Sometime in the late Crustaceous period, Young Tim asked me to lean back on my heels and bellow on about a topic that comes up surprisingly often when people find out I used to work as a [mediocre] luthier: What are the differences between Fender’s most popular electric-guitar models, the Stratocaster and Telecaster? And which one’s better for me/my child/lover/mohel/whatever?
The Fender Family as of the late 1970s, in Antigua White finish. There are two Strats on the wall, on the far left and right sides of the top row. There are three Teles in the middle row; a two-humbucker Deluxe, a standard model in the center and a one-humbucker Custom on the right.
Firstly, the similarities:
* The general size and scale — other than the profile of the pegboards [the bit at the top of the neck past the nut, where the string tuners are], a Strat’s neck is basically the same as a Tele’s. They generally have the same neck radius — the roundness of the fretboard itself; in the ’50s, Strat and Tele’s boards were quite round, which makes bending strings somewhat challenging to players used to the much flatter radius of modern guitars. My homemade Strat has a compound radius, with a rhythm-guitar friendly old-school roundness on the first octave of frets and a bending-friendly modern flat radius for the 12th fret and up. [Whenever a guitar needs a refretting — the metal wears out after a few years of use — the fretboard usually has to be sanded down a bit for the new frets; this flattens the radius out, so a lot of vintage guitars develop a more “modern” feel over the decades.]
* the neck and body wood — swamp ash originally, later alder and recently poplar for bodies; maple necks with either maple [yellow] or rosewood [brown] fingerboards for necks — as well as finishes and color options.
Hey, I like Antigua White, OK? This is the back of a Strat; note the gut-friendly gentle curves on the upper side of the body.
* The hardware: the necks of both are strengthened and attached to the body with the same truss rods, nuts, four-bolt plating [three bolts in the bad old days], six-in-a-line style tuning pegs and single string trees [to help the high B and E strings meet their pegs at an angle that does a better job of keeping them in tune], as well as use the same Bakelite/celluloid/plastic for their scratch plates. Stock Strats and Teles also have the same general placement/hardware for their strap buttons, and I assume that they’ve always shared the same volume/tone potentiometers, electronics wire and 1/4″ output jacks as well.
A rainbow of Telecasters.
In the broadest strokes, I guess the Tele is the 1950 Mercury of guitars; a bit boxy, but still far more elegant than any of its predecessors and most of its original peers. Neither the guitar nor the car project a sense of speed or style; for several years, the Tele [or the Broadcaster, as it was originally called before a trademark claim from Gretsch compelled them to change it] was the sleekest option available to musicians who were interested in playing electric guitar, the overwhelming majority of whom played jazz or swing. Compared to an archtop acoustic with a pickup, like Gibson’s ES-150 [the famous Charlie Christian model], the Tele was borderline science fiction — A body that’s less than half the thickness of the shallowest hollowbody! TWO pickups! Electronics that take you from a dark, mellow tone for comping chords to a bright, cutting lead sound for a solo with just one flick of a switch! Historically unparalleled access to the guitar’s upper register! You can adjust EVERYTHING, from the neck’s straightness to the pickup height to the intonation of two pairs of strings [instead of a bridge that only allowed you to do all six strings at once unless you had a luthier who could shape the bridge like an elephant passing through the eye of a needle]! The austere elegance remains the deepest root of the Telecaster’s appeal on the rack.
A brunette with a blonde American Standard Stratocaster.
The Strat, on the other hand, is the ’57 Chevy of guitars; even sleeker, more stylish and yet comfier than its peers — the “Comfort Contour Body’s” torso-accommodating upper back and playing-arm contours have certainly aged far better than car tail fins. Its “synchronized tremolo” was an incredible leap forward in design, combining the electric guitar’s bridge and vibrato tailpiece for the first time. [Interestingly enough, when Fender added a vibrato option to the Tele, they chose to license the earlier Bigsby design rather than use their own Strat whammy.]
Using a switching system that offers all possible combinations of the stock Strat’s three pickups is still a concept the company hasn’t fully exploited; it only begrudgingly changed from a three-way switch [front/middle/back] to a five-way — which accommodated the neck-middle and middle-back “out of phase” [actually it’s in phase/parallel, electronically speaking, but the actual sound is closer to what you would imagine “out of phase” sounds like] tones that have always been hugely popular with players, who used to jam matchsticks into the switches to get the blade to stop in the sweet spot between the poles to activate both pickups instead of just one — a mere 23 years after the instrument’s debut, and it still requires some clever rewiring to access the surprisingly tasty sounding neck/bridge and all-three-pickups tones.
