PHOTO: The Estate of David Gahr / Getty Images
11 Iconic Stratocaster Moments
From Dylan going electric to David Gilmour atop the Wall, these are the moments that defined the Strat.
By Jeff Owens and Adam Brent Houghtaling
The Stratocaster. A sleek and shapely musical form familiar for more than 60 years now to millions worldwide—musicians and non-musicians alike—as the archetypal electric guitar. Its 1954 arrival coincided nicely with that of an extraordinary musical and cultural phenomenon called rock ‘n’ roll, and the two have been inextricably bound ever since—rock providing the artistically fertile breeding and proving ground for the Stratocaster’s seemingly limitless sonic possibilities, and the Stratocaster in turn fueling many of rock’s greatest moments.
And there have been plenty of such moments. That’s because, for mainstream artists and rebellious iconoclasts alike, the Stratocaster has always had that un-definable something that somehow makes it the right guitar time and time again. No other instrument is so reliably relevant, and no other instrument has played such a consistently central role in the creation of so much music so artfully woven into the fabric of our culture.
Join us for a look at some of those defining Stratocaster moments. Here are 11 of them, starting in the original era, when Fender introduced a brand-new guitar model:
1. The Crickets on The Ed Sullivan Show - Dec. 1, 1957
Fender introduced its Stratocaster guitar in spring 1954 and promptly set about refining and improving its design, perfecting it into its basically unchanged modern form within a couple of years. But the instrument got off to a slow start, and by three years after its introduction, many still hadn’t seen a Stratocaster. That all changed when a Lubbock, Texas, rock ‘n’ roll group called the Crickets appeared on top-rated U.S. television variety program The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday, Dec. 1, 1957. They charged through two songs, “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue", penned by the group’s Stratocaster-wielding leader, bespectacled 21-year-old singer/guitarist Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly.
2. Hank Marvin Gets England’s First Stratocaster - March 1959
England’s post-World War II trade ban on U.S. goods made getting a Fender instrument next to impossible for British guitarists in the late 1950s. This was especially disappointing for teenage London guitarist Brian Rankin, who went by the stage name Hank Marvin and had just joined singer Cliff Richard’s band. Owning only a cheap Japanese electric, Marvin dreamed of having a Stratocaster like the one he saw Buddy Holly holding on the cover of 1957 album The “Chirping” Crickets. The resourceful Richard knew Marvin needed a better guitar, and offered to get him the one he wanted, trade ban or not.
Soon after, in March 1959, a brand-new Fiesta Red Stratocaster with gold hardware and a bird’s-eye maple neck somehow arrived at the London flat Marvin shared with Shadows bandmate Bruce Welch. It was purportedly the U.K.’s first-ever Stratocaster, and with it, Marvin went on to become Britain’s first full-fledged guitar hero, on hits such as “Living Doll” (1959) “Travellin’ Light” (October 1959), “Apache” (July 1960), “Kon-Tiki” (September 1961) and several others.
3. Dick Dale’s Debut at the Rendezvous Ballroom - July 1, 1961
As 1959 turned to 1960, 22-year-old surfer and guitarist Richard Monsour was playing regular weekend gigs at the Rinky Dink Ice Cream Parlor at the corner of E. Balboa Blvd. and Main St. in Newport Beach, Calif. Monsour, who went by the stage name Dick Dale, soon assembled a new band, the Del-Tones, and when the popularity of his act exceeded the confines of the Rinky Dink, he asked the owners of nearby local landmark the Rendezvous Ballroom if he could play there instead. All the big dance bands of the 1930s and ’40s played the enormous two-story building, which had more than 150 feet of beach frontage and could accommodate 3,000 people.
After the initially reluctant owners eventually relented and the city of Newport Beach granted the necessary permits (strict dress code, no alcohol sales), Dick Dale and the Del-Tones made their first appearance at the Rendezvous Ballroom on July 1, 1961. Only about 17 of Dale’s surfer friends showed up. However, word spread quickly about Dale’s electrifying performances and huge sound, and within a couple months the Rendezvous was packed to capacity for every show. Thousands came to Dale’s dynamic, Stratocaster-punishing performances—or “stomps” as they came to be known—and rock history generally acknowledges that it was during Dale’s six-month 1961 residency at the Rendezvous Ballroom that surf music was born.
4. Dylan Goes Electric at Newport - July 25, 1965
A truly historic moment in rock history in general and Stratocaster history in particular came with Bob Dylan’s appearance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 25, 1965. An audience of folk purists was shocked when Dylan strode onstage in an orange shirt and dark leather jacket, brandishing a Stratocaster and backed by an electric band.
