A lot of people don’t actually realise that they know what a strat looks like, but everyone has seen them dozens of times. Everyone knows who Buddy Holly was, and has seen him with his strat, and the same with the shadows and their trademark guitars, sound, and lets be frank, silly dance (not as silly as Herman’s Hermits dance though, and if you don’t believe me check them out on YouTube).
The list of strat players is endless and includes Hendrix, Lennon, Knopfler, and Clapton – who has a custom guitar released for him, the ‘Eric Clapton Stratocaster’. There are loads more on the list, and they are not posing preening lead singers who like the look of a Strat slung round their shoulder, these are serious guitarists.
Not only does it look good with it’s sleek neck it really is more than a guitar, for some people it’s rock and roll on a stick. As the years have by there is nothing really close to stealing its crown as king of guitars. It was first released in 1954, at a cost of $250 which in those days was a hell of a lot of money, especially for a guitar, a far stretch from the cheap copies that you can pick up today at certain department stores.
The tremolo arm is minimalist if you compare it with a Gretsch, and it was the first truly modern guitar, which is probably part of the lure of its design, what with rock’n’roll being about rebellion and all that – Rollover Beethoven! The pick ups were also more compact adding to the sleekness of the look – it was a real departure from most guitars of the day. Although its predecessor the Telecaster was not overly chunky, the strat is bit more fine lined.
Despite applying for patents on the design, the Fender Strat was soon to become emulated by other manufacturers once they realised that this was the way forward for electric guitar design. The distinctive sun burst finish was one element that was a design trademark, but that was copied too. It grew in popularity towards the end of the fifties as a few of the big names started using it, Buddy Holly for example was massive, and if he was playing a Strat, then it at least had to be tried by every guitar player of the day.
Fender was taken over in 1965 by CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), which was almost a disaster for the strat. At the time America was adopting what is now referred to as the ‘Fordist’ manufacturing and production model, which meant cutting of costs, by separating the production process into a series of broken down tasks undertaken by different people – in short, the modern production line.
The result of the takeover and the change in production methods (and economising on parts), mean that the Strat, and all other Fenders were seen in a different light by musicians – it had lost its ‘made to measure’ image, and was now seen as a bit of an ‘off the rack’ guitar. Today the pre CBS period is seen as the heyday in Fender guitar production, and as a result, the vintage guitars are much sought after, and as you would expect, a bit pricey. Mind you, although pricey, they are fast matching artworks in the rate at which their value goes up.
During the sixties, sales fell drastically, which forced the prices down, and almost ended up with the Stratocaster being taken out of production. The savior was probably Jimi Hendrix among others, who brought the strat new life, they took stardom to new god-like levels, and took their guitars with them. Since then, on a design level new colours were added and finishes, but nothing overly substantial.
The 70s saw some major design changes to the standard strats. The newer chunkier headstock was brought in, along with the much disliked 3 screw neck plate. Serious musicians complained that the 3 screws didn’t bond the neck as firmly as the prior 4 screw design, and hence affected the quality of tone in the guitar. Despite this cost cutting exercise, 70s strats are becoming increasingly popular to collectors after vintage models, given the prohibitive prices of the earlier models.
Tthe eighties saw a return to the 4 screw neck plate, the launch of the budget ‘Squier’ range. The range was basically a budget Strat, which put it in the affordable range which meant that you didn’t have to have a rock star’s bankroll, or have to sell your car to get one. Initially, early Squiers were made in Japan, and have themselves become highly collectable thanks to their excellent build quality.
The future of the strat is pretty secure, as there is still nothing to really compete, the only potential problem would be from a lack of popularity of guitars in general and that, is very, very unlikely.