The ever-restless mind and hands of Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender changed the way people played and created music on the guitar forever. Nobody dared to think of the success the Fender Stratocaster, aka the “Strat”, would become, not even Leo and his crew. Erase Leo Fender and you erase every form of music involving the electric guitar going forward from 1952 on. A fairly bold statement, considering the solid body electric was the backbone of the Top 100 charts for the next 70 odd years and counting. Sure, others followed, but Leo was the first champion of the “new wave” of guitar music. Leo’s first production solid body eventually became known as the Telecaster, a slice of perfection in its simplicity, playability, and capability paving the way for the Stratocaster.
In all fairness, Gibson was right there with a solid body design, but it was Leo and his Tele that started music’s version of the “space race”. Chances are if you are a guitarist, you have a Strat, or something a lot like one. The facts are, without guitars of ingenuity and quality like the Strat hitting the radio airwaves, you may not have a guitar at all. Popular music would have taken a different course without this critical tool.
Some men may have sat back and been happy with the advent of the amps, PA systems, pedal and lap steels, and of course the electric Fender bass (perhaps his most earthshattering invention), but not our ol’ pal Leo.
The Tele may have been a footnote had Leo gone ahead with his first plan of replacing the humble Tele with the feature packed Strat. Let’s call it providence the Tele was spared the chopping block, and the Strat was offered alongside the Tele, instead of replacing it.
When Strats first hit stores, they were landing in the hands of players and changing the way they approached the guitar. An entirely new sound hit the radios, dance halls, salons, honkytonks, and garages of America, and soon, the rest of the world.
Today, we don’t give much thought to what a game changer that Strat was and still is. It is taken for granted, like a cell phone, or an invention by another Clarence: frozen veggies. Thanks for that, Clarence Birdseye.
Ok, ok, back to the Strat.
In 1954, there was not a lot of rock and roll to be found. The Strat was not intended FOR rock players; it CREATED rock players. Ike Turner (and his Kings of Rhythm) was an early advocate, and one of the first “rockers” to sport one. Link Wray, Buddy Holly and other forward minded game changers adopted the Strat immediately. This brought on a wave of popularity for Fender. Even Les Paul himself had a Tele (maybe a Strat at one time also)!
This is a glance at the Strat, and its major design developments under the watchful eye of the man whose name was on the headstock. Besides the Precision bass, Jazz bass, Telecaster, Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Musicmaster, Mustang, Electric 12, and some of the worlds most beloved amps, Leo could not help himself from constantly evolving his namesakes.
Fender offers guitars with the name Stratocaster from a few hundred dollars, to custom shop creations well into the thousands. Vintage examples from the Leo Fender years (in the case of the Strat, from 1954-1965) can bring big ugly price tags that are well above the common players budget, and have become serious collector’s items.
Fender Musical Instruments Company, known as Fender Electric Instrument Company at the time, was sold to CBS sometime in 1964-1965, and they took ownership officially in 1966. The term “pre-CBS” is a common phrase and used regularly by players and collectors. Ever the tinkerer, Leo’s Strat evolved during his tenure. A little bit at a time, year to year, the Strat evolved, and devolved. Ultimately, it’s you who decides what Strat fits best in your hands, and sounds best to your ears.
Without going into microscopic detail, the following is a list and timeline of the Stratocaster, while Leo was at the helm.
It is said 100 or so Stratocasters were built (serial number 0100 to 0199) as dealer samples. With a visit from a traveling Fender representative, storekeepers got a look at the new and improved model. Orders were taken, and some dealer samples were sold to anxious storekeepers, according to early traveling Fender rep Jody Carver. Some were given or sold to prominent musicians or band leaders. Today, most reside in the vaults of top collectors. Many are unaccounted for or have been lost to history in one form or another.
These Strats represent a not yet streamlined product. Each one was hand built and varies a bit from one to the other. A few common features of these pre-production models are its 100k pots with solid posts, short-skirted knobs, and giant “football” shaped switch tip. The finish is classic 50’s Strat two color sunburst, but not yet perfected. The first 100 had a thin, clear finish with a sudden dark perimeter outline. Today, the clear inner sunbursts on these have yellowed, and look less drastic than when they were factory fresh.
