Saturday, January 4, 2014

60 Years and Still Rockin'--The Fender Stratocaster

As a history teacher, I am often asked to rank and evaluate things (like "who is the best/worst President of all time?") and as a musician, the temptation to rank artists is omnipresent as well. Sometimes I combine these two identities, such as when I declare that the electric guitar was the most important invention of the 20th century.  Now obviously I am not completely serious with this; after all, the 20th century saw the invention of (to name just a few) the airplane, the internet, antibiotics and sliced bread. But as a cultural innovation, the electric guitar has had wide-ranging artistic, social and even political implications

You can read elsewhere about the rise of the guitar in 20th century popular music, the invention of the electric guitar, and the invention of the solid-body electric guitar, all of which happened prior to 1950. But today I want to focus on what is probably the most popular and famous electric guitar, the Fender Stratocaster, which saw its debut 60 years ago, in 1954. 

Musical instrument design genius Leo Fender designed the Stratocaster (or "Strat", as aficionados call it)  to supersede his first solid-body instrument the Telecaster. While the Strat has carved out its place in history, fortunately for everyone, the Tele is still going strong, and has been in continuous production since 1948.  The Tele is a wonderful instrument, but it had some significant issues, especially relating to poor intonation, which led Leo Fender to invent a brand new vibrato (inaccurately called a "tremolo") bridge which provided much finer adjustability.  The Strat also features three pickups, and a lusciously curved, offset body that is a pleasure to hold.  As legendary guitarist Eric Johnson has said, "once you start playing one, it's hard to play anything else".

The Strat has undergone several changes through the years (fingerboard wood, wiring, number of neck bolts, headstock size) but essentially it is the same guitar now as it was 60 years ago.  What other 1950s tech products can say the same?  Cars, appliances, furniture, and fashion have all changed dramatically in that time, but the Strat just keeps on singing.  It has also remained remarkably affordable.  In 1954 a Stratocaster cost $249.50, which is the equivalent of about $2100 today, according to the Inflation Calculator. Nowadays, an American-made Strat is around $1200, while a Fender Strat made in their Mexican factory costs about $500. Other companies make homages to the Strat that are even less expensive.  In short, it costs less to rock a Strat now than it did 60 years ago.

Interestingly, the day after I wrote this, Fender put up this interactive webpage about the Stratocaster, and about some 60th anniversary models they will be selling this year.  It's worth a look!


The Strat has been a popular choice of musicians in just about every genre of music.  As Guitar Player magazine editor Tom Wheeler noted in 1987, "What more needs to be said about an instrument's versatility than that it was adopted by the guitar player with Lawrence Welk as well as the guitarist in Pink Floyd?"  Good point, Tom!  The following are just a few noteworthy Strat masters:

Buddy Holly: Buddy Holly was a singer and songwriter from Lubbock, Texas who gained popularity in the late 1950's with songs like "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be The Day". Buddy's unique look (the geeky horn-rimmed spectacles combined with the space-age electric guitar) was captivating, and the 100 songs he recorded with his combo the Crickets combined country, pop and in some cases, the Bo Diddley beat. Sadly, Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash following a gig in 1959, along with young guitar slinger Ritchie Valens and DJ J.P. Richardson, a/k/a "The Big Bopper".  Holly, who was only 22 at the time of his death, has had a lasting influence, especially on four young Liverpudlian rockers, who also chose an entomological name for their band, The Beatles.

Buddy Guy: Legendary Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy has played a bunch of different axes in his long career, but he is probably best-known for playing a Strat (often a polka-dot one).  Songs like "The First Time I Met The Blues" and "Damn Right I've Got The Blues" are rightfully classics of the genre.  He is also a prolific coverer of songs by other bluesmen, such as "Five Long Years".  I first got into the blues in the mid-1980's after seeing a PBS special about Buddy, and I have seen him live several times.  Buddy was a huge influence on other guitarists, and his wild live performances are renowned. He is a remarkably modest and kind man as well as a brilliant musician.  Check him out if he comes to your town!

