Casting Call – The Great Stratocaster Round Up
It’s the curvy classic that can do it all, depending on the pickups of course. But will a budget model deliver the delicious sounds and slinky feel of a high-end job? Grabbing nine current Strats with prices ranging from a couple of hundred quid up to well over a thousand, Richard Purvis sets out on a voyage of twang
Many electric guitar collections start with a Stratocaster, and many distinguished careers end up with one. We could fill up this whole introduction with a list of celebrity Strat fans, but no need. Let’s just put Jimi at one end of the scale and Tony Blair at the other, and you can pop whoever you like in the space between.
Even to non-guitarists, Leo Fender’s 1954 three-pickup wonder still has iconic status. It was badly abused in the ’80s – that infamous chorus-drenched quack made Strats a no-go area for all non-suit-wearers for a generation – but it’s safe to say we’re past those painful associations now. And while street cred may rise and fall, this is a 60-year-old guitar that’s never been in danger of going out of production.
Recent years have seen a torrent of new models at all prices, with leanings both vintage and modern, ensuring there really is a Strat for everyone… if you can find it. To help you do just that, we’ve called in nine of them for the definitive Strat round-up. It’s not about seeing which one is best – given the price differentials involved, that would be unfair – but about getting to the bottom of each one’s personality.
Squier Affinity Strat HSS
Made in China. Alder body with bolt-on maple neck and rosewood fretboard (no maple option), 21 frets, vintage-style vibrato bridge, diecast tuners. One humbucker and two single-coil pickups, five-way switch, master volume, tone for neck and middle pickups. Finishes: Montego black metallic (as reviewed), metallic blue, metallic red, black, Lake Placid blue, Olympic white, burgundy mist. Weight of review model: 3.3kg/7.3lbs
Perfect For: Rocking out without splashing out
Closest Cousin: The Squier Standard Strat HSS is your next-cheapest option with this pickup configuration
It would be good to kick off with a simple, straightforward model with all the classic features to give us a handy reference point… but we won’t. We’re going in order of price, and the cheapest guitar on test is this distinctly non-vintage beast, with a scratchplate the colour of an incoming tornado and a humbucker in the bridge position. In fact it doesn’t even say ‘Stratocaster’ on that ’70s-style outsize headstock, just ‘Strat’. Outrageous!
Still, everything else is more or less as it should be and the build quality is just about impeccable for the money. The tuners look less than sturdy and the neck finish is so matte it could almost be raw timber, but there are no playability issues and the unplugged tone is pleasantly breezy, with a scooped midrange that bodes well for modern metal action on that humbucker.
We’d best start with the single-coils, though. Both are sweet and plucky enough through a clean amp, and that’s equally true of the in-between positions – although there’s a slight darkening of the tone once the bridge pickup is brought into the mix. Switch to this unit on its own and the one thing more noticeable than the drop in treble content is the rise in output level: this is one big, barking ’bucker. There’s still enough chime to make clear this isn’t a Les Paul – in part because of the longer Fender scale length – but the invitation to add some lunatic distortion is impossible to resist.
On goes the stompbox and out comes the fire-farting monster. The single-coils perform well enough in rockier conditions, retaining good clarity and definition, but the fun is all on the bridge pickup, especially once you start wriggling up the neck and abusing that whammy bar in true superstrat style. Nice… but now can we try a Stratocaster, please?
Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster
Made in Indonesia. Basswood body with bolt-on maple neck and rosewood fretboard (no maple option), 21 frets, vintage-style vibrato bridge, vintage-style tuners. Three Duncan Designed single-coil pickups, five-way switch, master volume, tone for neck and middle pickups. Finishes: black, three-tone sunburst, vintage blonde. Weight of review model: 3.4kg/7.5lbs
Perfect For: Sweet clean tones with a vintage vibe
Closest Cousin: Up your budget and try the Fender Classic Series ’60s version
The word ‘vintage’ promises something a little less likely to upset the Shadows fans in the room, and sure enough this is Squier’s best attempt to capture the spirit of a pure Strat – albeit in a guitar that’s made from basswood, not alder or ash, and in Indonesia rather than California. The fret ends are perhaps just a teeny bit snaggy in places but again, overall, you can’t deny this is a very well-made instrument for under the £300 mark. It’s another with a dirty great post-CBS paddle for a headstock, and from 10 feet away you’d struggle to tell it from a real ’70s Fender.
