2014 makes the 60th anniversary of the Fender Stratocaster, perhaps the instrument most associated with rock n’ roll.
And certainly the Stratocaster (often the name is shortened to just “Strat’), looks the part. To use automotive hyperbole of the era in which the instrument was created, the Strat looked like it was going a hundred miles per hour standing still.
In part this was due to the body’s double cutaway. The two upper “horns” on the body surely set this guitar apart from its older sister, the Fender Telecaster, as well as most other guitars ever built up to that time.
Since the body was cut from a plank of wood, there were a lot less structural considerations of conventional acoustic and acoustic archtop guitars allowing for this radical design. The earlier Telecaster already had the single cutaway which allowed access to higher frets (as did the many of the electric hollowbody guitars of the time), but the Stratocaster had another cutaway on the bass side of the body that was even longer.
The length of the bass side’s cutaway allowed the end pin to be positioned for a perfect balance of the instrument when the player was standing using a strap.
But an even more interesting aspect of the solid body’s guitar construction is the body contours. On the top where the player’s right picking lays across the top, the top slopes and the body is about half its usual thickness.
On the back of the guitar, a slice of wood is removed for the upper waist of the body which allows the guitar to fit comfortably against the player’s ribcage.
These two ergonomic contours were fairly radical at the time, but most players today might take them for granted for a couple of reasons. The design is often copied on many other instruments (it is a mainstay on most of the Fender line, with the Telecaster being a notable exception), and current rock fashion has the guitar hung lower on the strap rather than the high and tight style of old.
In fact, the Stratocaster wasn’t even particularly design with rock n’ roll in mind (if at all), as the R & D was primarily country and western musicians who were already familiar with the Telecaster.
The Fender Telecaster (left) and the Fender Stratocaster which is celebrating its 60th anniversary. The Strat was first released in 1954.
The Telecaster was merely into its forth year of production when Leo Fender released the Stratocaster. Other notable differences aside fro the body shape and contours are the Stratocaster’s three pickups (the Tele has two), three control knobs (again, the Tele has two), and the Fender “tremolo” bridge (which is actually a vibrato).
Interestingly, the Stratocaster initially had a three-way switch for the pickup selector, the same as the Telecaster. The three positions were for each pickup operating independently, with the neck pickup and middle pickups each having their own tone control. The third knob is a master volume knob that functions no matter which pickup is selected.
While the three positions didn’t allow any pickup combinations, players soon figured out that the switch could be balanced in between settings to get the bridge/middle or the middle/neck pickup combinations.
These “in between” settings would become so synonymous with the Stratocaster sound (the Strat quack) that Fender would eventually replaced the three-way switch with a five-way switch.
Unlike other vibrato units of the time, the Bigsby vibrato and the earlier Kauffman vibrato units, the Fender “tremolo” is nearly completely hidden inside the guitar’s body. A big portion of Leo Fender’s mind-thought was improving on convention designs, and the tremolo bridge did eliminate one aspect of tuning issues of vibratos: the separate rocking bridge.
This Fender ad features the Fender Tremolo bridge’s blueprint.
The straight string pull through the nut, as facilitated by the 6-on-a-side headstock, also helped address some of the tuning issues usually associated with the use of vibrato units.
There were other improvements, too.
The output jack, which was mounted on the side lower bout on the Telecaster, was now mounted on the top in its own recessed jack on the Stratocaster…and each string has its own adjustable saddle allowing for perfect intonation and height adjustment, as opposed to the Tele’s saddles which service two strings and requires somewhat of a compromise in both intonation and height.
Many of the Stratocaster’s features and innovations would be incorporated into other instruments in the Fender line as well as being copied by other manufacturers…including some of the major guitar companies that initially scoffed at Fender’s creations.
So much of the Stratocaster design was spot on, that aside from the five position switch, the instrument is essentially the same today. But, that doesn’t prevent Fender from having more than a hundred different Stratocaster models…and that’s not including the 33 models of Fender’s Squire line.
Since the Stratocaster is such a seamlessly combination of art and function, it found favor among many name guitarists…many of which have their own signature model in Fender’s Stratocaster line: this would include Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dick Dale among others.
Eric Clapton and his Famous Fender black Stratocaster.
Some of the formerly celebrity-owned Stratocasters are among the highest values instruments in the world. Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” Stratocaster recently sold for close to $1 million dollars at auction. There’s a rumor the Jimi Hendrix’s Strat sold for close to $2 million.
Fortunately for the less affluent among us, a new American-made Fender Stratocaster can be purchased for less than a thousand bucks…and the upper end of the spectrum for a new American-made Stratocaster are the custom shop models which top out at a mere $17,000 or so.
Foreign made Stratocasters that Fender sells under their Squire band can be had for significantly less than $500, so even beginners have access to sanctioned Stratocasters.
The brand of the Stratocaster is so strong that there is little doubt that it will last another 60 years. And, when 2074 rolls around, there’s little doubt that the Stratocaster of the day will look nearly identical to the model as it first rolled off the assembly line in 1954.
– Jake Kelly