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The History of the Stratocaster: The 1960s
From surf to psychedelia, the sixties were the decade that changed everything.
By Jeff Owens
Toward the end of 1959, with the 1960s fast approaching, a bright future for both rock ‘n’ roll and the Fender Stratocaster seemed far from assured.
Both had arrived in the middle of the 1950s at roughly the same time—the Stratocaster in 1954 and rock ‘n’ roll in 1955. Neither happened overnight, as both had been in the works for at least a few years, and neither had anything whatsoever to do with the other.
That last thought might seem odd, but it’s true. Leo Fender and the small company bearing his name seemed oblivious to the increasingly popular musical form even after it broke big in 1955; the company aimed its sleek new Stratocaster guitar squarely at the western swing and dance band guitarists who were already playing Fender’s first and more starkly utilitarian model, the Telecaster. Fender’s assumption at the time was that its stable of cowboy-bedecked guitarists would turn in their Telecasters for the more expressive and comfortable new Stratocaster. That didn’t happen.
Mid-’50s rock ‘n’ roll, for its part, didn’t even feature the electric guitar as its main voice. That distinction belonged largely to the saxophone and the piano, and the guitars that supported them were typically flat-top acoustics or big hollow electrics such as those made by Gibson and Gretsch. The guitar was a secondary instrument in most original-era rock ‘n’ roll.
As the 1950s reached its midpoint, rock ‘n’ roll and the Stratocaster seemed wholly unaware of each other.
A few artists did embrace the Stratocaster in the latter half of the 1950s before rock ‘n’ roll itself nearly flamed out entirely. Buddy Holly was the most visible champion of Fender’s new guitar, but his career had barely started when he perished at age 22 in a February 1959 airplane crash along with another Strat-wielding chart-topper, 17-year-old Ritchie Valens. By then, rock’s front line had already been stopped in its tracks, with Little Richard leaving at the height of his fame in 1957 to found his own ministry and Elvis Presley inducted into the U.S. Army in 1958. By the end of 1959, Chuck Berry ran afoul of the law and Jerry Lee Lewis ran afoul of scandal; both largely vanished from view for a few years. Rock ‘n’ roll seemed finished almost as soon as it started.
And by the time most of this had happened, the Stratocaster’s brief reign as Fender’s top-line pro guitar—a two-instrument lineup consisting of itself and the Telecaster—ended with the 1958 introduction of the Jazzmaster guitar.
Yes, the end of the 1950s seemed a most uncertain time for rock ‘n’ roll and for the Stratocaster. Would either survive? A new decade was fast approaching. The 1960s.
Two saving graces appeared in the early 1960s that rescued rock ‘n’ roll from the schmaltzy teen pop that U.S. record labels used to fill the vacuum left by rock’s near-demise late in the previous decade. Motown and surf.
Motown, founded in 1959 in Detroit, infused the charts with a welcome dose of infectious and wonderfully crafted music destined for enduring appeal. Electric guitar was an ensemble instrument there and seldom took the forefront, carefully arranged amid piano, organ, horns, drums, bass, percussion, strings and more. Nonetheless, Fender instruments fared well at Motown right from the start, especially the Precision Bass.
Early 1960s surf music, however, was what really pushed electric guitars to the forefront of popular music in an as-yet unheard way. Surf music was a youthful Southern California phenomenon, and Fender was a youthful Southern California company that made well built and eminently affordable guitars right where and when the action was happening. With hindsight, it seems like it should’ve been no surprise that Fender guitars naturally became the surf guitars. In fact though, this did come as a surprise to Fender, and a happy one at that—the development boded especially well for the previously mis-targeted Jazzmaster and its somewhat struggling predecessor, the Stratocaster.
