Fender Stratocaster Buyers Guide

Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Dave Murray, The Edge, Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Landau, Eric Johnson, Buddy Guy, John Mayer and thousands of others have made the Fender Stratocaster their instrument.

Now it is your turn to the make the Strat your own! Here to help you get started is our buyers guide to these iconic guitars so you can get started with the perfect instrument for you.

Brief History of The Strat

It is by far the most produced guitar ever with it having a consistent production run since 1954, so no doubt you have heard and seen a Strat at some point. It is defined by its wide range of tones ranging from a bright and brittle to dark and smooth. All the time keeping a nice pronounced midrange that can cut through a mix.

Originally designed by Leo Fender, Bill Carson, George Fullerton and Freddie Tavares in 1954 it was made to be much more comfortable than Fender’s other mass produced solid body guitar the Telecaster. It did this by curving the back and sides of the body in a contour meaning it sat closer to the body.

The other goal of the guitar was to introduce a more versatile range of sounds with a third pickup. While the bridge and neck pickups were originally quite similar to what you might find in a telecaster the middle pickups were unseen in electric guitars at the time.

One really interesting thing about early Stratocasters is that they only had a 3-way pickup selector. It took a few years but people worked out that you could jam it between the 1 and 2 positions as well as the 2 and 3 positions to get 2 pickups active at a time.

If you were to do this on a 50’s Strat you will find that the middle pickup was often wired in reverse, this did two things. It created a humbucking pickup that would nearly eliminate the hum that you get from single coil pickups, and it would create a very popular ‘quacky’ tone.

Fender caught on to this and made their own 5-way pickup selector in 1977 which has been standard since.

This tone would then go on to be used by artists like Jimi Hendrix, Ronnie Wood, John Mayer, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Gilmour and many, many, many more.

Since then they have made hundreds of different versions of the Strat that use different parts, pickup configurations, woods, and other materials. This has evolved to what we have today where there is a Strat for every style and budget.

A Strat For Any Style

One of the reasons I didn’t buy a Strat for years was because I saw them as a guitar for blues players and country pickers that didn’t use a lot of gain. Then I picked up my dream Strat and haven’t looked back since.

The Fender Stratocaster as a guitar isn’t made for one style of music. With so many variations available there is something for everyone it is just finding what works best for you. So, let’s break down what to look out for when you are buying your next Strat.

Best Strat for Blues/Country/Pop

This is what the classic Strat was made for! There are loads of Strats that will work great for these styles but you can’t beat a traditional SSS style.

SSS style means there are three single coil pickups in the usual bridge, middle, neck configuration. These are low gain pickups great for clean and crunchy tones that don’t drive your amp too hard.

Best Strat for Rock

While an SSS Strat can work great for rock depending on the specific sound you want, they can produce a lot of noise even with moderate gain. That is where the HSS comes in handy. This introduces a humbucker into the bridge position meaning you can crank up the gain without having to worry about pesky 50/60 cycle hum.

You still have single coil pickups in the middle and neck positions which are great for when you need to clean up your tone quickly or just want to add a different kind of tone to your song when you need to.

Best Strat for Metal

This is where things get slightly more interesting. Ideally for metal you want to get your hands on a pair of hot humbucking pickups that can really drive your amp. There are few Fender Stratocasters that come out of the box with a pair of humbuckers.

HH (Humbucker/Humbucker) and HSH (Humbucker/Single Coil/Humbucker) Strats are a thing but you may actually want to sidestep into one of Fender’s other guitar brands to get more choice.

Charvel and Jackson both create a wide range of metal inspired Strat inspired guitars that may be better suited to your style. With flatter fretboards, hotter pickups and options of things like Floyd Rose tremolo systems these are ready out of the box to shred.

The Captain's Blindfolded Strat Challenge

What Strat Is Right For You?

So now you hopefully know what kind of Strat it is you are looking for in terms of hardware, pickups etc., you may even know what mods you are thinking about making to your guitar. You just have one decision left to make which is what series do you look at?

As we mentioned before Fender make over 250 different Stratocasters currently so finding the exact one, even when you know the spec can be hard.

