PHOTO: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images
The full story on the Strat's initial groundbreaking years.
By Jeff Owens
The Fender Stratocaster is the quintessential electric guitar—a worldwide archetype; the basic form that leaps to mind at the very mention of the phrase electric guitar even among those who don’t play. Maybe that’s because it was so well designed to start with that it has existed largely unchanged for 60 years now, allowing it to become an ingrained form in the minds of successive generations.
Ubiquitous and essential, the Stratocaster has transcended its original intended purpose as a tool (a stylish one, at that) to become such an archetype. It has risen above its everyday function to become a cultural symbol for creativity, individuality, artistry and more than a little exuberant rebelliousness. Been that way for quite a while now.
But it wasn’t always like that. The Stratocaster had to earn its place, and it happened neither easily nor overnight. It took quite a while, in fact, because if it’s true that the guitar was so well designed from the start that it has basically remained the same for six decades, it’s also true that it was so well designed that it was ahead of its time by at least a decade. Indeed, for about its first 10 years or so, the Stratocaster patiently bided its time while the world caught up with it.
Let’s go back to that original era and have a look at the early years of what would one day be the world’s greatest electric guitar.
Fender had made promising inroads into the stodgy old U.S. musical instrument industry by 1953. A scrappy little post-war West Coast upstart that was only seven years old and led by a taciturn self-taught electronics tinkerer, Fender had already introduced two revolutionary instruments—the Telecaster and Precision Bass guitars—plus a full line of well-regarded steel guitars and a small handful of loud, rugged and stylish amps that were the best available.
Fender was small in the early 1950s, but clearly going places, and it’s possible that Leo Fender turned his attention in earnest to a new electric guitar model to succeed the Telecaster and compete with more upscale competitors as early as 1951. Work on elements such as new pickups and a new bridge was certainly well under way by late 1952. Long-held conventions of design and method meant little if anything to Leo, which likely goes a long way in explaining the genesis of an instrument as extraordinary as the Stratocaster. Perhaps author Tom Wheeler put it best when, in his indispensable history The Stratocaster Chronicles, he asked:
"How was such an ultimately dominant product created by a newcomer to the business who seemed to have several strikes against him? Leo Fender wasn’t a serious musician, had little background (or interest) in the traditional crafts or lore of instrument building, and was even less interested in associating with the old-boy network of acquaintances who ran the major guitar companies and might have helped him get on his feet."
It’s not like Leo Fender was trying to be radical and revolutionary. A practical person, he just wanted to build a better guitar. He and his closest staff spent long hours developing and perfecting the new model, which quickly shaped up to be its own instrument rather than an improved version of the Telecaster.
Guitarist Rex Gallion, seen here in Leo Fender’s lab in early 1954 with a very early Stratocaster model, is often credited with suggesting the guitar’s comfortable contours.
The new guitar certainly owed several design elements to its predecessor, though, and as late as early 1953 its body shape closely resembled that of the Telecaster. In spring of that year, however, new arrival Freddy Tavares sketched out a new body shape that sleekly adapted Leo’s balanced two-horned shape for the Precision Bass. The new guitar thus combined features of Fender’s first two instruments of the 1950s, and in another important development in early 1953, Fender sales chief Don Randall came up with a name for it: the Stratocaster.
To compete with more high-end instruments from other manufacturers—particularly Gibson’s Les Paul, introduced in 1952 in response to what Randall once called the “plain Jane” Telecaster—the Stratocaster was a marked step up in design and innovation for Fender. It had not one or two but three pickups, with switching and controls that created great tonal versatility (although, curiously, the switching configuration allowed only three of several possible pickup combinations).
A triple-pickup configuration wasn’t the Stratocaster’s only first. The Telecaster sounded great but wasn’t especially comfortable to play because its squared-off body dug into the player’s body and picking-hand forearm. Guitarist Rex Gallion is often credited with suggesting that a solid-body guitar didn’t need squared-off edges since it didn’t have an internal sound chamber, and with asking Leo himself, “Why not get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?” The Stratocaster was consequently given rounded edges and deep body and forearm contours that made it remarkably comfortable and added to its sleekness.
The development of the Stratocaster also saw a notably elegant touch in Fender’s first use of a sunburst finish, which was included at Randall’s insistence to give the guitar a more high-end look. This consisted of two then-common paint colors—a brownish-black outer hue called dark Salem, which graduated to a golden inner hue called canary yellow. Sunburst finishes also conveyed the extra advantage of lessening the apparentness of mismatched wood grain in the ash bodies, which typically (but not always) consisted of two or more pieces glued together.
