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Telecaster vs Stratocaster: Major Differences 

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Telecaster and the Stratocaster are two of the most iconic electric guitar silhouettes that have ever been produced. Game changing, groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting — however you describe it, these two Fenders will forever have a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; in part due to the genius of Leo Fender and his team, but also thanks to the absolutely star-studded list of rockers who used their Strats and Teles to change the face of music. 

So?”, you say. “That’s cool and all, but why should I care?”

Maybe we’re just guitar geeks (ok, we 100% are), but understanding what makes a Tele, a Tele (or a Strat, a Strat) gives you a more intimate relationship with the music you consume; will help you make more informed decisions about purchasing a guitar; and honestly, is just plain interesting!

And if you’re still not convinced by the end of this post, well…we may have to rethink our relationship.

(Brief) ‘Caster Origins

We love a good origin story here at WGV - who doesn’t? - and Fender’s prodigal sons don’t disappoint. The eldest of the two, the Telecaster was technically introduced in 1950: first as a single pickup model named the “Esquire”, which was quickly replaced that year by a two-pickup model using the name “Broadcaster”. Unfortunately, the guys over at Gretsch - who were making Broadkasters - weren’t exactly pleased by the naming similarities. So in September of ’51, Fender officially coined the term “Telecaster” - with a transparent Butterscotch finish, Ash body, and a single-ply “Blackguard” pickguard. 3 years later, in an attempt to improve on the Tele’s design (not realizing they’d already hit the nail on the head), Fender & Co. released the Stratocaster, with a game-changing contoured body, unheard-of 3-pickup electronic system, and revolutionary tremolo bridge. 

There is obviously much more detail - which we encourage you to look into - but it is important to note: the Telecaster was developed with the intention of creating a wholly new, innovative instrument for the music industry. The Strat was more of…a happy mistake; the result of much tinkering that saw the already groundbreaking Telecaster evolve into a completely novel instrument. 

Oh. And both of these guitars were way ahead of their time. Rock & Roll as we know it today had yet to be developed…but we’ll give you two guesses as to which guitars played a huge part in helping it along. 

What Makes ‘em Tick

Part of what makes the Telecaster and the Stratocaster such hugely popular instruments is how customizable they are. Throughout the years, players have mixed and matched pickups, whammy bars, bridges, even tone-woods to create their own unique ‘Casters. But there are certain defining qualities of each guitar that most every player can agree upon.

Bodies

Historically, Stratocasters were constructed from Alder, and Telecasters from Ash. Nowadays, the woods are fairly interchangeable, and often substituted; we’ve seen Mahogany Telecasters and even full-Rosewood Strats! However, the silhouettes are timeless and almost always unchanged: the Tele with its blocky, single-cutaway body, and the Strat with its double-horned contours.

Stratocaster Body Front Sunburst

Telecaster Body Front

Necks

Standard Telecasters and Stratocasters employ 25.5” scale bolt-on necks with 22 frets and 9.5” fretboard radius. Nothing crazy. 

Fender Stratocaster neck

The major difference can be seen above the neck: the Tele has a noticeably smaller headstock than the Strat…which has actually seen two headstocks in its 60+ years of production! That’s right: depending on the year, you may find Strats with exceptionally large headstocks, thanks to a design change implemented when CBS bought Fender in 1965.

Stratocaster Headstock

The debate has raged on for years as to whether or not the difference in headstock size affects tone or sustain. We’ll let you decide that for yourself. 

Electronics

Alright; now, onto the juicy part of this guide. While the looks of these two workhorses certainly adds to their appeal, the real reason why generations of guitarists have gravitated towards the ‘Casters lies in the 2 (and 3) little magnetic wonders set into the centers of the guitars. Remember, Leo Fender was not a luthier — he was an electrical engineer who was actually more interested in amplifiers than guitars! 

The Telecaster employs two single-coil pickups, the star of which is the bridge pickup, responsible for creating the quintessential bite and twang tones established first in country music, and soon after transcended into rock. The most powerful aspect of the Telecaster’s electronics system lies in its simplicity: two pickups, two control knobs, and a 3-way switch. From just that description, you might think the Tele is a bit of a one-trick pony…but the Telecaster has wound up in the hands of rock, jazz, metal, and even pop artists who have all been drawn to its characteristic bite. 

The Stratocaster decided more really is more, boasting three single-coil pickups which have been used throughout the years to create a mind-bogglingly large (and influential) number of sonic variations; most notably, the unbelievably sweet “quack” tones that you get in the 2nd and 4th switch positions. In earlier years, when players only had 3 switch positions, they would Macguyver the switch into these sweet spots - go take a listen to Mark Knopfler or Stevie Ray Vaughn if you want an example. 

Bridge

Arguably one of the more noticeable distinctions, although modern versions of both the Telecaster and Stratocaster employ six adjustable saddle bridges —early Teles only had three — and, the Tele’s bridge pickup is incorporated into the actual bridge, whereas the Strat’s pickup can be found just above its two-point tremolo system; a major defining feature of the Strat and a technological innovation that completely separated it from the pack in the ‘50s. 

Final Notes

The Telecaster and the Stratocaster: two very different guitars with equally astounding influence on modern music. What is so impressive to us is how their designs have hardly changed, even after 60+ years of production and customization by the people who played them. The genius of their initial design has set a precedent in the industry that is matched by few other guitars. 

So, if you’re thinking about getting a Tele — or a Strat, and you can’t decide between the two—you’ve got 6+ decades of guitar players who will be more than happy to tell you which one is “absolutely, unequivocally” the better choice (everyone’s got an opinion). If you ask us if you should choose a Tele or a Strat, the absolute, unequivocal answer from us is—YES. ;-)

October 28, 2020 — Bill Goldstein