Focus On: Fender Stratocaster
My first real life encounter with a Fender Stratocaster (commonly referred to as a "Strat") was way back in 1968. I'd seen Hank Marvin and Buddy Holly on TV and hankered (no pun intended) after the guitar they were playing. Then one Saturday afternoon, I received the news that there was a real live Strat on show in the local music shop's window. When I arrived I was greeted by a sight I'll take to the grave. Staring back at me was a mint condition second-hand '63 Fiesta Red Strat, marked up for the ridiculously out of reach price of £75. I was sixteen and an apprentice engineer earning £3 per week, £75 was an absolute fortune...!
I spent the rest of the afternoon with a pal, looking through the shop window, dreaming and scheming of how to go about owning this fantastic guitar. It took some doing, but I eventually persuaded my father to stand as Guarantor. He signed the forms and, after an agonising wait for the HP Company's approval, the guitar was mine. I'd joined the very elite club; if my memory serves me correctly, I was one of only 4 people in the entire city who owned a genuine Fender Stratocaster. That Saturday back in 1968, I was totally and absolutely smitten - a feeling I'll never lose...
The Fender Stratocaster came into existence largely due to the efforts of one man — Leo Fender. Leo, along with George Fullerton and Freddie Tavares, designed and built the Stratocaster, and in 1954 it was unleashed on the guitar buying public. We've all become accustomed to the Stratocaster's curvy shape and contoured body; to guitar players back in 1954 it looked like a spaceship with strings. However, the space age looks weren't purposely created; they were more of a by-product of the superbly thought out design. Leo's brief was to create a new instrument that catered for the needs of the ever more demanding players of the day.
If we look in a bit more detail, we find the body horns are there primarily for balance. The double cutaways allowed the best access to the top of the neck, the front contouring was for forearm comfort, and the "belly cut" at the back allows the guitar to seamlessly snuggle into the player's body. The body was routed at the front to allow all of the electronics to be mounted to a scratch plate, allowing easy access for repairs, etc. A solid Maple bolt on neck made it cheap and easy to replace if broken or warped, and the frets were directly mounted on to its face, negating the need for a separate fret board.
A well thought out efficient, tremolo system allowed far more travel than the then popular Bigsby. When set up right, it held tuning well, and a recessed jack plug socket kept things tidy. Machine Heads with their ingenious hollow centre allowed you to tuck the spiky end of the string out of harms way. It's a bit like building a new car: the final shape will be greatly influenced by aerodynamic wind tunnel results, along with considerations for driver comfort and efficient production assembly processes.
Guitar players were quick to recognise the versatility and outright playability of the Stratocaster, and soon many of the top players could be seen wielding a Strat. The design remained virtually unaltered until the late fifties when cosmetic changes were introduced. The scratch plate was changed from single ply to three ply, and the three tone sunburst and custom colours were offered along with Rosewood fret boards. Then in 1965 Leo Fender was made an offer he couldn't refuse and sold his company to CBS. 1965 is a landmark year in the Strat's history for collectors. Pre CBS Strats are regarded as being far superior to post CBS guitars. In truth, good examples can be found all the way through the sixties and even into the early seventies. As the seventies progressed, Fender entered a period which lasted approximately 10 years where they lost sight of the core values that had brought them their much deserved success.
But back to 1965, and the CBS buyout was about to coincide with a major shift in music styles. It was 1966 when a certain Eric Clapton was featured on John Mayall's Blues Breakers album. I remember it like it was yesterday. I'd never heard a guitar sound like that; it truly was electric and, like thousands of other players, I wanted it. Eric had used a Gibson Les Paul Standard through a cranked Marshall Amplifier. However, put a Stratocaster through the same rig and the single coil pickups just weren't up to the job. To overdrive the Amplifiers of the day and get "that sound", you needed a hum-bucker equipped guitar. Gibson, whose sales had been floundering - somewhat ironically due to the popularity of Fender guitars - were ideally placed, and demand for Gibson's guitars soared. Fans of Eric Clapton (of which there were many) sold their Strats and bought Gibsons - me included.
It was the late '60s/early '70s that CBS decided the time had come to modify the Strat. They enlarged the headstock, invented the unpopular three bolt neck and changed the colour of the plastic parts from white to a dowdy black, whilst swapping the machine heads to cheaper inferior models. The further you continue into the seventies, the further manufacturing standards fell. Low-cost heavy timber was used for the bodies, and the contouring was far less sculptured. The neck dimensions were altered, and the hardware looked and felt cheap. These were all cost cutting measures taken by a company with their eye on profits and not the needs of guitar players. It wasn't until the players themselves started to take matters into their own hands that Fender / CBS finally started to take notice. Strat fans started modifying their guitars by fitting a humbucker in the bridge pick-up position, giving it the punch it was lacking. They also showed a preference for '60s Strats (cheap in those days) because they had the original design features that outperformed the heavy clunky guitars CBS were producing.
In 1985 Bill Schultz bought Fender from CBS and quickly set about restoring the company's credibility by returning to the high quality manufacturing processes that Leo Fender had established. He oversaw the revival of two vintage Strat models, a two tone Maple necked '57 and a three tone sunburst '62 Strat with Rosewood fret board. A '52 Telecaster was added to the list, and the American Vintage Series was born. Running parallel to Fender's revival, Amplifier technology was advancing in leaps and bounds. Getting fat, overdriven sounds from a Strat could now be achieved without adding a humbucker. Fender was back on track and had learnt from their mistakes. Since then the company has gone from strength to strength, and today they produce a bewildering array of Stratocasters to suit every pocket and preference.
I've lived through the times when everyone had or wanted a Strat in the '50s and '60s. Mid '60s Gibson took over and dominated the market through to the mid '80s, but here's an interesting fact: many of the players who switched to Gibson and stayed loyal to the brand for years can be seen these days with a Strat in their hands. Why? It's actually quite simple — Leo really did get it right first time; a cliché but true.
Now I love Gibson guitars, and my knees still buckle at the sight of a Cherry red SG Standard or a Sunburst Les Paul, but if I was told I could only own one guitar then, without hesitation, I'd grab a Strat, as would thousands of other guitarists. That's not a guess; it's a fact...! The Fender Stratocaster is the most popular guitar on the planet - plain and simple. And it's not just because it looks great, sounds great, is versatile, comfortable and superbly functional; it's the combination of all of these elements. Leo really did nail it. I'm lucky enough to own an example of Leo Fender's Stratocaster from every decade, and I'm still in the market for more. In real terms, Fender guitars are more affordable now than they've ever been in their 60 year history. Fender are at the top of their game and I'd bet my house that they'll still be here in another sixty years time...
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29 Nov '11