When someone who’s not a guitar player thinks of an electric guitar and closes their eyes, they can clearly see either a Stratocaster or a Telecaster. Perhaps, if he or she was raised in the early nineties or seventies, a Les Paul might appear; yet, Strats and Teles are the most popular electric guitar shapes in history.
Such is the case that most people don’t know what to buy or why to choose a Strat over a Tele.
You’ll find a lot of material online describing both guitars but very few articles have been written telling the truth: the Strat and the Tele occupy different positions in music history.
I’ll go through what makes these guitars similar, what makes them different, and what you should bear in mind before making your purchase.
This guitar knockout is about to start and at the end, there will be only one standing.
Table of Contents
- A Quick Overview of Telecaster-Style Guitars
- A Quick Overview of Stratocaster-Style Guitars
- Similarities; Destroying the Myth
- Differences; Think of Guitar Evolution
- The Telecaster, The Workhorse
- The Stratocaster, Made to Shine
- Which One Should YOU Buy?
A Quick Overview of Telecaster-Style Guitars
The original Fender Telecaster was released in 1951 as the solution for guitar players requesting more volume, projection, and ease of use.
Leo Fender’s design was revolutionary at the time utilizing an unheard-of bolt-on technique to have a detachable maple neck that’s hard as a rock and can also be sent in for replacement.
Also, the electronics were so simple and the sound had so much edge, country and swing players found in the Telecaster the ultimate workhorse that could cut through any big band and survive a tour.
A Quick Overview of Stratocaster-Style Guitars
The first Fender Stratocaster was released in 1954. It featured the same revolutionary bolt-on maple neck technique and solid body but with different looks and hardware.
Yes, the Fender Stratocaster was Leo’s idea to create an instrument that could cover more sonic ground than the Telecaster and be ready for the new era of music that was just starting.
The Fender Stratocaster offered one more pickup, a revolutionary tremolo system, and a staggering combination of three pickups.
Also, it’s important to say that the Stratocaster shape is the most famous and the most copied in music history.
Similarities; Destroying the Myth
I’m going to take a bold step here. I have been playing the guitar for well over two decades and even worked at the Fender local dealer in my hometown. This means I had the privilege of having some of the most expensive retail Fender instruments in my hands (most of which I could never afford).
Therefore, I feel capable of destroying the myth: The Telecaster and the Stratocaster are, virtually, the same guitar. Yes, they share the same combination of woods, the same kind of pickups, scale length, and even most of the hardware.
What do I mean by this? Well, very simple, both of these guitars will satisfy your musical needs.
Yes, that, among others I’ll go through in a minute, is the great secret for these guitars to still be relevant in today’s music even if the design hasn’t been altered in more than half a century.
With a few exceptions, Stratocasters and Telecasters share the neck profile and materials. As a guitar player, you’ll know that the way the neck feels and plays are, at least, 50% of your experience with a guitar.
Both guitar models feature a 25.5” scale on a maple neck that can have a maple or rosewood cap. Also, both guitars are available in a plethora of different flatter or rounder profiles. Finally, both guitars are available with different fret types, markers, and number of frets.
So, scoop number one is gone: You can have the same experience neck-wise playing a Strat and a Tele. Furthermore, you can ask for the same wood combination on both models.
Another example could be the body of the guitar; I know and you know too that the material of the body affects tone. It’s not the same to play a thin all-mahogany SG or a thin alder Stratocaster; the wood sounds different.
Well, you can get most Teles and Strats in the same wood combination.
The Contoured-Body Myth
Finally, this is something I’ve seen all over the place; you can get a Telecaster with a contoured body that resembles that of the Stratocaster. In case you didn’t know, the Stratocaster shape is ergonomic which means it adapts to your body shape (allowing the beer belly some room behind the guitar).
Well, if you buy a modern type of Telecaster (an American Ultra, for example), you’ll have the same benefit.
So, in other words, what I’m trying to say is that, if you don’t get down to details or are very picky with your tones, you’ll get a similar experience buying a Stratocaster and a Telecaster.
This is especially true if you’re a beginner.
Differences; Think of Guitar Evolution
Now that I went through what makes these guitars similar, I’ll go through the differences, and believe me, there are plenty.
