The Story of the Fender Stratocaster

The Story of the Fender Stratocaster

Once in a while, someone will hit on a design that becomes a cultural icon. Certain things are just timeless, because they don’t ever need to change.

In fashion, for example - the Converse. It’s not the best shoe in the world, but it’s iconic; people will still be wearing them a hundred years from now. Or the Aviator, first designed by Ray-Ban - they’re not going away any time soon.

But this isn’t a fashion article. Today we’re delving into the history of the Fender Stratocaster...

Because yes, there are other guitars, which maybe you could argue look, sound or play better - but the Stratocaster is quintessential. It’s instantly recognizable. Once it was released, the guitar world was never the same again.

This is the story of the Strat.

Early Years

By the mid 1950’s, Clarence Leonidas "Leo" Fender had been manufacturing guitars, amplifiers and other electric instruments for near-on ten years. In fact, he had first patented a lap steel guitar with an electric pickup in 1944, though this wasn’t the electric guitar as we know it now.

Fender’s experimentation with more conventional guitar designs in the late 40’s hadn’t exactly been a success, but he recognised the need for a mass-produced electric guitar. His answer was the Telecaster, introduced in 1950 and a solid guitar in its own right, which has transgressed the ages.

Following the success of the Tele, Fender released the Stratocaster in 1954. It featured three pickups, a spring tension vibrato system and a sleek contoured body.

Serendipitously, this release preceded the rise of something a popular new genre in music in the late 50’s - called Rock ‘n’ Roll. Perfect timing - or so you might think.

In fact, until three years after its introduction, not many people recognised the Stratocaster - and those who did considered it somewhat of a gimmick. Despite its innovations, it was far from an overnight sensation.

All that was about to change though.

On the 1st December, 1957, a spectacled 21 year old Buddy Holly appeared on television with his band The Crickets, wielding a Stratocaster and blasting through songs. For the first time, people began to sit up and take notice.

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly appears on the Ed Sullivan Show, December 1, 1957

Enter the 60’s. The Stratocaster had undergone a couple of tweaks and improvements since its introduction, but nothing major. It was, by this time, more-or-less indistinguishable from the Stratocasters of today.

In the UK, a new tide of budding guitarists were reaching their teens - Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Dave Gilmour. They would, in time, become some of the biggest names in Rock ‘n’ Roll - propelling the genre into stratospheric popularity for the best part of the next four decades.

But as talented as they would become, there was a kid on the other side of the Atlantic who would be more influential for Rock ‘n’ Roll - and for popularising the Stratocaster once and for all.

His name was James Marshall Hendrix.

Jimi Hendrix

Born in ‘42, Hendrix’s father first purchased him an acoustic guitar in ‘58, when he was fifteen. By the time he turned twenty in ‘62 he was honing his craft on the stage, forming bands and touring.

It all happened so quickly. After a chance meeting with the girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard, Hendrix found himself in London in 1966, recruiting for his new band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. By 1969 he was the world's highest paid rock musician, headlining the famed Woodstock festival. And in 1970, his run was ended - another musician passed away at only 27.

Hendrix Woodstock

Jimi Hendrix throws a peace sign at Woodstock '69 before his performance of the Star-Spangled Banner

To say that Hendrix left a legacy would be an understatement. He pioneered use of distortion, feedback and wah pedals. His complex rhythms and chordal techniques were rooted in the blues, but he was a master of multiple genres.

And his use of the whammy bar to create pitch bends and vibrato effects could have only happened on a Stratocaster. The vibrato system was practically over designed - capable of creating the swooping pitch dives that Hendrix would trailblaze.

Hendrix’s remarkable style was undeniably responsible for popularising the Strat. CBS asked that Fender increase the size of the word Stratocaster on the head of the guitar, so that it could be seen more clearly on television.

The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Fender

At the dawn of the 70s, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Fender Stratocaster had finally made it.

The decade had other ideas though. Hendrix was gone, the Beatles had split; Eric Clapton and Peter Greene had gone AWOL. It wasn’t a great start for Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Throughout the 1970s, Stratocaster sales increased dramatically. Unfortunately, this led to a drop in quality, as manufacture was transferred to Japan - cutting costs, but compromising on high precision engineering.

That said, it was still a solid choice for many rockstars - Ronnie Wood, George Harrison, The Edge, Nile Rogers, to name but a few. The problem wasn’t a lack of quality in the 70’s, rather a lack of consistent quality.

George Harrison Rocky Stratocaster

George Harrison's Famous Stratocaster, 'Rocky'

Vintage Stratocasters were increasingly popular - especially those from pre-1965, when Fender had been sold to CBS instruments. It was clear that the Stratocaster needed saving.

And redemption came. In 1985, Bill Schultz and a group of employees and investors purchased the Fender division from CBS. Clearly the company was failing - in an almost humiliating coincidence, it was sold in ‘85 for nearly the same amount that CBS had purchased it for, 20 years earlier.

But it was not the end for Fender. Credited as ‘the man who saved Fender,’ Schultz made it his mission to reestablish the original higher standards of manufacturing, and Fender was able to gain market share and save its reputation.

Recognising the popularity of older, pre-CBS models, the new Fender decided to manufacture two vintage reissue Stratocaster models - the one-piece maple neck 1957 and a rosewood-fretboard 1962.

Perhaps they’d turned it around. The Strat continued to endure among leading guitarists during the 80’s, favoured by Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Once again, it seemed that Fender were on top.

Legacy of the Fender Stratocaster

There are plenty of reasons the Stratocaster has become a cultural icon. Not only do the double-cutaway body, contoured edges, and sleek lines look good - they make the guitar easier to play. The three-pickup setup offers a wide range of tones - opening the Strat up to a number of genres. The innovative tremolo that Hendrix loved to use so well lends itself perfectly to rock and blues.

In summary - it looks great, feels great and sounds great. If you needed a guitar for the front of your album cover, it should most likely be a Stratocaster. If you wanted a guitar that played well on stage for three hours a night, 300 nights of the year - you probably want a Stratocaster.

And perhaps most importantly, between Buddy Holly in the late 50’s and modern day guitarists like John Frusciante and John Mayer (whose latest 2018 album features a Strat on the cover, by the way), the Stratocaster has fuelled some of the greatest hits and performances we have ever known.

Who would have thought it would become so iconic?

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