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The final word on Stratocaster vs. Telecaster

Fender American Professional Stratocaster and American Professional Telecaster

This is my take on the rather old argument of Stratocaster vs. Telecaster and which I personally think is the better guitar.

Back in my teens, I wouldn't think of even touching a Telecaster. I saw that guitar as something only country guys played, and at the time that was largely true. Music videos of the day on MTV almost never showed that guitar. In fact, one of the very few instances I can distinctly remember seeing a Telecaster just because it stuck out so much is one that Elliot Easton was playing in the video for the song Magic by The Cars:

Elliot Easton

(Yes, Easton is a lefty player.)

This is genuinely the only instance I remember seeing a Telecaster on MTV. But it did stick out in my mind because seriously, how often do you see a hot pink Tele?

I'm telling you this so you know that it took me a very long time to come around to even thinking about trying a Telecaster guitar, much less actually buying one.

Now that I have a genuinely good Tele guitar I can finally talk about Strat vs. Tele and discuss the positives and negatives of each.

Output jack plate

Strat wins here.

Often overlooked but nonetheless a very cool thing is the top-mounted Stratocaster output jack plate. This is sometimes referred to as the "football" or "teardrop" plate. Much easier to get to compared to the side mount output jack of the Telecaster.

Volume knob

Tele wins here.

Arguably, the most annoying and most infuriating thing about a Strat is its volume knob position. It will get hit during play and the volume will get knocked down accidentally. This is the reason so many Strat owners purposely rewire the guitar so it is one-volume/one-tone for the two lower knobs and either take the top knob out completely or leave it there unwired as a dummy knob just for appearance.

The Tele volume knob position is exactly correct. You won't hit it. Maybe with super-aggressive play you'll hit the pickup selector blade, but not the knob.

Rear (bridge) pickup tone control

Tele wins here.

Traditional Stratocaster wiring has no tone control wired in when only the rear pickup is selected, and yes that is by design.

Telecaster wiring has always had tone control for the rear pickup.

Pickup selector blade

Strat wins here.

The 5-way Strat pickup selector is easier to use because it's smaller and angled towards the player. The 3-way Tele blade selector isn't angled at all and is 100% horizontal, proving to be slightly more difficult to get along with.

Playability ease from pickup configuration

Tele wins here.

With a Strat, it's very common that players will bash their picks into the middle and front (neck) pickups, which is why some Strat players will lower the top half of those two pickups almost flush to the pick guard just to get them the hell out of the way.

The Tele doesn't have a middle pickup, which for playability is a plus. And being the front pickup is a mini-single with a cover that has smoothed edges, even if you do whack that pickup from time to time, it's easier to recover since you're not hitting a sharp edge. And of course you can lower the top half of the pickup just like you would on a Strat.

String installation

Tele wins here.

The reason most Strat players leave the back cover removed is to make for easier string changes.

Even to this day, such as seen on the Fender American Professional Stratocaster, the rear cover somewhat blocks the 6 string hole:

Fender American Professional Stratocaster back

Thousands of players over the years have tried to get along with installing strings through that plate, only to just remove the thing out of frustration and leave it off.

I've never quite understood why Fender doesn't just make the hole cutout slightly larger. Absolutely nobody would complain if they did that. Seriously, how difficult would it be to enlarge that plastic cutout by a few millimeters?

And if you think getting a more expensive Strat like the Elite Stratocaster gives you a better rear plate cutout, you'd be wrong. You get the same not-quite-big-enough cutout crapola whether it's a cheap Squier or top of the line Fender.

The Fender American Professional Telecaster, of course, has easy access to every string from the rear:

Fender American Professional Telecaster back

The majority of Telecasters made by Fender and Squier are thru-body where the strings are installed from the rear. My Squier Bullet Telecaster is a thru-body. However, the Affinity Tele is a top-loader, but that's really not an issue since the top-loader is by far the easiest of the easy where string changes are concerned.

Knob material

Tele wins here.

Tele knobs are metal and are easy to clean. Strat knobs are plastic, get stained easily and are never easy to clean.

Gig bag fit

Tele wins here.

How well a guitar fits in a gig bag is something a lot of guitarists don't take into consideration.

A Telecaster is one of the few guitars that I can say with absolute certainty will easily fit into any standard electric guitar gig bag.

Stratocasters do not fit all gig bags and I'll tell you exactly why. It's not the length of the guitar that's the problem. It's the top horn where the strap button is. On some gig bags, you will not be able to zip it up past that point. The Telecaster has a smoothed curve where the top strap button is while the Strat has a horn that sticks out.

Body contact

Strat wins here.

On the back of every Stratocaster guitar is a rear contour cut so the guitar feels more comfortable to play seated or standing. The Telecaster, traditionally, does not have a rear contour cut.

I say "traditionally" because some Teles do have the contour cut. The American Elite Telecaster does have the rear contour. The more affordable Fender Modern Player Telecaster Plus and Squier Deluxe Telecaster models also have the contour.

Many Tele players consider the contour cut heresy on the Telecaster guitar, saying that it makes it too Strat-like. I have to admit that yes, I consider Teles with the contour cut to feel weird just because I totally expect that plank-of-wood body style. So even though the Strat is the more comfortable body shape, I do agree with Tele purists that a rear contour cut breaks too far away from what a Telecaster is supposed to be.

Usable tone

Tele wins here.

The Telecaster has tone control when the rear pickup alone is selected. As said above, traditional Stratocaster wiring does not have this. Not having tone control on the rear-alone setting makes the Strat unusable for a lot of players.

Staying in tune

Tele wins here.

The Tele doesn't win by much here, but the fact it has no vibrato system is what makes it keep its tune better. Yes, you can "deck" or "block" a Strat vibrato system (which Fender calls a tremolo system,) but unless you specifically know to do that, the guitar will lose its tuning fairly easily.

Least weird noises

Tele wins here.

A thing that happens on Strats is jokingly called "Stratocaster reverb." It's the unwanted noise heard when the rear springs ring on the back of the guitar. Telecasters don't do this because there are no rear springs to ring.

Cool factor

Strat wins here.

For most guitar players, one or more of their guitar heroes played a Strat so the star power of the instrument can't be denied. It is that star power that give a Strat its cool factor more than anything else.

At the time I write this, Fender has 15 different Artist series Strats with the Eric Clapton Stratocaster being the most recognized. The Telecaster only has 6, with the James Burton model arguably being the most popular.

Which is the better of the two guitars?


The Stratocaster isn't a bad guitar by any means, but the modifications most players make to it is to specifically make it operate like a Telecaster more often than not.

What makes a Telecaster great is its simplicity. Two knobs and one switch is all you have to work with.

I've also owned a few Stratocaster guitars and still do, but the Telecaster is simply the better player's guitar. There's no worries about knocking the volume knob. Maintenance of a Telecaster is stupidly easy. And there's no need to rewire anything to get the control you want over the sound. Set it up, plug in and go. It pretty much doesn't get any better than that.

Yeah, I own Jazzmaster guitars which are very complicated, quirky instruments. But it is oh-so nice to put the Jazzmaster down and pick up a Telecaster sometimes. Telecasters don't get "moody." They just work.

Published 2017 Sep 21

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