The body contours were a bit more drastic than production models. Serial numbers were hot stamped into the plastic tremolo cavity plate. This, coupled with the small circular holes in the back, made string changing impossible without removing the back cover. This may help explain why sometimes lower serial numbers had later dates of completion. Restringing a number of guitars at once may have led to swapped serial numbers.
The New Fender Solid Body – 1954
Strats hit most music stores in October, just in time for an expensive holiday gift. After all, it was well above $300.00 with tremolo and case. Thanks to inflation, $300 won’t get you too far today, but add about another $1000 more back in ’54, and that got you a new Ford.
The new guitar helped define the Fender style guitar, and in fact, the solid body guitar for the world. Aside from the Telecaster, it is the world’s 2nd oldest “never out of production” solid body electric guitar models on Earth. If imitation is flattery, the Strat will never need another accolade. The Strat will go on to become one of, if not the most copied design ever made.
Features: Two color sunburst with a very nearly colorless translucent yellow/amber body and very dark perimeter. There is almost no gradient in the sunburst. This showed off the beauty of the ash wood body’s naturally dark grain patterns.
The world welcomes the offset body. Unlike the Tele, the Strat body had contours in all the right places. These new contours provided welcome comfort previously unknown to any type of guitar. Besides its modern look, the offset provided players comfort and balance. The newfangled solid body was not held captive by an acoustic instruments shape and size parameters. While the shape (mass) of an electric guitar can affect its sound, it is far less drastic than that of a flat top or arch top acoustic guitar.
In the early electric stringed instrument days, two pickups were a new luxury. The Strat boasted three.
But wait…there is more! Tell them, Leo!
A vibrato tail piece/ bridge combination like no other was born with the Strat. It didn’t just sit up on top; it was built through the guitars body, a fulcrum deck, anchored by springs on the back. This trem system didn’t just “wiggle the strings a bit” but rather allowed the player to drop the pitch nearly half an octave! Out of the factory it was set up in a floating style, so the tremolo could lower or raise the pitch (though it was best at lowering the pitch). No completely new design has ever replaced the Fender Strat Vibrato type. Even todays locking tremolo systems are just refinements of the trem that first appeared on the ’54 Strat.
The neck was a nice, solid, hand-filling piece of maple with a truss rod installed from the back, with a walnut “skunk stripe” to cover the scar. The first production Strats came with a tweed lacquered case with a center pocket for accessories like the famous banana strap, maybe some “clown barf” picks, and a pack of Lucky Strikes (they were said to be “good for you” in the 50’s). The Strat updated its pots to 250k, which it continues to install to this day. The 1954 Strat officially became a production, completed guitar.
The shape of the headstock was as unconventional as its offset contoured body, resembling a ‘G’ clef with six Kluson tuners sitting in a single row. The now famous thin-lettered “Spaghetti” Fender logo and headstock silhouette are unmistakable today, similar to McDonald’s golden arches. The maple fingerboard with black dot inlay, along with the two-color sunburst over an ash body, personified the 50’s era Strat in the collective guitar enthusiasts mind, though it wouldn’t last long.
Leo? He was always at the drawing board.
Considering the fact that the Strat was only on the market place for a few months, the 1955 model had little changes made. Case changed to having a side pocket, rather than a center pocket, and the neck was still a nice, chunky one-piece maple masterpiece. Pickups were basically the same; bright, with a defined bottom. Much like Leo’s amps, the midrange was not as defined as the highs and lows. This became the “Fender sound”. To make things easier, the back plate featured oval shaped holes, eliminating the need to remove the cover to change strings without tweezers (and several “F” bombs).
Bye-bye sunburst, ash-finished guitars. Ash remained the wood of choice for custom color “blonde” Strats, but the production of two-color sunburst Strats would start being made of alder. Because of this, a new paint technique was used; the inner yellow/amber would be stained in, rather than sprayed on, making the process more efficient and economical. 1956 also marked the beginning of the ‘V’ neck period. Why? Dead men tell no tales, says any decent pirate I’ve ever known. I have heard every theory and “absolute truth” on the matter. My favorite is the tale of a new neck shaper who made the V shape accidentally while the rest of the crew ate lunch. The “mistake” was so well-liked, it was adopted into the build profile. The truth? Tadeo Gomez, Leo Fender, and George Fullerton are not talkin’. The soft (and sometimes very well defined “V” profile) was adopted onto the Tele as well.