Surf music came in instrumental and vocal varieties. It was a small-group form, itself a phenomenon enabled by the rapidly increasing quality and audibility of electric guitars and amplifiers, an evolution that Fender did a great deal to hasten. Late-1950s artists such as Duane Eddy, Link Wray and the Ventures pioneered instrumental rock ‘n’ roll, and young guitarists in Southern California in the early 1960s developed a particular affinity for it and hot-rodded it with their own oceanic twist. One of the first was Richard Monsour, who went by the stage name Dick Dale and is almost singlehandedly credited with creating instrumental surf music. His instrument was a Stratocaster.
Dale played fast and loud, and unlike most surf musicians he actually did surf. He reportedly wanted to recreate the sounds he envisioned while riding the waves, and he developed a fast single-note picking technique that he combined with a penchant for Middle Eastern scales and melodies (Dale was of Lebanese descent). A frequent visitor to Fender, Dale helped the company’s designers create more powerful guitar amps, and his “wet” sound was drenched in the spring reverb that Fender built into its early-’60s amps. 1960 single “Let’s Go Trippin’” is widely credited as the first surf rock instrumental, and his 1962 rendition of 1927 Greek folk song “Misirlou” remains perhaps the most famous instrumental surf song. 1962 debut album Surfer’s Choice remains a classic of the genre to this day.
Dale’s prominence underlines the fact that while Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars are considered quintessential surf instruments, the Stratocaster was equally important to the genre, and few of the many surf bands that followed in Dale’s powerful wake were seen without one.
The same is true for vocal surf music. The genre’s biggest band, the Beach Boys, formed in Hawthorne, Calif., in 1961, and guitarist Al Jardine in particular often played a Stratocaster. The phenomenal success of the Beach Boys, in fact, was a major step in Fender’s rise from regional guitar and amp maker to nationwide and eventually worldwide recognition (the cover of 1964 live album Beach Boys Concert alone undoubtedly sold more than a few Stratocasters).
Across the Atlantic, the Shadows topped the U.K. charts for five weeks in 1960 with a Jerry Lordan-penned instrumental called “Apache,” on which Hank Marvin made great use of echo and the tremolo arm on his guitar, reportedly the first Stratocaster in Britain. On their own and backing up singer Cliff Richard, the Shadows racked up several Strat-fueled hits in the early 1960s, and more than a few British kids longed for a Fiesta Red Stratocaster just like Marvin’s.
Surf and instrumental music turned out to be a short-lived phenomenon at the top of the charts. Its wave crested quickly once the British Invasion struck in early 1964, but throughout its early-’60s heyday surf played a colorful and crucial role in ushering the Stratocaster into a new decade.
The design of the guitar continued to evolve during that period. The Stratocaster of 1960 was basically the same guitar as the Stratocaster of 1959, most readily distinguished from previous 1950s models by a rosewood “slab” fingerboard, multi-ply celluloid pickguard with more screw holes (11) and a notable greenish tint (although some had faux-tortoiseshell nitrocellulose pickguards), and a thicker neck profile than the thinned 1958-1959 version.
A few modifications were adopted in 1961. Because the red middle component of the Stratocaster’s three-color sunburst finish tended to fade with exposure to sunlight, Fender switched to a more durable red paint that had no such tendency, and the dark brown outer part of the finish was changed to black. Two patent numbers were added to the headstock logo decal, which previously had none, and the neck profile acquired a thicker “D” shape.
1962 saw the addition of a third patent number to the headstock decal, and Fender started rubber-stamping dates on the end of guitar necks rather than writing them in pencil. Most significantly that year, thinner “round-laminated” fingerboards that made for a more stable joint between neck and fingerboard replaced flat-bottom “slab” rosewood fingerboards. Changes introduced in 1963 included slightly less pronounced body contours, the abandonment of body dates, and moving the pickguard screw between the neck and middle pickups about half an inch closer to the middle pickup.
1964 was an important year in Stratocaster design evolution. Mid-year, the thin “spaghetti” headstock logo used since the guitar’s introduction was redesigned in a thicker script subsequently referred to as the “transition” logo. A fourth patent number was added to headstock, and the sunburst finish changed yet again—the yellow component was now sprayed in addition to being dyed, using a much less translucent yellow that made the transition from color to color less seamless and more pronounced (a finish soon referred to as having a “target” look).
