The best electric guitars to buy in 2020: 14 best S-type guitars

Looking for the best of the S?

The Stratocaster, first introduced in 1954, has become one of the blueprints in the world of electric guitars. Alongside the Les Paul, it’s one of the shapes that immediately evokes the instrument. And while Fender’s original is still going strong in a variety of forms, the S-type shape has grown beyond its original wheelhouse to encapsulate an even wider range of guitar ideas. So let’s give some of the best takes on the S-style a shakedown.

What to look for when buying an S-type

The multi-dimensional universe of S-types can be crudely compressed down to a spectrum – with traditional 1950s styling at one end, ‘80s shred silliness in the middle and modern stylings at the other end. It’s a broad generalisation, but it does give an idea of the guitar’s aims. An S-type finished in tobacco sunburst with an aged pickguard probably isn’t going to have super-high-output pickups or a dive-bomb capable tremolo.

There’s a variety of pickup configurations common to the world of S-types, the classic being three single-coils for a spanky, percussive sound. There’s also the common inclusion of a humbucker in the bridge position for some extra tonal versatility or even aggression, or a complete disregard for tradition with two humbuckers.

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Neck profile and fretboard radius is something else that can be defined by the classic-shred-modern spectrum – ‘50s specs dictate a chunkier neck with a rather rounded 7.25-inch fretboard radius. More modern guitars often have slimmer necks with either a flatter 9.5-inch radius or a compound radius that further flattens the high frets. While not a hard-and-fast rule, a flatter radius will be slightly more conducive to big bends, while a more rounded radius makes open chords easier to fret. Some vintage-styled guitars forego implementing authentic fretboard specs, for a vintage look but modern feel, while others freely embrace it. Again, there’s a lot to choose from. So let’s get into the list.

The best S-type guitars at a glance

  • Fender American Ultra Strat HSS
  • Macmull Diamond Superlight S-Classic
  • Xotic California Classic XSC-1
  • Friedman Vintage S
  • Charvel Pro Mod DK22 SSS 2PT CM
  • Music Man Sabre
  • Novo Serus S
  • PRS Silver Sky
  • Squier Classic Vibe 60s Stratocaster
  • G&L Tribute Legacy
  • SVL Reserve
  • Fender Custom Shop 1956 Stratocaster Relic
  • Tom Anderson Icon Classic
  • Patrick James Eggle 96 Drop Top

Fender American Ultra Strat HSSFender American Ultra Stratocaster

+ Versatile switching
+ Updated ergonomics
– Not for those looking for vintage specs

Fender’s latest American-made flagship line of instruments, The American Ultra series, are the most premium Fenders you can get outside of the Custom Shop. Rather than resting on their laurels, however, this latest update to the Strat brings new ideas to the table. The instrument’s famed versatility is expanded upon by the inclusion of a humbucker with an above-average coil-split. When you split the bridge humbucker, a small boost is applied to the single-coil sound, meaning less of a drastic volume drop and a punchier, more ‘true’ SSS strat sound. Operating in humbucker mode, it offers more than enough girth for crunchy heavy tones.

The neck and middle pickups also get their dues in terms of electrics, featuring noiseless operation that manages to avoid reducing their dynamic character. They’re described as ‘Hot Strat’ single coils, bringing the punchy, clear attack of the Strat up to modern winding specs.

The guitar also offers better upper-fret comfort with a more drastic carve on the back of the lower horn, and an angled ergonomic neck join. Its neck is also a far cry from the ‘50s original, featuring a ‘Modern D’ profile and a drastic 10-14-inch compound radius.

Read our review here.

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Price: £1,859 / $1,899.99 Build: Solid alder body, bolt-on maple neck 10-14” compound radius 22-fret rosewood fingerboard Hardware: 2-Point Deluxe Synchronized Tremolo vibrato bridge with pop-in arm, short-post locking tuners Electronics: Ultra Double Tap humbucker (bridge), 2x Ultra Noiseless Hot Strat pickups (neck and middle), master volume w/ S-1 switch, neck/middle tone, bridge tone, 5-way blade pickup selector switch Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Macmull Diamond Superlight S-ClassicMacmull Guitars Diamond Superlight S Classic

+ High-end wood selection
+ Uniquely wound pickups
– Aged finish could be a turn-off to some

This S-type is built with a similar set of three woods to a vintage S-type, with an alder body, maple neck and a rosewood fingerboard. But you can be assured that each of those is among the highest quality wood around, thanks to the Macmull’s extreme attention to detail when it comes to selection. Everything from the wood’s age when it was cut, its grain and its texture is taken into account before it gets kiln-dried – meaning an ultra-lightweight, punchy and resonant instrument.

