Sixteen had seldom been sweeter. More than a decade and a half since its 1954 introduction, the Stratocaster had finally won widespread popularity by the time 1969 turned to 1970.
Fender’s second electric guitar model patiently bided its time through ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, early ’60s surf and instrumental rock, and the British Invasion, enjoying some notable moments but never really taking off as its creators had hoped it would. It did eventually happen, but it sure took a long time. The Stratocaster finally achieved top-tier status in the late 1960s, largely thanks to the meteoric ascent of Jimi Hendrix, whose preference for the instrument led legions of established and up-and-coming guitarists to finally “discover” the Stratocaster. They would make it an essential and ubiquitous voice of the following decade.
And just what was that next decade going to sound like? Looking ahead from the 1960s, the musical character of the 1970s was anyone’s guess, just as the character of the ’60s couldn’t possibly have been fully envisioned by anyone in the ’50s. Things were certainly going to be different though, as evidenced by 1970 itself, which saw the acrimonious dissolution of the Beatles and the death of Hendrix. The two biggest surviving veterans of the ’60s-dominating British Invasion, the Rolling Stones and the Who, spent the turn of the decade morphing from theater-playing singles acts to jet set arena-packing album artists. And British Invasion act the Yardbirds—which introduced the world to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, in that order—underwent a remarkable metamorphosis into the biggest rock group of the 1970s, Led Zeppelin.
Meanwhile, new artists were appearing, other established acts were continuing and other musical movements were stirring. And if the musical future of the decade wasn’t too clear in early 1970, two things were—rock was going to be bigger than ever, and the Stratocaster was now a very popular guitar. Clapton provided proof enough of that.
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Eric Clapton launched his solo career in 1970, and he did it with a Stratocaster.
Solo debut album Eric Clapton appeared that August. The cover said it all, showing a more laid-back Clapton, far removed from the ’60s commotion surrounding Cream and Blind Faith et al., slumped in a chair with “Brownie,” the 1956 Stratocaster he bought secondhand in 1967 and had only lately started to play as his main guitar.
Eric Clapton was stylistically more diverse than any of Clapton’s previous efforts, and the Stratocaster easily accompanied him down the album’s different musical avenues, which were surprisingly short on lengthy solos and pleasingly long on focused, well-crafted songs.
That album alone was noteworthy enough as a 1970 Stratocaster milestone, but Clapton wasn’t finished yet. That November, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was released. Although credited to Derek and the Dominos, it was and still is one of Clapton’s most famous albums, widely regarded as one of his highest musical achievements. Brownie was the sound of that album, too; particularly the soaring, aching title track, a hit that remains a classic rock staple.
Soon after the release of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, in 1971, Brownie became Clapton’s main backup guitar for “Blackie,” an instrument he’d assembled from parts of half a dozen 1950s-era Stratocasters he bought at the Sho-Bud guitar shop in Nashville, Tenn., during a November 1970 U.S. visit for a Derek and the Dominos appearance on ABC TV’s The Johnny Cash Show. Clapton reportedly paid $100 apiece for the guitars, giving three of them as gifts to friends George Harrison, Pete Townshend and Steve Winwood, and cannibalizing the remaining three to assemble Blackie, which served as his main touring and recording guitar for the rest of the 1970s.
While Clapton was busy with all that, Fender, as always, was busy modifying the Stratocaster yet again. Although outwardly the Stratocaster had changed little since its 1954 introduction, the 1960s had nonetheless seen a surprisingly long list of design revisions, most notably the larger headstock of late 1965, experimentation with the formulation and appearance of the three-color sunburst finish, headstock logo decal revisions, the shaping of neck profiles and body contours, and various pickguard, hardware and electronics modifications. In true Fender fashion, Stratocaster design revisions would continue throughout the 1970s.
Before Leo Fender left the company bearing his name in 1970, one of the last important things he did was introduce a new neck attachment and adjustment mechanism for the Stratocaster. Previously, the only way to address neck angle (pitch) adjustments on a Stratocaster was to loosen the neck, insert small shims into the neck pocket, re-tighten the neck and test the new angle; a tedious trial-and-error process that often needed to be repeated until the correct pitch was attained. Leo Fender turned his attention to this problem and in 1970 introduced a system he called the “tilt-able guitar neck incorporating thrust-absorbing pivot and locking element.” Called “Micro-Tilt” for short, it worked by means of an Allen screw mounted in a new three-bolt triangular neck plate (as opposed to the four-bolt rectangular neck plate of the previous 16 years). The Allen screw could be adjusted through a hole in the neck plate to push against a small metal plate mounted to the underside of the butt end of the neck, thereby increasing the neck angle with minimal loosening and re-tightening.
