NOTE : The information below should be current as of the 2009 model year.
Buying a Fender Stratocaster - A Guide for the Novice
One of the most confusing guitars for the novice guitar buyer to consider is the Fender Stratocaster (aka Strat). There are so many different variants of the Stratocaster being produced by Fender (or Fender licensed entities) that it's nearly impossible for first time buyers to have any idea what the differences are or why there are so many in the first place. Here's what I hope will be a guide for the novice. I am certainly not an expert on the subject. This is not intended to enlighten experts so please keep that in mind while reading. But I believe I've learned enough during my own experiences to be of some assistance and guidance to those just starting out in this endeavor. For the sake of simplicity, I'm just going to talk about the most common recent production Stratocasters. Keep in mind that there are a whole slew of others out there including vintage American and Japanese Standards and Squiers, Korean Pro-Tone Squiers, vintage re-issue and anniversary models, Classic and Deluxe Series, Custom Shop models, Artist models etc., that are beyond the scope of this guide. It's really mind-boggling the number of different kinds of Strats you'll come across. Go to www.fender.com sometime and peruse their product selections. Anyway, let's get started.
2/2011 NOTICE: Fender has added the American Special Stratocaster to the Strat line-up as of a while back. It comes with Texas Special pick-ups and a little nicer/glossier paint than the thin-coat Highway 1, so add this to the Highway 1 as in-between models between the MIM Standards and the American Standards. Why, I don't know.
- Current production Fender Stratocasters come in 3 basic groups which are:
1) "American Standard" Stratocasters, which are made in America (aka MIA) at the Fender factory in Corona, CA. (take the tour! http://www.vintagerocker.com/fender/factory2/index.html). These were originally called "American Standard" until around 2000, then underwent some slight changes and were marketed as "American Series". In 2008 they underwent some further changes and went back to the "American Standard" moniker. The "Standard" label identifies them as the standard Fender offering of the Stratocaster model (as opposed to Deluxe, Artist, Custom Shop, Re-Issue, etc). They are all the same except for the color selection. The "American Standard" will say "Made In U.S.A" right on the front of the headstock (although this may be found on the back of the headstock on certain non-Standard models). The American Standard Stratocaster has a typical retail 'street price' of around $1000 new. Used prices can run anywhere from around $600 -$950, depending on age and condition, for a '90's to current year model. Earlier than that and they start going up a bit. In fact, if it's a true '50's or '60's model (not re-issue), they can cost upwards of $25,000-$35,000. But we're not going to focus on those in this guide, so from here on just assume we're talking about 90's-2008 models.
The "American Standard/Series" will have a serial number (S/N) that will be found on the back
of the headstock. Those made in the 90's will have an S/N that starts with 'Nx' and those made in the 2000's will have S/N's that start with 'Zx', where 'x' equals the last number
of the model year. So a serial number beginning with 'N3' will be a
1993 model and a serial number of 'Z3' will be a 2003 model. The
serial numbers of both will include 5 or 6 additional digits. (i.e.
N3256324 or Z3621835). A note here for clarification, sometimes production years will carry over into the next year so it is
possible to get a guitar with a serial number indicating a year other
than the actual production date. For example, I've got an American
Standard with a serial number starting with 'N5' which is actually a
1996 model. It's got the 50 anniversary sticker (like all the '96's) and
the neck pocket and pickguard are stamped '1996'.
Here's a couple good websites to check serial numbers and descriptions for all different sorts of model year Stratocasters. NOTE: You'll have to cut and paste any URL from this guide into your browser as Ebay does not allow links outside of Ebay.
The standard American Standard/Series Strat will come with 3 high-quality single-coil pickups made with alnico (aluminum/nickel/cobalt) magnets, specifically alnico 5 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single-coil). This is one of the main differences over the lower priced, non-USA models which we will be discussing later. The 6 pole pieces on each pickup (one for each string) are the actual magnets. In the cheaper single-coil pickups (standard on most of the Mexican and Squier models), the pole pieces will be steel and the magnets will consist of ceramic bars (ferrite) running along the bottoms of the pickups. The alnico magnets are typically the one's to have if you want to really nail the vintage Fender Stratocaster sound. Here's a couple decent links for some suggested reading on pickups and pickup differences.