And, while its vintage influences are worn on its sleeve, the model isn’t just loaded with a set of vintage-voiced off-the-shelf pickups and given a slap on its back as it leaves the workshop – each guitar sports a set of electronics specifically tuned to bring out the character of its tonewood. The guitar’s black nitro finish features some very light ageing, while the C-shaped neck sports a 21-fret, 9.5-inch radius fingerboard. And, of course, for some surf wiggle, there’s a vintage-style vibrato.

Read our review here.

Price: £7,250 / $8,925 Build: Alder body, bolt-on hard maple neck with 21-fret 9.5”-radius Madagascar rosewood fingerboard Hardware: 6-saddle vintage-style vibrato bridge, Gotoh vintage-style tuners Electronics: 3x Macmull matched RVT single-coil pickups, 5-way blade selector switch, Luxe .47uF tone cap, CTS volume and tone pots Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Xotic California Classic XSC-1

Xotic XSC-1 and XSC-2 group shot
The XSC-2 (left) and XSC-1

+ Classic looks with some modern twists
+ Extreme attention to detail in the hardware
– Ageing is a little sterile

Xotic’s American-made S-type guitars come in either HSS or SSS configurations, with a variety of ageing options. Like most high-end recreations of vintage specs, a hefty price tag comes with a lot of attention to detail in the hardware, electronics and wood departments. In the last category especially, the XSC-1 shines, with a gorgeous flamed, roasted maple in use for its neck, giving it some extra ‘boutique’ character.

In terms of hardware, there’s a Gotoh vintage-style vibrato bridge fitted with steel saddles by Xotic’s sister parts-brand, Raw Vintage. These are reportedly the result of molecular analysis of original 1950s saddles, aiming to capture the same magic as the originals. Staggered locking tuners at the other end of things, however, offer steadier tuning after lots of whammy usage. The pickups in the XSC-1 are also by Raw Vintage, a trio of hand-wound single-coils that are voiced for smooth, mid-focused output.

Read our review here.

Price: starts at £2,899 / $2590 Build: Alder body, bolt-on roasted flame maple neck with 22-fret 9.5” rosewood fingerboard Hardware: Gotoh vintage-style vibrato bridge with Raw Vintage steel saddles, Gotoh vintage-style locking staggered tuners Electronics: 3x Raw Vintage RV-60 single coils, master volume, 2x tone, 5-way blade pickup selector switch Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Friedman Vintage SFriedman Vintage-S Aged White

+ Robust construction for tour-readiness
+ Beautiful wood choices
– Not for those needing authentic specs

Dave Friedman’s take on the boutique vintage S-style offers up an interesting cocktail of design ideas. There’s a classic wood combination of alder for the body and maple for both the neck and the fretboard, and light and tastefully-executing ageing on the finish adding a lot of character. But some modern ideas sneak in, with a compound 10-14-inch radius on the fretboard and a Zero-Shift Neck Pin bolt-on system to keep everything where it’s supposed to be in the neck pocket, even after being battered about on stage.

The bridge humbucker here is also wound a fair amount hotter than vintage-spec, which, combined with the compound radius, could make this a sleeper shred machine. To that end, locking tuners should allow for some real abuse when it comes to tremolo usage.

Read our review here.

