Today I’m undertaking a mammoth task and pitting two heavyweights of the guitar world against each other. In the left corner, officially weighing in at 7.5 pounds, all the way from Fullerton, California the American ‘Tele’ Telecaster! Right, enough of the Michael Buffer impression. Sorry, I was getting way too into that.
Anyway, today we’re going to look at the Telecaster vs the Stratocaster. Both very famous in their own right and endorsed by many players worldwide, the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster are perhaps the most famous musical instruments ever created. I’m going to look into a short history of both, then hopefully shed some light on a few frequently asked questions, Is the Telecaster the best guitar? Is the Stratocaster the best guitar? Is the Stratocaster more versatile? The answers lie ahead.
Starting with the first conceived model of the two, the Telecaster was Fender’s first solid body, electric guitar. Leo Fender had been running his company since 1946 and as well as other things, made lap steels. Much of the DNA of lap steels’ influenced how Fender’s first solid-body electric guitar was to be made. Hardware like knurled chrome knobs, ‘ashtray’ bridge cover, the combination of bridge and pickup in one unit and Kluson tuners were some influences borrowed from the lap steel. The Telecaster was eventually released in 1951 and as they say, the rest is history. Although there have been variations and different models are on offer from Fender, the Telecaster has remained largely unchanged since 1951.
The Telecaster actually started life as the ‘Broadcaster’ but at the time Gretsch, who were a more established brand, had a line of instruments known as Broadcaster and wrote a letter to Fender telling them so. Not wanting to get into a legal dispute, Fender dropped the ‘Broad’ from the name and replaced it with ‘Tele’. Don Randall, a leading manager at Fender, had come up with the name during the Television boom that was sweeping across the USA in the late 1940s.
Since its inception, the Telecaster has been picked up and played by many different artists the world over. Originally appealing to Western swing and country artists like Jimmy Bryant, the Telecaster has transcended genres with Keith Richards, George Harrison, Jonny Greenwood, J Mascis, Cate Le Bon and Jim Root being only a few out of a large list to adopt one as their own.
Next up is the little brother. Arguably the more famous of the two, the Stratocaster body shape is what would usually come to mind if you asked a stranger to draw an electric guitar. It’s quite iconic. Leo Fender saw the Stratocaster as an evolution from the Telecaster and there were plenty of new features for players to get their hands on. Evolved features such as a contoured body, a vibrato system, 3 identical pickups and an upper and lower cutaway on the body were some of the most noticeable changes.
Surprisingly unlike the Telecaster, the Stratocaster took a while to take off. Compared to other popular guitars of the time, the Gibson Les Paul Gold Top and the Gretsch Duo Jet, the Stratocaster was quite expensive. Which stunted immediate success. It wasn’t until Rock ’n’ Roll started to gather attention and develop as a genre, that Stratocaster sales began to pick up. A famous 1957 TV performance by a Texan band called The Crickets, with a youthful Buddy Holly at the helm, helped launch the Stratocaster into public consciousness and has been a staple on guitar stores’ walls ever since.
Famous artists such as David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Corgan, Simon Neil, John Frusciante and Steve Rothery have all wielded a Stratocaster. The guitar has been present through multiple decades of music history and there isn’t many other things that has helped influence music culture quite like it. It’s so popular that you can buy a LEGO Fender Stratocaster model, well done Fender, you have officially ‘made it’.
Now that a brief history has been covered, I’m going to go address a few different categories and frequently asked questions. For transparency’s sake, all thoughts included are my own, there may be some people out there who disagree, but they can write their own blog.
What is the difference in tone?
Most of these guitars’ unique tones come from their pickups. Although both are equipped with single-coil pickups, they both have their own distinct characteristics. Now, since saying a Stratocaster sounds ‘Strat-ish’ and a Telecaster sounds more ‘Tele-ish’ won’t cut it, I’m going to try and articulate the difference.
A Telecaster will traditionally come with 2 single-coil pickups, one neck pickup and one bridge pickup. Whilst using the bridge pickup on the Telecaster, you’ll hear the famous Telecaster ‘Twang’, it is very bright and punchy, and there is a whole load of treble.