Notes: There is also a budget priced American Stratocaster called the 'Highway
1' that has been produced since around 2002. These are currently about $750 shipped for a new 2008 model and can be found used for as low
as $450-$500 for an older model. They feature a cheaper, thinner finish and a slight difference in pickups and hardware, although starting at the 2006 model there have been 'upgrades' (here is a link to another Ebay guide that briefly explains the upgrades/changes if you are interested. Fender Highway 1 Stratocaster Upgrades ) These guitars would be rated somewhere between a
genuine American Standard and a Mexican Standard model. The newest Highway 1's have the large, 70's style headstock but you have to be very careful with the older models because it can be very hard for the average person to distinguish the difference between these and the American Standard. Many sellers don't mention that they are actually selling a Highway 1. I've seen many that just say "American Stratocaster" for sale. Some sellers may not even know what they have either. It's best to go to the Fender website and read all of the model specific descriptions, look closely at the pictures, and learn the differences. You can ask the seller to verify which model they are selling. If you are not convinced that they even know you can compare the Ebay seller's pictures to a known model of the same year. Or you can always ask someone else. There are some great Fender online forums out there that you can join and post questions in. Post a picture or a link to an auction and let the experts decide.
And finally to our second category,
2) Fender Standard Stratocasters,
which are only made in Mexico (aka MIM). "Fender Standard" is the proper designation for a Mexican made 'Standard' Stratocaster. So "American Standard" = MIA, and "Fender Standard" = MIM. Some people call them "Mexican Standard" which is probably a better, more descriptive way to refer to them. These will have 'Made in Mexico' and a serial number
right on the front of the headstock (except for certain vintage
re-issue and deluxe models). The serial number will begin with
'MNx' for 90's models and 'MZx' for 2000 models, where 'x' = the last
digit of the model year, followed by 5 or 6 other numbers. So a serial
number beginning with 'MN3' will be a 1993 model and one starting with
'MZ3' will be a 2003 model. These typically
sell new for approximately $399-$445 shipped to your door from the
online discount places ( like www.musiciansfriend.com ) Sometimes a special issue will be more and prices may differ depending on color options. Keep
these prices in mind before bidding on an auction. It pays to do
some research first! Stock Mexican made Standard
Strats will routinely be offered for sale for between $250-$325 used on Ebay, depending on model year and condition. If you are patient you will be able to find a very nice
one in this price range. This is not to say a nice used one is not
worth a little more than that. It's just that you can
easily find a very nice one cheaper, if that's your goal. If it's a
very recent model (2007-2008) in great shape, with no issues, then it may be worth a little more, but just remember before you plunk down that much cash that you
can get a brand new 2008 model, which supposedly has a few upgrades over the previous years models, shipped to your
door for $399-$435 (depending on color) if you buy from one of the large online dealers such as Musicians Friend, or if you search the Ebay Stores for authorized Fender retailers. And sometimes you can get a scratch and dent item for closer to $300.
( NOTE: Some of the newer Mexican made models like the Classic Players, Classic Series and the Artist models can be much more expensive....and nicer!... than the Standard models and rival the American models in sound, feel and quality!)
And now our 3rd major category,
3) Squier Stratocasters, which are currently made overseas in places like China and Indonesia, with some coming from Korea. (Note: There were some that were made in Mexico in the very early '90's that have the standard Mexican serial number, i.e. MNxxxxxx and also some made in the USA in the 1980's I believe that may start with and 'E'). The newer ones will say 'Crafted in Indonesia' or 'Crafted in China' on the back of the headstock but the older ones will normally have 'Made in Korea' or 'Made in China' on the front of the headstock. I won't go into the serial numbers too much here other than to say that they are normally found on the back of the headstock, but these will say "Squier" in large letters right on the front of the headstock instead of the regular "Fender" logo that's on the American and Mexican Standard models. The Squiers may say something like 'by Fender' in smaller letters. To make things more confusing, the Squier line of Stratocasters come in 3 sub-models. The top of the Squier line is the 'Standard' which sells for around $199 new, the 'Affinity' which goes for around $149 and the bottom of the line 'Bullet' which goes for around $99 new. Those are shipped to your door prices. It's amazing what some people will try to sell these for on Ebay but you should be able to find a very nice used Squier Standard on Ebay for between $120-$160 shipped.