But before I go down every detail, let me just go through a concept. Leo Fender designed and released the Telecaster, at least, five years before the Stratocaster. Why is this important? Well, because that half-a-decade gave Leo and his team the chance to make things better.
Yes, we can think of the Stratocaster as an evolved version of the Telecaster.
Leo Fender heard the things people were saying about his guitar, worked extensively on repairs for clients, and also developed a revolutionary tremolo system that was going to change the guitar world forever.
The Pickups & Electronics
The first difference between Strats and Teles is the pickup configuration and the electronics. At the moment the Telecaster was released, most guitars featured two pickups (think of jazz Gibson guitars, for example). Thus, Fender followed the market rules.
By the time he designed the Stratocaster, he had changed market rules and was able to experiment with a three-pickup guitar. This is not a small difference because the middle pickup changes the equation completely. For example, there will be no funk Strat sound if the combination of the middle and bridge pickups wasn’t invented.
Speaking of which, it was the players who would use little sticks to jam the pickup selector between positions because, originally, Strats offered three options: bridge, middle, and neck. The 5-way selector didn’t appear as a factory standard until 1977.
Finally, the addition of a dual-tone control with a master volume (conveniently placed near the picking hand) created a new sonic landscape as guitar players could swell in and out.
One of the main things about a Telecaster is that the bridge pickup is mounted over a metal plate that works to regulate action and intonation, but also to route the strings through the body. This makes the guitar resonate as you play it giving you the “twang” tone so characteristic in country music, for example.
This tone helped shape the ears of generations of players and music lovers. That being said, Fenders needed to compete with Bigsby-loaded Gibsons and Gretschs.
So, Leo Fender set out to outdo all competition when designing the Stratocaster and gave it a revolutionary bridge with six individual saddles to adjust intonation per string perfectly and a spring-loaded vibrato system that was easier to adjust and use.
Originally, Telecaster bridges came with three solid-brass saddles to adjust the intonation, which was, to say the least, problematic.
Although Stratocasters can’t make the string-through-body sounds and lack Telecasters’ twang, they can cover more sonic ground and have a vibrato system. You’ll hear Strat lovers and connoisseurs calling the Stratocaster tone “glassy”, “transparent”, and “warm”. That’s what the Stratocaster can do instead of the “twang”.
The Telecaster, The Workhorse
This combination of similarities and differences has split the lovers of these guitars into two very different groups. I’ll go through the first one, the one I’m in; the Telecaster-loving group.
Why do we love Telecasters if it’s an under-evolved version of the guitar?
Well, the one thing Telecasters have is the reputation of being a songwriter’s guitar. Yes, this is the guitar for those who love writing songs and don’t need the spotlight to hit them hard. Furthermore, it is also the guitar for those who don’t want any complications.
Yes, the Telecaster is the workhorse that can keep going show after show with minimal maintenance and that will give you years of joy, songs, and performances remaining solid as a rock.
The mathematics is very simple in this case, if you strip it down to the basics, fewer things can go wrong. So, for example, if you were to have a conversation with legends like Tom Petty, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Dylan, you’ll find they are in love with the Tele and play it every night while another guitar player (usually using a Strat) deals with the lead work.
That being said, there are many exceptions to this rule like Jimmy Page and Telecaster virtuoso Danny Gatton among many others.
So, the Telecaster is a no-frills, simple, tried-and-true approach to what a solid-body electric guitar is. You can find models loaded with humbuckers, tremolo systems, and even three pickups like a Stratocaster.
Yet, the essence is the same, the workhorse that can get you through come rain or come shine.
The Stratocaster, Made to Shine
While the Telecaster is the original model designed by Leo to change the guitar world, the Stratocaster is the evolution of that design; a guitar made to shine.
Yes, the evolved version of the concept is a more complex instrument that is capable of covering more sonic ground, giving players a bigger sound palette to choose from. That’s why the Stratocaster wrote its name in music history books as a lead player instrument.
While it gives the player more options and a fierce, single-coil-fueled tone to build from, there is more precision involved in its manufacture and more things that can go wrong.
Thus, the Stratocaster with its tremolo system and three-pickup configuration is the perfect guitar for those who want to pursue a career playing lengthy solos and shining bright under the spotlight and can afford that extra maintenance the instrument needs.