Price: £2,599 / $2,899.99 Build: Alder body, bolt-on maple neck with ‘Classic Vintage Taper’ profile with 22-fret 10-14” compound radius slab maple fingerboard Hardware: 2-point vibrato bridge with bent steel saddles, locking vintage-style tuner Electronics: Friedman Classic+ humbucker (bridge), Classic Single Coil RWRP (middle) and Classic Single Coil (neck). 1x volume, 1x tone (CTS pots, Orange Drop capacitors), 5-way blade selector switch Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Charvel Pro Mod DK22 SSS 2PT CMCharvel Pro Mod DK22 SSS 2PT CM

+ Rock-ready superstrat
+ Still covers other S-type ground
– Pickups might be voiced too hot for some

Charvel, being part of the Fender family, doesn’t have to be coy about this guitar’s influences, and so here you’ll find a familiar headstock shape. But that’s about where the familiarities with vintage instruments end. Its alder body is home to three single-coil-sized routes, with the bridge being a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails humbucker for a biting, mid-focused drive tone. The middle and neck pickups, similarly aggressive, let you enter into spanky funk territory with a clean sound or into Texas blues with some overdrive.

The body shape, meanwhile, takes after the Jackson Dinky, offering more dramatic bouts for high-fret access without any hand cramp. Helping out in that department is also a 12-16-inch compound radius, allowing for a choke-free experience for even the silliest of bends. Notably, the maple neck is ‘caramelised’, Charvel’s term for roasting the neck for improved stability and resonance.

Read our review here.

Price: £1,009 / $1,049.99 Build: Alder body, bolt-on graphite-reinforced caramelised maple neck with hand-rubbed satin urethane finish, 22-fret 12-16” radius caramelised maple fingerboard Hardware: Charvel die-cast locking tuners, Gotoh Custom 510 two-point vibrato bridge Electronics: Seymour Duncan Custom Hot Rails Strat SHR-1B humbucker (Bridge), Flat Strat SSL-6 single-coil (middle), Flat Strat SSL-6 RWRP single-coil (neck), 5-way blade pickup selector, 500k EVH Bourns low-friction volume control and no-load tone control Scale Length: 25.5″/648mm

Music Man SabreMusic Man Sabre

+ Versatile switching
+ Fantastically comfy neck
– Departs a long way from vintage S-type feel and tone

A more dramatic departure from the vintage S-types, Music Man’s latest iteration of the Sabre is aimed squarely at the modern player with little mention of vintage-correct construction. Underneath the bookmatched, figured maple cap you’ll find an okoume body, and bolted into this, a heavily roasted maple neck, topped with a maple fingerboard. The neck is carved to quite a thin profile, and the fretboard comes in at a reasonably modern 10-inch radius – meaning easy playing for hours on end.

Again departing from tradition, there are only two pickups here, two custom-wound humbuckers that are voiced in that modern sweet-spot – not underpowered for high-gain, but still retaining character and dynamics. Something the guitar does inherit is versatility – a five-way switch combined with just two humbuckers offers a couple of in-between positions with the two pickups.

Read our review here.

Price: £3,399 Build: Okoume body with carved flame-maple top, C-shape bolt-on neck with 22-fret 10”-radius figured roasted maple fretboard. Hardware: Schaller M6-IND locking tuners, Music Man Modern vibrato bridge with vintage-style bent-steel saddles Electronics: 2x Music Man custom-wound humbucking pickups, 5-way blade pickup-selector switch, master volume and tone control. Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Novo Serus S

Novo Serus S
Image: Novo Guitars via Facebook

+ Characterful offset take on the S-type
+ Loaded with appropriately boutique electronics
– Body shape could counter S-type ‘authenticity’ for some

The Serus S introduces the question “what really makes a guitar an S-type?” – while it is unmistakably one, it combines a contoured body, SS pickup arrangements, a vintage tremolo and a blade pickup selector with an offset body shape. Novo’s Dennis Fano notoriously loves offset shapes, so it’s no surprise that Novo’s S-type offering doesn’t stray from that territory. The S flavour of the Serus features a set of Fralin Strat pickups, as well as a pine body, maple neck and rosewood fingerboard.

Price: Starts at $2899 / £2,206 Build: Tempered pine offset body with tempered maple neck, 21-fret 9.5”-radius rosewood fretboard. Hardware: Wilkinson vintage tremolo w/ Highwood contoured saddles, Kluson Supreme tuners w/ staggered posts Electronics: Set of three Fralin Strat pickups Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

PRS Silver Skyprs silver sky

+ Disparate ideas come together for something new
+ Warm, smooth pickup voicings
– 7.25-inch fretboard radius might turn off some

After the public end to John Mayer and Fender’s relationship, the guitarist moved over to PRS to create a much-talked-about combination of his preferred S-style appointments with some classic PRS ideas.