The hierarchy of course is 'American Standard', then 'Fender
(Mexican) Standard', then 'Squier Standard', then 'Squier Affinity' and
lastly the 'Squier Bullet'.
The American and Mexican Strats will have
similar bodies and necks as far as materials go but the Americans will
typically have the nicer feeling necks, bodies made of fewer pieces, much nicer finishes and better hardware (tuners, bridges,
etc) and electronics (pickups, tone/volume controls, etc). The American models will have a 22 fret neck with a width of around 1.68" at the nut and most Mexicans will have a 21 fret neck with a 1.65" width at the nut. Both are very good quality though and lots of people are perfectly happy with
the Mexican models, which are a great value for the money. You can
upgrade the pickups to American Series quality or better and end up
with a really great guitar. The general rule is to
buy as good of a guitar as you can afford. The better the guitar, the more likely you are to pick it up and play! Used is a great way to start
as you can usually get your money back on a resale. That's if you don't overpay to begin with, which is what this guide is intended to
prevent. Plus, when you buy used you can get a much better guitar for
the same amount of money. The American models and some of the Mexican made special models can hold their values very well. Use the new and used pricing I've listed
above as a guide but it never hurts to do your own research. Check the Ebay 'Completed Listings' for similar models to get a good idea what the going prices are.
- What's a Fat Strat? -
Yes there is such a thing as a 'Fat Strat' also called an HSS (Humbucker, Single-coil, Single-coil) Strat. The typical Strat has 3
single-coil pickups. The Fat Strat has 2 single-coil pickups, one in
the neck and one in the mid position, and a humbucker pickup in the
bridge position. Humbuckers give what's called a 'fatter' sound than a
single-coil. They have more windings and, as a result, are 'hotter' (more output). Generally speaking, the
hotter the pickup, the more prominent the midrange frequencies will be hence they're said to have a 'thicker' or 'warmer' sound with less treble bite.
Humbuckers are what you'll find in guitars such as the Gibson Les Paul.
The Fat Strat can give you more tone options if that's the kind of sound you're after. But if you're after the true vintage sound of the Stratocaster you may want to stick with the standard 3 single-coil variety. You can buy after market single-coils that are wound hotter and give you a warmer sound also. A lot of people will add a hotter single-coil in the bridge position which I guess could give a "similar" effect as a humbucker.
There are also HH Strats which contain two humbucker pickups and no single-coils at all. These can also be referred to as 'Double Fat' Strats.
- Some things to watch out for when buying a Strat
- Stratocaster parts are highly interchangable. Leo Fender designed them that way on purpose. Necks can be removed and replaced very easily by removing 4 screws. Other parts are easily changed out also and there are a ton of after-market parts and/or parts from Stratocaster copies (many inferior), including necks and bodies out there. Read the ads carefully, ask questions if the ads aren't clear, look for serial numbers and check the sellers feedback ratings. I will actually read the feedback the seller has received. His overall rating may be deceptive. Maybe it's all from buying and not from selling. Look at his feedback from buyers. Look at the sellers previous sales. If it looks like they sell a lot of guitars but then try to play dumb in an ad about a certain guitar you should maybe be suspicious. Keep in mind that you can buy very real looking Fender logo decals out there. So anyone could buy an after-market neck and slap a Fender decal on it and attach it to any Strat looking body (Squier, after-market, copy, etc). That's not to say that there aren't excellent after-market parts out there......there are, but there are also inferior parts too. But the bottom line is, if the guitar has a Fender Stratocaster decal on the headstock but no serial number anywhere you should be suspicious.
- Many sellers who are selling a Stratocaster will fail to
mention in the ad that it's a Squier. Or if they do mention that
it's a Squier, they won't mention which model it is (Standard, Affinity
or Bullet). And they will often make a point of not giving you a good
shot of the headstock so you won't be able to see for yourself. Some of
these sellers are obviously just not real knowledgeable themselves but
others do it on purpose to dupe unsuspecting buyers. They are counting
on your lack of knowledge to charge more than the guitar is worth or to
get a quick sale. If the ad does not mention what model (or year even)
the guitar is you need to ask specific questions
and if you don't get an answer you should be very careful. The bottom
line is, if it was made in Korea, China or Indonesia then it's
definitely a Squier of some sort.