The set was supposed to last an hour, but Dylan only made it through “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone” before booing forced him from the stage. He returned minutes later for a solo acoustic set, but his move from acoustic troubadour to full-on electric rock star couldn’t be ignored—the event marked a seismic shift in rock music and culture. The guitar itself, a Sunbusrt Stratocaster with serial number 31324 and a May 2, 1964, neck stamp, was soon lost; its whereabouts remained a mystery until the guitar was found and its identity verified in 2012, after which it sold at auction for $965,000.
5. Hendrix at Monterey - June 18, 1967
One of the most memorable performances in rock history took place on the night of Sunday, June 18, 1967. That’s when the Jimi Hendrix Experience played its first major U.S. performance, at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in Monterey, Calif. Already successful in the U.K. and Europe by then, Jimi Hendrix and the Experience were still relatively unknown in the United States.
It was a startling performance, and before the last song, a raucous cover of “Wild Thing”, Hendrix told the audience, “I’m gonna sacrifice something right here that I really love, OK?” At the end of the song, he destroyed his ’65 Stratocaster, kneeling before it, dousing it with lighter fluid, kissing it goodbye, setting it on fire and smashing it to pieces, all while cameras were rolling and the stunned audience looked on. This single mesmerizing show—business as usual for the Experience, really—made Hendrix an overnight sensation in the United States and transformed him into a truly international superstar.
6. Derek and the Dominos’ First (and Only) Television Appearance - Nov. 5, 1970
Derek and the Dominos made their first and only television appearance during the group’s 1970 U.S. tour, when they taped an episode of ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show on Nov. 5 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. (the program aired on Jan. 6, 1971). After a gracious introduction by Cash, Eric Clapton, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, drummer Jim Gordon and bassist Carl Radle turned in four songs—“It’s Too Late”, “Got to Get Better in a Little While”, “Matchbox” (with Cash and special guest Carl Perkins, the song’s author) and “Blues Power”, with Clapton playing his first Stratocaster—“Brownie”—which he’d bought three years earlier in London.
Clapton had released his debut solo album earlier that year, and Derek and the Dominos debut album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was released the very month the band appeared on Cash’s show. Derek and the Dominos were not destined to last much longer—the group dissolved awkwardly in spring 1971 without completing its second album—but The Johnny Cash Show appearance is a unique look at a remarkable band playing loosely and confidently, and a great look at an equally gracious Clapton forgoing all the rock-star commotion of the ’60s in favor of a more earnest and relaxed ensemble effort.
7. Ritchie Blackmore Writes 'Smoke on the Water' - Dec. 4, 1971
This is the date on which the entire Montreux Casino entertainment complex in Montreux, Switzerland, was destroyed by fire after someone fired a flare gun into the rattan ceiling during a concert there by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. It just so happened that the Mothers weren’t the only rock band in town that night.
U.K. proto-metal godfathers Deep Purple were also in Montreux, to record a new album, and they watched from their hotel nearby as the blaze consumed the buildings and thick black smoke drifted over Lake Geneva. Inspired by the dramatic event, the members of Deep Purple composed a new song based on a simple riff by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. They didn’t expect the 1972 Machine Head track (and 1973 single) “Smoke on the Water” to be it hit, but it was. And they didn’t expect Blackmore’s martial chord phrase to become the most enduringly imitated Stratocaster riff ever, but that’s exactly what happened.
8. Stevie Ray Vaughan Wows David Bowie in Switzerland - July 17, 1982
Speaking of Switzerland, when Stevie Ray Vaughan and his two-man backing group, Double Trouble, played the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival at the rebuilt Montreux Casino in Switzerland, they were a largely unknown act. The only reason they were there in the first place was because famed producer Jerry Wexler had caught the group earlier that year at the Continental Club in Vaughan’s hometown, Austin, Texas, and was suitably impressed to recommend the 28-year-old musician to the prestigious festival’s organizers. Vaughan’s appearance marked the first time an unsigned act was booked for the festival in its then 15-year history. Unfortunately, Vaughan’s scalding electric Texas blues fell on unappreciative ears—he and Double Trouble found themselves performing on the festival’s acoustic night, and while they knocked out some of those in attendance, they were also met with very audible boos from audience members clearly expecting something much softer.
Fortunately though, David Bowie was there and was knocked out by the set. The famed U.K. art rocker was just about to reinvent himself once again by recording a “comeback” album after his late-’70s experimental period, and he immediately hit upon the unusual idea of incorporating Vaughan’s dynamic blues into modern dance pop. The resulting album, 1983’s Let’s Dance, vaulted Bowie to a new level of superstardom, and also introduced the world to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Vaughan’s 1982 Montreux appearance also resulted in another fortunate introduction—while playing in the casino’s after-hours bar on the night after his festival performance, Vaughan met the equally impressed Jackson Browne, who offered Vaughan the free use of his private recording studio in Los Angeles for three days. Vaughan declined Bowie’s invitation to tour behind Let’s Dance; instead going to L.A. and taking Browne up on his offer. The result was Vaughan’s 1983 debut album, Texas Flood, which established him as a star in his own right. And when Vaughan and Double Trouble returned to Montreux in July 1985—headlining this time—nobody booed.