The new Micro-Tilt system necessitated moving the truss rod adjustment mechanism from the butt end of the neck to the headstock using a bullet-shaped adjustment knob just above the nut. This new “bullet” truss rod system, along with the new three-bolt neck plate and Micro-Tilt neck-angle adjustment system, was introduced on the Stratocaster in 1971. Taken together, these three developments constituted the most significant design revision to the instrument of the entire decade.
Also of notable significance is that while the 1950s-style one-piece maple neck/fingerboard with a “skunk stripe” again became available as an optional Stratocaster feature in 1969, rosewood-fingerboard Stratocasters had no skunk stripe from 1969 to 1971, as the truss rod channel on these guitars was routed into the top of the neck and capped by the glued-on fingerboard. When the “bullet” truss rod system was introduced on the Stratocaster in 1971, however, the design entailed routing the truss rod channel into the back of the neck regardless of fingerboard material, which meant that all “bullet” Stratocasters—maple- and rosewood-fingerboard models alike—were given skunk stripes (at the end of the 1970s, all Fender electric instruments, regardless of fingerboard material, were given rear-installed truss rod systems with skunk stripes).
Newly “former” Beatle George Harrison continued to embrace the Stratocaster more fully in the early 1970s, clearly evidenced by his use of the guitar during his massive Concert for Bangladesh event, which comprised two historic benefit performances on Aug. 1, 1971, at Madison Square Garden in New York. Like his friend Clapton, who joined him onstage for the concerts, Harrison would remain a dedicated Stratocaster player onstage and on record throughout the 1970s and beyond.
It was around this time or not too long after that Jeff Beck became a diehard Stratocaster player. He’d succeeded Clapton in the Yardbirds in 1965 and spent the rest of that decade carving out a distinctive musical identity as one of Britain’s greatest guitar stylists, especially on forming the Jeff Beck Group in early 1967. He started to incorporate the Stratocaster into his arsenal in 1968, embracing it more fully sometime around the demise of the second Jeff Beck Group lineup in late 1972. Beck remained a devoted Stratocaster player throughout the rest of the 1970s and beyond, and the cover of 1976 solo instrumental album Wired is one of the more enduring Stratocaster images of that decade (preceded by 1975’s Blow by Blow—another fine Strat showcase, album cover notwithstanding).
When speaking of Clapton and Beck as 1960s Yardbirds alumni who embraced the Stratocaster in the ’70s, it’s certainly worth noting that the mutual friend who succeeded them as the Yardbirds’ third and final guitarist of the 1960s became the biggest guitar god of the 1970s, and did in fact play a Stratocaster here and there.
Although not widely know for it, Jimmy Page was a Stratocaster player at times during Led Zeppelin’s Dionysian reign over the 1970s. A few Strats have been associated with him, most notably a 1964 Lake Placid Blue model he acquired in spring 1975. There are photos of Page playing this guitar onstage during some (but not all) of the five famous Earls Court shows Zeppelin played in London in May 1975, reportedly during “No Quarter” and “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Further, Page is noted to have recorded “For Your Life” and “Hots On for Nowhere” from 1976 album Presence using the guitar, and “In the Evening” from 1979’s In Through the Out Door. Page also used it for live performances of “In the Evening” at Zeppelin’s two headlining Knebworth Music Festival shows in August 1979 and summer 1980 European tour dates.
However, Page’s Sonic Blue model was apparently not his first Stratocaster. He appears to have previously acquired at least two other ’50s-era instruments, one in white and another in two-color sunburst. According to some sources, Page used the white Strat to record parts of “Thank You” in 1969 and “Ten Years Gone” in 1974, after which it was reportedly loaned to Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and returned to Page none too promptly in 2007. The two-color sunburst Strat (possibly a ’57 model) seen in a 1982 photo on Page’s own website was reportedly seen in his home studio as early as 1973; little is known about this guitar, and speculation exists that he used it on sessions for 1973 album Houses of the Holy.
Curiously, 2008 film It Might Get Loud features a battered three-color sunburst Stratocaster with a rosewood fingerboard, said in the footage to be “Jimmy’s Strat” and one of his earliest guitars. Page is never seen in the film with the guitar, however, and the veracity of the claim appears dubious. Stratocasters were in short supply in Britain in the late 1950s because of a U.K. import ban on U.S. musical instruments, and in any case they would’ve been enormously expensive. Rosewood-fingerboard Strats were introduced in 1959, the year Page turned 15; if during his teenage years he somehow acquired a three-color sunburst, rosewood-board Strat as his first electric guitar, or one of his first electric guitars, that would be quite a feat, and surprising news to astute Page aficionados.
Suffice to say that Page, the biggest rock guitarist of the ’70s, did occasionally use a Stratocaster while Led Zeppelin was an actively recording and touring entity. Meanwhile, many other Stratocaster greats with roots in the ’60s came to the fore in the first half of the decade.