Our first proper all-single-coil guitar of the test brings us to the Stratocaster’s first real design flaw: three pickups and only two controls. In this case, as usual, the bridge unit simply bypasses the tone circuit and has to put up with being a bit shrill sometimes. Nearly all Telecasters these days have modernised circuitry for increased tonal control – is there really no solution for the Strat’s little weakness? Well, of course there is – we’ll see two of them later in the test.
This time the acoustic voice is a little stronger in the midrange, and that’s just as true once we’re plugged in. The pickups are Duncan Designed – that’s Seymour’s Korean-made budget range – and all three can produce strong, deep tones through the right amp. This is a Stratocaster with plenty of ‘thrap’ and it does a convincing Sweet Home Alabama in position four. At clean settings you might wonder whether the neck pickup could do with being just a tad brighter; with overdrive, you might find it positively murky. The other four settings all stand up well but this guitar is not a huge sustainer and, somehow, you get the feeling that it just doesn’t really want to be a rock guitar. Still, decent twang for little money.
Squier Deluxe Stratocaster
Made in Indonesia. Basswood body with bolt-on all-maple neck (no rosewood fretboard option), 22 frets, two-point vibrato bridge, diecast tuners. Three Duncan Designed single-coil pickups,five-way switch, master volume, tone for neck and middle pickups. Finishes: Pearl white metallic (as reviewed), daphne blue. Weight of review model 3.4kg/7.5lbs
Perfect For:Noodling after hours in a cruise ship’s ballroom
Closest Cousin: The Fender American Deluxe Strat costs three times as much but the two have a lot in common
Paler than an anaemic Hebridean housewife in her grandma’s nightie, this is a guitar you could lose in a snowdrift – the gently metallic pearl white finish is actually lighter than the scratchplate, and even the maple board appears strangely washed-out. If the lack of contrast bothers you, don’t worry: the Squier Deluxe Strat is also available in blue. Very, very light blue.
We reviewed Fender’s US-made equivalent of this model not so long ago and found it extremely – perhaps excessively – polite. But this is another basswood-bodied instrument with Duncan Designed pickups, so its nearest neighbour in theory should be the Vintage Modified. There are differences aside from the fretboard material: we’ve moved to the smaller ’50s headstock shape and the bridge is a more modern-looking unit, with matte-finished cast saddles and two pivoting screws (black ones).
Again the Indonesian build quality is excellent and the medium jumbo frets well-dressed.
Maple boards are usually associated with a brighter, more snappy response than rosewood but some say the difference is minimal – and anyone who’s spent some time with a Squier Deluxe Strat is likely to agree. This is a guitar with a clear but restrained top end. You wouldn’t call it dull or muddy – the snappy Strat sparkle is there, it’s just slightly subdued. You’re unlikely to curse the lack of a tone control for the bridge pickup on this one.
The addition of overdrive increases the danger of descending into murkiness, especially on the neck pickup, but we wouldn’t rule this out as a blues guitar. Not many people will be sent into a swoon by it, but if you’re looking for refinement – and find that colour elegant rather than sickly – this could be a good place to start.
Fender Standard Stratocaster
Made in Mexico. Alder body with bolt-on all-maple neck (rosewood fretboard optional), 21 frets, vintage-style vibrato bridge, diecast tuners. Three Standard single-coil pickups, five-way switch, master volume, tone for neck and middle pickups. Finishes: Arctic white (as reviewed), black, Lake Placid blue, midnight wine, candy apple red, brown sunburst. Weight of review model: 3.4kg/7.5lbs
Perfect For:Full-on rock spank
Closest Cousin: Perhaps an American Standard souped up with some hot aftermarket pickups
Now we’re into Fender-branded territory. ‘Standard’ suggests something solid and definitive, the archetypal Stratocaster from which all others are derived, and that certainly used to be the point but it’s not so simple nowadays. If you’re expecting this to be just a more cheaply-assembled version of the American Standard, your next think is approaching fast.
First, though, we should stop to admire the look of this guitar. The colour range available for this model is wide but we’re not complaining about having another white Strat on our hands, because this time the Hebridean housewife has popped on a sweater and has a little warmth in her cheeks. The finish may be called Arctic white but it’s positively creamy compared to the pearl white of the Squier, and the maple neck is of a richer shade too; think Jimi at Woodstock. This might just be the silkiest neck yet, with chubby but low-profile frets, and it’s topped off by a ’50s-style headstock with a ’70s-style black logo.
