In the world of rock and roll, fewer names are bigger than Fender. And in the world of Fender, fewer names are bigger than the Telecaster and the Stratocaster. While there are many similarities between these two solid-body Fender electrics, they also share a few key differences – differences that have made them especially popular with different types of players. But before we get into the specifics of the differences between the two, it really helps put things into perspective when you know how each guitar came to be, because they are definitely closely tied to each other even within the Fender family of guitars.
A Brief History of the Telecaster And Stratocaster
When electric guitars first hit the market in 1931, they were simply modified hollow bodied variants much like the archtops of today, although with a sound more comparable to that of a tone-less acoustic electric plugged into a crude amp. In these early years, increased volume was the main reason a player would go electric as the idea that an electric guitar can give a guitarist greater tone was not so much unheard of as it was unthought of at the time.
While Leo Fender was running his electric instruments and repair shop in the early ‘40s, he would test pickups on a piece of solid wood he had made into a simple crude guitar. He began to get curious at its potential when local musicians would ask to borrow the guitar that had been purely made to quickly test pickups as they loved the shiny and sustained sound it produced, much different than that of the spacey hollow body. Although there was definitely knowledge at the time that a solid-body design offered greater advantages for electric instruments, none were successful in impacting the market until the release of the Fender Esquire in 1950.
When the Esquire was originally released, it shipped with a single pickup and only about 50 were ever made, most of which had to be replaced under warranty as these models shipped with a pretty big manufacturing flaw as the guitars did not include neck tuss rods, making them highly susceptible to permanent bending (known as warping among musicians). Later that year, the Esquire was given an extra pickup, a tuss rod and renamed the Fender Broadcaster, which didn’t sit well with Gretsch as the company had a line of drums with the similar name Broadkaster. Rather than fight, Fender renamed his brand new solid body guitar the Fender Telecaster.
Three years later, looking to add variation to his very successful solid body and fight back growing competition from the equally popular Gibson Les Paul, Fender took the same basic principles that had made the Telecaster a success and applied it to their new model, the Stratocaster. Unlike the flat body of the Telecaster, the Stratocaster offered a very contoured and ergonomic design, along with three pickups and an adjustable bridge with a tremolo arm. The adjustable bridge had mixed reviews from players, as some loved the added versatility and consistently used the tremolo affect while other such as Eric Clapton hated the bridge’s propensity of detuning the guitar. Today, Stratocasters that do not implore the tremolo bridge are known as “hard tails.”
The Differences between the Telecaster and the Stratocaster
Although to the unknowing person it seems as though the Stratocaster is the natural evolution of Telecaster (seeing as how it came out later, featured an extra pickup, “better” body shape and an added tremolo bridge), those who have played the two are more likely to akin it to a little brother, big brother relationship, as the two are similar but uniquely their own, with players on both sides of the argument.
As mentioned above, while the added tremolo bridge seems like an extra, it detuned guitars quicker so those who had no interest in the tremolo effect saw it as a negative. The added pickup also didn’t necessarily make the Stratocaster superior as many still preferred the sound of the Telecaster (and nowadays you can get a three pickup Tele, nullifying that argument). I think I’m making my point that what works for some doesn’t for others and that doesn’t necessarily make either guitar “better.” So now, on to the deeper differences and what they mean for those trying to decide between the two.
The main differences that matter as far as tone and timbre are a bit harder for those unfamiliar with electric guitars to comprehend, so newcomers might have a hard time deciding which sound they prefer from simply reading about it. The best way to compare the sound of two guitars is to play both CLEAN (I can’t stress that enough, as any two guitars will sound similar enough if you give it enough distortion), this will allow you to be able to hear the natural timbre of the instrument. If you would like Eric Clapton’s take on the Strat versus the Tele, he has described the sound of the Stratocaster as more compressed while the Tele has more highs and lows. From personal experience I found this to be true, although which sound is preferable is up to what kind of music you will be looking to play. Those searching for a twangy and bright sound like that prized in country or rockabilly gravitate more towards the Telecaster while those looking for a bit more simple with greater gain control such as that found in several types of hard rock, such as punk and metal, more often head towards a Strat.
Other general consensus descriptions regarding tone describe the pickup timbre of the Telecaster as snarling and biting on the neck and warm and smooth on the bridge, with a jangly sound in the middle. The Stratocaster, on the other hand, is more or less described as smokey and woody with a bit of quack on the neck while the bridge pickups a bit more brazen, otherwise confirming the breakdown of Mr. Clapton. Those confused by the use of colorful words should do well by getting used to it, as there is rarely a uniform way of describing the little details in guitar timbre better than the use of emotional adjectives. Then again, you can simply try the two out yourself and decide first hand.
Which Is Right For You?
In the end, the differences between the Telecaster and the Stratocaster may not seem apparent at first, but once you spend time with the two, they are truly and uniquely their own. Those looking to exploit the tremolo effect and don’t mind a bit more frequent tuning along with a slight growl would be wise to pick up a Stratocaster while those more prone to playing bright and clean with a nice versatile set of pickups will love the sound of the Telecaster. Ultimately, they are both great guitars that have lived on strong ever since they were both introduced in the ‘50s. Whichever side of the fence you end up leaning on, just know that there are plenty of greats at your side.
Your Turn to Sound Off!
Which do you prefer, the Telecaster or Stratocaster?