It’s an age old debate between two greats. Both are world renowned instruments built by the equally famous Fender electric guitars, one of the top guitar brands on the market.
In this article, we’re going to compare the Fender Telecaster to the Fender Stratocaster so you can get an idea of their similarities, differences, and overall which kind of guitar best works for your needs and budget.
Each have their own unique features and sounds. Therefore, the goal of this article is to:
- Discuss and review the different models offered by each line
- Talk about the history behind each type of guitar
- Compare to other noteworthy instruments
- Pick a favorite: Tele or Strat?
And, to better help you, we’ve created an interactive table below full of some of the best Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars on the market. Please use it to compare these guitars to one another based on price, features, and more.
The Fender Telecaster
Debuting in 1951, the Telecaster predates the Stratocaster by about 3 years. Offered with a 25.5” scale length, 2 single-coil pickups all in a solid Ash body, this guitar was the first of its kind on the market. As the first electric guitar to be mass produced, it was and still is the simplest guitar made in terms of construction.
The Telecaster is played by countless musicians. James Burton, Eddie Vedder, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards – it’s endless, folks. Two pickups allowed the player to toggle with a switch between 3 different configurations: Top, Bottom or Both. This made the electric guitar very versatile for its day.
One can always tell a Telecaster by it’s single “horn,” similar to a cutaway on an acoustic guitar. Today, it’s available in countless colors, finishes and configurations. There are versions with humbucker pickups, Tremolos – there is even a hollow-body version available.
History and Sound
The Telecaster’s mark on rock and roll stands without question. That influence began with the blues. Muddy Waters donned the Telecaster as one of – if not the first – mainstream bluesmen. Roy Buchanan Albert Collins – the “Master of the Telecaster,” – all boosted sales of the instrument.
The bridge pickup lends itself to the “twang” and “snap” sound associated with the Tele, found closer to the lower bout than on a Stratocaster. You can mimic this tone by strumming any type of guitar near the bottom of the strings nearest to the bridge.
But by changing the pickup configuration to activate both pickups, you hear a blend of twang and mellow. Many models include individual pickup volume controls for further customizations. All in all, that’s about it; the Tele is just that. A simple, modest offering in the ever-growing world of guitars. I believe that to be it’s strongest attribute.
The Fender Stratocaster
And in this corner…the Stratocaster. Debuted in 1954, Fenders’ second flagship solid body is born. Offered with a 25.5” scale length, a whopping 3 single-coil pickups all in a solid alder body, your tonal library just gained some more volumes.
Like the Telecaster, the Stratocaster has it’s own sponsors onstage: Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, Buddy Guy, Hendrix…so on and so fourth, right? The three single coil pickups are a flip of a switch away to 5 – sometimes more – choices in tone. This is all without expensive pedals and effects; the guitar essentially is the pedalboard.
The Stratocaster features two horns in numerous finishes and pickup configurations. One distinct feature the Stratocaster has is the vibrato bridge. Some refer to the entire setup as a “whammy bar,” but it is truly the bridge’s ability to rock toward the headstock that allows the whammy bar to do its job. This added another tool for shredding to every rocker’s personal tonal arsenal.
History and Sound
I consider the Stratocaster to be the flagship of all electric guitars. They say that when one thinks of an electric guitar, their mind’s eye depicts a Fender Stratocaster. The tonal possibilities are endless through different variations of pickup configurations. I’ve heard players rock out and shake my car windows. Then again, I’ve fallen asleep to a beautiful lullaby played on a Strat.
Not to mention, Strats are well-known for their comfort. The lower bout is tapered in such a way as to allow one’s forearm to rest of a flat surface. Furthermore, they tend to be slightly thinner than Telecasters, thus lightweight. Strats are famous because they are an everyman’s guitar.
Fender’s Modeling & Pricing Structure
Fender currently sells the Telecaster under two brands – Fender and Squire. If you see a “Squire Telecaster,” rest easy; it’s a more affordable Fender Telecaster. While the headstock may not be embossed with the Fender name, it is in every sense still a Fender.
Squires can still be excellent guitars, but made in different factories with different materials. This is similar to the relationship between Gibson and Epiphone.
Fender has a few different “lines” of each guitar. The American Pro is top, followed by American Special, and the American Standard.