Acoustically this one is agreeably full and smooth with not much in the way of zing, but how much influence all that has on the amplified voice is hard to say, because these pickups are hot – alarmingly hot. They’re by far the loudest single-coils we’ve heard so far, and everything you put into them comes out ferociously lush. This means it doesn’t have the same transparency and subtle dynamics as a ‘traditional’ Fender solidbody, but that’s not to say its vintage character has been obliterated completely.
The neck pickup is good for brisk and breezy strumming, and there’s plenty of bite in the other two. This time the inability to pull back the treble on the bridge pickup might well be an issue for some, but easing off on the volume helps somewhat.
Fender Classic Series ’60s Stratocaster
Made in Mexico. Alder body with bolt-on maple neck and rosewood fretboard (no maple option), 21 frets, vintage-style vibrato bridge and tuners. Three vintage-style single-coil pickups, five-way switch, master volume, tone for neck and middle pickups. Finishes: three-colour sunburst (as reviewed), Lake Placid blue, black, candy apple red. Weight of review model: 3.7kg/8.1lbs
Perfect For: Old-school blues and classic rock
Closest Cousin: An actual 1960s Stratocaster… in looks, at least
With its deep sunburst finish, mint green scratchplate and cream plastic bits, this is perhaps the most ‘vintage’-looking Strat so far. We’re back to a rosewood fingerboard, and the lack of a solid colour allows us to make out that it’s a two-piece body. The Fender logo is gold and the tuners are old-fashioned Kluson types, while the frets are thinner and maybe a tiny bit higher than those on the Standard. It feels like quality… until we look at the output socket and notice the first real build problem of the whole test: the metal plate is flapping loose at one end because the screw has gone clean through its hole, which must presumably have been drilled a fraction too wide. Tsk.
Acoustically this Strat has a lighter voice than the Standard – you could almost call it distant, and it certainly won’t set your thighs a-throbbing when played sitting down. But the pickups look promising – the polepieces are staggered in historically correct fashion, standing well proud for the middle two strings but lurking lower than the cover for the B – and there’s surely enough raw meat here for them to cook up something tasty.
Ah yes, this is the sweetest tone we’ve heard yet. It’s clear and balanced, with five highly distinct voices, and makes the hot-headed Standard sound pretty boorish in comparison. You’re likely to find that it’s not quite as much fun to play, however, and the reason is that this model’s focus on all things ‘vintage’ extends to the fretboard radius, which is 7.25″ rather than the flatter 9.5″ profile that most modern Fender fans are used to. One retro step too far? Well, some people like it that way, and it needn’t be a problem, just as long as you’re not up against a Charvel in a shredding contest.
Fender Pawn Shop ’70s Stratocaster Deluxe
Made in Mexico. Alder body with bolt-on all-maple neck (no rosewood fretboard option), 22 frets, fixed bridge, diecast tuners. One Enforcer ‘Wide Range’ humbucker and one Standard Tele single-coil pickup, three-way switch, master volume and tone. Finishes: black (as reviewed), two-colour sunburst, vintage white. Weight of review model: 3.4kg/7.5lbs
Perfect For: Strat-buyers who don’t like Strats
Closest Cousin: Swap the pickups around and you’ve almost got a Tele Custom
Call that a Strat!? It might fool us from behind, but one look at the hardware on the front makes clear that some – perhaps most – of the DNA in this startling mongrel comes from elsewhere in the Fender family. Well, the whole idea of the Pawn Shop series is to mash things up freely, and guitar design doesn’t get much more mashed-up than this. Forget Strats for a second: the ’70s was the era of interesting Telecasters – the Custom, the Deluxe and the twin-humbuckered Thinline – and that’s where this model’s origins really lie. Having said that, the scratchplate shape and single-coil neck pickup owe more to the original ’69 Thinline. Oh, and the knobs are straight off a Jaguar. Or a Jazz Bass…
Let’s stop inspecting the poor bugger and give it a play. The only fixed-bridge guitar on test, the Pawn Shop Deluxe clearly can’t be expected to sound remotely like any of the others, even if it does share the classic 25.5″ scale length and alder/maple construction. It sounds pleasant enough unplugged, though there’s not a great deal of depth to it, and playability is more or less up there with the rest.
