This article previously appeared on Harmony Central - your information source for making better music.
A look back at the Strat as this legendary design celebrates its diamond anniversary
by Phil O'Keefe
Just a few years after Fender had released the first Esquires and Broadcasters / Telecasters - the first commercially successful electric-spanish solid body guitars, Leo Fender and company set out to build an even more ambitious solid-body model. Unlike the simple "slab-bodied" design of the Telecaster, this one would be considerably different, with a sleek double-cutaway design and graceful contours in the body that were so different from what anyone else was making at the time as to seem downright futuristic. It also included an all-new vibrato design that Fender called a "synchronized tremolo", and three single coil pickups. The pickups were selected with a three-way switch, with a master volume control and individual tone controls for the neck and middle pickup rounding out the electronics, and a unique recessed jack plate for the guitar's output jack. The finish was a nitrocellulose lacquer two-color sunburst. "Hardtail" Stratocasters with fixed bridges have also been available since very early in the model's history, with the first production batch being built in 1955.
The design of the Stratocaster can not really be attributed to any single individual. Rather, it was a joint effort, with several people contributing. Leo Fender, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares, along with country musician, early Fender endorser, field-tester, and sometime Fender employee Bill Carson all claiming input on aspects of the guitar's design.
A 60th Anniversary American Vintage 1954 Stratocaster
Ash bodies were used exclusively on the first Strats. In 1956 Fender switched to using alder for most of their bodies, with ash still being used for some finishes, such as the "Mary Kaye" white blonde Strats. Custom colors were available in the late 1950s and 1960s, with Fender offering models painted in Dupont car finishes for an additional 5%. These "custom colors" have been widely popular over the years, and Fender still offers some of them on various models even today. By 1958, the Stratocaster's stock two-color sunburst finish was replaced with a three-color sunburst.
From the beginning, Stratocasters had maple necks with truss rod adjustments done at the body end of the neck. A rosewood fingerboard was introduced was 1959, and it was the only readily-available choice between '59 and 1967, when a maple fingerboard was once again offered as a standard option. Maple necks with rosewood fingerboards are still available today, as are all-maple necks. The earliest rosewood fingerboards (from 1959 until mid to late 1962) were thicker than the later fingerboards and flat on the bottom where they meet the maple of the rest of the neck, and are often referred to as "slab" fingerboards.
n January of 1965, Fender was sold to CBS, who retained ownership of the company for the next twenty years. Players generally regarded the CBS years as a period where quality declined, weight increased, and some questionable "improvements" were made that received less than universally favorable reviews at the time. These include the change from the original "spaghetti headstock logo to the darker and heavier block lettering style of the late-60s and 70s era "CBS" logo, the transition to a larger headstock size in the mid 1960s and the switch from lacquer to poly finishes in the late 1960s, the switch from a four-bolt to a three-bolt neck with micro-tilt adjustment and headstock-mounted "bullet" truss rod adjustment in the mid-1970s, and an overall decline in perceived materials and build quality.
In 1977 Fender replaced the Stratocaster's original three-way pickup selector switch with a five-way switch that allowed for the "in-between" pickup combinations (neck plus middle / bridge plus middle) that previously were only available by carefully balancing the switch "in between" the three main settings. A reverse wound / reverse magnetic polarity pickup in the middle position also made its first appearance, and provided hum-canceling in switch positions 2 and 4.
By 1980/1981, Strats had reverted back to the original four-bolt neck configuration, and a smaller-sized headstock also returned on a model called "The Strat", although it had a different shape than the pre-CBS headstocks. "The Strat" also had a new brass bridge, and one of the tone knobs was replaced with additional switching functions. 1981 also saw the release of the "International Color" series Stratocasters. These were 70s era models in terms of basic features, except they came in colors named after exotic locations, such as Maui Blue, Morocco Red, and Monaco Yellow.
In late 1981, a new version of the Stratocaster was released which is commonly referred to as the "Dan Smith Strat" today. Dan Smith was Fender's director of marketing at the time, and he was part of the management team brought in to try to resuscitate the company in the early 1980s. The Dan Smith Stratocaster (or "Standard Stratocaster") was an early attempt at a return to more traditional Stratocaster design specs, with a smaller headstock that was closer to the pre-CBS shape than the one on "The Strat", an overwound X1 bridge pickup, and a four bolt neck with the truss rod adjustment at the body end.
