4 Underrated and Inexpensive Alternatives to the American Fender Strat

Clapton, Blackmore, Malmsteen, Holly, Marvin, Vaughn, Knopfler, Hendrix, Gilmour, Beck . . . the list goes on and on. The Fender Stratocaster is a cornerstone in the foundation of rock and roll and symbolizes one of the most timeless and venerated solid body electric guitar shapes in music history. The Strat is favored for its wide and versatile range of tones, styles, iterations, and of course it’s long and varied history in the hands of some of the greatest guitar players of all time. Many Strat players claim that a “real” Strat is only made in America by Fender. And while that was true for some time, the widening of the global market, the Fender-CBS buyout in the mid ‘60s, and the counterfeit market of the Far East changed a lot of that, to the benefit of us guitar players. There are quality instruments to be found everywhere, at any price point and any budget, one just has to look. Lucky for you, I did most of the heavy lifting. Leave your headstock syndrome at the door, because I’m going to give you four quality Strat alternatives, from all parts of the world, that won’t make you have to re-use your paper plates.

G&L Tribute Series Legacy

Many Fender devotees will roll their eyes and sigh when you mention the letters CBS. In 1965, Leo Fender sold his company, and all its holdings for $13 million (Adjusted for inflation, that’s $98.5 million!). With the departure of Leo Fender, the quality of the guitars, amps, and just about everything else under the Fender umbrella began to slip. While CBS was arguably running his company into the ground, Fender remained relatively quiet, until 1979, when he and his old partner, George Fullerton (also credited with helping to create the Stratocaster), started G&L (for George and Leo). They created a new line of guitars, and carried on the work that Fender had started. Many consider it today to be the true successor of the Leo Fender legacy.

The G&L Tribute Series is a more budget-friendly version of its main models, utilizing Indonesian manufacturing to keep costs low. But don’t let its country of origin fool you, it is still assembled and inspected in the US, and the pickups are hand wound in G&L’s factory in Fullerton, California. If what you’re searching for is vintage specs, you won’t find it here—the bolt-on neck features a 25.5-inch scale length, 12-inch radius, a medium C neck profile, and 22 medium jumbo nickel frets. It also features Leo Fender’s own Dual Fulcrum vibrato, which claims to improve tuning stability and provides a “warmer” sound then the typical vintage-style system. The Legacy uses G&L’s CLF-100 Alnico V pickups, with a special twist. Instead of adding the normal tone controls, the G&L Strats feature the PTB, or passive bass and treble system. With two passive bass and treble controls, there is a variety of different sounds without ever touching the amp’s EQ. Translucent finish bodies use swamp ash, while solid body finishes use basswood.

Vintage Guitars V6

Vintage Guitars, a part of John Hornby Skewes out of the UK, is known for its low-cost and quality “interpretations” of popular electric guitar body styles. The Fender Stratocaster is no exception, and comes in the form of the V6. The V6 comes in two flavors, “Reissued” and “Icon.” The Reissued series is the “NOS,” if you will, of the Vintage line, and the Icon series is the “relic” version. They feature an American alder body (or poplar on the Icon models) in red, two shades of sunburst, Sky Blue (or “Laguna Blue,” in company vernacular) and black. The necks are maple, with either one piece maple or a rosewood fingerboard, and feature a 25.5-inch scale length, 22 frets (size depends on model), a 10-inch. radius (also depends on model), and a medium C profile.

Vintage Guitars Icon V6 Electric Guitar

One thing that sets these Strats apart—the partnership of Vintage Guitars with Trev Wilkinson. Wilkinson supplies genuine parts to all Vintage models, which adds a whole lot of stability and quality. The V6 has Wilkinson-designed EZ Locking tuners, vintage-style vibrato system, and Alnico V WVS low-output pickups. This guitar still remains true to its original vintage specs and influence, while maintaining modern playability and reliability. Unfortunately, these guitars are only sold in the UK, but are easily found on eBay for shipping to the US or any other country.

