Superstrat vs. Stratocaster: What’s the Difference?
What Is a Superstrat?
A superstrat is a hot-rodded Fender Stratocaster, or a guitar with a design similar to the Fender Strat but made with high-performance components. You can think of them as the muscle cars of the guitar world.
The Fender Stratocaster is one of the most popular guitars of all time. It’s double-cutaway, contoured body is a design we take for granted today, but when it first arrived on the scene in 1954 it was unique and somewhat futuristic.
In the 1950s the Stratocaster caught on quickly. With its three pickups and versatile sound palette it became a favorite of jazz and country guitarists. Thanks to players like Buddy Holly the Strat gained a foothold in early rock and roll as well.
The Stratocaster continued to build its reputation as the go-to instrument for guitar players throughout the 1960s, as rock, surf and blues guitar players gravitated to it. By the end of the decade a young man by the name of Jimi Hendrix was using and abusing the Strat in ways no one had ever dreamed possible, and creating sounds no one had ever heard before.
If the story had ended there the Stratocaster could have stayed the course and today would be regarded as one of the most important guitars of all time, and Fender as one of the top guitar brands in the world. But something incredible happened in the 1970s, and that something was heavy metal.
Metal and the Hot-Rodded Stratocaster
Metal required a more aggressive sound, more sustain, more speed and a more reliable tuning system. Early metal and hard rock players found what they needed to some extent in guitars like the Gibson Les Paul and SG. But, while these guitars sounded great for metal and hard rock, they lacked the light and easy feel of the Stratocaster.
Guitarists began to tinker, and one of the most renowned tinkerers was Eddie Van Halen. Eddie bolted a custom over-wound Gibson PAF humbucker onto a Strat made from aftermarket and scrap parts, and created possibly the most famous superstrat of all time.
As Eddie’s star rose, and more players began to cop his sound, guitarists began to pick apart his gear and setup. From here the superstrat was off and running. Guitar players hot-rodded their own Strats, and found more ways to make their guitars faster, leaner and meaner. Before long guitar companies where producing off-the-shelf instruments that featured all of the components a shredder could ever desire.
That’s the story of the birth of the superstrat. For the rest of this article we will take a look at what makes a great superstrat, which components are important and which of the top guitar companies make the best superstrats.
Body Style and Design
The Stratocaster double-cutaway body style is common today, but it was pretty futuristic back in 1954. Remember, these were the days of big, hollow-bodied jazz guitars. The solid-body, single-cutaway Telecaster had only appeared on the scene a few years before the Strat.
Many guitars followed suit after the success of the Strat, including the legendary Gibson SG, which was originally intended as a double-cutaway replacement for the Les Paul. Today, there are countless guitars with double-cutaway designs similar to the Stratocaster. Some are made for metal, some are vintage designs, and most land somewhere in the middle.
But the SG and guitars like it obviously aren't superstrats, so what is the basic criteria we are looking for here? For that we only need to look at the classic Fender profile. We're thinking of 25.5" scale guitars with a double-cutaway design and bolt-on neck. Tonewoods are a matter of preference, though historically the Strat has an alder body and maple neck.
There have been many guitars throughout rock history that have all the earmarks, but with a single-cutaway design similar to a Telecaster. Technically, I guess these are superteles, but they are so few in number I’d say we may as well lump them together.
On Stratocasters most of electronics are attached to the pickguard itself, which makes it super easy to replace the electronics. You can even buy pre-loaded pickguards that come equipped with the pickups and electronics you want.
Many superstrats are designed this way, but many others have no pickguard and house the electronics in a cavity within the guitar body. This is really a matter of personal preference and aesthetics, though some guitarists swear that pickups mounted directly to the guitar body sound better.
There are a couple of different types of bridges you’ll see on a stock Fender Stratocaster. First there is the vintage design, with six screws securing the bridge to the guitar body. There is also a somewhat more modern two-point design, with two large screws that create pivot points for the bridge. Both bridges work on the same concept, where manipulating the tremolo arm pulls or slackens a set of springs inside the guitar body.
The Fender Tremolo was a clever device when it first arrived back in the 1950s, meant for creating a subtle vibrato effect while playing. Used in this manner it works very well, and stays in tune just fine as long as the guitar is set up correctly. But in the ‘60s Jimi Hendrix showed us a few things you could do with a Fender Tremolo that ol’ Leo may have never imagined.
A decade later Eddie Van Halen, and those who followed him, were becoming increasingly frustrated with keeping their Strats in tune while performing major bends and dive bombs. Some (like Eddie) became experts at setting their guitars up so they’d come back to pitch, but there was no getting around the fact that they had the wrong tool for the job.
Starting in the late 1970s the guitar world saw several attempts to solve this problem. A brand called Kahler made and still makes some impressive bridges, but perhaps the best-known bridge is the double-locking Floyd Rose.
Friction at the bridge saddles and nut is a big reason that guitars go out of tune. The string moves over these pieces when engaging the vibrato and doesn’t come back to exactly the same spot, putting it slightly out of tune. The Floyd Rose “locks” the strings at the bridge and nut so there is no movement, and tuning remains rock solid.
