Top 10 Reasons to Play a Stratocaster
The Fender Stratocaster is among the most popular guitars in the world, and it has been for a very long time. It’s a legendary instrument, from a truly influential company. In fact, much of what goes on with electric guitars today can be traced back to decisions Fender made with their early Strats, and some of the modifications players have made since.
The Strat debuted in 1954. Fender had already cracked the solid-body electric guitar market a few years earlier with the Broadcaster, which was quickly renamed the Telecaster. But the Stratocaster was something different, with a deep double-cutaway design and contoured body. It was very innovative at the time.
The Strat was eventually so popular it caused Gibson to redesign the Les Paul in the ‘60s, which resulted in the guitar we now call the SG.
There are good reasons to choose a Stratocaster as your main guitar. I own a couple myself, but I also play a Gibson. Sometimes I’m in a Strat kind of mood, and sometimes in a Les Paul mood. I’ve already written about reasons to play a Les Paul, so in the interest of equal time you can consider this the counter argument.
Here are some of the best reasons to play a Fender Stratocaster.
The iconic Strat sound is based around the single-coil pickup. But all single-coils are not the same. A P-90 has a much different vibe that a Fender pickup. And, there are all kinds of single coils out there, including high-output models designed for heavier music.
But the Stratocaster is a vintage-era guitar, and when I think of the sound I want from my guitar I’m not thinking searing sustain and bone-crushing distortion. I’m thinking moderate output, gutsy and midrangy.
The neck pickup should ring like a bell, and the bridge pickup should have vintage crunch with a little overdrive. While there are many variations, stock Fender and Fender Custom Shop single-coil pickups still have that amazing vibe.
2.One-Piece Maple Necks
Most Strats have maple necks, and from there you have a choice of a rosewood or maple fingerboard. Rosewood certainly has its place, but to me there is something amazing about those one-piece maple necks. Rosewood may be a touch warmer and maple a bit snappier, but it’s also a very different feel.
There aren’t a lot of guitars out there that offer the option of a maple fingerboard, and even fewer that have one-piece necks. Those that do are typically trying to match the Strat vibe.
Just another way Fender has been a leader for over 60 years.
Take a look at a Les Paul and try to figure out how to take the thing apart. You can do it, but it’s going to take a little head scratching. And you’re not going to get the neck off unless you are a skilled luthier.
On the other hand, anyone who is even remotely mechanically inclined can figure out how to take a Strat apart with a screwdriver in just a few minutes. The design is simple, but very effective.
Why does this matter? Because it is tremendously empowering to be able to work on your own guitar, make modifications and repairs and swap out parts where needed. As the story goes, Eric Clapton built his famous Blackie Strat by tearing apart several guitars and assembling the best parts of each into one. It’s tough to imagine doing that with any other guitar.
5. Five-Position Switch
In the early days, Fender used a three-way switch on these guitars. It was only possible to engage one pickup at a time, but players found ways to get the lever stuck in those in-between positions for more versatility
Fender eventually switched to the five-position switch, giving players a greater range of options. It seems odd that three single-coil pickups can be engaged for such a wide range of tones, but that’s exactly what happens here. Each position has a unique vibe.
For a great illustration of this (aside from fiddling with it yourself) listen to some of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s solo. He often switched pickups in the middle, sometimes several times in the same passage.
The classic Strat design is the alder body, one-piece maple neck, three single-coil pickups and synchronized tremolo system. However, there are many stock variations you can look to if you want something a bit off the beaten path.
The rosewood fingerboard is one option of course. There are guitars with a humbucker in the bridge position and two single coils (HSS), those with a pair of humbuckers and a single between them (HSH) and those with only two humbuckers (HH). You can get a Strat with a Floyd Rose tremolo, or an ash body. This isn’t even considering all the signature models and their features.
Even after purchase, because Strats are so easy to work on you can replace stock parts with custom gear. Swap out the pickups, replace the pickguard or install an entirely different neck if you want.
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This isn’t actually the correct term. Tremolo is a change in volume, and that’s obviously not what it does. The correct term would be vibrato, an alteration of in pitch.
In any event, the Synchronized Tremolo, as it was named, was a pretty clever thing at the time. It was meant to be used as a gentle effect, but guys like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen had other ideas. Their abuse of this noble bridge led to more sturdy creations from companies like Floyd Rose and Kahler. Fender themselves evolved the bridge into a 2-point system that operates a bit more reliably.
Many players choose to block them up for tuning stability. But, if you are brave enough to use the tremolo on your Strat, and you can manage to keep your guitar in tune while doing so, you open up some interesting options without having to deal with a locking nut.
Hours of playing your Les Paul will likely leave your shoulders a little sore. By comparison, your Strat will be a delight. It’s typically only a difference of a few pounds (more before Gibson’s weight relief methods) but it does make a difference.
For hobby players it might not matter, but if you spend a lot of time onstage this could be a big thing. Guitarists with back issues in particular will likely appreciate a lighter guitar.
Does the weight affect tone? If anyone would like to kick off a debate in the comments section about whether a 7-pound Strat has an advantage or disadvantage compared to an 8-pound Strat go right ahead. I’ll stay out of that one.
8. Scale Length
The Fender scale length for Strats and Telecasters is a bit longer than the Les Paul scale length: 25.5 inches vs 24.75 inches. Scale length is, basically, the distance between the nut and the 12th fret, and a longer measurement means a brighter, snappier sound.
There are a lot of reasons Stratocasters sound bright and snappy. Tonewoods and pickups play into it of course, but the scale length matters too. This is part of the reason these guitars sound like they do.
It also gives the guitar a slightly tighter feel while playing. I always say your hands are a key part of your guitar tone, so your interaction with the strings certainly matters. It’s a different feel from a Les Paul, and many players prefer it.
If you already play and love these guitars, you’re probably thinking tone should be reasons one through ten. That should really be the reason you choose any guitar, right?
But I’m thinking of a very specific kind of tone here. My HSS Strat sounds awesome, but, on the whole, it really doesn’t have the tone I’m thinking of when I think of Fender. It’s a modification from the original SSS design, and that changes things a bit.
You can mistake a HSS Strat for a different kind of guitar, but that’s tough to do with the SSS setup. It’s a sound that, when you hear it, you think, “That guitar sounds like a Strat!”
Of course many guitar companies have built on the SSS Stratocaster design, to varying degrees of success. But that single-coil rip is unmistakably Fender, through and through.
The Stratocaster has had an interesting journey over the past sixty years. Not to get too philosophical here, but take a moment to ponder the legacy of this amazing guitar.
When I look at my Strats I get this classy, vintage vibe. I think of guys like Buddy Holly and Dick Dale, who were early pioneers. I think of an old black-and-white rerun of the Lawrence Welk Show I once saw, where a guy was playing a sunburst Strat and I couldn’t help thinking how much that guitar would be worth if it were still around today. The ‘50s were the age when this guitar came to life, and it still has that vintage aura about it.
But then I think of what players in later years did. Guys like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Ritchie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan pushed the Strat in a new direction.
Eddie Van Halen built his now-famous Frankenstein Strat out of a combination of aftermarket Fender parts and a Gibson PAF humbucker. The age of the super-strat was born, and the guitar became the weapon of choice for many hard rock and metal players.
There must be something special about a guitar that can get the job done for artists as dissimilar as Buddy Holly and Iron Maiden. The Stratocaster has endured. It has somehow simultaneously evolved with the times, but also not really changed at all.
Should you play a Strat? Maybe. If you’re not sure, even after reading this article, you’d better get your hands on one and figure it out!