The Stratocaster’s greatest innovation, however, was its bridge. In response to player feedback on the Telecaster, Randall wanted the new guitar to have some kind of vibrato system, and Leo was eager to better the designs by his former business partner, Doc Kauffman, and by his contemporary, Paul Bigsby. The vibrato system had to offer solid tuning stability without compromising tone, sustain, player comfort and ease of use, and Leo immersed himself in the task with his customary focus.
And yet the initial design for the Stratocaster’s vibrato bridge was a pronounced failure. Author Richard Smith notes in Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World that Leo uncharacteristically “tooled up his factory to produce the system before fully testing it.” The system—curiously referred to by Fender using the misnomer tremolo—used a bridge with rollers for each string and a separate tailpiece. In this design, the strings actually moved over the bridge on the rollers. Leo and guitarist/advisor Bill Carson apparently thought prototype units sounded fine at the factory, but Leo’s right-hand man in the factory, George Fullerton, said they “sounded terrible.”
Even Carson subsequently noted that when he tried the instrument with the original vibrato system out at a gig, as noted in Smith’s book, it “sounded like an amplified banjo with no sustain.”
The first early ’50s Stratocaster prototype model with Leo Fender’s second—and vastly improved—vibrato bridge design.
Leo invested a great deal of time and money into trying to perfect the system well into 1953 before scrapping the entire design and starting over. In fact, the Stratocaster probably would’ve debuted that year had its original vibrato system not proved so problematic. Randall and his salesmen were chomping at the bit to get the new guitar out, and there was considerable pressure on Leo himself to devise a new Stratocaster vibrato system.
Inspired by a gram scale, he hurriedly completed an entirely new design in late 1953 in which the whole bridge assembly moved with the strings rather than having the strings move over rollers with the bridge remaining stationary. The strings loaded through a cavity routed into the back of the guitar; first through holes in a plastic cover plate, then through a solid steel “inertia block” fixed to the underside of the bridge plate that ensured sustain, then up through holes in the bridge plate and over individual string saddles that could each be adjusted for string height and length—another marked improvement over the three-saddle Telecaster and itself a notable design development. The rear of the bridge plate was unanchored and bent slightly upward; the front was fixed to the guitar body with six screws, one in front of each bridge saddle. The screw holes in the bridge plate were countersunk from both sides, creating a knife-like edge and a fulcrum pivot point on which the entire bridge could be rocked back and forth using an easily detachable “tremolo” arm, thus raising and lowering pitch. In the compartment routed into the back of the guitar, the whole assemble was anchored by springs (three at first but soon five) that attached to the inertia block at one end and an adjustable anchor plate screwed to the forward wall of the cavity at the other end. The tension of the springs on the back and the guitar strings on the top held the whole system “floating” in balance and enabled shimmering vibrato, uncompromised tone and, crucially, stable intonation.
In fact, the Stratocaster’s second vibrato system was so effectively “over designed” that it proved capable of far more than its designer intended or imagined. Leo and his staff envisioned a steel guitar-like sound with only very slight pitch changes, but his design actually enabled a pitch span of up to three half steps or more. Simply put, it was better than it needed to be, and within a decade or so players would be using it to create swooping, dive-bombing sounds never envisioned at Fender headquarters.
Other Stratocaster innovations included single-coil alnico 3 pickups with staggered-height pole pieces that effectively addressed the varying output of the heavy string gauges in use at the time, and a slanting output jack mounted on the face of the guitar rather than the side. The guitar’s distinctively shaped headstock—more fully curvaceous than that of the Telecaster and Precision Bass—was undoubtedly influenced by instruments built by Paul Bigsby and, like the Telecaster and Precision Bass before it, had all the tuners within easy reach on one side.
The Stratocaster’s electronics were mounted to the single-ply white plastic pickguard (anodized aluminum on some early models) rather than to the body, enabling an entire pickguard/pickups/controls assembly to be dropped in place and screwed on (using eight screws) and only requiring connection to the output jack. The three control knobs placed near the bridge were within easy reach of the strumming/picking hand—a master volume and two tone controls for the neck and middle pickups. There was no tone control for the bridge pickup, which Fender’s description of the guitar noted “does not require additional tone modification.”
All along as design refinements preceded throughout late 1953 and early 1954, Leo and his staff were ably abetted by several western swing guitarists in addition to Gallion and Carson who were happy to field-test Stratocaster prototypes in local nightclubs. Their input was invaluable, and while the Stratocaster was in one sense Leo’s baby through and through, it was in another sense the collaborative work of a remarkable group of designers and musicians.
