When contemplating the subjective and challenging concept of recommending the “Best Sounding Electric Guitar” I took into consideration my personal experiences as an owner and player and as many of the great electric guitar heroes I could immediately conjure in my head.
Starting with the preconceived notion that there are really only two finalists in the conversation, the legendary Gibson Les Paul and the iconoclastic Fender Stratocaster, I have to side with the choice of this unbelievable and simply amazing slew of practitioners: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, David Gilmour, Tommy Bolin, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Andy Summers, Mark Knopfler, Nile Rogers, Rory Gallagher, Buddy Holly, John Frusciante, Kurt Cobain and countless others.
With all apologies to the American genius, inventor and innovator, the Wizard of Waukesha himself, Les Paul, I have to champion here the Fender Stratocaster. This list of amazing and unique guitar stylists alone speaks to the versatility and breadth of sounds the Stratocaster can produce. From early rock to metal, from the blues to grunge, from the piercing moans and growls of Hendrix, the sweet jazzy pop of Andy Summers to the clean, bright tone of Mark Knopfler the Stratocaster can and has pretty much done it all in the world of electric guitar and popular music.
Born in the workshop of Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender in 1953 at the behest of cowboy swing guitarist Bill Carson to improve upon the Fender Telecaster, the Fender Stratocaster did just that in many measurable ways in regards to sound, capabilities and aesthetics. Leo Fender was of course one of those legendary tinkerer types, the kind of guys with their glasses down over their nose who look at a radio and say to themselves “wouldn’t it be fun to take that apart, see what’s inside it and put it back together again” and then do it about thirty three times until they know everything there is to know about it.
In the early 1930’s a local musician asked Fender if he could build a PA System to amplify his big band so he did and soon word got out in the music community. Soon after, Leo opened a radio repair shop to continue his tinkering and inventing and by 1949 he created his first thin electric solid-body guitar the Esquire, then renamed it the Broadcaster then finally the Telecaster, mainly using a solid-body design so the instrument could be played at higher volumes without producing unwanted feedback, as per musicians request.
By changing the design to the body of the Telecaster, Stratocaster players could reach the higher registers with ease. With the addition of a tremolo or “whammy” bar, players could make the guitar cry and sing and emulate the emotion in the human voice. Ultimately, by the 1960’s and in the hands of masters like Hendrix and Jeff Beck it does just that unlike any other string instrument.
With the advent of effects and the stylistic advancements Jimi brought us in the late 60’s including distortion, overdrive, wah-wah, flange and chorus, the Stratocaster is simply the most recognizable sound among all electric guitars and can be heard in just about every popular style of music today from blues, jazz fusion, rhythm and blues, rock, reggae, world beat to pop and more.
Some of the features and characteristics then, of the modern day Fender “American Standard” Stratocaster include the iconic Fender look and design, a Maple or Rosewood finger board, double cutaways, medium jumbo frets and perhaps one of the most important features of any three pickup electric guitar, the five way pickup switching.
The five way pickup switch allows you to combine the sounds of the three picks in the following five ways: just the front, middle or back pickup being on, or the combination of the front and middle or front and back. These five tone combinations alone produce amazing results and can give any player a high shrill scream for soloing, a warm middle tone for rhythm guitar in just about any style, and with a good amp and some heavy strings the Stratocaster can even produce a dark, warm jazz box guitar sound.
And here’s a fun fact: you can create a sort of natural wah-wah sound by playing and fingering notes with your left hand on the fingerboard and switching the pick-ups quickly back and forth with your right hand. I believe this is the one main and most important area the Fender Stratocaster truly outshines the Gibson Les Paul; it’s superior versatility and range. Of course this instrument is perfect for almost all musical situations, from practice, to jamming with others, songwriting and recording or making the gig with your band.
The Fender American Standard is available in Sienna Sunburst, Three Color Sunburst, Black, or Olympic White finishes, all with Maple or Rosewood fingerboards.