Squier Classic Vibe

This entry may admittedly be cheating a little. But the bang for your buck these guitars provide can’t afford be overlooked, especially when looking at inexpensive Strats. Squier is Fender’s budget-friendly line of guitars, and the history between the two companies is long. V.C. Squier actually started in the late 1880s, as a repairer and creator of violins. With the boom of consumer electronics in the 1950s, Squier began to produce phonograph players, as well as all manners of new electrical instruments. Approached by Leo Fender in the 1950s, they were asked to manufacture unique strings for his new line of solid body electric guitars. Squier was purchased by Fender in 1965, right before the Fender-CBS buyout. The Squier line was more or less shut down, until 1982, when Fender revived the brand. Squier was making budget model Fender guitars, but none were based on the more popular Stratocaster and Telecaster styles. After starting off in the USA, the production jumped all around the world—it moved to Japan, then to Mexico, Korea, Indonesia, India, Taiwan, and finally China, where most of the Squier line of guitars is still being made today. However, don’t let that throw you off; the Classic Vibe is considered to be the top of the Squier line, and with a few simple upgrades, could hold its own against many MIM (Made in Mexico) or even MIA (American) Strats. They feel solid, have excellent playability and comfort, are inexpensive, and have that classic Fender look and quality for which they are known.

The Classic Vibe series features everything from basses to Teles, but we’re only going to focus on the Classic Vibe series of Strats, the cream of the crop. There are two models: The ‘50s model and the ‘60s model. Keep in mind, that these are not exact replicas of guitars from that era, but have the best of modern convenience and vintage vibe to create a wider appeal. The ‘50s model features an alder body, with a multitude of different colors: Shoreline Green with matching headstock, sunburst, Fiesta Red, or my personal favorite, Olympic White with a gold anodized pickguard (just like Gilmour’s 0001 Strat!). The necks are bolt-on, one piece maple, and have a 25.5-inch scale length, with a 9.5-inch radius, a modern C profile, and 21 medium jumbo frets. They also feature vintage style tuners, bridge, and tremolo system, which add to the “vibe” that Fender puts in these guitars. Fender is now also offering a Shoreline Gold version of the Classic Vibe ‘50s Strat with matching gold hardware for its 60th anniversary. The ‘60s version is very similar to the ‘50s version, but features a maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. The body finish is available in three colors: Sunburst, Candy Apple Red (darker than the Fiesta Red available on the ‘50s models), and Burgundy Mist, with matching headstock. These guitars are an amazing value, and available for less than some pedals, why wouldn’t you try it?

Tokai Springy/Goldstar Sound

Tokai Springy Sound

The history of the Tokai Strat is imbued in a drama filled with lawsuits, corporate malaise, and the value of a brand name. Tokai was a Japanese manufacturer of musical instruments that began in the late ‘40s producing harmonicas and other small musical accoutrements. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it expanded its reach to classical guitars, acoustic guitars, and its own electric guitars. In the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s, Tokai rattled the world of electric guitars by producing some of the best replicas of popular Fender and Gibson guitar models, name the Les Paul, Telecaster, and Stratocaster, and remember, this was at the worst of CBS-era Fender; sales were low, manufacturing costs were high, and quality was very sub-par. Gibson also suffered significantly during this period, with low sales and shoddy quality of even the most expensive USA-built guitars. Consumer confidence in trusted name brands was at an all-time low, which spelled bad news for anyone in the guitar game. Along comes Tokai, with one-to-one replicas of pre-CBS Fenders, whose quality arguably bested even the top-of-the-line Fender USA models. Stevie Ray Vaughn was known to be a big fan of the guitars; he purportedly bought up an entire stockpile of them. Additionally, a Tokai model Strat is also seen on the cover of his 1984 album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather. Fender (and Gibson) caught wind of the sales of these guitars, and sent an army of lawyers and lawsuits to Tokai (and others making “copies”), trying to protect their decaying image and brand. That is where the term “lawsuit guitar” comes from—a line of guitars that were made so well that even the original manufacturers admitted their quality, by suing them into oblivion. The most important thing about the lawsuit era, was that it shook Fender out of its CBS-induced complacency, and showed the company that if they didn’t get it together and start innovating again, they would go under. In 1985, Fender bought itself out of CBS, and the quality slowly began to hearken back to the pre-CBS days.

Tokai Strats are notoriously good quality. Like I mentioned before, they are one-to-one replicas of vintage Strats. The Goldstar Sound and Springy Sound lines are straight-up clones of ‘50s and ‘60s era Strats, so look no further than any vintage Fender to get an approximation of specs. The one problem: They are a little hard to find, but tend to pop up on eBay and other used gear sites all the time. You can also buy them direct from Japan, but that can prove a little complicated. If you want a Strat that can stand up to any USA model, look no further than Tokai.

As I have detailed above, there are many bargains to be had in the world of Stratocasters. I have only detailed four in this article, but there are countless custom-made and international models of Strats that are available to order through the Internet. If you can get over your headstock syndrome, just close your eyes and play, and you will have a wonderful guitar that won’t force you to live off Ramen in the coming months.

Buying Guide: Stratocasters
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