To me the Fender Stratocaster is the Porsche 911 of electric guitars. Similar to the iconic German sports car, the Strat was designed decades ago but its basic shape has remained unchanged.
The Stratocaster was developed by the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company (“Fender”) Leo Fender, guitarist and adviser Bill Carson and company associates George Fullerton and Freddie Tavares. It was Tavares who came up with the two-horned body shape, similar to the Precision Bass that Fender had launched in 1951.
Introduced in 1954, the Strat became Fender’s third defining model after the Telecaster and the Precision Bass. While Les Paul built the first solid-body guitar, it was Leo Fender who started mass-producing the first such guitar in 1948, the Fender Broadcaster. A few years later, it was renamed the Telecaster and introduced in 1951. The Telecaster gained quick popularity among country and early rock & roll guitarists.
It is quite amazing that to this day, more than 60 years later, the Telecaster, Precision Bass and Stratocaster continue to be manufactured. By the way, it was Fender’s head of sales Don Randall who came up with the name Stratocaster.
The Strat featured several innovations. It was the first electric guitar with three pickups; the Telecaster had two. The Strat’s rounded edges and deep body and forearm contours were another first. The so-called “Comfort Contour Body” was another contrast to the Telecaster with its squared-off body that dug into the player’s body and picking-hand forearm.
The new shape, which has been attributed to guitarist Rex Gallion, made the instrument more comfortable to play. Gallion reportedly once asked Leo Fender, “Why not get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?” The new shape also looked pretty cool – there was simply no other guitar like it!
Another key innovative feature of the Strat was its spring tension tremolo system. Leo Fender came up with the design after scraping the initial vibrato system due to poor performance. In the new design the whole bridge moved with the strings rather than having the strings move over rollers with the bridge remaining stationary. The spring tension tremolo system allowed the pitch to vary by at least three half steps.
The tremolo system turned out to be hugely impactful. For example, without this feature, Hank Marvin, lead guitarist of The Shadows, could not have created his signature sound on Apache and many of the band’s other songs. And more than a decade later, Jimi Hendrix’s epic performance of Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock would not have been possible without his guitar’s vibrato bar.
Despite all of its novel features, the Strat was not an overnight sensation. Many guitarists considered it gimmicky. The early rock & rollers largely relied on flat-top acoustic or big, hollow-body electric guitars by Gibson and Gretsch. Leo Fender and his staff continued tweaking the Stratocaster until 1957 when they finally had improved it to the form that largely has remained unchanged to this day.
The Strat is a versatile guitar that has been used in many music genres, including blues, country, soul, rock, punk, heavy metal and jazz. Following are some of the influential musicians who have played the Strat.
Buddy Holly was the first “Strat hero.” According to Fender’s official website, Holly purchased his first Strat in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas in 1955, with money he had borrowed from his brother Larry. He helped popularize the guitar with his 1957 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Peggy Sue also happens to be one of my favorite tunes from that era.
Hank Marvin reportedly was the first U.K. owner of a Strat. His initial preference for the guitar was based the wrong assumption that his favorite guitarist James Burton, who played with Ricky Nelson at the time, was using that model. “We loved the sound he and Buddy Holly had,” Marvin told Vintage Guitar Magazine in 2006. “We just assumed that James would be using the same, because it seemed to be the top model…That’s how I got my Strat. And it was a beautiful guitar, [Fiesta Red] with a birdseye maple neck and gold-plated hardware.”
Like Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix helped popularize the Strat, especially his favorite white-finish version, the guitar he used at Woodstock. Two years earlier, at Monterey Pop Festival, Hendrix also proved you can set a Stratocaster on fire – don’t try this at home!
Eric Clapton became a Strat enthusiast in 1967, after originally having played Gibson guitars. The guitar he used to record Layla was a second-hand 1956 sunburst-finish Strat he had purchased in London in May 1967, which he nicknamed “Brownie.” Clapton’s other main Fender guitar, “Blackie,” was assembled from three different Strats. He used it until the mid-80s. In 1988, Fender introduced the Eric Clapton Stratocaster, the first model in the company’s signature series. Here is Clapton with It’s Too Late, together with Derek & The Dominos.
Rory Gallagher was well known for his battered 1961 sunburst Stratocaster, which he described as “a part of my physical make-up.” Since 1997, Fender’s Custom Shop has built the Rory Gallagher Signature Stratocaster, an exact replica of the Irish blues rocker’s instrument. Here is a clip of a 1977 live performance of Tattoo’d Lady on German TV music broadcast Rockpalast.
Mark Knopfler, another big Strat enthusiast, has been using this Fender model throughout his career. Together with his fingerstyle playing, he created his own signature sound. Sultans of Swing is one of the finest examples. In an interview with Guitar World last year, Knopfler commented on the role his Strat played for the song. “I thought it [the National Steel guitar he used to write the tune] was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same. It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan is another great guitarist who is closely associated with the Strat. In January 1992, Fender introduced the Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster, a signature model based on his favorite guitar, “Number One.” Here is a clip of Pride And Joy, together with Double Trouble.
David Gilmour is considered to be one of the more influential Stratocaster players since the instrument’s invention, according to Wikipedia. He has played the Strat during his time with Pink Floyd and as a solo artist. Here is a clip of Comfortably Numb, which includes an epic Strat solo.
Buddy Guy has played a Strat throughout his career. There has been a Buddy Guy Signature Stratocaster since the early 1990s. Here’s a clip of one of my favorite Guy tunes, Whiskey, Beer & Wine. It rocks like a Hendrix reincarnation!
Bonnie Raitt has owned a Stratocaster since 1969 and told Guitar Player she hasn’t missed one concert with that guitar since then. She also owns various Bonnie Raitt signature Strats. Here is a clip of Gypsy In Me from her last album.
In 1965, poor health made Leo Fender sell the company to CBS. While Fender significantly grew over the next 20 years, there was a lack of commitment and true understanding of musicianship at CBS. In 1981, it brought in new management to “re-invent” Fender. Eventually, CBS sold the company in 1985 to a group of Fender employees and investors. That transaction started a turnaround of the company and may well be reason why it’s still alive today and hopefully will be around for many years to come.
Sources: Wikipedia; Jeff Owens: The History of the Fender Stratocaster: The 1950s, Fender website; Mental Floss; Guitar Player; Vintage Guitar Magazine; Guitar World; YouTube