Monday, September 14, 2009

Forty Years Of The Fender Stratocaster
by Richard R. Smith

Leo Fender had worked as an accountant and radio repairman before
taking up musical instrument manufacturing during the waning days of
World War II. Riding on the double wave of post-war prosperity and the
guitar's rising popularity, his novel, tradition-breaking designs quickly
became popular with working musicians who played western swing,
country, and rhythm and blues--the roots of rock and roll. He started
designing the Stratocaster in 1953 for these cutting-edge musicians
destined to shape popular music's next forty years.

Fender's intention was more than simply adding a new guitar to his
successful line, which already included the highly popular Telecaster.
Packing his new model with the latest "Fender Firsts," he hoped to outdo
all other guitar inventors and make all other electric guitars obsolete.
Besides looking streamlined and modern, the deep cutaway body
balanced the instrument, made the high frets more accessible, and
reduced weight. Musician Rex Gallion had once implored Leo, "Why not
get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?" The
Stratocaster's contours allowed a snug fit to the player's body.

The Stratocaster's advanced, built-in vibrato put shimmering, sustaining
sound effects at the player's fingertips. The distinctive Fender headstock
design let the strings pull straight over the guitar's nut, minimizing the
only real source of de-tuning friction. Surpassing earlier designs, Fender
made each individual Stratocaster bridge section adjustable for length
and height. To get the best tone, he tested a wide variety of pickup coils
and pole pieces with different lengths and diameters.

Musicians soon discovered that by carefully positioning the Stratocaster's
switch between settings, the signals from two pickups mixed and
produced snarling nasal tones that redefined electric guitar sound. These
unintended tones were reminiscent of a muted trumpet or trombone, but
with the sting of downed power lines. Fender's new guitar offered much
more than he anticipated.

Fender's business partner, Don Randall, came up with the new guitar's
name. Fender Sales shipped the first few commercial units by May 15,
1954. No one envisioned the Stratocaster's eventual commercial success
and historic impact. Considered by many an instrument for
teenagers--bandleader Lawrence Welk often introduced Buddy Merrill as
"our teenager"--the Stratocaster sold well in the 1950s, but did not
dominate the market. Dick Dale first explored the Fender's high decibel
capabilities playing surf music in the early 1960s. Beatles George
Harrison and John Lennon had matching Stratocasters heard on the
single "Nowhere Man" and numerous album cuts recorded after 1965. Of
course, Jimi Hendrix revolutionized electric guitar playing with his
Stratocasters and proved the wisdom of Leo's original design--which
stood up to almost every abuse except a match and lighter fluid. For the
next two decades, the Stratocaster's popularity grew almost unabated.

In 1987 Guitar Player magazine hailed the Stratocaster as the
"undisputed Guitar of the 1980s." The Stratocaster, recognized by
players for its wide-ranging, versatile tone, had become the most
commercially successful and copied electric guitar design in history. The
almost endless list of Stratocaster-playing stars included Eric Clapton,
Jeff Beck, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Gilmour
and Mark Knopfler. While many players had turned to vintage
Stratocasters in the 1970s when CBS owned the Fender company (Leo
Fender and Don Randall sold the company to CBS in the mid-60s) an
increasing number of 1980s guitarists discovered new Stratocasters
made by a revitalized Fender company under new ownership.

In 1985, the Fender company was purchased from CBS and in fact, a
new chapter of Stratocaster history was being written. In 1990 the
company offered a single-spaced index that included 31 different
Stratocasters on the first page alone. The 1992 literature pictured 44
different Stratocasters. Players failing to find production models fitting
their needs could consider a top-of-the-line custom-built guitar from the
Fender Custom Shop. John Page, the shop's manager, sums up the
company's philosophy quite well: "Old guitars represent a starting point,"
he said. "Vintage (product) is something you learn from. Then you go on
and design something for tomorrow."

Leo Fender designed the original Stratocaster to outdo all other electric
guitars. In 1954, it was a guitar for tomorrow. Astonishingly, after 40
years, it still is.

A former working guitarist, Richard R. Smith has written extensively about vintage guitars and guitar company history. He is guest curator for the Fullerton Museum Center's show Five Decades of Fender: The Sound Heard Around the World. His articles and columns have appeared in Guitar Player, Guitar World, Guitar (Rittor Music, Japan) and Bass (Rittor Music, Japan) magazines. In addition, he is the author of The History of Rickenbacker Guitars (Centerstream) and a forthcoming book about Leo Fender and the Fender Electric Instrument Company.