In general, you will find the following:
- American Pro – V Mod Pickups, “Deep C” neck, Narrow-Tall Frets
- American Standard – Custom Shop Texas Pickups, “Modern C” neck, Medium Jumbo Frets
- American Special – Custom Shop Special Pickups, “Modern C” neck, Medium Jumbo Frets
The V Mod Pickups are celebrated for their consistency across different pickup configurations. This is as close to a “vintage Fender sound” as you can get. There is virtually no loss of volume or punch at any setting. CST Pickups are bright, bold, and don’t hold back.
With that in mind, let us move forward with a review of several Stratocasters and Telecasters. My goal is to provide you with an idea as to the look, feel and sound of each so you can have a better idea as to which is better for you: The Fender Telecaster, or the Stratocaster?
So, without further ado, let’s jump right into it.
Stratocaster – HSH
Humbucker. Single coil. This guitar is absolutely loaded. The 5-way switch has a lot of work to do dealing with this very unique configuration. I did not know before seeing this beauty that such a thing existed on a Strat.
I had a lot of fun experimenting with the different configurations, but did find it to be somewhat limited in tonal variation, which was surprising. I wasn’t able to differentiate between two of the five settings. But what I did hear was very impressive. I found the pickups didn’t sound bold and bright like the V Mods or Texas single coils, but the modest price makes this worth a look.
It plays like a Strat, which is excellent. It feels a tad heavier than some of the other SSS models, but it wasn’t too cumbersome. I recommend this to an experienced player who may already have a SSS Strat or classic Tele and wants something different from the Fender line to add to their collection.
Stratocaster – Standard
The Strat Standards come in a variety of colors and designs. The one I played, however, featured a beautiful mural of a bunch of dragons – too cool, but perhaps a little cheesy for my taste.
Nonetheless, everything else about the guitar felt like how a Fender should. I found the overall sound of the Standard to be quite pleasant, but nothing incredibly special. It lacked the boldness of some of the more expensive models. This makes for a great entry level guitar, but more experienced players may yearn for something a bit more beefy.
Stratocaster – American Special
The American Special is what I have in mind when thinking of “classic guitar.” It’s everything a Strat can and should be. It’s quality at its finest, made in America at Fender. Of course, this model features three Texas Special single coil pickups, but with the wonderful addition of a Greasebucket tone circuit.
What this means is that between the 5 different pickup configurations, there will be no loss of volume. Therefore, the player can enjoy any configuration they prefer without fear of being “lost” in the mix. It was nice not to have to worry about experiencing sudden “jumps” in volume when testing this guy out.
As with all Strats, it was comfortable to play, although I particularly enjoyed the maple neck on the American special. The rosewood fingerboard melts well with the sunburst finish on the body. All around, you cannot go wrong with this one folks.
Stratocaster – American Pro HSS
I chose to review the HSS version of the American Pro. HSS stands for “Humbucker (bridge) Single Coil (middle) Single Coil (neck). You got it, this stratocaster features a big fat Shawbucker humber tail-side. Activating the humbucker only made this guy sound almost like a Telecaster, which was unexpected.
I ain’t complaining.
Switching over to all three pickups was a wild ride in that the guitar felt it was meant to always sound this way. However, I found all other pickup configurations were disappointing. Not to mention, the volume differential made it all-too obvious the player was making the switch. This guitar would benefit from the American Special’s Greasbucket tone circuit. The guitar felt otherwise like a Strat. Again, no complaints, these Fenders are reliable!
Telecaster – 72 Deluxe
The 72 deluxe is a hollow-body Tele with two humbuckers. This results in a totally different vibe. The hollow body results in a more mellow sound when activating the neck pickup. The sustain was actually very pleasing with this instrument.
My favorite aspect about the 72 is how lightweight it is compared to the solid body models. Combined with the uniqueness of a Tele with a hollow-body, I figure this guitar would be best suited for a player looking for something recognizable but unique. The humbuckers make it a very versatile guitar, even with the limited 3-way switch.
I was able to play rhythm and lead with excellent balance throughout! While it’s not necessarily what I’d expect a Telecaster to sound like, it sure is fun to play.
Telecaster – Ritchie Kotzen
I included the Kotzen signature Telecaster in this list to show you what Fender is made of in terms of custom work. This guitar is the golden-bedazzled bathroom in a Millionaire’s mansion. Featuring gold appointments everywhere you can think of, this recreation is true to form.