This is our breakdown of different ranges of Stratocaster in broad price points going from starter to student all the way up to the best of the best.

Starting Out

You can buy a Fender Stratocaster from very little these days. In a way they are the perfect starter guitar thanks to their wide range of tones and easy upgradability. Fender have a brand called Squier that deal only in lower priced but still great quality guitars.

Things like the Squier Bullet Strat and Squier Affinity Strat are still great playing and sounding guitars that you can get for under £200. Seasonally they are also available in starter packs that include all the essentials you need to get started with. The Squier Strats are generally seen as some of the best electric guitars for beginners - if you'd like more info on our beginners' offerings, click here.

First Upgrade

You have been playing guitar for a while and are looking to upgrade from your starter pack guitar but don’t want to spend a lot of money. Up to around £400 Squier have you covered, their Classic Vibe Strats in particular are known as some of the best value for money guitars you can buy. Great pickups and hardware on an affordable guitar. These punch seriously above their weight.

Getting Serious

You are starting to gig and play live a lot more, you want a more serious guitar that you know you can rely on for years to come without needing any modifications. Here is where I would start looking at buying a Fender branded guitar rather than a Squier.

Starting at around £500 models like the Fender Standard Stratocaster and Fender Classic Series are the standard in workhorse guitars. With an unbelievable range of hardware, pickups, finishes there is something here for everyone.

Normally at this price point you have stepped away from manufacturing in the far east (China, Indonesia) and are now looking at Mexican made instruments. The team in Mexico are trained in the same tools and processes that the American team use to build their more expensive guitars.

Occasionally in this price point you might be able to find a rare gem in the Fender Japan line. Produced and sold only in Japan these models are normally interesting twists on the kind of guitars you will find normally out of their Mexican factory.

These are sometimes sent to the UK in what Fender call FSR (Fender Special Run) releases. Very limited numbers will be available a couple of times a year. These are highly sought-after guitars due to the incredibly quality for the money.

Turning Pro

We have reached America! There are few things as iconic as an American Stratocaster and now we are looking at them. These cover a lot of different price points so we are going to break this down a bit series by series.

American Special Stratocaster – These guitars generally have very similar hardware to what you would find on a Mexican guitar but with all American made bodies and necks that feel absolutely amazing in the hands. This may not be worth an upgrade from a higher end Mexican Strat but if you are coming from something like a Squier this is a big step up.

American Professional Stratocaster – This is the replacement for the old American Standard range that has been the, well standard for so long. If you were a touring musician that needed a real workhorse Strat you went for a Standard, now you are looking for a Professional.

This features a big upgrade on the hardware compared to the American Special so it is pretty much always an upgrade unless you already have an American Elite or a Fender Custom Shop guitar.

American Elite Stratocaster – This is where Fender start to experiment. This used to the be called the American Deluxe Strat and before that the Strat Plus. Once you get to this point you start to get interesting features that Fender are experimenting with or that are exclusive to these guitars.

Improved noiseless pickups, contoured neck heel for better upper fret access, improved hardware and a new neck shape are all the changed Fender have made to make this the best of their production range.

Some of these changes won’t be for everyone but if you like to be on the cutting edge this is exactly what you need.

The Best of the Best

The Fender Custom Shop is where dreams are made. That is not an overstatement it really is where they make all of their best guitars from 50’s reissues to modern day one off builds, if you dream it they can probably make it.

Throughout the year Fender Custom Shop will release small runs of guitars, in very small numbers that you find in a few select stores. Starting at around £2000 these guitars are the best of the best of what a Strat can be.

But if none of their limited models are what you are looking for, why not put in a custom order? Honestly it is not as expensive as you might think and if you are already spending a couple of grand this is the way to make sure your guitar is exactly what you want.

The big costs come in when you want to choose one of Fender’s master builders to build your guitars. Want your guitar built by the same person that builds Eric Clapton’s? No problem, it costs a bit extra and can really extend the wait time due to a long waiting list and the extended time to make each instrument but it is totally possible.

If you are interested in this give us a call or pop into the shop and have a chat with our team who can run you through the Custom Shop process.

Fender Professional Strats

How About Mods?

