How do you recognize a Stratocaster from other types of guitars? It’s a tricky question, to be honest. There is a clear dividing line between Stratocasters and Les Paul or PRS-style guitars. What makes the question difficult to answer though, is the fact of how many different variations modern S-style guitars have. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll try to compare only those brands/models that stay quite close to the true Stratocaster design: having 3 single coils, a vintage tremolo bridge, a double-cut body, and a 25.5-inch scale. You will see that even with these limitations there are many options to choose from.
Why not Fender?
Because you can try another brand so why not try?
There is an open debate (or should we rather say - an internet war) between those who feel like the name Stratocaster should only be used when referring to Fender guitars. All other brands are merely copies, according to this group of opinionators. The other side argues that Stratocaster is the “idea” of the guitar's looks and sound, no matter the brand. For sure, a genuine Stratocaster look and feel, as well as a distinct sound, truly belongs to Fender. This was the company's creation in the 1950s, they for sure have all the knowledge about this kind of guitar in and out.
You might want to explore the variations, though. Many modern brands are trying to take on timeless design and introduce some twists to it. We are always on the lookout for new, inspiring guitars, so let us walk you through some interesting models made by boutique brands you might have never heard about.
Boutique brands’ stratocasters
James Tyler Classic
Even though James Tyler’s gems have a more modern vibe, JTG (James Tyler Guitars) started by modifying Stratocaster for the likes of Michael Landau. James learned his ways in the 1970s as the main tech in Norman’s Rare Guitars in Los Angeles, and in the 1980s grew to be an independent guitar maker. One can see that he has drawn a lot of inspiration from the classic Stratocaster design. The Classic model makes a massive, more “full” take on strat. Not surprising, since it is equipped with a fuller, Les Paul 59-inspired neck profile, compound fretboard radius, and a thick alder body. It sounds full, almost piano-like. It’s a strat-style guitar for those who want more!
Tom Anderson Classic S
Tom Anderson is another legendary guitar builder connected to the LA scene from the 1970s. Tom started as a parts maker, working for Schecter Van Nuys Custom Shop and James Tyler. Later he developed his brand and it has a very special place in the guitar world. It’s hard to describe TA (Tom Anderson) guitars without starting with the word “perfect”. There is so much research and development put into the design (such as the infamous rhomboid neck joint or a wide variety of pickups) that you can tell that the brand is already on a different orbit with its Stratocaster-style guitars. They might be the most comfortable to play - with a butter-smooth neck, lightweight contoured body, stainless steel frets, and ultra dynamic, midrange-focused pickups. It is quite far from the classic Stratocaster, but looks like one and has a unique sound.
If you prefer modern, easy-to-play guitars but still want a classic look - go for it.Suhr Classic S
Guitars made by John Suhr are probably among the best-known of their kind. John’s creations went through serious evolution and while buying a Suhr you still get the Stratocaster-style guitar, as expected from a renowned brand, you will get an instrument that has very particular sound properties. In our opinion, those guitars are perfectly balanced creations with almost “hi-fi” properties to them. It is something that session or touring musicians appreciate a lot - an instrument that can be transformed through amps and playing style. They tend to be darker in sound and not vintage. Suhr guitars have established a strong position in the market and that is for a reason.
If you’re looking for a balanced instrument with a rather modern vibe to support you during recording sessions or you want an investment - take the Suhr.Xotic XSC-1
Here’s where vintage vibes and contemporary luthier art meet. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of an unplugged guitar - you won’t be able to tell it from a 60-year-old guitar. The resonance and dynamics it delivers are unbelievable. Some people say (we belong to this group), that the sound of the guitar comes from the neck, and the sustain comes from a proper joint between the neck and the body. So if you want an example of perfection, Xotic is the one to bear with. But it doesn’t end there, Xotic created a special sub-brand, Raw Vintage, which specializes in creating special hardware. Their bridge saddles were used by James Tyler Guitars and their pickups are one of the most amazing creations we’ve encountered.
If you want a vintage-feeling guitar but don’t want to spend 30k USD, go for Xotic.K-Line Springfield
Chris Kroenlein might not be among the most searched names by a regular guitar player, but in all honesty, there are very few people able to put the same spirit and vintage attitude into the guitar as K-Line, a brand created by Chris, does. Very close to its predecessor, Springfield represents a combination of top-quality and classic tones. Rooted immensely in 1960s design it takes it to another level with contemporary luthier skills at an affordable price point.
It's another option for you to consider if you prefer old-school Stratocasters but you want something currently produced.
A similar alternative to consider would be Don Grosh NOS Retro.
We are the Sultans... Oh, wait. Hold On. Even though most of us tend to connect the names of Pensa and Suhr in one sentence, the two makers are completely separate entities. We would risk saying that John Suhr’s products currently are more “mainstream” and affordable (as for boutique guitars price range), while Rudy Pensa’s creations are more for connoisseurs. And Pensa not only made the infamous MK1 guitar for Mark Knopfler but also Gustavo Cerati and Alberto Spinetta (Latin rock legends) were using Pensa guitars.
These guitars are very hard to find second-hand which might be a hint to how people feel about selling them (they don’t). Very well-built guitars, staying true to the original design. If not for a pointy, triangular headstock you might not even tell a difference.
If you like rare, perfectly made, boutique guitars as close to the original details as possible - this one's for you.Melancon Artist S Custom
If we were to take one guitar that takes on the classic Stratocaster sound and puts even more soul to it - that would be The Artist S model made by the late and great Gerard Melancon. Whenever you take it in your hands, there is a very special energy between the player and the guitar. This guitar has the magic, the soul, and the vibe. The body is slightly more contoured and slimmer, the neck has a perfect C shape, and the fretboard is thick and dark. Melancon also made some of the hardware such as pickups on his own, so the whole guitar just makes sense and pays an undeniable homage to the classic, vintage Stratocaster. If you like the vintage spirit with a lot of soul and comfort - this one is for you.
Which one to choose?
There are so many options to choose from, one can easily get lost in them. Let us help you with a summary of our choices:
- If you want a real Stratocaster, as true to its roots as possible - choose something from Fender Custom Shop (currently made models are amazing, we prefer 2017 onwards)
- If you want a powerful, modern guitar - take James Tyler Classic
- If you want a real vintage vibe with top-quality parts - go for Xotic XSC
- If you like a combination of soul and craftsmanship - choose a Melancon
However, if you are lucky enough and a Pensa comes your way, just buy it and do not think too much.