- Make sure you know the cosmetic condition of the guitar before bidding. If it isn't mentioned you can email the seller and ask specific questions.
- Don't fall for bogus claims from the sellers. I've seen many
sellers tout their Strat as being 'upgraded' when in fact all they've
done is put a different pick guard on it or
replace the nut. While maybe nice, these modifications alone do not
really warrant a premium. Another trick sellers like to play is to
claim that the era or year (or factory) their Strat was made in
"was back in (pick a date or factory)
when they made them good" or "better", "not like the junk they make
now", or similar claims. Actually the truth is that the quality and
quality control today is probably at an all time high.
- Anniversary decals - 1996 was the 50th anniversary of Fender and every production-year 1996 Fender guitar got a little "50th Anniversary" decal on the back of the headstock. 2006 was the 60th anniversary of Fender so every production-year 2006 Fender guitar got a little "60th Anniversary" decal on the back of the headstock There is nothing special about these as far as build quality or materials. They are the same as any other year's model, although I suppose they might have sentimental value to some. They are not any rarer than any other year's model either, although some seller's claim so. There are some 50th and 60th Fender anniversary 'Commemorative' models however that have a 'Commemorative' engraved neck plate. These are rarer as they were only issued for limited times but are basically the same guitars with a fancy decal and neck plate. This Fender anniversary/commemorative issue is very confusing as there are also Anniversary 'Stratocasters'. 2004 was the 50th anniversary of the Stratocaster. There are 50th Anniversary American Series Stratocasters that are special issues and will command higher prices. So just keep in mind that there are "Fender Anniversary" (50th in 1996 and 60th in 2006) and "Stratocaster Anniversary" (50th in 2004) and hopefully you'll be able to keep things straight.
- Many sellers like to quote the original list or retail price of the guitar. Don't go by this number! The street prices on new guitars can be up to hundreds less than the list or retail prices!
ther MIM Stratocaster models
There are may other offerings out of Mexico other than the Fender Standard Stratocaster. The Standard Stratocasters will all have the same features which include what they call the 'Modern C-shape neck' (the shape of the back of the neck where your thumb rests), 9.5 inch fretboard radius (the curvature of the fretboard), Ping standard cast/sealed tuning machines, medium-jumbo frets (wire used for frets can have different heights and widths) and ceramic magnet single-coil pickups. Fender offers many other models of Stratocasters that have some cool, non-standard options. These are organized into groups which are named the 'Classic Series', the 'Classic Player Series', the 'Deluxe Series', the 'Artist Series', and 'Special Edition Series'. These would be considered 'upgrades' over the Standard model and are priced up to several hundred dollars more, but still priced well under the American Standard. They are considered a great value though as they can offer playability equal to, or at least very similar to the American models. And they can be a huge bargain in the used marketplace as they have tended to appeal to more of a niche in the overall market. And they still have that stigma of being made in Mexico, which continues to be a negative to many purists or, in many cases, just plain unenlightened guitarists. These can be great guitars in stock form and can be outright steals on the used market at only $50-$100 (in many cases) more than a new Standard model. Although I certainly haven't tried all of these, I have read extensive reviews and comments on them so I will attempt to discuss each one to the best of my knowledge.
Classic Series -
There are 3 models within the 'Classic Series', the Classic '50's, Classic '60's and Classic '70's, which all attempt to capture at least some 'period correct' features from their corresponding eras. these sell for $699 new, street price. Used prices tend to run between $425-$550, on average.You can often find them around $450.
Classic '50's - Has the period correct 7.25 inch fretboard radius (which is more rounded than the modern 9.5 inch radius), the skinnier and slightly shorter vintage style frets, the vintage split-shaft style tuning machines, a soft 'V' shape neck profile (as opposed to the modern 'C' shape), single ply pickguard and vintage voiced alnico magnet single coil pickups. The soft 'V' shape has a slightly pointed ridge running down the middle of the neck where your thumb would rest. The modern 'C' shape tends to feel rather flat, which many people prefer. But many also prefer the beefier feel that the 'V' shape provides.
