From Buddy Holly to George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix to Eddie Van Halen, the Fender Stratocaster is one of the world's most revered electric guitars.
In my new Christmas novella, A Guitar for Christmas, a troubled husband finds salvation through his dad’s old electric guitar.
Roland Hope’s career success has come at a heavy price. His wife wants a divorce a few days before Christmas, his siblings hate him, and even his drunk, homeless father tells him to bugger off.
Only through the magic of an old Fender Stratocaster is Roland able to finally unscrew his life.
I chose a Fender 'Strat' for the story because it was the only electric guitar I knew by name. After some research, I quickly realized it was an appropriate choice for a story where a guitar helps a lost man find his way.
Leo Fender: piano player and inventor
The Fender Stratocaster was named after California inventor Leo Fender. As a kid, he learned to the piano and tinkered with radios and electronics. But Leo never played guitar.
After starting his own radio repair shop in the 1930s, Leo began catering to musicians and band leaders who needed public address systems and amplification of acoustic guitars. Through numerous business deals and the creation of a lap steel guitar with an electric pickup that he later patented, Leo Fender began to immerse himself in the world of electric instruments.
In late 1947 he founded the Fender Electric Instrument Company and sold his radio repair business. At the time, the era of Big Bands was giving way to small combos playing boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues, western swing, and honky-tonk.
An amplified guitar provided the same power as an entire horn section. But most setups were clunky, required multiple components and were prone to screeching feedback when played too loudly.
1950: The Fender Telecaster Arrives
To address these issues, Leo developed a new style of guitar. In 1950 he released the solid-body Broadcaster and a year later renamed it the ‘Fender Telecaster.’ It was an easy-to-hold, tune and play electric guitar that would not produce feedback at the volumes needed in a large hall. Country and western guitarists across the USA and Canada quickly adopted it. It became the most popular electric guitar in history.
But Leo was not satisfied with his first electric guitar. He began working on an entirely new one in 1953 to improve upon what he saw as the shortcomings of the Telecaster. In the Spring of 1954, Leo unveiled his radical new Fender Stratocaster or ‘Strat’ as it was soon dubbed.
It didn’t sell well at first. He gave away Strats to country and western guitarists for their input and to generate excitement about the new product.
He did not realize at the time that a new musical form was taking shape that would embrace this sleek, deeply contoured ash-bodied electric powerhouse.
Rock ’n roll and the Fender Stratocaster were a perfect match
Besides its sleek, contoured, asymmetric body, the Strat had three pickups wired for different voices and a spring tension tremolo arm for vibrato.
It differed from the flat, square-edge design of the Telecaster. Double cutaways allowed players easier access to higher positions on the neck.
And of course, it just looked cool.
The First Strat Hero
Although it was primarily country and western guitarists who were the first to adopt the new instrument, it was Buddy Holly who really got the Fender Strat rock ‘n rolling.
Buddy’s brother, Larry, loaned him the money to buy his first Stratocaster. Holly played it loud and fast, wearing thick-framed black glasses while fronting his four-man band, the Crickets.
The full sound of the Strat was well suited to Holly’s music, which was stripped-down and simple, something like the man himself.
He didn’t have the sex appeal of Elvis, but Buddy Holly was a cool geek all the same.
Playing a sleek guitar and performing songs he had written himself, he was one of the first true rock ’n roll stars.
Many more would soon follow, drawing inspiration from Holly and his Fender Strat with its out-in-front sound. Holly tragically died in a plane crash in 1959, along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, the ‘Big Bopper.’ The event would later immortalize it as ‘The Day the Music Died’ in Don McLean’s 1971 song, ‘American Pie.’
Holly’s Fender Stratocaster was not destroyed in the crash. He had left it with Dion DiMucci (i.e. Dion), who travelled by bus from Iowa to Minnesota to save the $36 ticket fee rather than join his colleagues on the plane Holly chartered.
Crickets and Beatles
But much more than his guitar survived. In England, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were inspired to play, sing and write their own songs.
“John I started to write because of Buddy Holly. It was like, 'Wow! He writes and is a musician,” McCartney explained. Their early shows included over a dozen Buddy Holly songs.
Even the band name was inspired by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. John changed the word ‘Beetles’ to ‘Beatles’ to give it a double meaning, just as he loved how the name ‘Crickets’ meant both the rhythmic sound of a bug and England’s cherished sport.
Young George Harrison pined for a Stratocaster after seeing Buddy Holly on the cover of ‘Chirping Crickets.’ He sketched out the shape of the guitar on his school desk but it was far too expensive for him, so he bought a knock-off copy.
By 1965 however, Harrison of course could afford to buy a real Stratocaster. Both he and John both played Sonic Blue Strats in the recording of ‘Nowhere Man’ for the Rubber Soul album.
Producer George Martin connected the guitars together and had John and George face each other with a single microphone in the middle. It created the stereo effect you hear in the recording.
Starting with Rubber Soul, George started playing his 1961 Fender Stratocaster and continued using it for the remainder of the Beatles' albums. In 1967 he painted it with Day-Glo paint and christened his design ’Rocky.’
That same year, at the Monterey Pop Festival, Pete Townsend smashed his Fender Stratocaster on stage after The Who finished performing.
They were no doubt inspired by the unknown guitarist who preceded them on stage, Jimi Hendrix. He mesmerized the audience with his innovative technique on a hand-painted Red Strat Fiesta. After his 'smoking' performance he poured lighter fluid on the guitar lit it on fire and coaxed the flames higher with his 'magic fingers.'
Over the next few years until his untimely death in 1970, Hendrix helped vaunt the Stratocaster guitar into musical history as the world’s premiere electric guitar. The list of guitarists who adopted it reads like a who’s who of rocky royalty.
Steve Miller, one of my favourite artists, recorded most of his hits on a left-handed Stratocaster he bought in New York. He played it upside down to be like his hero, Hendrix who had his set up so the controls were on top.
Miller also played the 1967 Monterery show but later said he was 'disgusted' by watching Hendrix light his Stratocaster on fire. They jammed together occasionally and Miller paid tribute to Hendrix with his song 'Peppa Sauce' recorded live at the Pepperland Ballroom in California on the day Jimi Hendrix died of a drug overdose.
Many other guitarists followed Holly, Harrison and Hendrix in their allegiance to Leo Fender’s Stratocaster. Here's a partial list of some of the other greats:
Eddie Van Halen
Stevie Ray Vaughn
The voice of the guitarist
The almost mystical connection of musician to instrument is a theme that resonates with me. At its most basic level, a guitarist’s ‘voice’ is dependent on the vibration of strings stretched over a hunk of wood. The emotional resonance of that voice is what audiences yearn to experience and what musicians strive to deliver and perfect.
And for the truly outstanding guitarists of the past seven decades, the Fender Stratocaster became their voice to the world.