Irish Stratocaster phenomenon Rory Gallagher left late-’60s Cork, Ireland, outfit Taste in 1970 to embark on a popular and acclaimed solo career for which the 1970s was the most potent and prolific period. Gallagher’s 1961 sunburst Strat was allegedly the first in Ireland; he bought it secondhand in 1963, modifying it heavily over the years and eventually wearing the finish off nearly entirely. Influential U.K. guitarist Robin Trower mainly played Gibson Les Pauls during his five years with Procol Harum; when he left the band in 1971, he too embarked on a popular and acclaimed solo career for which he adopted the Stratocaster nearly exclusively. Landmark album Bridge of Sighs was released in 1974, and Trower has remained an acknowledged Strat master ever since.
Trower wasn’t the only one to switch to a Stratocaster with the dawn of the 1970s. Early in the decade, Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore moved away from the Gibson ES-335 he’d used as his main guitar in the late ’60s and started playing Strats more and more around the time of Deep Purple in Rock (1970) and Fireball (1971). He played Stratocasters almost exclusively after that, and later in the 1970s notably took to scalloping their fingerboards.
Blackmore’s roots were in blues and early-’60s pop and studio work (he did many sessions for pioneering U.K. producer Joe Meek and, like Page before him, did a stint in Neil Christian and the Crusaders), but he is most famous for his 1970s work with Deep Purple, of which he was an original member in 1968. In the early 1970s, Blackmore earned great fame and acclaim as a formidable Stratocaster stylist, and was later hailed as a highly influential “proto-metal” and “neo-classical” guitar pioneer. And of course, he is the author of perhaps the most imitated guitar part in history, the famous Stratocaster chord riff from 1972 hard-rock classic “Smoke on the Water.”
Also in 1972—on Feb. 17 to be precise—Pink Floyd assembled members of the London press at the Rainbow Theatre for a performance of an as-yet unrecorded piece that had begun life months earlier under the title “Eclipse.” The album-long work, recently re-titled “Dark Side of the Moon: A Piece for Assorted Lunatics,” drew much acclaim from those in attendance.
The members of Pink Floyd then took their time with the group’s eighth studio album, recording over a full year from June 1972 to January 1973. The resulting record, The Dark Side of the Moon, was released in March 1973 and promptly got under way in becoming one of the world’s best-selling albums ever, with eventual sales of more than 50 million and an astounding 741-week chart placement from 1973 to 1988. It was Pink Floyd’s breakout record, and starting early in its remarkable life, the album brought more listeners than ever to the brilliant Stratocaster work of David Gilmour.
A member of Pink Floyd since late 1967, Gilmour succeeded founder and leader Syd Barrett in 1968 as the group’s guitarist. He assumed an increasingly prevalent role in Pink Floyd as the ’60s turned to the ’70s and became an avid Stratocaster player well before work began on Dark Side. Gilmour had been playing a white Telecaster his parents got him for his 21st birthday in 1966, but the guitar was lost during a U.S. tour in July 1968. Just before that tour though, the band presented him with a gift—his first Stratocaster; a white mid-’60s model with an ash body, white pickguard, rosewood fingerboard and large headstock. Gilmour used it live and for recording More and Ummagumma (1969) and Atom Heart Mother (1970), but the guitar was stolen during a U.S. tour in May 1970, along with a new black Stratocaster and the rest of the band’s gear.
Gilmour then briefly used a second white Stratocaster, but by the Atom Heart Mother sessions in summer 1970 he’d acquired two more—a 1959 sunburst finish model and a second black Stratocaster; a 1969 model with a white pickguard and maple fingerboard. This second black Stratocaster was to become famous as Gilmour’s main instrument for the next 15 years, aptly and affectionately nicknamed the Black Strat.
The Black Strat first appeared onstage at the Bath Festival in England in June 1970, and Gilmour soon began making the first of a continual series of modifications to it that would stretch well into the ensuing decades. Throughout the 1970s, he used the guitar onstage and to record Atom Heart Mother (1970), Meddle (1971), Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii (1971) and Obscured by Clouds (1972), and classic Pink Floyd mega-hits The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), Animals (1977) and The Wall (1979). He also played the Black Strat on debut solo album David Gilmour (1978). His soaring, liquid tone and atmospheric expertise with effects became instantly recognizable hallmarks of the Pink Floyd sound, and many rate Gilmour alongside Clapton, Beck and Hendrix as a masterful Stratocaster stylist.
Below, four indispensable Stratocaster albums from the first half of the 1970s. Clockwise from upper left: Deep Purple’s In Rock (1970), Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), Rory Gallagher’s Irish Tour ’74 (1974) and Robin Trower’s Bridge of Sighs (1974).
In forthcoming installment “The Stratocaster in the 1970s, Part II,” the Strat is heard on more hits than ever, rock music undergoes fractious transformations, Fender makes a welcome Strat design change, and much more.