In all honesty, even with so many guitars available from Fender you still may not find the one that is perfect for you. Stratocasters are luckily one of the easiest to mod guitars in the world, so you can easily make it your own.

Because all of the electronics are housed in a pickguard you can even buy pre-built pickguards already loaded up with new pickups, pots and switches to make modding your guitar super easy.

Here are a few of our favourite mods ranging from easy to do in under an hour to expert mods you may want to pay someone else to do for you. 

Scroll down to the bottom of this section to see Chappers and The Captain mod up a couple of guitars on a budget!

Change The Pickups

This is a fairly common mod for Strats and because of the way the pickguard is set up it is really easy to change these out. You can even buy a spare pickguard already pre-wired or wire one up yourself that you can swap over in about 20 minutes or so.

If you are happy with the sound of your Strat you don’t need to do this. But if you have a guitar that you love the feel of but wish it had a bit more output or had a different tone this is the way to go.

And don’t feel like you need to stay with the same type of pickup when you swap them out. Some have what is called a ‘swimming pool route’ in the body meaning that there is no extra wood in the way stopping you from swapping out a single coil for a humbucker if you buy a new pickguard cut for that size.

Even if you don’t have that route you can get humbuckers the size of single coils and vice versa to drop in. Really your imagination is the limit with this.

While this can be done with a soldering iron and a bit of patience, if you are unsure please find a local luthier or guitar repair shop to do this for you.

Upgrade the tuners

This again is entirely dependant on how you play and if your guitar stays in tune. If you find it drifting too much you may want to look at upgrading to a set of locking tuners.

These lock the string down making it much harder for them to come loose, ruining your tuning in the middle of your set.

This simple fix can be done in under 20 minutes as long as your replacement tuners have the same screw points as the tuners you are taking off. You just need a screwdriver and a bit of know how. If they don’t use the same screw holes you will need to drill new placement holes, that we recommend getting done by a trained guitar technician.

Change the nut

Not the easiest mod in the world to do but it is one of the most common. People have used all kinds of different materials for nuts over the years as they prefer how the guitar feels and sustains after changing it.

With synthetic options like Graphtec being very popular along with traditional bone and metal nuts made out of brass or similar materials.

Please visit a guitar tech to get this done.

Upgrade the controls.

This kind of goes along with the pickup swap in terms of how easy it is to do and why you should do it. The difference it makes can range from a mild boost to one frequency to a complete tone overhaul.

One very famous mod is the Eric Clapton mid boost. This upgrades the tone control on your strat to have an active preamp that will boost the midrange of your guitar up to 25db.

There are loads of other options out there as well, again your imagination is the limit if you don’t mind paying for a custom setup.

Like changing pickups this can be simple to install but if you don’t feel confident with a soldering iron we recommend getting a tech to take a look.

Block the tremolo.

Depending on how hi tech you want to go with this it can possibly be the easiest mod to ever make on a guitar.

If you have a Strat with a tremolo but don’t use it and want the tuning stability of a fixed bridge guitar all you need is some wood and a set of screwdrivers to fix that.

By setting up the guitar properly with the tremolo just against the body you can then put in a block of wood behind the tremolo in the back of the guitar to prevent it from moving at all.

There are systems out there that are pre-built and designed for this specifically but if you fancy a quick weekend project, this is a good thing to try.

And of course, it is 100% reversible, just take out the wooden block and you are back up and running with the tremolo.

Other Mods

There are thousands of different mods you can make to your Stratocaster, these are just a few of our favourites. If you have modified your Strat let us know what you have done in the comments.

Modded Guitar Challenge!

Your Final Decision

That is it. That is a (not so) brief overview of the Fender Stratocaster range. With models ranging from £100 all the way up to the £1000s there really is a model in the Fender family for any kind of player. Now you just need to decide on what is right for you.

I really hope this has helped you on your way to finding the right Strat for you or just giving you a bit of extra knowledge on what is available today.

There can be a lot to take in with this article so if you want more advice please give us a call, send us an email or pop into the shop and take a look around. We didn’t even touch on some aspects like neck feel, specific pickups or anything that is more subjective and something that is very personal to you. Getting hands on is a great way to narrow down what you want and get your perfect Stratocaster.