What is a Strat?

Stop someone on the street and ask them 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 breakthrough features, including:

  • Three single-coil pickups
  • Patented Synchronized Tremolo tailpiece
  • Double-cutaway, “Comfort Contour” Body
  • Individual string length/height adjustment bridge
  • Recessed jack socket
  • Ease of repair/customization

Why a Strat?

So just what is it about the Fender Stratocaster that makes it so popular? Well, first and foremost, Strats sound great. (They sound like a Strat!) They also feel good, and are incredibly comfortable to play. But there’s more to the Strat’s appeal. Face it, a Stratocaster looks very cool. And it doesn’t hurt that so many great guitarists—from Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughn to Eddie Van Halen, Yngvie Malmsteen, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, and John Mayer—have made music history with the help of the Fender Stratocaster. (There’s a long list of well-known Strat players) The Fender Stratocaster has a long, rich history as one of the first and most enduring electric guitars ever made.

So whether you’re just starting out, or have been playing—or collecting—for years, there’s a Strat that’s exactly what you’ve been looking for.

How much is a Stratocaster? There are Stratocasters for every budget and level of player, from about $99 to thousands of dollars, for absolute beginners, to great stars, to collectors.

Classic Stratocaster Features

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

  • Solid ash or alder body
  • Double-cutaway “Comfort Contour Body”
  • Bolt-on maple neck
  • Maple or rosewood fingerboard
  • Nitrocellulose lacquer finish (Vintage and Fender® Select models)
  • Urethane or polyester finish (modern models)
  • Three single-coil pickups
  • Five-position pickup selector (position 1 – bridge pickup only; position 2 – bridge and middle pickup; position 3 – middle pickup only; position 4 – middle and neck pickup; position 5 – neck pickup only).
  • Two tone controls and 1 volume control
  • 25-1/2″ scale length, 21 or 22 frets
  • 7-1/4″ fretboard radius (vintage models)
  • 9-1/2″ fretboard radius (modern models)
  • Synchronized Tremolo (Vibrato arm/tailpiece)

Stratocaster Families

There are four major “families” in the Stratocaster line The major differences in the families are in the places where they are built, the quality of components, and the quality of fit and finish. They are (in order of increasing quality of components, fit and finish), Squier by Fender, Fender Stratocaster, Fender American Stratocaster, and Fender Custom Shop.

Squier by Fender

Today’s Stratocaster line starts with the entry-level Squier by Fender. They’re lower priced, but Squier Strats aren’t knockoffs — they’re genuine, high-quality Strats made to Fender specs in the far east (principally China). Squiers don’t use some of the better pickups or electronics of the other models and are still relatively comfortable to use, thanks to the Comfort Contour Body. The Squier line includes the Bullet Strats made for beginners, and the Affinity, Standard, and Vintage Modified Strats. Squier quality has made huge improvements in recent years and several well known players have begun to use them. By the way, since Squiers are made to Fender specs, you can upgrade most (but not all) Squier parts, especially the pickups and electronics with equipment made for Fender American Stratocasters.

Fender 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 is a constant flow of traffic between the two factories, carrying parts, cut wood, and personnel. Both factories make fine guitars and amps bearing the Fender name, although the highest end products are made in the U.S. factory and the Fender Custom Shop. Fender’s Ensenada factory produces top quality Fender instruments and amplifiers albeit at a somewhat lower price. They are not made by subcontractors who simply adhere to Fender specifications — this is Fender’s own factory with a staff of Fender personnel trained by Fender. The models produced there include:

Fender American Stratocaster Guitars

Fender American Series Stratocasters are made in Fender’s factory in Corona, California. This is where you will find Fender’s master builders and where the most coveted Stratocasters are made. These include:

Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters

Built for fine guitar collections, these instruments are envisioned, designed, and hand-crafted in the United States by Fender’s legendary craftsmen. Usually offered for a limited time or in limited quantities, so they can even increase in value, Fender Custom Shop instruments are made to honor a specific musician’s tastes or a specific instrument from the past.

Optional Stratocaster Features:

Today, Fender offers a large variety of features, options, and finishes in the Stratocaster line, yet all Stratocasters retain the classic features that make them instantly recognizable in design and sound as Stratocasters. Here are some of the options that make one Stratocaster different from another:

The Stratocaster’s solid body is typically made of ash or alder, though other woods, like poplar and basswood, are also used. Different woods affect the tone in subtle ways.

Color: Color Choices vary by model. In addition to the standard colors and sunburst, Fender also offers Custom Colors and over the years occasionally offers flame tops.

Neck Profile:
C-shaped, like most Stratocasters, or V-shaped like Eric Clapton’s favorite models.

Fingerboard Radius: Most Strats have a 9.5″ fingerboard radius, which is a comfortable curvature that provides great playability. Vintage-style Strats have a more curved 7.25″ radius. Several top models, including the American Deluxe, the Select, and certain artist models, have a compound radius starting at 9.5” near the nut and slowly changing to 14” near the bridge. The 9.5” radius near the nut is helpful for forming chords, while the flatter shape near the bridge is ideal for string bending and more comfortable soloing.

Pickup Arrangement:
Although the classic Strat has 3 single coil pickup design (known as SSS), some models add a humbucker at the bridge position (known as HSS) or at both the bridge and neck position (known as HSH) There are also different kinds of single coil pickups from the Alnico 3 pickups, to the vintage noiseless N3 pickups to the Texas Special overwound pickups with the classic Texas blues sound There are also a few Stratocasters, most notably the value priced Blacktop Stratocaster, that offer two Humbucking pickups instead of the classic 3 pickup arrangement.

Several models have special circuitry for special results. For example, models with Texas Special pickups have reverse polarity in the center pickup to eliminate hum and give that “twangy” tone that Stevie Ray Vaughn made famous. The Fender Highway One Strat has the famous “Greasebucket” tone circuit that lets you roll off the highs without adding bass. Fender American Deluxe models also have the S1 tone switch for a wider choice of tonal variations, while the Fender Deluxe Players Stratocasters offer a pushbutton switch to increase the 5 pickup selector combinations to 7 (this allows you to use all three pickups at once or the neck and bridge pickups at the same time). American Standard and Select Strats feature the “no load” tone control, that gives you the pure, unmodified tone of the pickups when set to 10. Most strats with 3 single-coil pickups have reverse polarity in the center pickup to eliminate hum.

Hardware usually refers to things like the tuning gears, pickup covers and other metal parts such as the bridge, switch plates, etc., and is often available in nickel, chrome or gold plating finishes. Stratocaster guitars can have four distinctive types of bridges. The most well-known bridge is the vintage-style “synchronized” tremolo (found on the American series Strats and on the Eric Clapton, John Mayer, and Yngwie Malmsteen models). The other three are the American Series bridge, which is a modern-day two-pivot bridge; the non-tremolo hardtail bridge (found on the Robert Cray and Billy Corgan signature strats); and a locking tremolo, such as the American Deluxe or Floyd Rose® locking tremolos. A number of different style tuners are found on Stratocasters including Vintage (oval button), ’70s F Key (octagonal button), Standard Sealed Modern Key (pin mounted), and locking tuners.


Next: Fender Stratocaster History