The Floyd Rose was a game changer for shredders and metal guitarists. With a Floyd-equipped guitar it seemed players could do anything short of throwing their instrument down a flight of stairs and it would say in tune.
Neck and Fretboard
Fender necks have ranged widely over the years, from thinner than it seems like they ought to be, to something more like a baseball bat. Compared to the competition, notably the Les Paul and SG, the Stratocaster has always been a lighter, easier-to-play option, but shredders looking for maximum speed wanted more.
While Fender necks are excellent, and I can say I’ve played more than a few stock Stratocasters that felt “fast”, other guitar brands have taken things to a new level when it comes to necks and fingerboard that are built for speed and precision. Ibanez, in particular, is a guitar company known for thin, comfortable necks.
While it is a matter of person preference, many guitar players looking for speed prefer “jumbo” gauge fret wire. These wide, fat frets offer improved sustain and a lighter, quicker feel.
Superstrats often utilize compound radius fretboards. The fretboard radius is the rounding of the fretboard across its width, from E string to E string. Compound radius fretboards are slightly rounder radius at the nut and a slightly flatter at the body joint. In theory they are better for soloing and precision playing.
The type of fretboard you choose is a personal preference. While many classic superstats utilized the Fender one-piece maple neck design, today there are those with rosewood, ebony and other tonewoods.
Finally, while I wouldn't say this is a necessary factor, some superstrats utilize a two-octave, 24-fret fingerboard.
The basic Fender Stratocaster is equipped with three single-coil pickups. This is a design that dates back to the birth of the instrument, and for many players it is all they need. Modern Strats have 5-position switches that allow five different sounds that each have become well-known in the guitar world. Whether you play blues, rock or country there is a good chance that one of these sounds will work for you.
However, single-coil pickups have their limitations. They are typically low-output, and have more vintage than modern qualities to their tone. If you play metal or hard rock, you want something with a little more guts. You want a hot humbucker, at least at the bridge position.
This is why Eddie Van Halen, and many other guitarists, started slapping Gibson pickups on their Strats, so many decades ago. Today there are many different high-output pickups to choose from if you want to give you guitar a little more muscle.
For stock superstrats made by brands like Jackson, Charvel and Ibanez the pickups are among the most important factors to consider when choosing an instrument. Some players prefer a warm, natural pickup like the Seymour Duncan JB, where others look to sizzling active pickups like EMGs, and there are hundreds of choices in between.
The point is, for a guitar to be considered a superstrat it needs a hot, powerful bridge pickup that gets the job done.
Fender is really good at making outstanding Stratocasters at every price point. However, on only a few occasions have they taken a crack at the metal market. Ironic, but true.
One such attempt sits next to me as I write this: The Heartfield Talon. The Talon was a superstrat made by Fender in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, under the sub-brand Heartfield. They were great guitars, and I feel lucky that I stumbled into one back in the early 1990s.
Currently, Fender has a guitar in their Players Series lineup with a humbucker and Floyd Rose, and that’s about as close as we get to a Fender superstrat these days. However, there are a couple of brands owned by Fender that make some legendary guitars.
Jackson is one of them. This is a guitar brand that’s almost synonymous with heavy metal. The Jackson Soloist and Dinky are both instruments that fit into the Strat-style guitar genre, but with some seriously hot-rodded components. Shredders and metal players have relied on them since the 1980s.
Charvel is another top brand I think of when it comes to tricked-out Strats. The Charvel Pro Mod So Cal and San Dimas both check all the boxes listed above, with hot Seymour Duncan pickups, Floyd Rose tremolos, jumbo frets and a compound radius fingerboards.
Stepping away from the Fender family, I’d also suggest checking out Ibanez guitars, specifically the RG and S Series instruments. Ibanez is another brand with a strong, well-earned reputation in the metal world. Their guitars are known for fast necks and excellent in-house pickups and hardware.
There are many other brands to consider if you are thinking about a superstrat, including:
- ESP LTD
The Charvel Pro Mod San Dimas
Do You Really Need a Superstrat?
There are many great metal guitars out there today, and not all of them meet the definitions outlined in this article. As always, the instrument you choose requires a lot of thought, and you might find there are other instruments that better meet your needs.
I have a wonderful Fender HSS Standard Stratocaster. It plays like a dream, and the humbucker sounds great for hard rock and even heavy metal. It’s an excellent guitar, but it’s not a superstrat. It’s like the difference between a sports car designed for the street and a racing car designed to go 200 miles per hour.
There are certainly many people who would prefer a cool sports car over a tricked-out racing car, and there are many people who prefer basic, high-quality guitars made for rock. For one thing, like racing cars, superstrats can require a little attention.
Maintaining a Floyd Rose and setting up a guitar with low, fast string action takes a little extra effort. If you play a style of music that calls for it you will find the extra attention well worth it. Otherwise, you may end up feeling frustrated, and you’re probably better off with a basic Strat.
Finally, if you know a thing or two about guitars you may have taken issue with a few of my definitions above. Yes, there are some hardtail guitars that fit the superstrat definition, and there are a few hot, single-coil pickups on the market that can satisfy metal players. This article was meant as an overview, but there are exceptions to every rule.
Superstrat or Stratocaster? Now that you know the difference between them, you can make the right choice for you.