February 23, 2004
How to Buy a Fender Stratocaster, Part One
by Tom Watson
The article below is not about collectible Stratocasters, vintage or otherwise. The information is provided in response to a frequently asked question: How in the world do I go about buying the Strat - the Stratocaster that will "do it" for me? With so many models and model variations offered by Fender, past and present, choosing the "right one" can be a bewildering prospect.
Unfortunately, for those who like concrete answers, only you can ultimately decide what's right. Fortunately, for those who like choice, the answer is out there somewhere, and hopefully the information below will help you find it.
This is Part One of what has turned into a two- or three-part series (due to length), and addresses some (many) of the questions you might want to ask yourself before you start shopping. Part Two (coming soon) will offer suggestions about where and how to shop.
Part One: threshold questions
Question 1: What is your budget?
Unless you fall into the "money is no object" category (and don't care whether or not you spend your unlimited funds wisely), making this your first decision will save you a lot of time and effort.
Seems like a simple question, but there's a little more to it than knowing your current bank balance. Actually, there are two questions related to budget: how much can you spend and how much should you spend? Your bank balance, credit rating and significant other will help answer the first. Honest answers to the questions raised in the next section should help you answer the second.
Question 2: What purpose will the instrument serve?
Are you a working musician (in which case, your time would probably be better spent getting a few more minutes of sleep instead of reading this article), someone who has never played the guitar, or, like the vast majority of us, do you fall somewhere in between? This series of articles is not directed at the collector, investor or trader (though you might find some helpful common-sense advice).
For the pro player: go back to sleep.
For the beginner: Most people give up within six months. That fact leads to something of a dilemma. While on the one hand, you don't want to spend too much money for a guitar that might end up under the bed or on eBay a few months down the road, on the other, you don't want to buy a guitar that is such a challenge to play that it makes the learning process even more unpleasant.
You have a few alternatives.
1. Borrow someone's instrument for a few months (one that's reasonably playable).
2. Find a music store that has a rental program (especially nice are those who apply the money you spend on rental toward the purchase of the instrument or store credit if you buy a different guitar).
3. Read Part Two (coming soon) about new-instrument dealers that give you a thirty day "satisfaction guarantee" - a month to decide whether or not to keep it. A month may not be long enough to test your commitment to learning the guitar, but it might. You can also "recycle" new instruments through the store - take the first one back within the thirty days and buy another with a new test-drive period.
For the rest of us: The vast majority of Strat buyers fall into this category. What often leads to anxiety and confusion is the difficulty of identifying the difference between what we need and what we want. The incredible variety of models and model variations available - past and present - doesn't help.
Objectivity is the key
Start by asking yourself what the instrument really must deliver to suit your needs with respect to playability and tone. What style of music do you play or intend to play? Do you play many different styles and need an extremely flexible tone producer, or are you a specialist looking for a particular sound? Do you have small hands or large? When playing up and down the neck, do your eyes relate better to a light-colored (maple) or dark (rosewood or ebony) fretboard? Which feels better?
On the issue of "playability", it's really all about the neck. Things to consider are: radius, profile, width, scale, fretwire size, whether or not you like it rolled, and fretboard material - essentially, maple, rosewood (of which there are several variants) or ebony. If you are not familiar with some of these neck-related terms, the Warmoth site explains most of them. Do not underestimate their importance.
What aspects of an electric guitar contribute toward producing tone? This question opens Pandora's Box. You can find people who will seriously argue that virtually every component of the instrument affects its tone. And, of course, so do your particular style and technique - your "touch".
However, no one would disagree that the pickups are the primary tone-producing component. Again you're faced with a dizzying array of choice - with respect to both "factory" and "after-market" pickups.
But since pickups are relatively easy to change, how important should they be in determining what model is right for you? That leads to the question of modifications.
Life in the after-market
When Leo Fender and crew created the Stratocaster, obviously there was no "after-market". He made it a "component" instrument to streamline its construction and assembly process. But, in doing so, he also made it easily modifiable. Over the last few decades a large Stratocaster after-market industry has appeared - participating in which is Fender itself (most Fender pickups can be purchased as after-market parts).
With time and experience, a player comes to know, or at least have a clearer idea, about which components he or she prefers. The important point here is that if you know you are going to modify whichever instrument you buy, that knowledge will influence which model you'll buy to modify. It makes very little sense to buy a less expensive Ensenada Mexico model if you plan on modifying it to the point where it has all the features of an American Series (which would include a neck change to have 22 instead of 21 frets). You're probably better off simply buying the American Series and be done with it.
On the other hand, if, for example, you found a less expensive MIM (made in Mexico) that would work for you except for the fact that you'd prefer American Vintage pickups, it would make little sense to buy a new '57 or '62 American Vintage Reissue just for the pickups. Buy the MIM and an after-market set of AV pups, and swap them.
Yes, there is an overwhelming amount of choice. But, does the possible tonal difference between nitrocellulose and polyurethane finishes really have much bearing on the sounds we are able to produce? I recently received a long email from a reader asking incredibly detailed questions about various Strat components and their affect on tonality. Required the advice of a sonic engineer. A few weeks later, the same person emailed me again, this time asking if I knew where he could find a tab for the "La Bamba" riff. He had been playing guitar for three months.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with taking your hobby seriously. But when it comes to dollars and cents (sense), honest objectivity goes a long way toward determining our actual needs. I have met pro players who claim they can close their eyes and tell whether the Strat being played has a maple or rosewood neck by its tone, and I tend to believe they can. If you fall into that category, again, go back to sleep.
Is it a guitar or a jigsaw puzzle?
Experience can lead to extremes. Some players have a very clear idea of what they need with respect to every component, and find that no production Strat is made with such specs. In some cases, modifying any production Strat to meet the desired specs would be so radical that the overall cost would be prohibitive. In that case, you have to consider one of three options - having the Custom Shop build a one-off to your specs, having a non-Fender company, such as Warmoth, assemble a guitar for you, or, buying the components in the after-market and building it yourself. If you have a company other than Fender build a guitar for you, or if you buy the parts and build it yourself, you may have the instrument you need, but do you have the one you want? An instrument not built by Fender is not a Stratocaster. It may look like one, may play and sound exactly as you wanted, but it's not a "Fender".
Objectively, should it matter? No. But, there's no point in ignoring or denying the strong subjective element of owning a guitar - again, the question of what you want as opposed to what you need. "Vibe", "mojo" - use whichever subjective term you like - there is, for most of us, something indefinably heartfelt about our instruments that transcends nuts and bolts. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
Mojo and money
But, when shopping, focus on your objective needs. Experience will probably show that your emotional response to the instrument (vibe, mojo) is something that develops over time, and not something that was included when you bought it. In fact, by focusing on your objective needs, the instrument that ends up at home will probably have the best shot at developing that subjective "X" factor since it delivers what you wanted from it and "begs to be played".
Meanwhile, there is simply no substitute for test driving as many different models and model variations as possible to determine which features best suit your playability and tonal demands. Pay close attention to necks and their various components - that's where the music you make is born.
What's the best way to test drive different models?
Part Two of "How to Buy a Fender Stratocaster" will offer some interesting suggestions.
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Related ArticlePublished February 23, 2004 10:59 AM.