Furthermore, it was the great late Eddie Van Halen who started the Super Strat race in the early ‘80s with his Frankenstein (that today hangs at the MET). It gave Stratocaster-shaped guitars all the wild colors, gimmicks, glitters, and fast necks shredders needed back in the day.
For example, we could name most current-day virtuosos and most of them will be playing a Strat-style guitar like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, or Guthrie Govan.
Furthermore, the term “guitar hero” was created to name Strat-loving players such as Richie Blackmore, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, Nile Rodgers, Yngwie Malmsteen, and the list could go on forever.
Moreover, you can find a Stratocaster or Strat-shaped guitar in virtually any combination you need. You can buy them with Floyd Rose bridges, dual active humbuckers, and even with a boost system built into the guitar to play pedal-less boosted solos.
Finally, after playing Stratocasters from the inexpensive Squier Affinity series and the super-expensive Custom Shop models, I can say that a Stratocaster can help you play any and all music styles from neo-soul to heavy metal.
Which One Should YOU Buy?
Now that I went through the main similarities and differences between the songwriter’s workhorse Telecaster and the lead-oriented, made-to-shine Stratocasters, let’s address your needs.
I’d like to ask and answer some questions so you can be better oriented before you buy your new Fender ax.
My recommendation is that you write down the answer to each of these questions on a piece of paper.
What Kind of Guitar Player Are You?
This is the first question you need to ask yourself. It could also be translated into what player you would like to be in case you’re a beginner.
This first answer should narrow down the choices.
For example, if you are into heavier music and would love to learn how to play lead guitar or put a lot of distortion and play riffs and fifths for a living, you should get a humbucker-loaded Stratocaster.
Also, if you want to play styles like funk, neo-soul, or hip-hop, the glass-like tones and the in-between positions are the name of the game, so you’ll need a Strat for that.
Finally, blues players gravitate toward Stratocasters to play lead because that tone is in our DNA already; I don’t have to say the names Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, right?
On the other hand, if you want to play as many songs as you can and be a creative force writing songs and playing them live as much as you can, then a Telecaster might fit the bill better.
Also, if you want to play styles such as country, hillbilly, rockabilly, and even rock and roll (thanks Mr. Richards) you might miss the twang with a Strat and should go with a Tele.
That being said, both guitars will serve beginners perfectly and can be customized to play any style. For example, Jim Root from Slipknot plays Teles, Strats, and Jazzmasters on one of the heaviest bands around.
What Key Features Are You Looking For?
Cascading from the last question, but helpful to narrow down your search even further, what key features work for you as a player that can tell these guitars apart?
For example, if you love to use and abuse your tremolo system, the right guitar is a Stratocaster. On the other hand, if you love the tones, sustain, and resonance of the string-through-body construction, you’d be better off with a Telecaster.
Also, if you’re going to be on the road a lot and can’t afford a guitar tech, Telecasters might be a simpler guitar to perform DIY repairs.
Finally, let’s say you play in a cover band (or several cover bands) and you need many different tones to cover different styles with a single guitar, then no doubt a Stratocaster will fit the bill better.
Who Are Your Favorite Players?
Something useful, at least when I was growing up, was to learn from my heroes. Yes, I would spend a lot of time looking at guitar magazines (now it’s called YouTube, I guess) trying to find what combination of gear was giving my favorite players that tone.
So, for example, if you’re an avid blues player and your heroes include Jimi, Stevie, and Eric; learning their lead lines on a Strat will get you there faster because it sounds similar to the recordings.
On the other hand, if you love playing rock and roll like Keith Richards and are more interested in chords and songwriting than solos and shredding, then maybe the metal plate, the twang, and the sustain might help you get the sounds in your head faster.
Finally, there are exceptions like John Frusciante who plays Teles and Strats throughout the show and shines with both.
Yet, leaving John outside the equation, looking at what your heroes are playing might help you downsize the number of options.
Fender guitars are the best-selling guitars of all time. This isn’t a coincidence or an overnight achievement, but the result of years of innovation, bold choices, and magnificent instruments.
Making your choice between a Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster is important because it might make you play differently in the upcoming years. That being said, there’s no rule forbidding you from owning both and finding each a spot in your musical world.