Although they look very similar, the bridge pickup on each of the guitars will give you a different tone. A Telecaster’s bridge pickup is taller and longer than found in Strat, this gives more area to wind additional pickup wire around. This results in higher output and makes the Telecaster bridge pickup a lot more punchy. The metal plate that the Telecaster bridge pickup is mounted to increases the inductance, which also adds some power. A Stratocaster bridge pickup is mounted on a plastic pickguard, so it’s less hot and is more ‘bell-like’ in tone.
The main difference with the Stratocaster is the extra middle pickup. This allows for more tone options and pickup configurations. Instead of a 3-way selector switch, you have a 5-way selector switch. Positions 2 and 4 include the middle pickup and are usually described as being ‘quacky’ in sound, this is the famous Stratocaster tone, a tone that is synonymous with funk music, think Nile Rodgers.
Telecaster vs Stratocaster for beginners
A question we usually get asked is, ‘What is the better guitar for a beginner who is on the market for their first electric?’. Now, this is quite dependent on the individual, but either option would be suitable for a first guitar. If someone comes into the store, we will always let the player try out both models for fit and size.
Due to the body contours found on a Stratocaster, a beginner will usually feel more comfortable with a Strat over a Telecaster as the body on a Tele is a lot more rigid and can ‘jab’ you in the ribs. Comfortableness is key when starting, so we would usually steer someone in that direction if they didn’t have a specific preference.
What music is good for a Telecaster?
Now as stated before, both instruments are extremely versatile and can be found across multiple genres of music. Fender and Squier offer different pickup configurations that make a Telecaster or Stratocaster applicable to just about any band you would want to play in. So for the purpose of making this blog a little shorter than would otherwise be, I’m going to talk about the traditional single coil pickup configuration in both the Telecaster and Stratocaster.
So the Telecaster can be found across many different genres, which is a testament to its versatility. Traditionally, the Telecaster was made famous with western swing and country music. The twang that the bridge pickup produces complements country music beautifully and still to this day, modern country music players are usually found dawning a Telecaster.
The Telecaster is a brilliant instrument for punk music and legends like Joe Strummer of The Clash played one for most of his career. The directness of the Telecaster’s pickups lends itself to the aggressive and driven style of punk music. When the pickups are cleaned up, the twinkle of a Telecaster’s pickups works well with sparkly Math Rock and Emo and are often played in that genre. Blues and Rock and Roll work well with a Telecaster, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has played one since the dawn of time.
What Music is good for a Stratocaster?
The Stratocaster is suitable for a lot of the genres just mentioned so I won’t repeat myself, but it is the best possible instrument for Funk. Nile Rodgers now has a signature Stratocaster dubbed ‘Hitmaker’, after countless amounts of Funky hits in his band Chic. So if Funk is your thing, get yourself a Stratocaster.
For a similar reason, the Stratocaster is well suited to Reggae. Lead guitarist in Bob Marley’s band, Al Anderson, played a Stratocaster for most of his career. Marley himself also started his career by playing a Stratocaster, before eventually switching to a Les Paul.
Telecaster vs Stratocaster for Metal.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve not mentioned that either guitars are great for Metal. This is because I have been concentrating on the traditional single coil setup that both guitars usually come with. However, there are Telecaster and Stratocaster models out there that are equipped with humbuckers and active pickups.
You can grab yourself a Fender Player Series Stratocaster that comes with a HSS-style pickup configuration. HSS stands for humbucker, single coil, single coil. The humbucker pickup is in the bridge position and it sounds great for heavier, distorted music like metal. A humbucker pickup is essentially 2 single coil pickups pushed together, this results in a hot output which is a perfect marriage for metal music.
Not forgetting the Telecaster, there are various models that also have humbucking pickups. Perhaps the most well-known is the Telecaster Deluxe, which is equipped with 2 humbuckers in place of the 2 traditional Telecaster single coils. Chris Shiflett of the Foo Fighters has been blasting out stadium rock with his signature Telecaster for a while now. Jim Root of Slipknot also has a signature Telecaster model. Root’s signature Telecaster is equipped with 2 EMG pickups, which are active, this means they are battery powered. Active pickups have an even higher output than a standard single coil and were specifically made for really heavy music. So if that’s your thing I would definitely check them out.
Even if you are a self-proclaimed metal head, there is a Stratocaster or Telecaster out there for you. I would definitely recommend one which has either humbuckers or active EMG pickups inside as this will help you achieve the chugging riffs you’re choking to play!