Classic '60's - Also has the vintage style 7.25 inch radius fretboard, vintage frets, vintage tuning machines, and vintage voiced alnico magnet single coil pickups, as described above, but this one has a vintage 'C' shape neck which doesn't have that flat feel like the modern 'C'. The vintage 'C' has a thicker feel to it and happens to be the one I prefer the most. This model also comes with the cool 3-ply mint green pickguard.
Classic '70's - Also comes with the vintage 7.25 inch fretboard radius, vintage frets, vintage 'F' style tuning machines (has the Fender 'F' logo on the back) and vintage alnico magnet single coil pickups. This model comes with a 'U' shape neck profile. This is the only neck shape I am not familiar with, but I would guess it's a little deeper, front to back, than the rest of them. Also has the large 70's style headstock which I personally dislike, but lots of people think it's cool.
Classic Player Series -
A little confusing when you are a newbie as there is a Classic Player 50's and a Classic Player 60's....very similar sounding names as the Classic 50's and 60's. These two models feature a combination of vintage and modern features and are marketed as 'Custom Shop Designed'. These run about $100 more new than the Classic Series at $799. Used prices tend to run between $525-$650. You can find them all day long at around $550.
Classic Player 50's - This model has the modern 9.5 inch fretboard radius and medium jumbo frets which many people seem to prefer nowdays. Other features include the popular Fender Custom Shop '57/'62 vintage style alnico magnet single coil pickups and the vintage soft 'V' shape neck profile. It also has the Fender/Gotoh Vintage Style Locking Tuning Machines and custom neck plate.
Classic Player 60's - This model features a 12 inch fretboard radius, which is flatter and generally considered to be better for faster soloing and possibly less desirable for chording. It's probably a fairly subjective observation, but it seems to be the general consensus. It has the slightly beefier vintage 'C' shape neck profile. It also features the modern medium jumbo frets and the very popular Custom Shop '69 single coil pickups. I've owned this pickup set and they are indeed sweet! This seems to be a very popular guitar lately.
Robert Cray Stratocaster - This is the one I own. It's got the vintage 'C' shape neck profile but has the modern 9.5 inch fretboard radius and the medium jumbo frets. Has custom shop design, vintage single coil alnico pickups which are a little hotter than most vintage style, vintage style tuning machines and it's most prominent feature...a hardtail bridge. If you don't use the tremelo bar anyway, a hardtail is a great choice as you don't have to worry about as many adjustments and tuning issues. Plus you get the great string through body design like the Tele's. Has the standard MIM 1.65 inch nut width.
Jimmy Vaughan Tex-Mex Stratocaster - Soft 'V' shape neck profile, with the modern 9.5 inch fretboard radius and the medium jumbo frets, vintage tuners and the overwound Tex-Mex pickup set with the hot bridge pickup for that Texas blues sound. This one has no tone control for the middle pickup which means it's 'wide-open' by default. The Jimmy Vaughan model has the wider 1.68 inch nut width like the USA Standards.
Both of those are very popular and highly rated Strats and they both go for around $675 new, shipped price. Used they are often tremendous bargains and can be found for between $400-$450 easily.
(There are others in the artist series. If you go to the Fender web site they list them under the "Stratocaster" heading along with their specs)
Well, that's about all I can offer for now. I will update this as I gain more knowledge or as the market changes. Again, please keep in mind that I have only discussed the more common types of stock Strats you'll find out there. You'll find owners that have performed upgrades asking more for them. Like I mentioned in the beginning, there are many more vintage, re-issues and/or specialty Strats I have not talked about. Some of these are very highly thought of and/or possibly collectable and can command much higher prices and are beyond the scope of this guide (and my knowledge!).
I hope this helps relieve some of the confusion about all of the different Strats, or even more hopefully it doesn't add to it!
Updated links to Fender Strat information:
Disclaimer: I am absolutely not an expert nor am I qualified to appraise the value of your guitar. I'm sorry, but all I know concerning Strats and values are in the guide. I apologize if you found something you disagree with. You may be an expert, whereas I am not, but then again you didn't take the time to write a guide either. The intention was just to try and make it a little more clear for the newbie's.