The ’57 Strat has taken its place alongside the ’54 in desirable years of collectability.
It is said that the “V” neck profile is the most pronounced on the ’57. It is also the neck Eric Clapton will choose for his infamous “partscaster” known as “Blackie”. Plastic parts would soon begin to replace the older Bakelite stuff, and life is good. Strats sound great, feel great, and don’t need any fixin’. Right, Leo?
Let’s just say the 1958 Strat is the black sheep of 50’s Strats; it straddles the 50’s and 60’s approach. Most collectors that want a 50’s Strat will want a two color, if not a blonde, or rare custom color. For gormandizers of 50’s Strats, perfection may have been reached in 1957. Eventually, the V-neck profile is no longer a feature. The first few ’58 Strats featured the glorious two-color sunburst that defined the 50’s but, before winters end, the Strat becomes the now standard three-color sunburst. Sure, it’s a 50’s Strat, but no longer looks like the one the mind’s eye takes you to. Towards the end of the year, the neck became thinner and less hand-filling, and starts slimming down quite a bit. Big transitions are on the horizon.
By the end of ’59, the Strat neck became so thin that it resembles something more like a Hagstrom neck shape. The pickguard? Could be this, that, or the other thing. Depending on what left the shop that day, you may have received an 8-screw single ply guard, like the days of old, or a 9, 10, or 11-screw guard. 1959 also marked the introduction of the beautiful mint green three-ply guard. Anything else, Leo?
Marking the start of a new decade, the Strat has a bold new change: Rosewood fingerboard.
Let’s ditch the maple ‘board and use a nice slab of rosewood for the fingerboard, ok guys? We can drop the truss rod in the top, get rid of the skunk stripe on the back, and just glue the rosewood on top. It was then that the slab board rosewood Strat was born. The Strat was now creeping its way into a new and different guitar, inch by inch.
The Rosewood “Slab Board” Era – 1960–1962
Generally, the 50’s Strats are the most desired, but not all players will agree. If the 1954 and 1957 are the most desired Strats of the 50’s, the June 59 to mid-62 Slab Board Strat follows closely behind, favored by many. The ’57 Strat is closely associated with players like Clapton. The Slab Board Strat was the go-to guitar for a firebrand out of Texas named Stevie Ray Vaughn. Ok, ok, ok. I’ve noted the words “slab board” a few times. Just what is it? The “slab” refers to a thick rosewood fingerboard. They didn’t last but a few years, and they are easy to spot when you know what to look for. The Strat neck is still maple, but cut flat along the top with a thick slab of rosewood laminated on. The rosewood itself had the 7.5″ radius shaped into it. You can clearly see this when looking at the guitar from the body at the exposed part of the neck’s heel. The carve of the headstock makes the rosewood lip (on the peg head side of the nut) look like a frown: high in the middle, and low at the edges. Clay dots replace the black dot markers found on maple boards, and yellow beautifully with age. From the June ’59 Strats, to mid ’62, the neck carve will get much beefier over time. Not quite as deep as the early 50’s Strats, but once again a chunky “filling the hand” carve by 1962. The sunburst is a bit different also. The body is now dyed and painted. Much, if not all of the translucent sunburst is gone. Painting is done while the body hangs on a post bolted onto the bass side of the neck pocket. You can’t see it from the outside, but it is a milestone in production, and commonly looked for by collectors and appraisers. Happy 56th birthday, “Mr. Paint-Stick”!
Ever the spend thrift, Leo decides the nice, thick, stable slab-style fingerboard may “influence the neck to warp” (nope, I’m not buying that explanation either), and will be replaced by a thin veneer of Rosewood. The maple neck now has a radius, and a thin layer of rosewood is laminated on. Just like the “Slab”, so too is the veneer fingerboard easy to spot. Again, looking from the guitar’s body at the exposed portion of the neck heel, you can see the curved maple with a thin “curved” 7.5″ radius rosewood cap.