Black offbrand Strat, Peavey Bandit amplifier, striped socks.
Fender also made a somewhat cheesy, slow-to-correct decision with the Tele’s switching design; originally its three-way switch gave you the neck pickup with a capacitor cut that gave it a very dark, bassy tone [like an archtop jazz guitar if you can figure out how to squint with your ears], then the regular neck pickup and the neck & bridge pickups together with a blend knob. The Tele had no proper tone knob until three years later, and Fender didn’t make the far more sensible neck/neck&bridge/bridge switching conceit [with master volume and tone pots] the default wiring until late 1967 or early ’68, shortly after being acquired by the CBS corporation. Teles are supposed to be “in phase” when both pickups are engaged, giving it a genuinely rounder sound, depending on how evenly matched the pickups are.
Micawber, Keith Richards’ main squeeze: a 1953 Tele with a backwards-mounted Gibson “Patent Applied For” humbucking pickup in the neck. Less curious than the guitar’s Dickensian name is that the PAF is reportedly not actually wired for sound.
The vibration of guitar strings is the loudest the closer to the neck you get — this is why the soundholes of flattop acoustics are closer to the neck than the bridge, to boost and focus the guitar’s volume and tone — so the neck pickup is generally weaker than the bridge one. If you ask me, matched sets of Tele pickups generally exaggerate this difference, with weak, nearly useless necks and ice-pick-in-your-ear bridges; this is why Telemasters like Albert Collins and Keith Richards replace their Teles’ stock neck pickups with comparatively louder Gibson P.A.F. humbuckers, which works beautifully. Also, the Tele’s bridge pickup is screwed directly into the bridge, which probably adds significantly to the tone in ways science still can’t properly explain.
What is it with the Strat & Peavey combo, ladies?
In comparison, Strats generally have three essentially identical pickups with minute differences in the number of copper windings around the magnet; the neck gets fewer winds and the bridge getting more to help them blend together. Despite the ’80s vogue for “superstrats” — the basic Strat hot-rodded with a Van Halen-approved bridge-position humbucker and a much more extreme Floyd Rose tremolo system — there’s really not that much one can do to the stock Stratocaster to fundamentally change it for the better beyond installing a Tremsetter or similar device to correct the problem of how a floating whammy bar [so you can bend notes up in pitch as well as down] makes all of the strings detune a bit as you bend a string. Guitarists whose style is built on picking and bending strings to ring in unison/harmony, like Chuck Berry and most country players, gravitate toward the Tele [if they play a Fender at all] largely for that reason. You can bend it like Berry on a Strat, but it takes a lot more work. On the other hand, this faint dissonance and added difficulty adds a sense of frenzy and excitement to Strat players who bend double- and triple-stops, like Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy.
To my ear, the Tele rings louder and clearer than the Strat, but the Strat does a lot more, mostly better, and it looks cooler. Tone examples that come to mind:
Just about anything by Joe Strummer has that clanging both-pickups Tele sound. See also: the Stones’ “Start Me Up” and nearly anything else that requires Keef’s five-string open-G tuning to play. Albert Collins is sui generis at the icepicking bridge-pickup sound. Despite the custom-made pickups, Danny Gatton brought the full spectrum of Telecaster tones to his records and performances. Yardbirds-era Jeff Beck and Bruce Springsteen played heavily modified Esquires [a cheaper, one-pickup version of the Tele] that retain a remarkable, bell-like clarity when they wanted to cut through the sound of the band
Best example of the quacky, nasally “out of phase” sounds, by the way, would be Robert Cray playing rhythm guitar [neck/middle] and Robert Cray playing lead [middle/bridge].
My Strat … theoretically/eventually.
I still have my homemade, high-school Strat in storage, although I would probably have brought it with me had I finally gotten around to replacing the American Standard [floating] tremolo with a Hipshot Trilogy [hardtail] bridge and making it my 24/7 rhythm guitar workhorse. I’m just not a fan of the Fender vibrato anymore. Then again, I have no interest in buying another Fender anything, but should I ever have the opportunity to make solidbody guitars again, I would make a Fender Frankenstein: A hollowbody, f-hole Strat body [in Mary Kaye blonde] with a Tele bridge, cover, bridge block and bridge pickup, a Strat middle pickup, a P.A.F. in the neck with an F-14’s worth of knobs and switches to wring every tone I could out of them. They laughed at my theories at the academy!!! But they’ll pay for it!!!! Oh yes, THEY’LL PAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!