We’ll start with the neck pickup, which may be a covered Telecaster-type but is at least the same distance from the bridge as it is on our conventional Strats. It’s quite dark in tone and doesn’t have masses of character, to be frank, but it’s full enough and can be quite enjoyably piano-like on the wound strings. Things don’t get a whole lot brighter in the middle position but here we do find some of the clucky articulation of a normal Tele beginning to appear. The Wide Range-style humbucker on its own is fat and honky – somewhat limited as a clean sound, but with definite potential for all sorts of indie-rock larks when overdriven.
Fender American Special Stratocaster
Made in USA. Alder body with bolt-on all-maple neck (no rosewood fretboard option), 22 frets, vintage-style vibrato bridge, diecast tuners. Three Texas Special single-coil pickups, five-way switch, master volume, Greasebucket tone for neck and bridge pickups. Finishes: candy apple red (as reviewed), surf green, two-colour sunburst. Weight of review model: 3.6kg/7.9lbs
Perfect For: Clean popand funk purposes
Closest Cousin: See also the American Vintage models
At last we make it over the border into America – and here is proof that Fender can still make a proper Stratocaster in its home country and sell it over here for less than a grand. Just as Gibson has been putting out Les Paul Specials as stripped-back versions of its more expensive Standard models since the ’50s, Fender has now picked up the same convention for its least expensive US-made instruments.
It doesn’t really look noticeably stripped back, though, and any cost-cutting that’s going on here is mostly under the bonnet. The candy apple red finish is deep and sparkly, there are no finishing issues to report on our review sample, and the all-maple neck is a silky joy. We haven’t even mentioned neck profiles yet because they’ve all been of a fairly equal slimness; this one, however, feels just a fraction more meaty behind the nut.
The acoustic tone is open and breezy, not dissimilar to the Classic Series ’60s Strat but with a wee bit less body in the low end, and the overriding characteristic of the Special’s amplified voice is a lovely, papery thrap. The neck pickup is smooth and clear, while the bridge unit is probably the best we’ve heard yet, with all the snappy bark you could wish for backed up by just enough fullness. The middle pickup is rich and well-balanced, and here at last we find a solution to the ‘two tone controls for three pickups’ problem: the neck and bridge units use the Greasebucket tone circuit while this one has to manage without. It does so perfectly well.
For some players, there’s enough evidence here to conclude that the Americans know best how to make an American guitar – but it must be conceded that the Special cannot match the Mexican-made ’60s model for overdriven twang on the bridge pickup.
Fender Classic Series 50’s Stratocaster Lacquer
Made in Mexico. Alder body with bolt-on all-maple neck (no rosewood fretboard option), 21 frets, vintage-style vibrato bridge, vintage-style tuners. Three vintage-style single-coil pickups, five-way switch, master volume, tone for neck and middle pickups. Finish: candy apple red nitrocellulose only. Tweed hard case included. Weight of review model 3.2kg/7.1lbs
Perfect For: Surf twang
Closest Cousin: The near-identical non-lacquer version, of course
Allow us to hop briefly back over the barbed wire for one more Mexican Fender: a fancy nitrocellulose finish takes this model above the American Special on price, if only by 20-odd quid. As the two we’ve been sent are both candy apple red, this gives us a fascinating opportunity to compare the costly nitro lacquer with its polyurethane equivalent – in terms of looks, at least. The tone debate is more tricky, as we don’t know how different the two would have sounded unpainted. Anyway, no doubt the nitro finish will age more handsomely but for the moment the two look, um, about the same. They do smell different, though.
The ’50s model’s neck has a deep orangey hue that’s as far away as can be from the pale sheen of those Squiers. Its other most striking visual quirk is the one-ply scratchplate: just a simple sliver of white plastic, as on the very first generation of Stratocasters. Some may find it a bit too white for the creamy ‘aged’ knobs and pickup covers, but you can always spill coffee on it (not really, please). Of more concern to lead players who like to do a lot of string-bending is that this, being another Strat with its roots in the olden days, shares the ’60s version’s 7.25″ fretboard radius.
