The Fender Stratocaster could very well be the most iconic electric guitar of all time. Though it arrived a few years after the original Broadcaster/Esquire Teles that made history as the world’s first mass-produced solidbody electric, the Stratocaster quickly became Fender’s bestselling instrument, a tradition which has lasted to this day. And now, with so much choice, finding the best Stratocaster for you can be a big task.
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Here, we’re answering the question of which Fender Stratocasters are best. Whether you’re after a budget electric bearing the Fender logo, or something more upmarket, by the end of this guide you should know the difference between the various Fender Stratocaster models, and be closer to knowing which one is right for you.
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What are the best Stratocasters?
If you’re looking more of a top-line, US-made Strat, the Fender American Original '60s Stratocaster ooze all the class and pedigree you’d expect from the Big F. Boasting Custom Shop-associated finishes like Shell Pink and Olympic White, here’s an instrument guaranteed to feel, look and sound the part.
The affordable Fender Player series has fast become one of the most successful lines to ever come out of the Ensenada, Mexico factory. These Strats are available with options for HSH or HSS pickup configurations and even Floyd Rose-equipped models, but it’s the classic Strat - available in a tantalizing Buttercream finish, alongside six others - that screams pure Fender.
Best Stratocasters: buying advice
Think long and hard about your pickup configuration
Sure, you can always replace pickups further down the line – but it would be much more cost-effective to invest in a Fender Strat that's voiced to your needs. Those in search of cleaner tones may prefer to stick with Fender’s typically noiseless and lower-output single coils, while someone looking to dial into more high gain and heavy metal tones might need more bark from their guitar’s electronics, and perhaps be more suited to one or even two humbuckers or hot rail-style pickups.
And there are always exceptions to such rules – some of the most legendary rock and metal tones ever recorded have shined through thanks to their single-coil grit. So it’s worth asking yourself what has typically been used by the artists you’re most inspired by.
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Look at the non-American instruments, too
As nice as it is to see the words ‘Fender Corona, CA’ on the headstock of your newest guitar, it's worth looking at the company’s more affordable options made in the Ensenada factory and also under-budget brand Squier, whose lines recreate the American-made models and often with great success.
This ultimately means you could get the guitar of your dreams for a lot less – depending on what you're looking for in terms of color scheme, parts and build. If you’re looking to invest in a high-quality instrument that will retain its value, however, then an American-made Strat will probably best fit the bill – or, indeed a signature model made in collaboration with a big-name artist.
The best Stratocasters available today
Costing roughly a third of the hugely popular, Mexican-made Player Stratocasters - which themselves cost roughly a third of their American-made equivalents - you can see just how far down the family tree we’re going here.
But the Squier Affinity series really does offer a great value – you get a decent-sounding and reliable instrument that can still legally call itself a Strat and will almost definitely perform better than most clones out there at this rock-bottom price range. If you’re looking for your first guitar or perhaps buying one for someone you know, the Affinity series - which also has HSS models for those wanting more power - will be hard to beat.
Replacing the Mexican Standard series in 2018, the Player range has been widely praised for bringing everything you’d want out of a Strat to a more affordable price-point. The Alnico 5 pickups are voiced similar to the SRV-inspired Texas Hot single-coils, perfect for a slightly thicker Strat snarl that loses none of its bite when pushed.
Best of all, there are options for a remarkably vintage-looking Buttercream finish and HSS configurations to compliment a Modern C-shaped neck profile with a 9.5"-radius fingerboard and a two-point tremolo bridge with bent-steel saddles. Ultimately, you’re getting a Strat that can do it all and look the part without breaking the bank.
Unveiled last year, the Fender Vintera series aimed to “reimagine, consolidate and replace” the Classic line being made in the Ensenada factory. And it did precisely that – paying tribute to the American giant’s original designs from the '50s, '60s and '70s, all with period-correct features. Which is why you’ll find they’re available in only SSS configurations (though there is a Vintera '60s model that comes with the addition of an S1 switch).
The Vintera '50s are perhaps the most eye-catching of the lot, available in three finishes including collector’s favorites Seafoam Green and Sonic Blue, and voiced to recreate the chime and articulation of the earliest Strats in production. A truly historic instrument without the historic price tag.
