PHOTO: Robert Knight Archive / Getty Images
15 Stratocaster Players for the Ages
From Stevie Ray Vaughan to Eric Clapton, here are some Strat slingers that put the famous guitar on the map.
By Mike Duffy
Who would have thought that an instrument designed more than 60 years ago could go largely unchanged and still be as iconic as ever in present day?
As unlikely as that may seem, that’s the case with the Fender Stratocaster, which debuted in 1954.
Space-age lines, smooth contours, double cutaways and a three-pickup arrangement made this innovation unlike anything that anybody had previously seen.
And the sound … the Strat was so versatile that it steadily became the go-to weapon for artists in rock, blues and country, and even metal and jazz.
Countless all-star musicians have been associated with the Strat throughout its illustrious history. Here are 15 outstanding Strat players that helped up this iconic guitar on the map:
Known as a true virtuoso, Beck is amazingly innovative; dabbling in blues, rock, metal, jazz and even electronica throughout his storied career. Beck first gained popularity with the Yardbirds, the group that also brought the world Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, but he also achieved solo success with the Jeff Beck Group and appearances on albums by Mick Jagger, Morrissey, Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Waters and Stevie Wonder, to name only a few.
Beck’s versatility is what sets him apart. His ability to create slide guitar sounds with just his bare hands and a Strat tremolo is visionary. And he is unparalleled in coaxing new and distinctive sounds from his guitar, often making listeners wonder what instrument he’s actually playing.
Blackmore helped define heavy metal with his nimble fretwork for Deep Purple and, later, Rainbow and the great Ronnie James Dio. With his black 1968 Stratocaster, he created the powerful double-stop riff in “Smoke on the Water,” truly one of the most memorable riffs ever.
Blackmore is a distinctive player and “neoclassic” pioneer. He was one of the first rock guitarists to use a scalloped fretboard (on which the wood between the frets is scooped into a concave shape), and he would often forgo using a pick.
Lately, Blackmore is a standout on the folk rock scene, in which his group, Blackmore’s Night, has released nine studio albums since forming in 1997. And even though folk is typically acoustic-driven, Blackmore’s collection of Strats continues to join him onstage.
Truly a versatile player, Clapton utilized a variety of styles throughout his career. Clapton created a standard for modern blues and rock through his sizzling efforts with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream. His rhythm abilities were top-notch, and his solos seemed otherworldly.
Clapton can play fast when soloing, even alternating between major and minor pentatonic scales, but his ability to speak volumes with just a few notes is unparalleled.
In the early 1970s, Clapton bought six Stratocasters for about $100 each, giving one to George Harrison, one to Pete Townshend and one to Steve Winwood. From parts of the other three, “Slowhand” created his most famous Strat, “Blackie,” a mix of 1956 and 1957 models that would serve him well onstage and in the studio for the next 12 years.
Let’s not forget “Brownie” either—the two-tone sunburst Strat that rings true in the opening notes of Derek and the Dominos classic “Layla.” Brownie was Clapton’s first Strat; the one that accompanied him on his 1970 debut solo album and on the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
Gallagher died in 1995 at age 47, but the Irish virtuoso left a lasting legacy for generations of guitarists to come.
A self-taught prodigy, Gallagher will be forever associated with his well-worn sunburst 1961 Stratocaster, his unbridled energy and his raw aggression onstage. His style was rooted in folk, rock and, most notably, blues. In fact, Eric Clapton once credited Gallagher for “getting me back into the blues.”
Gallagher’s freewheeling solos were as improvisational as those of the jazz saxophone players he loved so much. And there was no doubt when Gallagher was onstage that his Strat had become a part of his very being.
“Atmospheric” is a word typically used to describe Gilmour’s style, and rightfully so. He rose to worldwide prominence as singer and guitarist for Pink Floyd, although he has also forged an acclaimed and popular solo career.
Influenced by blues, Gilmour uses a great deal of sustain in his compositions, creating a perfect canvas on which his expressive note bending slices even more sharply. While mastering the infamous "Black Strat", the 1996 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is behind some of music’s most famous guitar solos, including Pink Floyd classics “Comfortably Numb” and “Time.”
Harrison ran the gamut when it came to his guitars of choice throughout his career, but the late Beatle often described his “Rocky” Stratocaster as one of his favorites. Harrison and John Lennon got matching Sonic Blue Strats in 1965. Harrison played his on Beatles albums Help! (1965), Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966) before taking paint and brush to the guitar in 1967 for a multicolored psychedelic makeover. It thereafter appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Magical Mystery Tour (1968) and other Beatles albums, and on Harrison solo efforts, by which time it acquired the nickname “Rocky.”
Harrison was quite an innovator when it came to his playing style, as well. He was influenced by blues, country and Indian classical music, all of which he combined into a singular melodic voice.
It is widely believed and Hendrix is one of the best guitarists of all time – if not the best. Rolling Stone put the Seattle superman at the top of their list of the top 100 greatest axemen, just adding to Hendrix’s accolades
Listening to Hendrix, it was difficult to discern where his body ended and the guitar began. The two just flowed together. Hendrix oozed emotion out of his Strat, with interesting chord voicings and feedback aplenty.