The tone is probably not affected drastically, however, many a lazy tech will plane down the board rather than the harder metal frets. There is not a lot of rosewood to take down, and this can limit the lifespan of a well-played, but not so well looked after Strat.
The now infamous “spaghetti” logo decal is replaced with what is commonly referred to as a “transition logo”. If we are staying in the food vs. logo category, I’ll call the new Fender logo the “steak fries” logo. Golden brown, delicious, uh…ok. I’ll be reaching for the ketchup soon, if I don’t get back on track. Much thicker and, for the era, modern looking. It was the big-ole “F” logo we will see on the backs of tuners, ash tray covers, amp grills, cases, and just about anything else made by Fender. The sunburst look is changing also. The body is now dyed and painted. Much, if not all of the translucent sunburst is gone. The outer edges are now black, rather than a deep, dark brown. Some call this look a “bullseye” as the fade is less gradual. Body contours are less severe by the mid 60’s. Not a radical shape change, but enough to notice, if you play them side by side. In the last months of ’65 the most obvious cosmetic change was made. The headstock nearly doubled in size. In the guitar collecting world, there is a slang term for just about any guitar part, from pickups (“soap bar” P90, “dog ear” P90) to knobs (reflector, speed, top hat, mini skirt, and even “chicken head” knobs), cases (poodle, thermometer, chainsaw) and everything in between. The new larger Strat headstock?
Drum roll please…
It’s called a “big headstock”.
Kind of a letdown, but there you have it. In 1966 Leo Fender was gone from the company he grew from a radio repair shop to the game changing monster that Fender had become, and is only bigger today. Staunchly American, but loved internationally. Fender is (sorry, I hate to use this word, but it’s true) an American Icon, like Baseball, the Harley Davidson motorcycle, or the cheeseburger to go with the steak fries logo. It was now the job of the boys at CBS to carry the torch. They had big shoes to fill.
During the Leo Fender years, for the most part, Strats came in sunburst. It should be noted that custom color options were available for the entire run of the Strat. It is said that the very first prototype was painted in Studebaker red. Blonde was one of the more common custom colors early on. Gold hardware was also available. The White Blonde, gold hardware 50’s Strat featured on the cover of the Mary Kay trio album has become infamous. Opaque colors like Candy Apple Red, Olympic White, Sonic Blue, and many more could be had by special order. Custom colors may have sometimes been available in the stock of a forward-thinking shop owner, or ordered as a customer at a Fender dealer. Leo used Dupont colors that were available for the automotive industry. Why mix something up 999 times till its right, when you can just go to the store and buy it? Smart thinking Leo. If Henry Ford wrote a book, Leo must have studied it. Custom colors are especially rare in pre-CBS days, but they are out there.
Tweed cases gave way to a tolex (textured vinyl) covered case by the 60’s, but the thrifty could opt out, and buy a Fender gig bag instead.
Many, many changes were on the horizon, and eventually, things come full circle with the re-introduction of favorite older versions of the Strat, including the 1954.
During Leo Fenders era, the Strat changed by a “measure”, or several “measures”, every year. Over the course of 11 years the change was significant. The 1954 Strat and ’65 Strat are brothers, but not twins.
The Strat has come a long way from its inception. It took years for people to discover its capabilities. Always somewhat popular, and adopted by many different style players, and many types of music. From Ike and his Rocket 88, to Buddy Holly who inspired players like Hank Marvin of the Shadows. Bob Dylan annoyed and unsettled his folk music audience in 1965 when he put down his Martin and picked up a sunburst Strat (Good for you Bob, those uppity folkies had it coming).
A music festival in upstate NY in 1969 would make musicians take a fresh look at the then 15-year-old model. With some help from a stack of cranked Marshall amps, a young man named Jimi Hendrix unlocked much of the Strats previously hidden potential, inspiring a new generation, and generations to come. I think it is safe to say, as long as electric guitars are still being made, the Fender Stratocaster will be among them.