Cues from classic S-types include the SSS pickup arrangement and its switching options, as well as the vintage-correct 7.25-inch fretboard radius and pre-CBS-Strat-inspired neck carve. PRS touches come in the form of a deep bout on the front of the lower horn for easy access to all 22 frets, and the striking look of a new headstock design and classic bird inlays.

Mayer’s preference is for warmer-voiced single-coils, and so the guitar’s high-end is tamed in a similar way to how he played his vintage Strats, with the tone-knob rolled back around halfway. This lends the guitar well to the smooth lead playing and articulate rhythm playing associated with Mayer. While the combination of vintage Fender, modern PRS and John Mayer’s personal preferences might not work for everyone (internet furore aside), like a well-mixed cocktail the guitar’s elements all add up to be something new entirely.

Read our review here.

Price: £2,299 / $2,299.00 Build: Alder body, bolt-on maple neck with 22-fret 7.25” rosewood slab fingerboard Hardware: Locking vintage-style closed-back tuners with non-slip buttons, PRS Steel Tremolo vibrato bridge Electronics: 3x PRS 635JM single-coil pickups, 5-way blade pickup selector switch, master volume, neck/middle tone control, bridge tone control Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Squier Classic Vibe 60s Stratocaster

Classic Vibe Squier Strat
Image: Squier

+ Affordable way into world of vintage Strats
+ 60s specs provide beginner-friendly comfort
– Glossy poly finish not for everyone

Grabbing a good S-type doesn’t have to break the bank, and Squier’s Classic Vibe series offers throwback specs for a tiny fraction of the price of an original or a boutique recreation. Here you’ll find a slim C-shaped neck, a vintage-correct tremolo bridge, split-shaft tuning machines and a bone nut. Three alnico single coils offer up period-correct output, while the Indian laurel fretboard sports a comfy 9.5-inch radius. A shiny new gloss poly finish mightn’t provide the ‘played-in’ feel of an aged nitro finish, but the guitar does come in a neat trio of ‘60s colour options.

Price: £349 / $399.99 Build: Nato body, maple neck with 21-fret Indian laurel fretboard Hardware: 6-saddle vintage-style synchronized tremolo, vintage-style tuning machines Electronics: 3x Fender-designed Alnico single coils, 5-way blade switch, volume/tone/tone controls Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

G&L Tribute Legacy

The G&L Tribute Legcy
Image: G&L

+ Affordable for the specs
+ Innovative additions to classic vibes
– modern-radius fretboard departs drastically from ‘50s specs

G&L was Leo Fender’s last guitar-designing venture, and the Tribute Legacy sports some of his updates to the classic S-type design. It’s got the ‘50s staple of an ash body, and while the alnico single-coils are voiced for vintage clarity, they’re governed by a more modern set of controls. Leo Fender designed the Passive Treble and Bass system to offer a more dramatic EQ effect on all three pickups.

Another innovation comes in the form of a Dual-Fulcrum vibrato bridge, allowing for more flexible bends both up or down in pitch. And for regularly-achieved bends, there’s a much more modern 12-inch radius. But, true to its namesake and builder, the Tribute Legacy still remembers what was great about those early S-types. It’s also quite a fair bit more affordable than many similarly-spec’d guitars.

Price: £399 / $399 Build: Ash body, maple neck with 22-fret maple fretboard Hardware: Leo Fender-designed Dual-Fulcrum vibrato, 18:1 ratio, sealed-back tuning machines Electronics: 3x G&L CLF-100 Alnico V Single-Coil, 5-way blade selector, volume/tone/tone controls Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

SVL Reserve

SVL Reserve
Image: SVL Guitars

+ Customisable
+ Dream vintage specs on offer
– Limited to more vintage-tuned options

If you want your vintage-styled S-type to be truly your own, the SVL is a great route to go down. Built in Hampshire by solo builder Simon Law, they’re inspired by “some of the very best vintage Fenders” that he played and worked on. Aimed at recreating the classic lightweight resonance of an original, each SVL Reserve is built to a set of your specifications, from fingerboard radius to the amount of ageing on the finish – a benefit of heading to an individual builder.

