Some would say that the Fender Stratocaster (Strat) is indisputably the most popular and most recognized guitar ever made. Since its introduction by inventor Leo Fender on May 15, 1954, the basic design has remained unchanged, though it has certainly inspired many variations offered by Fender and other companies.
The Stratocaster was Leo Fender’s third offering in his line of solid-body electric instruments. The Strat followed the Telecaster Guitar and Precision Bass, which were introduced as prototypes in 1951 and brought to market the following year. Both instruments garnered success with musicians and Fender aimed to improve on his original designs as well as to expand his line with new models. He listened to comments from musicians and incorporated their ideas into the new instrument he had on the drawing board, which was to become the Stratocaster.
The name “Stratocaster” came from Fender’s business partner, Don Randall. It was intended to be reminiscent of aircraft technology, and reflect forward thinking and modern design. Indeed, it was — and still is — quite an innovative design!
Key differences between the Stratocaster and Telecaster:
- The Stratocaster’s contoured cutaway body style was intended to improve balance and make the instrument more comfortable to play, as well as to allow greater access to the higher registers of the neck.
- A third (middle position) pickup was added to provide more tonal variations than the Telecaster could offer with only neck and bridge position pickups.
- But one of the most important new features of the Stratocaster was the tremolo bridge, which allowed players to bend strings in the same way a pedal steel player would.
Unlike electric hollow-body guitars that had become commonly used with big bands, these new solid-body guitars were better suited for use with smaller bands playing other varieties of music. Once the word started to spread, it didn’t take long for guitarists to embrace this revolutionary new instrument and make it a mainstay.
While country western guitarist Bill Carson is credited as “the man for whom the Stratocaster was designed,” in the ’50s, Buddy Holly was one of the very first rock musicians to be seen nationally using a Stratocaster and he used it on nearly every one of his recordings with The Crickets. It instantly became an integral part of Holly’s image, just as much as his trademark glasses. In the later ’50s, British guitarist Hank Marvin of the Shadows received the very first Stratocaster to be imported to the UK — a 1958 model in Fiesta Red finish. Marvin’s influence helped to popularize the instrument, as well as the Fiesta Red finish, in both the UK and US.
In the early ’60s, armed with his Stratocaster, left-handed player Dick Dale created a unique style he dubbed “surf music” (to mimic the sound of the ocean) and earned his crown as “King of the Surf Guitar” for his extraordinary shredding technique. The Beach Boys followed with their lighter and poppy brand of surf music. The Ventures were also Stratocaster enthusiasts who made it a part of their surf sound.
In the mid ’60s, the Beatles' George Harrison and John Lennon embraced the Stratocaster when recording tracks for Help!, acquiring a pair of matching Sonic Blue models. They are heard played in unison during the solo on “Nowhere Man.” The Beatles also used their Strats when tracking Rubber Soul and on later recording sessions.
In the late ’60s, the Strat landed in the hands of players like Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, David Gilmour and Jimi Hendrix who truly took music to a new level and brought the Strat to a wider level of popularity that still inspires guitarists today.
1970's Stratocasters and Beyond
In the mid to late ’70s, music went off in several different directions as some styles became heavier and others more blues-oriented. Players like Ritchie Blackmore and Eddie Van Halen (who initiated a new revolution in rock with his hot-rodded humbucking Strat, extreme shredding style and whammy bar technique) were on top of the scene in the rock world while bluesier players like Robin Trower, Rory Gallagher and Bonnie Raitt were also at the forefront with their Stratocasters being the integral part of their sound.
In the ’80s, bluesman like brothers Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Vaughan were well recognized as Strat players, and a young Yngwie Malmsteen burst onto the metal scene with his heavily modified vintage Strats and generating interest with his scalloped fingerboard, which became a part of his trademark. Of course, there are so many more, including the great Jeff Beck who currently wields a Strat as his primary axe.
From the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s to present day, Stratocasters have been a fundamental part of nearly every genre of music from country to all styles of rock, pop, punk, metal, blues, reggae, and everything in between. The list of prominent players who have been seen and heard using Strats is perhaps immeasurable. The Stratocaster essentially crosses all musical boundaries and has become the number one choice for many players.
While multiple variations of the Stratocaster have been introduced by Fender and by countless competitive manufacturers who have created their own adaptations of the Strat, the original and traditional Fender Stratocaster design has remained mostly unchanged, and will forever be an icon. The Stratocaster is more popular today than ever. Simply put, the classic Stratocaster can’t be topped!