Vintage View: Fender Stratocaster

Nothing sings, screams, whispers, moans, roars, rocks and rolls like a Fender Stratocaster, says Kya deLongchamps

THE mid-1950s marked the launch of what many regard as the best electric guitar available to every rocking man and woman — the Fender Stratocaster.

Magnificent just to have and to hold, the Stratocaster threw out not only the wide tonal palette expected of two or three guitars, but in the right hands, it even came up with brilliant new shades.

Referred to reverently by followers and players as simply the ‘Strat’, it was designed by Leo Fender and Freddie Travares with the input of Western swing musician Bill Carson, following on the success of the pair’s Telecaster and Precision Bass. US makers Gibson and Fender were in hot competition to perfect the new concept of a solid wood body electric guitar, with Gibson’s Les Paul beating Fender to the punch in 1952.

The Strat in response, was elegant, feline and with a voice like none other — it’s a player’s guitar and the most copied electric still in production. It’s rounded, sculpted for comfort and can be pulled intimately close to the body without poking the ribs. The Stratocaster has what is termed a double ‘horn’ design (the top horn sensually elongated), a tremolo bridge for vibrato, three single pick ups and a solid body with a double cut-away. 

The spring pick ups made it a first for Fender and by 1956 it was available in a choice of alder or ash bodies. When Buddy Holly made his famous debut on the Ed Sullivan Show on December 1, 1957, he fired out ‘That’ll be the Day’ on a Stratocaster.

The Stratocaster was often technically interfered with through the switching and even the wiring, by musicians to find their own sound, the cut-always allowing deep reaches into the strings on playing. The bridge could be freed up to ‘float’ modulating the pitch of the guitar. Strat lovers are devoted beings, whether playing professionally or rocking out in their home studios.

Following the lead of Holly, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, living gods of the axe and formerly members of The Yardbirds, both came to favour the Stratocaster over time. Clapton’s heavily modified instruments, (called Brownie and Blackie), have hammered out their names in the halls of rock legend. It was Brownie, a 1956 Stratocaster (one of three Brownies) who first ripped the air with the sexually charged howl of love directed by Clapton to Pattie Boyd — ‘Layla’ in 1970.

Blackie, a Frankenstein built of at least three instruments and bought by Clapton as a job lot in Texas for about $100 a piece, sold for more than €878,000 in 2004 in a Christie’s auction. Clapton used the proceeds for his Crossroads rehab centre in Antiqua, (a mere €26K for 30 days of detox and treatment).

Rory Gallagher’s scrubbed out, lovingly repaired and modified 1961 sunburst Strat is purported to have been the first in Ireland purchased at Crowley’s music shop on MacCurtain Street in Cork.

Soloist and lead for Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler, rocked out ‘Sultans of Swing’ on a 1961 Candy Apple Stratocaster which he said, “allowed him to move the sound around” with as many as three strings. Mark also owns a rare 1954 Strat from the first months of the guitar’s production. A precocious collector, he lovingly refers to it as his Jurassic Strat.

In June 1967, at the Monterey Folk Festival Jimmy Hendrix set fire to a Stratocaster, dousing it with lighter fluid before leaving it to burn on stage. In truth, Hendrix could not bear to destroy the feted guitar and swapped it out with a cheaper instrument before this iconic staged moment. The 1968 Strat played by Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969, was bought by Paul Allen of Microsoft in 1998 for €1.83m.

David Gilmore of Pink Floyd, only really puts down his Stratocaster for a Les Paul. The Fender custom shop, (as they have contracts with many virtuoso players), has released two Gilmour models including the characteristic wear inflicted by the musician. Gilmour also owns and plays the 0001 Stratocaster (an early guitar if not technically the first).

Fender watched for the modifications made by great artists using the guitar, designing favourable changes back into new releases. This allows players to imitate the innovative sounds of their idols and perhaps in the perfectly imitated paint loss and distress on the body, to spirit some magic of the great rockers back to their own playing.

Stratocasters are made in a number of factories across the world, including sister factories in Korea and China. The Squire Strat, a division of Fender, made the instrument affordable for its growing legion of fans. Die hard old rockers are generally respectful of the quality invested in any Strat, but are quietly sniffy about those made outside Corona, California, or Esenada, Mexico, nonetheless. 

The holy of holies for any buyer is something handmade to order in the Custom Shop, founded in 1987, where the magic really happens, and limited edition and one-off Strats are born. For serious collectors willing to pay five figures for an instrument, early Strats from the era before the company was sold to CBS in 1965 are rare, legendary finds. Does an, early Stratocaster actually play as well as a modern instrument? 

Here, I’m leaving the stage before I get beaten to death by the vintage warriors of rock.

John Bonamassa played Rory Gallagher’s beloved Stratocaster at the Royal Albert Hall in tribute to his idol in 2013. You can enjoy it at youtube.com/watch?v=2AceOp5sYHg


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