Price: Starts from £3600 / $4,735 Build: ash or alder body maple neck, 21-fret rosewood fingerboard with either 9.5” or 7.25” radius Hardware: Custom vintage-style aged hardware Electronics: 3x custom wound single coils, 5-way blade switch, volume/tone/tone controls Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Fender Custom Shop 1956 Stratocaster Relic

Fender Custom Shop 56 Relic
Image: Fender

+ Can’t get more authentic than the original tooling
+ Updated with a some modern playability
– Pricey

1956 was the year Fender transitioned to alder from ash, and introduced an asymmetrical ‘V’ neck shape. Both present in this custom shop recreation, the guitar makes use of the original construction techniques and tooling, so aside from finding an original ‘56 Strat, grabbing one of these is your best bet.

The Custom Shop’s relic job gives the guitar an extra bit of character, while a 9.5-inch radius provides a balanced, comfortable feel. One other notable 50s appointment is the wiring arrangement, with the tone knob connected to the output lug of the volume pot – meaning less treble loss at lower volume knob levels. The three single-coils here are hand-wound ‘Fat ‘50s’, with the middle reverse-wound.

Price: Starts at around $3,000 Build: Alder body with off-centre V-shaped maple neck, 21-fret maple fretboard. Hardware: Custom Shop vintage synchronized tremolo, vintage-style tuning machines Electronics: 3x Custom Shop hand-wound Fat ’50s Single-Coil pickups, volume/tone/tone controls Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Tom Anderson Icon Classic

Tom Anderson Icon Classic
Image: Tom Anderson Guitarworks

+ Many, many custom options
+ Unique wood choices
– Option paralysis is a worry

The Icon Classic is a way to achieve any wild combination of S-type features you want. With a fully customisable feature set, choose between different electronics setups, hardware choices, finish options and ageing amounts. Woods on offer include alder or swamp ash bodies, as well as roasted maple or maple necks, and maple or ziricote fingerboards.

Tom Anderson’s extensive selection of pickups also means you can customise the guitar for any tonal situation, be it vintage spank or dual-humbucker chaos. A notable bit of copy from Anderson’s site is the statement “no vintage compromises,” meaning that you’re not bound to half-a-century old design choices when it comes to the little things – small frets? Large frets? Tremolo? Hardtail? It’s up to you.

Price: Varies depending on custom options Build: Alder or ash body with various neck wood options Hardware: Custom options available, including vintage or modern vibratos or a hardtail bridge Electronics: selection of up to three Tom Anderson pickups, custom switching options Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

Patrick James Eggle 96 Drop Toppatrick james eggle 96 drop top

+ Jaw-dropping looks
+ Super-comfy upper fret access
– low-output single coils might not be rude enough for some

Patrick James Eggle’s guitars have impressed us time and time again on the review bench, and here he brings his boutique stylings to the world of S-types. An exotic wood top and a gorgeous roasted maple neck are the features that jump out upon a first look. There’s also a HSS pickup arrangement, all hand-wound Mojo Pickups models. The single coils’ voicings excel at smooth, funky cleans, while the humbucker has you covered if you want to throw in some more dirt. It’s wound quite hot, enough to easily push an amp into edge-of-breakup territory if it’s set for clean single-coil sounds. For the classic S-type bridge pickup sound, there’s also a neat inclusion of a coil-split.

Looks-wise, it may be a departure from guitars of old – but the neck inherits a comfortable ‘V’ shape, and achieves the lightweight resonance of the originals with body chambering.

Read our review here.

Price: £3,100 / $4,072 Build: custom options available for body and neck wood, bolt-on 22-fret neck Hardware: Modified Cosmo Black Gotoh vibrato bridge with titanium saddles and brass block, Gotoh locking tuners Electronics: 2x Mojo single coils (neck and middle), 1x Mojo humbucker (bridge), 5-way blade pickup selector, master volume, pull-push master tone for coil-split Scale Length: 25.5”/648mm

For more buyers’ guides, click here.

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