Pearloid fingerboard dots replaced the previous “clay” dots in late 1964, with the smaller side dots becoming pearloid. The body contours—the forearm in particular—became even less pronounced, and three-ply white plastic pickguards replaced the previous “mint green” celluloid pickguards (although remaining stores of mint green Stratocaster pickguards were used throughout 1965). Other minor changes were adopted—gray-bottom pickups instead of black, tuners that read “Kluson” and “Deluxe” in parallel vertical lines rather than a single line, and a white plastic spacer below the string tree rather than a metal one.
When the British Invasion hit big in February 1964, Fender instruments were not a prominent part of its armaments. The post-war U.K. import ban on U.S. musical instruments had only recently been lifted, and Fender guitars, basses and amps were only then starting to reach England in significant numbers. Most British Invasion groups seemed to favor hollow-body instruments, as Fender guitars simply weren’t yet widely available to them at home.
So with surf music subsiding and the British Invasion ruling the charts in 1964-1965, the Stratocaster once again bided its time. Nonetheless, there were notable developments. Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison acquired a pair of Sonic Blue Stratocasters in time for the early-1965 recording of Help! Thus, a droning “A” note played by Lennon on “Ticket to Ride,” recorded Feb. 15, 1965, marks the first appearance of a Stratocaster on a Beatles song (Harrison most notably played a 12-string electric on the song but reportedly also contributed a second Stratocaster part as an overdub).
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 took the stage in an orange shirt and dark leather jacket, playing 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 Dylan’s move from acoustic troubadour to full-on electric rock star marked a major turning point in rock music. The guitar itself, a sunburst-finish Stratocaster with serial number 31324 and a May 2, 1964, date stamp on the neck, 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 a stratospheric $965,000.
By the time of the Beatles’ Help! sessions and Dylan’s Newport performance, Fender had been bought by CBS in a deal that took effect in January 1965. Almost immediately, the Stratocaster was given a neck plate stamped with a large stylized Fender “F.” In the words of one observer quoted in author Tom Wheeler’s The Stratocaster Chronicles, this small but rather ostentatious move by itself served as “an adequate symbol of the CBS invasion.” In December 1965, however, an even more significant and visible change was implemented—the Stratocaster’s headstock was slightly re-shaped and enlarged by five to ten percent. Why?
“The rationale was simple,” notes author Richard Smith in Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World. “The new design allowed a bigger decal.”
The larger headstock would characterize Stratocasters for the next 15 years, and is often referred to as the “’70s-style” headstock even though it was around for fully half of the 1960s. Other 1965 design changes included a fifth patent number added to headstock and the return of maple as a fingerboard option, although this was a glued-on fingerboard rather than the return of the one-piece maple neck/fingerboard of 1954-1959.
By that time, in addition to making inroads into rock and pop, the Stratocaster had also started to find a place among some of the most formidable and influential electric blues guitarists playing. Long before receiving the more widespread recognition he deserved from the late 1980s onward, Buddy Guy wowed listeners throughout the early and mid 1960s with his flamboyant Stratocaster virtuosity, and he exerted a powerful influence on an up-and-coming generation of British guitar royalty and U.S. blues revivalists. Ike Turner continued to put the Stratocaster to dynamically expressive use, as he had in the 1950s, and other electric blues giants such as Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Rush embraced it too.
For all these promising developments, though, the Stratocaster was still not a dominant electric guitar by the middle of the decade; it was still patiently biding its time. In 1967, however, the world finally caught up with the Stratocaster, largely because of a single artist.
It must have seemed like Jimi Hendrix came out of nowhere.
In New York nightclubs in 1966, an astonished few saw what was coming, but most of the world was taken by surprise, as were rock’s reigning guitar heroes at the middle of an already musically startling decade.