This Strat has maybe just a smidge less ‘air’ when strummed acoustically, despite the maple fingerboard, but it’s a near-negligible difference that could easily be reversed on two other samples of the same models. When amplified they’re fairly close too, despite the ’60s Strat being a noticeably heavier instrument, and the ’50s model’s bridge pickup is missing perhaps just a sliver of low-end body. It’s the wiriest-sounding yet, in fact, and a tone control on this one would have been very welcome indeed – though pulling the volume down a notch helps.
Fender American Standard Stratocaster
Made in USA. Alder body (ash on Sienna sunburst version), bolt-on all-maple neck (rosewood board optional), 22 frets, two-point vibrato, diecast tuners. Custom Shop Fat ’50s pickups, five-way switch, master volume, No-Load tone for neck and middle/bridge. Finishes: three-colour sunburst, Olympic white, black, jade pearl metallic, Sienna sunburst, mystic red, mystic blue. Hard case included. Weight of review model: 3.5kg/7.7lbs
Perfect For: Summoning up the spirit of Stevie Ray
Closest Cousin: Double the budget and start dreaming of the Custom Shop…
Over we hop again, to finish up with what really ought to be the truly definitive Stratocaster. This is not the most expensive Strat in Fender’s stable by a long way – there are signature models, Custom Shop models, models with deep flame finishes and pickups wound from unicorn hair – but what we have here is basically the mothership. Ours is another sunburst, this time with a maple fingerboard, and it looks about as classic as it possibly could without being in a glass case.
The American Standard Strat recently got a couple of upgrades: to ‘aged’ plastic parts, which just means they’re not quite as white as the scratchplate; and to Custom Shop Fat ’50s pickups, which is somewhat more significant. The alder body is another centre-joined two-piece; ours has a bit of a knot above the bridge but nothing that really detracts from its overall look of vintage lustability. It’s slightly heavier than the Special, but in terms of feel there’s really nothing in it. So let’s see if we’ve got a decent acoustic voice for those pedigree pickups to work with.
Wow, we’re not sure if we’d call that decent or indecent. It’s the smoothest tone yet, strong and loud but not clanky, and the pickups know exactly what to do with it. Oh dear; how drearily predictable that the American Standard should be the best-sounding Strat of the bunch. As with the Mexican Standard, the sound is more full than you might be expecting, but this time the tone has been judged so tastefully that you couldn’t possibly call it overcooked. On the neck pickup especially, this guitar is packed with soul. And just to top it off, the second tone control works on both middle and bridge pickups, which kicks that one little weakness right off a cliff.
It always did look more glamorous than the trusty Tele, but the real secret of the Stratocaster’s long-term success may lie in that third pickup. Including the two in-between positions – which were originally found more or less accidentally by players, and only later incorporated into the design by way of a five-way switch – any Strat is a versatile instrument. Blues, country, pop, metal, experimental industro-jazz post-worldbeat folk fusion – pretty much anything you can play on an electric solidbody guitar, you can play on virtually any of these nine models.
They’re not all that different, then – but it would be quite wrong to say they all sound the same, or that the Squiers are just cheap imitations of their F-branded seniors. Let’s get the really distinctive ones out of the way first: the Pawn Shop model is a Stratocaster in name and silhouette only, but is certainly worth trying out in its own right as long as you’re happy with a more Tele-like character and are not after something with a whole load of top-end fizz; the Affinity HSS does respectable Strat sounds in four pickup positions and a pretty great metal trick in the fifth; and the Mexican Standard stands out for the simple reason that its pickups are hot enough to melt teeth. Some will love it, others will just be glad there are more traditionally-voiced options available in the same price range.
The other two Squiers hold their own admirably well for the money, particularly in terms of build quality, and the Vintage Modern is most impressive for clean-amp picking and chord work. That takes us to the two retro-aiming Mexican models and the two Americans. Here the differences are less broad, but the ’50s and ’60s versions seem to be essentially more mids-focused, while the US-made instruments purr a little more sweetly – even if the snappy, cheeky Special sometimes comes across as a little bit of a lightweight.
All four are speaking the same language, though… just in slightly different accents. So this is the point where any potential buyer is urged to go out and do their own test drives, because the final choice might come down to other, more personal factors: the look, the feel and most of all the price. Of course, expensive doesn’t always mean good – but in the case of the American Standard, the big number doesn’t lie. We said it ought to be the truly definitive Stratocaster, and it is.
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