9. Kurt Cobain Destroys his 'Vandalism' Stratocaster Onstage - Oct. 31, 1991
Smashing Stratocasters is certainly nothing new in rock history—Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend were routinely reducing them to splinters in 1967, the year Kurt Cobain was born. Cobain was no stranger to smashing guitars, either. He’d been doing so since at least Oct. 30, 1988, well before Nirvana was famous, when he trashed his Univox Hi-Flier during a dorm party at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. But there was something extra anarchic about the way Cobain dispatched several of his Stratocasters during the ostensibly subversive heyday of grunge in the early 1990s, and his “Vandalism” Strat was a good example. An all-black Stratocaster with a rosewood fingerboard and humbucking bridge pickup, it acquired its nickname from the large sticker Cobain plastered across the body, which read “Vandalism: As beautiful as a rock in a cop’s face” and “Courtesy of the Feederz: Office of Anti-Public relations” (the Feederz were an Arizona punk band of the 1980s).
The guitar had already taken quite a beating from him in 1991, especially at the Reading Festival in England that August. That gig, however, occurred a month before the release of debut-album juggernaut Nevermind, whereas Nirvana’s infamous Oct. 31, 1991, hometown performance at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle took place a month after the album’s release. The craziness surrounding Nirvana in the wake of the album’s release was already snowballing faster than anyone anticipated, and footage of the Halloween 1991 Paramount concert shows a band on the verge of a level of success for which no one could possibly be prepared. At the end of the 20-song performance, during “Endless, Nameless,” the guitar falls prey to a cacophonous frenzy of onstage destruction by Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic that leaves it lying onstage in pieces. This was not the Hendrix and Townshend theatricality of generations earlier. Nor was it punk. This was Seattle grunge, and it was going to be a wild, chaotic and occasionally violent ride.
10. U2 360° Concert - Oct. 25, 2009
By all accounts, U2’s sold-out concert at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Oct. 25, 2009 was something of a high point for the band. The pinnacle (and penultimate date) of the hugely successful 360° Tour in support of the release of No Line On the Horizon earlier that year, the live crowd topped out at 97,000 and the concert was live—streamed by YouTube to an additional 10 million viewers spread across seven continents, making it both the highest grossing U.S. performance by a single headliner and one of the five largest concerts ever.
Dwarfed under the menacing stage setup known as “The Claw”—one of the largest stage constructions ever built—Bono eases gently into a subdued, abridged version of gospel standard “Amazing Grace” before the Edge's iconic, delay-drenched guitar intro-played on a black Strat with a maple neck (a la the official Edge Strat)-brings to life the group’s 1987 Joshua Tree hit “Where the Streets Have No Name”.
11. David Gilmour Reappears Atop The Wall - May 12, 2011
When Pink Floyd launched the tour for platinum-selling concept album The Wall in February 1980 in Los Angeles, it was the most complex and ambitious rock production ever staged at the time, with only 31 performances in four cities in 1980 and 1981. A highlight of the show came during “Comfortably Numb” when a spotlight above the darkened stage suddenly revealed guitarist David Gilmour standing atop the 35-foot-high, 230-foot-long Wall, singing his part and playing the song’s two magnificent solos on his beloved “Black Strat” (Gilmour was actually standing rather precariously on one of the elevating platforms just behind the Wall that crewmembers used to build the enormous three-story cardboard structure during the first half of the show). The classic Pink Floyd lineup soon dissolved in notorious acrimony between bassist Roger Waters and the other members; Gilmour reconvened the band without Waters in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the classic lineup briefly assembled in summer 2005 for a highly anticipated Live 8 performance in London.
Imagine the audience’s delighted surprise, then, during Waters’ May 12, 2011, performance of The Wall at London’s O2 Arena, when—for the first time in 31 years—Gilmour once again appeared atop the Wall with Black Strat in hand to play “Comfortably Numb”. Gilmour’s surprise guest appearance was the result of an unusual deal he struck with Waters: When the two reunited to play a small June 10, 2010, benefit for a foundation helping Palestinian refugees, Gilmour cheekily insisted on augmenting Floyd classics “Wish You Were Here", “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” and “Comfortably Numb” with a cover of 1958 Teddy Bears pop classic “To Know Him is to Love Him”. Waters demurred on the grounds that it would be embarrassingly far outside his vocal range, but Gilmour countered with an offer the bassist couldn’t refuse, saying that if Waters would go ahead and perform the song with him anyway, he would in turn play on “Comfortably Numb” at one of Waters’ performances of The Wall. As Waters later wrote, “You could have knocked me down with a feather … I was blown away … How could I refuse such an offer? I couldn’t—there was no way.” Gilmour made good on the promise a year later at the O2 Arena, in a spine-tingling appearance that elicited thunderous applause.