Finally, the Stratocaster was introduced in spring 1954 as Fender’s new top-line guitar, in tremolo and non-tremolo versions. The first known ad for it appeared in that April’s issue of International Musician magazine, and a small pre-production run began that month. It was a sleekly beautiful instrument bursting with great features and producing full, clear and sparkling tones. The first full-scale production run began in October 1954, with the vibrato model priced at $249.50 and the non-vibrato model at $229.50.
With its introduction serendipitously preceding the rising popularity of a new musical and cultural phenomenon called rock ‘n’ roll by about a year, you’d think the Stratocaster would’ve quickly rocketed to stratospheric heights of acclaim and popularity. It didn’t.
The Stratocaster got off to a rather slow start. Three years after its 1954 introduction, as Tom Wheeler notes in his introduction to The Stratocaster Chronicles, it was still “not particularly well known,” and appeared to be “as far removed from conventional guitars as, say, a baritone ukulele or even a banjo.” In the context of the times, Wheeler continues, “Plenty of professional musicians saw the new Fender as unworthy of serious consideration—merely a tool, a gimmicky contraption, even a joke.”
Such was the uphill climb the Stratocaster faced on its introduction; indeed, its ascent was long and gradual rather than immediate and meteoric. Rock ‘n’ roll had been building steam since the late 1940s by the time it broke out into a national phenomenon in the mid 1950s, and during that initial period, with few exceptions, its main lead instruments were saxophone and piano rather than guitar. Those early rock ‘n’ roll musicians who did sling guitars most often played flat-top acoustics or big, hollow electrics by Gibson and Gretsch.
And so the Stratocaster bided its time during its first few years—a period during which the saxophone and the piano slowly ceded their lead roles to electric guitar, which could with rapidly increasing prevalence be heard louder and clearer than ever before. In the meantime, Fender put its new Stratocaster into the hands of the western swing and pop guitarists Leo intended it for—players such as Buddy Merrill (of Lawrence Welk’s band), Alvino Rey, Eddie Cletro, Charlie Aldrich, Al Myers, “Stash” Clements, Kenneth “Thumbs” Carllile, Charley Raye, and others.
Also during the Stratocaster’s first few years, Leo Fender and his staff continued working on it; revising and improving as they went. By 1957, the Stratocaster was basically perfected into the form that has remained largely unchanged ever since.
Fender switched to less-expensive and more easily workable alder instead of ash for Stratocaster bodies in mid 1956. Also, the original Stratocaster necks had a rounded “C”-shaped profile (also described as “D”- and “U”-shaped) that was changed to sharper “V” and “medium V” profiles from 1955 to 1957 before returning to rounded profiles as the decade closed. The two-color sunburst finish became a three-color sunburst finish in the first half of 1958 with the addition of an “in between” red hue. The brittle plastic originally used for Stratocaster pickguards, control knobs and pickup covers was replaced with a more durable plastic in 1955. Serial numbers, originally located on the back tremolo plate, were moved to the neck plate in early summer 1954. The round string holes in the back tremolo plate became oval-shaped in 1955. Pickup magnets were changed from alnico 3 to alnico 5 in late 1956, which is also when the headstock’s round string retainer was switched to the “butterfly” string tree with a “half-tunnel” guide for the B and high E strings.
The Stratocaster had found its way into several acclaimed and influential hands by the time many of these design changes were implemented. Three years after its introduction, many still hadn’t seen one, but that changed when a Texas rock ‘n’ roll trio called the Crickets appeared on 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, a bespectacled 21-year-old singer/guitarist named Charles Hardin “Buddy” Holly.
Others embraced the Stratocaster later in the decade, too. Ike Turner championed the Stratocaster early on with dramatically swooping tremolo use that prefigured Jimi Hendrix by a decade. Pee Wee Crayton, Ritchie Valens and Carl Perkins played Strats in the 1950s, as did Cliff Gallup’s successors in Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps, Johnny Meeks and Howard Reed.
Across the Atlantic, however, a post-World War II import trade ban on U.S. goods made getting a Fender instrument next to impossible for youthful British guitarists in the late 1950s. This was especially disappointing to young London guitarist Brian Rankin, who went by the stage name Hank Marvin and had just joined singer Cliff Richard’s band armed with a cheap Japanese electric guitar. Marvin had seen Buddy Holly holding a Stratocaster on the cover of 1957 album The “Chirping” Crickets, and he mistakenly thought it was the same model that James Burton played on Ricky Nelson records. Trade ban or not, Richard offered to get Marvin a Stratocaster, an opportunity the guitarist jumped at, and in early 1959 a brand-new Fiesta Red Stratocaster with gold hardware somehow arrived in London. It was purportedly the U.K.’s first-ever Stratocaster, and with it and the Shadows, Marvin went on to become Britain’s first full-fledged guitar hero.
