Paul's recommendation and justifications are excellent as always and so too are Rusty's. Amps DO matter too and I completely agree that an inexpensive guitar, properly set-up can sound outstanding through a quality, tube amp.
Not wishing to sound like a geezer here, even though at 56 I'm getting close to wearing that one too... but the inexpensive guitar of today, especially imports are monumentally better instruments than those of my youth... Remembering Harmony, Stella, Silvertone guitars back in the day that the action was so very high that they were better purposed as cheese and egg slicers at the local deli...
But these days $400 can buy one a guitar that is capable of not being a limiting factor for an aspiring player for a very long time if ever! Anyone wanna talk about value?
Regarding US made Gibsons, Fenders, etc. I'm sorry to say that they are simply not all that anymore... My recent acquisition of an American Strat was quickly followed up by the need to "lift" the frets, level the board, and refret the thing with something more comfortable AND that constituted a level, precision fret plane... I'm in the biz so it cost me nothing to do this but for others I believe the expectation is that a new instrument should not need this level of attention to be right...
We have discussed Gibsons and the results of their "Plekage" exposure and IIRC (if I recall correctly) I was not the only one dissing the Plek treatment as applied by Gibson. Please note "qualifier" "as applied by Gibson..."
It's true that some imports may have shoddy fret work but I don't see this poor fret work as something that US instruments are immune to either.... nor does/did my new US Strat...
And then there is this: as Luthiers/techs/etc. our spin may be a bit different on things in that when one spends time in the trenches pulling pieces of Coke cans used as shims out of brand new instruments we tend to get a bit hard over time about issues pertaining to quality. But at the end of the day our friend Arthur simply wants a decent instrument at a decent price that he will enjoy the hell out of and will also provide reliable service to him for decades to come.
Can this be done with a $400 guitar - you bet ya and even better yet if one of us in Arthur's area stepped-up and offered to do a nice set-up for him so he can be sure that the value that he received is worthy of his time, effort, and coin.
I would like to add a note about our friends to the north, specifically Godin, that make a very nice strat copy with their own proprietary pickups. They're called a Session, and they have a bridge humbucker that can be tapped by the tone push/pull pot. Classy, nice neck, and a variety of sounds. If you checked around, you might find a dealer willing to discount or trade. They also come in rosewood fingerboards. I've set up several for the local music store, and once you've adjusted the rod (they come loose, curiously) and set the tremolo, they play very nice, and the pickups are a step above. They leave a nice flat finish on the back of the neck. Nice detail. I wouldn't hesitate to spend a night on stage (if my back would take it) with one of these. This guy's got one for $499, or best offer. I've played them through a variety of amps and all sound good. For a bit more, they sell one with a type of onboard midrange boost, powered by a 9-volt. Not quite the same as the EMG SPC, but similar idea. They also include the gig bag, and they're quite thick. Good luck.
Thank you all for your very valuable input and suggestions.
After much thought, I've narrowed my search to what I have now,
either the Telecaster or Stratocaster. I have both a Tele and a Strat
right now, but they are the Squier versions, which are totally fine, but
moving forward, I feel I may want a genuine Fender Strat or Tele, which
now brings me to my second question, which may bring a huge response
like my last such question (Martin vs Taylor).
So here it is: Stratocaster vs Telecaster, who wins??
That's STRICTLY a personal preference, Arthur. That's the best answer you'll receive on that question.
You already own each and are aware of their differences, strengths & weaknesses. The same will apply to MIM, MIJ (most highly recommended) or Made in the USA models.
Again, that question can only be answered by you.
You may also want to ask that question on the Telecaster forum if you're seeking many, many responses. I'm sure you'll receive tons of 'just my opinion' responses that will mean absolutely nothing. Only you can make the final decision.
Good luck my friend,
I prefer the Tele, because 1. Strat tremeloes seem to function best by knocking everything out of tune, and 2. The pickups produce truly different and useful tones. I'm the proud owner of a late 80's Japanese Fender Tele, and that thing is built beautifully, with a Rosewood slab fretboard and bound body. Wonderful to play, and has served me well for over 20 years now. Of course, I also have Strat envy, so maybe someday... :)
My 2 cents - I own (multiple) of both types of Fenders. For playing comfort and tonal variety, I prefer the Strats. Sustain and twang - Tele's. IMHO, the MIM (Standard) models are some of the best values in instruments today. Also, the individual bridge saddles make the Fender instruments enable consistent setups and they are easy to customize. They are nearly indestructible and I love working on them.
The downside - as others in the forum have pointed out is that value priced instruments typically need a little work to make them play well with a low action and to stay in tune. Typical setup recipe is either replacing or re-cutting the nut (tuning stability, string height in 1st position), leveling and dressing the frets (eliminate buzz, sharp edges), adjusting the tremolo screw height (tuning stability) and adjusting the truss rod.
There is also a difference in neck stability of the MIM and Am. Standard instruments. On the average, the Am Standards are appear to be slightly stiffer and stay in tune better. That being said, my MIM Telecaster stays in tune very well after the treatment described above and I often (albeit far less frequently) have to apply the recipe described above to Am Standards (and Gibsons, Ibanez, etc). The only guitars that I find consistently set up and ready to run out of the box are the PRS American made products. They are premium instruments (and command a substantial price).
I totally agree with the "it's a personal preference" recommendation and offer the dissertation above to help you make an informed choice. To that, I'll add - go play multiple guitars of the models you have chosen unplugged and through multiple amps. Each one has a personality and, although it may frustrate the store employees - you should explore them until you find the best instrument for you. You will know it when you find it!