Jimi Hendrix
: Psychedelic blues shaman James
Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix was heavily influenced by Buddy Guy. Though he was left-handed, Hendrix often played right-handed guitars upside down, notably Fender Strats. After years of playing as a sideman with groups like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, he was "discovered" by Animals bassist Chas Chandler (whose fear of flying motivated him to switch from performing to managing).  Hendrix went to England and took London by storm in 1966.  His wild Buddy Guy-isms (playing the guitar behind his back or with his teeth) and inventive use of distortion, feedback and the tremolo bar quickly brought him the reputation as rock's greatest guitarist.  Sadly, Jimi died in 1970 at the age of 27 as a casualty of drugs; on the night of his death, British guitarist Eric Clapton was planning to give him the gift of a left-handed Stratocaster.  Jimi died too soon, but his live performances of blues like "Red House", rock numbers like "Wild Thing" and his mindblowing rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" as the sun rose on the multitudes at Woodstock will never cease to amaze.

Eric Clapton: One of my all-time favorite musicians, Eric Clapton was one of the original guitar heroes.  During his time as lead guitarist with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, London walls were covered with the graffito "Clapton is God". Eric was only 20 years old at the time!  He went on from there to get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three different times, and to record what I think is the greatest album of all time. Clapton has recorded a wide variety of music, but the blues is his homebase, and the Stratocaster is the guitar with which he is most often associated.  He once described playing "Blackie" (his main axe through the 1970's) as "like diving into a pool of warm water".  Clapton was heavily influenced by Buddy Guy (in fact, seeing Guy live led Clapton to form legendary power trio Cream), was friends with Hendrix, and in his turn has influenced just about everyone.  Songs like "After Midnight", "Wonderful Tonight" and "Layla" are classics that show "Slowhand's" chops.

Mark Knopfler: When I was a teenager, I had pictures on my wall of several guitarists, including Clapton, Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Mark Knopfler. Knopfler, the leader of Dire Straits, is a brilliant songwriter and guitarist whose crystal clear fingerstyle Strat playing is unmistakeable. Besides being a great player, he also loves the instrument, as is made clear in this wonderful movie made by Dire Straits bassist John Illsley. Must-hear songs from Mark Knopfler include "Tunnel of Love", "Lady Writer" and "Sultans of Swing".  Mark is still recording and touring--don't miss the chance to see this legendary musician if he comes through your area. 

Stevie Ray Vaughn: Back in the 1980's, after punk, and with the rise of synthesizer based New Wave it seemed like the guitar was falling into disrepute. But a guitar-slinging young bluesman from Texas changed that.  Whether on his own records, or playing lead for David Bowie, Stevie Ray Vaughn restored guitar (and the blues) to their place of prominence in American music. Stevie was famous for playing the battered Stratocaster he called "Number One" on songs like "Pride and Joy" and "Texas Flood" while he featured a maple necked Strat (signed by Mickey Mantle!) on "Lenny", which was the name of his wife, and of the guitar she bought for him.  SRV was a longtime drug addict who got his life under control and was making his best music when he died in a helicopter crash following a concert with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray in August of 1990.  He was 35 years old. He is the only guitarist whose picture is currently on my wall


In the summer of 1990, under the influence of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton I bought my Fender Strat.  It was an "American Standard" model, made at the new factory in Corona, California after the company's employees purchased the brand from CBS. I got it in the "Pewter" finish that Clapton was using at the time, and named it "Penelope", trusting that it would always be faithful. I have other guitars, but my Strat is first among equals.

It is also the guitar I have relied on the most in live performances.  Every time I have played with my wife in the audience (including before we were married), the Strat was there. When it is important to sound and look good, no other instrument will do a better job than my Stratocaster.

I love the way it looks, the way it feels and the way it sounds.  To me it looks like a grayscale picture with a tinted neck.  I just got the frets leveled and crowned after 23 years of use, and it plays like butter--I can't put it down.

Stratocasters have inspired people since 1954, and I look forward to playing mine for the next 60 years.


  1. Clearly an old time standard and a great pleasure to play, I still love my 57 Vintage Reissue even if those days I tend to play exclusively Telecasters

  2. 60 years ago today Leo got the 'patent' for the Stratocaster...It's all I ever played when gigging too.