Hendrix didn’t come out of nowhere, of course. He’d turned in a lengthy and busy “apprenticeship” with acts including the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, King Curtis, Joey Dee and the Starlighters and others, relentlessly honing his fierce talent and a flamboyant stage presence that belied his thoughtfully soft-spoken demeanor offstage. Over the course of seemingly endless U.S. club circuit tours during the first half of the 1960s. James “Jimmy” Hendrix played for years in relative anonymity well before he moved to Greenwich Village, New York, in 1966. He got his first Stratocaster there that summer.
Still largely unknown in his U.S. homeland, Hendrix arrived in England in September 1966 and immediately exploded onto the vibrant London music scene thanks to the astute management of the man who’d “discovered” him in Greenwich Village, former Animals bassist Chas Chandler. Almost as soon as he stepped off the plane, Hendrix got a new band—the Experience—and started spelling his first name “Jimi.” He had a top ten U.K. single (“Hey Joe”) within four months, and while Hendrix was neither white nor British, England and its rock establishment embraced him immediately and most enthusiastically, spellbound by his virtuosic and flamboyant command over his Stratocaster.
The rest of the Hendrix story has been well documented a thousand times over—the torrent of music, the hit singles and imaginative albums, U.S. and worldwide success, the mesmerizing concert appearances, the Stratocasters smashed and set alight onstage before incredulous onlookers, Monterey, Woodstock and, finally, the tragic and untimely end. Hard to believe it all came from barely four years in the spotlight. It’s also hard to say more about him than has already been said many times over, but suffice to note that amid his towering musical accomplishments and enduring legacy, Hendrix’s near-constant use of a Stratocaster vaulted the instrument to previously untold heights of understanding and acceptance.
Through Hendrix, guitarists everywhere finally seemed to get it on a much larger scale than ever before—the Stratocaster was an instrument capable of extraordinary things. As quoted in author Tony Bacon’s 60 Years of Fender, longtime Fender salesman Dale Hyatt noted, “I think Jimi Hendrix caused more Stratocasters to be sold than all the Fender salesmen put together.”
It can’t be mere coincidence that around the time Hendrix broke big in England, other prominent U.K. guitarists were suddenly seen playing Stratocasters. The Who’s Pete Townshend, for example, was mainly known as a Rickenbacker player up until 1967, when he was often seen with Stratocasters (which were certainly much more easily and affordably repaired after being smashed). As noted on invaluable Who gear reference site www.thewho.net, a Stratocaster “could handle the stage abuse” and “Moreover, it was Jimi Hendrix’s guitar of choice.” The site also notes that by 1968, Townshend “had settled on the Stratocaster as the primary guitar.” A good example of Townshend’s Stratocaster use of that time is quintessential Who classic “I Can See For Miles,” recorded in October 1967; it remains the Who’s biggest-selling U.S. single and the only one to reach the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
Meanwhile, London’s other resident guitar deity, Eric Clapton, bought his first Stratocaster secondhand at London’s Sound City on May 7, 1967, a few days before Cream flew to New York to record second album Disraeli Gears. It was a 1956 Stratocaster with a two-color sunburst finish, a well-worn maple neck and fingerboard, and serial number 12073. It cost £150 (about $350 at the time), and it was the one he later nicknamed “Brownie.”
Clapton recalled that at the time, once-unavailable Stratocasters had fallen from fashion somewhat and were hence eminently affordable. “They were going for a song,” he said. “Nobody wanted (them) anymore. They were archaic.”
He used it only sporadically at first. However, while Clapton was an avowed Gibson player throughout Cream’s original 1966-1968 tenure, speculation exists that he recorded wah-laden Disraeli track “Tales of Brave Ulysses” with his Stratocaster. If true, it would be Clapton’s first use of Brownie on record. Also during this period, he was known to have performed the song live using the Stratocaster on at least one occasion. As noted in another indispensable Tony Bacon reference work, The Stratocaster Guitar Book:
Clapton certainly used his new Fender at least once on stage for that song: an observer at a Scottish gig in August 1967 wrote: “‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ was next on the agenda, Clapton swapping his weirdly painted Gibson SG Special for a conventional-colored Fender Strat to produce unbelievable backing sounds behind Jack Bruce’s vocal.”
