The Fender Stratocaster is one of the most famous guitars in the world and one that is instantly recognizable, when you think of guitars, you think of Stratocasters. For over 60 years, this model has been barely unchanged from it's classic design, let's take a deeper look into this model.
Ubiquitous and essential, the Stratocaster has transcended its original intended purpose as a tool (a stylish one, at that) to become 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.
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, 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 that world famous model.
A scrappy little post-war West Coast upstart that was only seven years old and led by a taciturn self-taught electronics tinkerer, named Leo Fender, they 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 some of the best available at the time.
Now, to the Stratocaster; 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 (An idea Leo had been working on as early as 1951, according to George Fullerton), 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. Now, in 1954, the Fender Stratocaster was officially released.
A number of Stratocaster prototypes were built in 1954 with widely varying specs. Full production officially began in October when the final design was nailed down. In addition to a new highly contoured body shape, Fender launched the Strat with an innovative tremolo system and "two-tone" sunburst finish. The earliest era Strats used a wide D-shaped neck profile and a heavier Ash body.
From 1954 to 1958 some key changes had occurred. As of mid-'56, Alder was the main body wood used, though rarer blonde Strats still used Ash. Components such as the string trees, tremolo system, and knobs continued to evolve, while the neck profile changed to more of a V-shape.
In 1958, the sunburst finish switched from "two-tone" to "three-tone" with striking red hues added along with the black and yellow. The other major change was a shift from a thicker V-shaped neck profile to a thinner D profile that would evolve as the year went on.
About halfway through 1959, Fender introduced a "slab" rosewood fingerboard on most of its models (this lasted until 1962 when a thinner "veneer" style fretboard was introduced). 1959 also marked the shift from a single-ply white pickguard to a three-ply white-black-white celluloid nitrate pickguard. Over time, the composition of these pickguards lends a greenish tint which varies depending on exposure to light.
Fender was purchased by CBS at the close of 1964 which marks the end of the classic or "Pre-CBS" era of Fender quality. In some cases, the CBS-era drift towards more mass production techniques already started to appear in late 1964 including a new headstock logo and a switch from clay to pearloid inlay dots.
For Fender aficionados, 1964, 1965 and 1966 are considered the "transition era" and 1965 stands as the biggest turning point for Fender and Stratocaster production. Key indicators for Stratocasters of this period are a larger headstock compared to previous years as well as a script 'F' on the neck plate. In 1965, Fender also brought back the Maple fingerboard as an option.
The headstock shape and Fender logos changed throughout the CBS-era. The tuning machines changed from Kluson Deluxe to F-style in 1968.
Throughout the late '60s, Fender quality under CBS continued to decline. As early as 1968, Fender began using a thicker polyurethane finish instead of the traditional nitrocellulose. Starting in 1969, Fender offered a single-piece Maple neck with the original "skunk stripe" as opposed to the glued-on Maple fretboard."
Quality continued to decline in the '70s, and characteristic elements from this era include a three-bolt neck plate and a "bullet" truss rod adjustment system which were both introduced in 1971. Additionally, the overall contouring of the body shape gets less and less dramatic as time goes on.
Changes in the '70s included a 3-bolt neckplate and new 'bullet' style truss rod adjustment system at the top of the neck.
The Strat stayed largely the same in the late '70s though a black pickguard was introduced and eventually made standard on most finishes. In 1977, Fender started to include a five-way pickup selector which players had been implementing on their own for years by modifying the factory three-way selector. All throughout the 60's & 70's players like Clapton and Knopfler had already been putting their Strats "out of phase" by putting their pickup selector in between positions.
Like the CBS-transition of 1965, the early '80s brought a shift in management to Fender that directly impacted the guitars coming off the line. Fender marketing direct Dan Smith spear-headed an effort to bring the Strat back to historic standards with a smaller headstock and 4-bolt neck plate in the style of a pre-CBS era. This guitar also included a modern X-1 pickup in the bridge position.
At the end of the resurgent "Dan Smith" era, Fender introduced a new Stratocaster with only two control knobs and a input jack mounted on the top of the body for 1983 and 1984. This cost-cutting model was referred to as the "Standard Stratocaster" (not to be confused with the later Made in Mexico Strat of the same name). After this, the Stratocaster received some "spin-offs" like the Plus Stratocaster in the 90's, but the design never changed. They all followed suit to the previous styles and mainly focused on recreating those 50's, 60's and sometimes even 70's looks and tones, sometimes providing modern touches and playability.