Unfortunately, the Dan Smith Stratocasters didn't last long, and 1983 saw the introduction of a more stripped-down Stratocaster model. These Strats lacked the body-mounted recessed jack plate, and the output jack was moved to the pickguard, to the place where the second tone control was previously mounted. The controls were simplified too, with one master volume and one master tone control. The modifications were obviously done with an eye towards reducing production costs; the model was not well-accepted by players and was dropped after CBS sold Fender to a group of private investors in 1985.
In 1982 Fender first released reissues of the 1957 and 1962 Stratocaster models as part of the American Vintage Reissue series. Fender has had reissues of classic vintage Strat models in their lineup ever since, and while the earliest versions had some differences here and there when compared with the originals, they set the groundwork for even more authentic models that followed, and indicated a return to the features and level of quality that players demanded and that Fender was once known for.
1982 also saw the introduction of Squier guitars. Made in Japan, they offered high-quality guitars at lower price points than USA-built Fenders. In fact, some of the 80s era Squiers were so good that some players preferred them over American-built models from the same era. In the roughly one year period between the closing of the Fullerton factory and the opening of the new Fender factory in Corona, Squier and Fender Japan were producing the majority of guitars Fender sold. Squier continues to sell various versions of the Stratocaster today, including "Fat Strat" models with humbucking pickups. Humbuckers and locking vibratos were very popular on Stratocasters in the 1980s, and several Squier models were offered with these features.
Fender's reputation for quality had largely slipped by the late 1970s and early 1980s, and many players at the time felt their earlier models were superior to the models being made then. Additionally, competition from Japan had become a significant issue. In spite of the improvements that were represented by the appearance of the American Vintage Reissue series, the combination of foreign competition and lagging sales had left Fender's future in serious doubt, with CBS making it clear that the company was up for sale - the question was, would anyone buy the once legendary but struggling company? Fender had brought in new management (largely sourced from Yamaha) to try to turn the company around in the early 80s, but it was too late as far as CBS was concerned. In 1985, CBS sold Fender to a group of investors headed by the president of the Fender company at the time - Bill Schultz. The Fullerton factory was not included in the purchase, and the new owners moved the corporate headquarters to Scottsdale Arizona, and set up a new manufacturing plant in Corona California, where American production soon resumed; initially utilizing leftover parts from the Fullerton factory. Corona also became the home of Fender's Custom Shop, which was founded in 1987 and where Fender's best craftspeople create some of the finest guitars Fender has ever offered, including "new old stock" and "reliced" vintage recreations.
A new American Standard Stratocaster came out shortly after the move to Corona and was in production from 1986 until 2000. A new American Standard series was released in 2008. While both have some differences compared to pre-CBS Stratocasters, the overall look, feel, and quality have improved greatly from the CBS era. Of course, Fender (and Squier) still offer a wide range of Stratocaster models, with various finishes, materials, pickups and electronics and other options currently available - there's something for everyone, at just about every price point. While it's a 60 year old design, it still looks modern and fresh, and remains incredibly popular with players.
Famous players who are closely associated with the Stratocaster are legion, and represent a wide range of stylistic diversity. When Bob Dylan "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965, the guitar he used was a Fender Stratocaster. Early rockers and instrumental rock / Surf musicians like Buddy Holly, Hank Marvin of The Shadows and Dick Dale were early adopters. Jimi Hendrix made the Strat even more famous. Other rockers and blues-rock musicians like Rory Gallagher, Bonnie Raitt, David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, and George Harrison also embraced the design. Blues legends like Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan are also well-known Strat players. Fusion-rockers and instrumental rock players like Jeff Beck and Eric Johnson are also regularly seen playing a Stratocaster. Even alternative, hard rock and metal players like Billy Corgan, Dave Murray of Iron Maiden and Yngwie Malmsteen are well-known Strat fans, and several of these players have their own "signature models" that are made to their specifications by Fender and available for purchase by the public.
What's not to love about the Strat? It's a legendary guitar, and as capable and in-demand today as it has ever been, and its popularity shows no sign of slacking off. So happy 60th anniversary to the Fender Stratocaster - here's to another 60 years!
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.
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