Years later, Clapton attributed his eventual devotion to the Stratocaster to three formative influences, Buddy Holly, Buddy Guy and Steve Winwood, the last of which had acquired his first Stratocaster in 1966. But it’s hard to imagine that Clapton’s spring 1967 acquisition of his first Stratocaster had nothing to do with Hendrix’s arrival in England only months earlier.
Indeed, Hendrix had barely been in London a week when Chandler managed to actually get him onstage with Cream at an Oct. 1, 1966, gig at the Polytechnic of Central London. Strat in hand, Hendrix plugged into Jack Bruce’s bass amp and promptly launched into a light-speed rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” that quickly rendered England’s greatest blues-rock guitarist dumbfounded. As noted by the BBC, Hendrix’s jaw-dropping playing and onstage flamboyance “caused Clapton to leave the stage in a state of shock,” and to ask Chandler afterward, “Is he always that f—ing good?”
As for the Beatles, Lennon and especially Harrison continued using the Stratocasters they played in early 1965 on Help! Later that year, both guitarists used their Strats prominently on Rubber Soul (the ultra-trebly “Nowhere Man” being perhaps the best examples; both guitarists used their Stratocasters on the song), and again on Revolver (1966).
Harrison gave his Stratocaster a vibrant psychedelic paint job in spring 1967, just after sessions were completed for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The multicolored Strat, soon nicknamed “Rocky,” was soon seen most notably in black and white during the worldwide telecast of new single “All You Need is Love” on June 25, 1967, and in full color in the “I Am the Walrus” sequence of the late 1967 Magical Mystery Tour film.
As the Stratocaster finally reached more widespread acceptance late in the 1960s, Fender continued to modify it. Thicker polyester finish undercoats were adopted around 1967-1968, although color coats and topcoats remained nitrocellulose lacquer. A new thick black headstock logo decal replaced 1964’s “transition” logo decal in mid 1968 and for the first time went under the finish. Other 1968-1969 design changes included “F”-style tuners in place of the previous “Kluson-Deluxe” tuners, plastic wire covering rather than fabric and, most visibly, the return of a 1950s-style one-piece maple neck/fingerboard with a walnut skunk stripe on the back.
By the end of the 1960s, well more than a decade after its introduction, the Stratocaster had finally arrived. Much had changed over the decade just ended, and most dramatically at that. Music and music culture experienced a wild ride and a profound evolution, and rock music began in earnest the fascinating fragmentation into more and more subgenres that would continue for decades to come. A music no longer in its infancy now faced a 1970s adolescence, the character of which would be anybody’s guess as the clock ticked down the last few minutes of 1969.
Even though there was still a little more than four months remaining, it could be argued convincingly that the 1960s truly ended with the last fading notes of Hendrix’s Stratocaster at Woodstock in the morning hours of Monday, Aug. 18, 1969.
The Stratocaster started the 1960s with an uncertain future. As the decade unfolded, it bided its time during a seemingly glacial-paced shift away from hollow-body instruments. It waited patiently for guitarists to truly appreciate its virtues and to understand that this was an instrument that rewarded those who played it with an extraordinary experience; one that other guitars—even other Fender guitars—could not offer. It happened slowly, but it did happen.
The Stratocaster thus finished the 1960s with a very bright future. Several of the greatest guitarists of that decade would enter the next one with a new appreciation for Fender’s second electric guitar model (Hendrix, sadly, was not long among them), and a new generation of guitarists on both sides of the Atlantic would use it to define the new decade with its own electrifying, screaming, stinging, roaring and singing identity.
The 1970s were at hand. Sixteen years after the guitar’s introduction, the long heyday of the Stratocaster was about to begin.