What I found unique in the guitar was the tone offered by the DiMarzio Chopper T (bridge) and Twang King (neck) pickups. If I didn’t know any better, I though I was playing on some V Mod pickups on a Strat!
Each pickup configuration sounded unique without one overpowering the other. Of course, the guitar felt great to play as well. If you want to treat yourself to a one of a kind, killer sounding axe, look no further.
Telecaster – Modern Player
The Modern-Player is another semi-hollow body Telecaster. Rather than two single-coil pickups, this axe comes packed with two neutral-placed P90 pickups. P90s are known to have a propensity toward blues and rock.
The Beatles’ sound is based on these guys, and do they sound punchy. Modern rockers/bluesmen the likes of Gary Clark Jr. rely on them for an easy switch from blues to rock. This is one versatile guitar at a modest price of about $500.
It is very comfortable to hold standing or sitting, as well as lightweight due to less mass inside the box. I found the neck to be a little thick for my taste, without taper on the higher frets. The sustain wasn’t as impressive as the 72 Deluxe, but still impressive. This is a neat looking guitar, but by no means a classic Telecaster. P90s tend to have a lot of feedback, so bedroom-dwellers beware; you’ll want to stand back a bit from your amp to avoid door-knocking neighbors.
Stratocaster – Squire Bullet
The Squire I played was setup very nicely with great action, neck feel and weight. However, I find this guitar lacks the tone of it’s lower range Fender counterparts. The pickups simply sound cheap.
If a player is on a seriously tight budget and playing through an equally cheap amplifier while still learning to play, I would say this is a good choice. I would especially recommend this instrument to anyone with experience tinkering around with wiring and able to replace the pickups.
This means that this $150 guitar with another $150 invested in upgrades could play and sound almost like an American Standard at a price point of $1,400. The price point is geared toward holiday gift-giving to grandkids, not to blissful matrimony months after purchase as-is to those more musically experienced.
Telecaster – American Special
I’m sad to report the American Special model of the Telecaster doesn’t match up to the Stratocaster version in terms of playability. The neck was gigantic and made bar-chords difficult to fret – even with jumbo frets. The taper on the upper frets wasn’t enough to make up for the thickness.
However, the sound on this axe is unreal. I was able to sustain notes for days while making quick pickup switches for rhythm. Each of the three configurations sounded even and righteous in their own way. Switching to the distortion channel on the amplifier showed me that this guitar was meant for dirty blues solos. Perhaps others have smaller necks, but I would aim to try before you buy.
Telecaster – American Professional
My gosh, what a guitar. Out of all the tested Fenders featuring Tim Shaw Humbucker pickups, this one takes the prize. This is without a doubt the most tonally versatile Tele on this list, but can still sound like a classic Tele should.
The maple neck was customized in Fender’s own custom shop. New meets old with a vintage tailpiece, fully adjustable across all six strings. I found this guitar to sound particularly sweet when playing chords through a “crunch” effect on my amplifier. It had a Detroit Rock City characteristic that caught my ear (and made me smile). I was able to switch the pickup configuration to activate both in a successful effort to all-out rock with fully loaded distortion, no problem.
The cleans sounded particularly sweet. Matched with some delay, I had a lot of fun with this guitar. While it’s one of the most expensive on this list, I consider it to be a worthwhile purchase for the experienced player looking for a quality, American-made upgrade.
Is there a winner?
At the end of the day, the long-standing debate of choosing a champion between the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster is like choosing your favorite kid. Both are tools for different purposes.
One is better at vacuuming the rugs, the other mowing the lawn. I always say that the best way to purchase any guitar is to try them all out, blindfolded, without throwing caution to price. A cheaper guitar may catch your fancy over the more expensive model, or vice-versa. Perhaps a model you’ve never considered before will go home with you.
However, if I were stranded on a desert island, I’d make sure to bring the American Special Stratocaster. I’ve always loved the feel of a Stratocaster. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt the most comfortable guitar I have ever played.
Then again, so is every strat.
They are simple in design, easy to configure, and oh-so diverse in sound. My favorite players have proven to me that anything can be done on a Stratocaster. While I was pleasantly surprised by some of the Telecasters in this review, I find that they lack the tonal variety found in most Strats. It’s almost like two for the price of one, or even sometimes 5 – all at the flip of a switch.
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