Hendrix’s most famous Strats include the ones he played at Monterey in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969, the latter of which he used for his historic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
As a lefty, Hendrix flipped his right-handed guitars over, which has caused a host of wannabes with aspirations of flying close to the gypsy king’s sun to try that experiment. His searing and sexy blues and rock licks have often been imitated throughout the years, but they’ve seldom been equaled.
Buddy Holly might have been one of the first rock and rollers to play the Strat to mass audiences, but Hendrix truly took it to the next level within the genre.
Perhaps the most influential Stratocaster player of 1950s rock and roll, Holly was raised on country but eventually became enamored with rockabilly and R&B. Holly had a chord-lead playing style with a rhythm that can be heard in rock music to this day, from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen to the Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr.
And it must be mentioned that Holly was one of the first artists to bring the Fender Stratocaster into the mainstream, as his sunburst Strat became as iconic as his black-rimmed glasses. Unfortunately, Holly perished at age 22 on Feb. 3, 1959, when a charter plane carrying him, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson crashed during a flight between tour dates.
A consummate tone-seeker, Eric Johnson began playing at a young age, influenced by not only the rock ferocity of Jimi Hendrix and the bluesy soul of Albert King, but also such diverse artists as Chet Atkins and the Beatles.
By the time Johnson was in his mid-teens, he had forged a style all his own. With uncanny feel, incredibly sensitive ear and a symbiotic relationship with his guitar, it was a liquid, articulate and incomparable sound instantly recognizable as "EJ's."
Over the years, a big part of that equation has been a traditional Fender Stratocaster, which Johnson would use on such hits as "Cliffs of Dover" and "Manhattan." In 2018, Fender also released a new signature Stratocaster Thinline that has aided in Johnson's tone quest.
As the story goes, the first guitar Knopfler lusted after was an expensive Fiesta Red Stratocaster like the one played by Hank Marvin. Unfortunately, Knopfler had to wait a few more years until finally acquiring a Strat, but once he did, he came up with a style that is distinctly his own.
Spin any Dire Straits track — or any of Knopfler’s extensive solo material — and there is no doubt whose lyrical fingerpicking is flowing from the speakers. Using Strats on his band’s early albums — Dire Straits (1978) and Communiqué (1979) — the Glasgow, Scotland-born “Sultan of Swing” boasts one of the best clean tones in the game.
One of the most technically accomplished guitarists ever, Malmsteen brought a classical gothic vibe to the Stratocaster, with notes of Paganini, Beethoven and Bach making their way into his explosive solos. The Sweden-born Malmsteen raised the bar for aspiring guitarists with 1984 debut album Rising Force.
What Malmsteen does on his infamously scallopped fretboard seems impossible, as his mind-bending phrasing is highly demanding and features blazing technique. Still, that hasn’t stopped generations of fledgling shredders from attempting to emulate him.
Back when it was nearly impossible to get a Stratocaster in the United Kingdom because of trade restrictions, British players owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin. Or perhaps more accurately to Shadows’ singer Cliff Richard, since he was the one who imported a Strat for Marvin from the United States in 1959, reportedly the first one in the U.K.
That pinkish instrument—Marvin has said that he thinks it was a botched Fiesta Red paint job—with gold hardware is synonymous with the guitarist, as is his penchant for using a clean sound with a notable echo and vibrato that gives his playing a dreamy effect.
Artists all over the world consider Marvin a tremendous inspiration, from Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour to Queen’s Brian May to Mark Knopfler and a great many others.
Rodgers’ style is unmistakable, with a fresh and simple finesse that became the sound of disco, hip-hop, funk and R&B throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. And with EDM seemingly taking over the world over the past few years, Rodgers’ production and playing skills have made him one of the most coveted collaborators in the business.
It’s been said that more than $2 billion worth of music has been created with the help of Rodgers’ “Hitmaker.” With the help of his 1959/’60 hard-tail Strat with a chrome pickguard, Rodgers crafted countless hits with his band, Chic, and with artists such as Madonna, David Bowie, Sister Sledge, Daft Punk and many others.
After initial success with Procol Harum in the 1960s, Trower embarked on a solo career in the 1970s that quickly ascended to arena-headlining status largely on the back of his electrifying mix of blues-rock and psychedelia.
Influenced by greats such as B.B. King, Albert King and Jimi Hendrix, Trower engages in dynamic Strat gymnastics, and his overdriven tone ranges from a punchy bite to a gravelly growl. He also makes notably expressive use of a phase shifter and wah-wah pedal.
Trower’s towering roar can still be experienced live today, as he continues to tour around the world.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Half brute force and half finesse, Vaughan exploded onto the scene in 1983 when he contributed scorching guitar work to the David Bowie album Let’s Dance. Later that year, Vaughan released his own group’s debut album, Texas Flood, and officially ignited the blues revival of the 1980s.
Not only did Vaughan’s voice carry raw power and emotion, but his ability to play lead and rhythm parts simultaneously was a marvel. His favorite Stratocaster, dubbed “Number One,” was a hybrid guitar that boasted a ravaged ’63 body and a ’62 rosewood neck. It also featured a left-handed tremolo in honor of Jimi Hendrix and distinctive stickers spelling out his initials on the pickguard.
Still one of the world’s most influential guitarists, Vaughan perished at age 35 in an August 1990 helicopter crash.
See all Fender Stratocaster guitars here.