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The short-lived 88-92 run of heavy metal-friendly Strats were very much tailored to an era of super shredders. Famed for their extreme playability and bright color schemes, the line was brought back to life at this year’s Winter NAMM – the new models offering a basswood body, Gotoh tuners, a HSS pickup configuration with a coil split switch for the bridge pickup, a Floyd Rose locking tremolo and 24 jumbo frets.
Of course, these latest versions wouldn’t be the same without a black headcap and that infamous '80s stylized Fender logo on the headstock. The new limited-edition models come in four finishes - Bright White, Ice Blue, Flash Pink and Frozen Yellow - with options for rosewood or maple fingerboards on the original 17”radius/25” scale narrow C-shaped neck that was highly praised for effortless performance.
Few artists have used their guitar as a weapon in the way Tom Morello has. As the founding guitarist of Rage Against The Machine, he was usually spotted with his custom Arm The Homeless superstrat, but in Audioslave he was more known for playing his black Aerodyne Stratocaster – now made available by Fender from this year.
Though this model doesn’t actually come with ‘Soul Power’ written across its upper body, the decal is included for those hoping to recreate the iconic look – which is a nice option to have. It also comes with many more of the RATM legend’s customizations – from the chrome pickguard and killswitch toggle to the recessed Floyd Rose system and inclusion of a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails bridge pickup for heavy humbucker sounds. What you get is a very modernized Strat perfectly suited to higher gain rock riffers and shredders alike.
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To many, he was the greatest blues maestro of all-time. Welding together his favorite Albert King and Jimi Hendrix licks into a monster package of his own, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s phrasing and tone have continued to set the bar today – which is precisely why his signature guitar has been one of the best-selling artist models in Fender history.
This recreation of his ‘Number One’ Strat features his favored Texas Special pickups for added warmth and bite, his engraved SRV pickguard, gold-plated hardware, a Pau Ferro fingerboard and a reverse vintage-style tremolo bridge as the Dallas prodigy himself preferred. Thankfully it comes fitted with 10-46 gauge strings, instead of the flesh-tearing 13s SRV generally stuck with.
If you’re looking to get Scuttle Buttin’ or for a slice of Riviera Paradise, this would definitely be the Strat for you.
The Stratocaster wears the American Ultra’s contemporary stylings well. Here is Fender’s modernism at its best, with the iconic body shape largely unchanged save for some carefully thought out body contours, and a newly tapered heel to aid upper fret access.
Fender’s modernism is, of course, rooted with one foot in its storied history; the three Ultra Noiseless single-coils offer hum-free performance, and yet they are voiced to recall a bygone era. What’s different now is that, with the S-1 switch adding the neck pickup to any position on the switch, the tone menu just got a whole lot longer.
Top to bottom, the American Ultra Stratocaster represents the acme of Fender’s production line guitar building. There are locking tuners, the Fender logo in gold foil, the Modern D profile neck is comfort objectified in maple, while the compound 10”-14” radius feels thoroughly 2020. Yes, this is a future-forward design, but indelibly still a Stratocaster – a darn good one.
Read the full Fender American Ultra Stratocaster review
If you’re looking for a beautifully constructed, American-made Strat that has more in common with Fender’s past than other models, then the American Original ‘60s will undoubtedly score high. Period-correct appointments such as an alder body with lacquer finish, mint green pickguard and a rosewood fingerboard bring lots of vintage appeal, though unlike the original Strats from this era, it benefits from a five-way pickup switch – offering some level of modern versatility.
Best of all, though, are the options for an Olympic White finish - or even better, Shell Pink - which make it a guitar that can truly turn back time and transport you through Fender’s most iconic years.
This year’s second instalment in the Fender Parallel Universe range saw some truly curious additions, including this limited-edition Jazz Strat – effectively combining the body of a Strat with the neck, vibrato and pickups of a Jazzmaster, along with a custom Decoboom Streamline pinstriped pickguard and aluminium radio knobs.
Along with the Pure Vintage 65 single-coils found on Jazzmasters, which feature vintage bobbin construction to genuine original-era cloth wiring, there’s the Jazzmaster bridge with brass Mustang saddles that keep the strings where they belong and a screw-in arm that stays securely in the tremolo.
Finished in Transparent Seafoam Green that makes it feel even more collectable and obscure, here’s a Strat completely reimagined in every sense of the word.