John Mayer plays one. So do Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton. Mike Myers’ character pined for one in the movie Wayne’s World. This writer has owned, broken and rebuilt several.
It’s a Fender Stratocaster, or Strat, and this year the iconic electric guitar turns 60.
Since its release in 1954, Strats have been seen in the hands of some of the most influential guitarists and musicians of the last half century: Buddy Holly, Buddy Guy, the Beach Boys, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Robert Cray, to name just a few.
The Strat has also been present at some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most pivotal moments. Bob Dylan boldly took the stage with a Strat at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, and was subsequently booed off the stage. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. At Woodstock two years later, he used a Strat to play “The Star Spangled Banner.”
But where did the Strat come from? Who made it? Why does it look the way it does? Why is it called a Stratocaster? And why is it so popular? The story begins in Southern California, back in the 1930s and 1940s.
The Stratocaster is the invention of Clarence “Leo” Fender, a self-taught electronics enthusiast and radio repairman from Anaheim, CA. Fender made a name for himself building public address systems and amplification for big band leaders and guitarists, who were using hollow-bodied, arch-top guitars. After World War II, Fender teamed up with musician Clayton Orr “Doc” Kauffman and began building Hawaiian, or lap steel guitars. As musical tastes changed, with big band giving way to other genres like rhythm & blues, western swing and later rock and roll, so too did the demands on musicians and their instruments. Guitars needed to be louder, more affordable, roadworthy instruments that wouldn’t feed back at high volumes because of their hollow bodies. They also needed to survive the abuses of dance halls and roadhouses.
While several companies had produced solid-body electric guitars in the 1930s, Fender was the first to successfully mass-produce and sell such an invention. His first design, eventually named the Telecaster, debuted in 1950 and was popular with western swing musicians. Based on feedback from musicians like Bill Carson, Fender went back to work with steel guitarist and designer Freddie Tavares and associate George Fullerton to address some of the Telecaster’s problems, and produce an even better guitar.
The result was the Fender Stratocaster, which debuted in the spring of 1954. It looked like something right out of both the space age and the golden age of hot rods and custom cars, and indeed it was. Yet, its flashy innovations: horns that looked like car fins, a contoured body that fit like a shirt, a complicated vibrato system and bridge, and multiple tone and volume controls, all served a purpose: a better guitar that was more comfortable and easy to play, and met the needs of contemporary musicians. Sixty years later, with only a few minor adjustments, Stratocasters, and even Telecasters, are still doing that today.
To learn more, follow the links above to books, music CDs and DVDs available at your local library. You can also visit www.fender.com/history
Question: Fender named his first guitar the Telecaster in 1950, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the new medium of television. What was going on back in 1954 that might have led him to name his second guitar the Stratocaster?