the patented Fender DoubleTap humbucker, which is capable of a unique method of coil-splitting. There is also the very popular Fender Shawbucker, designed by acclaimed humbucking pickup guru Tim Shaw, which can be found in various models throughout the Fender line.

You can go more in-depth on this in our Fender Stratocaster Pickups Buyer’s Guide.

Circuitry: Several Strat models have special circuitry for special results. For example, many models have reverse polarity in the center pickup to eliminate hum and get that “twangy” tone that Stevie Ray Vaughn made famous. Certain Strats have a Greasebucket tone circuit that lets you roll off the highs without adding bass. American Performer Strats also have a push/pull tone pot for a wider option of tonal variations. On the SSS Stratmodels, the push/pull allows you to use all three pickups at once, or the neck and bridge pickups at the same time, for a total of 7 voicings. The HSS Strat’s push/pull tone control splits the DoubleTap humbucker to afford single-coil sound.

Hardware: Hardware refers to things like the tuning gears, pickup covers, and other metal parts like the bridge and switch plates. Hardware on Stratocasters is commonly available in nickel and chrome finishes.

Bridge: Stratocaster guitars have a number of distinctive types of bridges. The most well-known bridge is the vintage-style synchronized tremolo, found on the American Performerand American Original Strats, as well as a number of artist models, amongst many others. The 2-Point deluxe synchronized tremolo bridge comes on the American Professional models, Player Strats and others, and features tremolo capabilities with two points of contact. Some models sport a non-tremolo hardtail bridge (mostly artists’ models) or a Floyd Rose locking tremolo.

Tuners: A number of different style tuners are found on Stratocasters including standard cast sealed, vintage F-stamped with slotted posts, and deluxe cast sealed locking tuners. The American Performer Series introduced ClassicGear tuners, sporting vintage looks with a modern 18:1 gear ratio. 

In Conclusion

Regardless of where you fall on the musical spectrum, how old you are, what your favorite color is, how long you’ve been playing, or any other of the countless details with which we characterize ourselves…there is undoubtedly a Stratocaster out there that’s perfect for you.

About the Author

Sam Ash Music

Sam Ash Music has been serving musicians since 1924 when they opened their first store in Brooklyn, NY. Still family owned and operated, Sam Ash Music is dedicated to preserving the goals set by their founder - offering musicians of all levels the best possible selection, service and price.