Quite apart from its fitness for purpose as a musical instrument, the Fender Stratocaster is an object of outstanding beauty. It was, however, a product of engineering. Leo Fender, born in California in 1909, was an inventor with a lifelong interest in radios and amplification. He took up musical instrument manufacturing during the 1940s and first introduced the concept of a solid-bodied amplified guitar. Fender's rented-out guitars proved popular with working musicians playing western swing, country, and rhythm and blues – the roots of rock and roll.
Musicians had already tried to amplify hollow-bodied guitars but it was Fender's solid instrument which for the first time produced a truly 'electrical' sound, whilst also eliminating the problem of feedback. In 1950 Fender launched the Broadcaster (co-designed with George Fullerton and soon renamed Telecaster). This was the world's first commercially available electric guitar and had a solid wooden body and bolt-on neck. The Telecaster's sustained note was achieved by passing the strings through the body and anchoring them to the back. The clean treble tone – which had always been a problem with hollow-bodied amplified guitars – was enhanced by a pickup built into the bridge.
The Fender Precision Bass – the first electric bass, and arguably the single most influential instrument produced by Fender – appeared in 1951, and the Stratocaster in 1954. They were designed and engineered for mass production rather than handcrafted for individual players. Leo Fender (picture left) was not a musician so he relied on guitarists to guide the design of the instruments. In this way Fender was able to fulfill musicians' needs for playability, comfort, and good sound, together with ease of repair and customization.
Stratocaster design features
The Stratocaster was designed by Leo Fender together with colleague Freddie Tavares, helped by musicians Bill Carson and Rex Gallion amongst others. It was bristling with design innovations. The ergonomic contours of the solid body (with with forearm and tummy bevels) allowed a snug fit to the player and the deep cutaways balanced it and gave the highest frets equal status to the lower ones, and of course reduced weight. The accessibility of the strings and lightness of the guitar encouraged emotive playing and showmanship. And the twin-horned instrument was sexy – with a Stratocaster in your hands you not only felt great but looked great.
The distinctive Fender headstock (left) departed from the traditional pattern in that all six machine heads were on one side. It had to be this way because Fender wanted to minimize de-tuning friction by passing the strings over the nut in as straight a line as possible between the machine heads and the bridge.
Six separate bridge saddles (one per string) were individually adjustable for length and height. There was a 'tremolo' arm (actually a vibrato arm since it produces frequency rather than amplitude variation*) putting quivering and sustained sound effects at the player's fingertips by bending the pitch of all six strings at once and returning them (in theory) to more or less accurate tuning. Fender's device was a development of the Bigsby, an earlier tremolo arm invented by Paul Bigsby. (*US players solve this semantic issue by calling it a 'wang bar' or 'whammy bar')
Three pickups were provided where most electric guitars had one or two, and musicians soon discovered that by positioning the pickup selector switch between settings, the signals from two pickups mixed and produced tones that could be anything from snarling nasal to very sweet, depending on the playing style. Originally, players would jam matchsitcks into the 3-way pickup switch to make it stay in these intermediate 'out of phase' positions, but later Fender incorporated a 5-way switch. These choices of tone redefined the electric guitar sound and Fender's new guitar offered much more than even he had anticipated.
At the time, Fender's competition touted the traditional carved tops, glued-in necks, and ornate fretboard inlays. So the early Stratocasters instantly looked modern and cool, and taking a cue from the automobile industry (using automotive paints) were offered in lively solid colours that no other company was using – Daphne Blue, Surf Green, and Fiesta Red.
The Stratocaster spawned an entire industry of replacement and custom parts manufacturers. Not only was the bolt-on neck cheaper to make (the necks of one-piece guitars sometimes warped during production and the whole instrument would need to be discarded) and simpler to service, but the 'drop-in' pickguard and pickup assembly made it easier to mass produce, repair, and customize. Today, there is no component of the Stratocaster for which there isn't a number of suppliers offering custom replacements, including a vast array of alternative pickups. There are many Stratocaster copies by other manufacturers – all subtly different to avoid patent infringements, and you can even build your own 'Strat' from parts entirely sourced from manufacturers other than Fender.
For many years, Fender themselves have sought to compete with the multitude of copyists, principally those who make cheap imitations in the Far East. The Fender Squier series has been very successful at the lower end of the market – the models initially made in Japan and later in Korea have themselves become collectable. The Fender range now includes budget instruments made in China or Mexico through to highly expensive American made models. For several thousands of dollars, Fender will also make a Strat to your own specification in their custom shop.
The Stratocaster appeared in Selmer's UK March 1963 catalogue, priced at 160 guineas (£168) in red or 153 guineas (£160/13 shillings) in sunburst. A case was extra. At these prices most aspiring UK guitarists could only drool at the cataogue or the shop window. Anyone fortunate enough to have bought one then and kept it in A1 condition would have made a very sound investment, with early mint condition instruments now fetching prices in the tens of thousands. Even more desirable to collectors are Strats with the provenance of having been played by their guitar heros (Hendrix, Clapton, et al).
Musicians who played a Stratocaster
The success of the Fender Stratocaster is not the result of its classic visual appeal. Rather, its place in the hearts of guitarists throughout the world is associated with its versatility as an instrument and the sounds the Strat has produced in the hands of famous players.
The Stratocaster went through several musical eras. Buddy Holly was one of the first rock 'n' rollers to use one – his TV appearances with it helping to popularize the instrument. In the UK, Hank Marvin (The Shadows) popularised the Strat sound in the early 1960s. Eric Clapton, originally a Gibson player, switched to the Strat as his main instrument and still plays one. Then Jimi Hendrix appeared on the scene playing a right-handed one left-handed, followed by many electric blues musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan. Blues singer Buddy Guy has played a Strat throughout the course of a 45-year career. And The Ventures, Muddy Waters, Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits), Jeff Beck, Ritchie Valens – there are countless more.
For UK Strat historians: the story goes that Hank Marvin's Strat was ordered for him from the US by Cliff Richard after they'd looked at the Fender catalogue in the late 50s or early 60s and assumed that the most expensive guitar in the range at that time would be the one they'd heard James Burton playing on Ricky Nelson records. The Fiesta Red Strat duly arrived and changed the face of electric guitar playing in the UK. Only later did Cliff and the Shadows discover that Burton played a Telecaster! So the Shadows' trademark sound may have come about partly by accident. Other sources say Hank wanted a Strat because Buddy Holly played one – actually in Sunburst, but at least Hank had the right horn-rimmed glasses.
Eric Clapton's 'Blackie' Fender Stratocaster guitar sold for $959,500 (£528,976) to the US chain The Guitar Centre at Christie's in New York, USA on June 24, 2004.
This page was written with the help of Clive Leyland.
[ First published March 21st, 2006 ]