Marvin’s Fiesta Red instrument illustrates another formative step in the history of the Stratocaster in the 1950s: the availability of custom colors. A sunburst finish was the norm right from the start in 1954, with a small handful of guitars made for specific artists in specific colors around that time—a gold one for Texas Playboys guitarist Eldon Shamblin; solid red models (later referred to as “Dakota red”) for Bill Carson and Pee Wee Crayton. George Fullerton created what is now referred to as the first “official” Fender custom color—the aforementioned Fiesta Red—circa 1957. Thereafter, a selection of custom colors became widely available for an extra charge. Depending on body wood and other variables, various preparations, color coats, clear coats, etc., were used. Fender’s 1958-1959 catalog was the first to show a full-color photo of a custom-color Stratocaster (red with gold hardware).
By the close of the 1950s, players were well aware of an unintentional peculiarity of the Stratocaster’s electronics: the two “in-between” switch positions. Indeed, many players discovered this delicately balanced tonal trick as soon as the Stratocaster was introduced. As intended, the three-way pickup selector switch delivered one pickup at a time rather than combinations of the pickups; that is, you could get the neck pickup by itself, the middle pickup by itself and the bridge pickup by itself. Players quickly found, however, that they could get two combinations of pickups—the neck and middle pickups together and the bridge and middle pickups together—by carefully balancing the switch in the two points between the three notched positions. Many acclaimed guitarists would come to prefer the Stratocaster’s unintentional “in between” tones.
Fender closed out the Stratocaster’s debut decade with a handful of notable developments for the guitar. Its brief reign at the top of Fender’s two-instrument professional guitar lineup ended in 1958 when a third pro model, the Jazzmaster, was introduced. Design changes implemented in 1959 were significant enough for models introduced later that year to be considered the “second incarnation” of the Stratocaster. Most notably, the one-piece neck-fingerboard was replaced by a two-piece construction consisting of a rosewood “slab” fingerboard (so nicknamed later on for its thickness and flat bottom) glued atop the maple neck. Since the now front-installed truss rod could now by set into a channel routed into the top of the neck and then covered by the glued-on fingerboard, this design rendered the “skunk stripe” on the back of the neck and the “teardrop” plug on the headstock unnecessary. These new rosewood-fingerboard models also replaced the black marker dots on the side of the neck with new off-white “clay” dots. In mid 1959, Stratocasters were given multi-ply celluloid pickguards with more screw holes (11) and a notable greenish tint (although some were given faux-tortoiseshell nitrocellulose pickguards). Other more minor changes took place (thinner aluminum shielding, thinner neck shape, a metal spacer added below the string tree, etc.); suffice to say that the Stratocaster was poised for a new decade with a new look.
At the dawn of the 1960s, elder brother the Telecaster was enjoying a new and hard-won sense of indispensability. Leo Fender had assumed that Telecaster players would replace their instruments with Stratocasters, but that turned out not to be so. And utterly unbeknownst to Fender, players had other plans entirely for the Jazzmaster. But who knew where the Stratocaster was destined to fit in? Who knew if it had any kind of future ahead of it, let alone a bright one? The answers to those questions were far from clear. As sleek and innovative as it was, the Stratocaster’s future was by no means guaranteed in late 1959.
Meanwhile, kids on both sides of the Atlantic were taking their first formative steps as a new generation of guitarists yet to come of age. Near the end of 1959 in the U.K., these included three 14-year-olds—Peter Townshend, Eric Clapton and Ritchie Blackmore; a 15-year-old named Jeff Beck and a 13-year old named David Gilmour.
In the United States in late 1959, a flamboyantly talented 23-year-old Louisiana guitarist named George “Buddy” Guy had just got his first record contract the year before, and 22-year-old Californian Richard Monsour, who went by the stage name Dick Dale, had just released his first two singles on the tiny Deltone label. Two small children in Dallas, 8-year-old Jimmie Vaughan and his 5-year-old brother Stephen Vaughan, or “Stevie,” were barely big enough to get their hands around a guitar neck.
And in Seattle, a kid named James Marshall Hendrix—“Jimmy” to family and friends—turned 17 that November. He’d just gotten his first guitar the year before, an acoustic that cost all of $5, and although he practiced constantly, he longed for an electric guitar. His father relented in mid 1959 and bought him a white Supro Ozark 1560S electric.
The Supro was no Stratocaster. But then again James would be no ordinary guitar player, and a new decade was about to start.