If you asked a toddler to draw an electric guitar, the shape would resemble that of the Fender Stratocaster. If it’s so synonymous with most people’s idea of the electric guitar, with so many examples alive and well in the world, that it must be easy to find the perfect one for you, right?
Well, being such a famous guitar has its drawbacks – like any celebrity, it has a huge number of haters as well as lovers. The design, largely unchanged for decades must be getting something right though, as evidenced by the players of a multitude of styles who have favoured the Strat. Therefore, let the stars guide you in the search for your best Stratocaster.
With so many options available, finding the Fender Stratocaster that will provide you with endless inspiration can be a challenge. Here are some iconic examples to light the way.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Era
The first Stratocaster rolled out of the Fender factory in 1954. Spurred on by the development of the rock ‘n’ roll craze that was sweeping the world, Fender realised there was an opportunity to capitalise on the need for robust and reliable solid-body guitar with looks to die for.
One of the first famous exponents of the new-fangled piece of technology was Buddy Holly. He bought a Sunburst Strat with an ash body and maple neck in 1955 and never looked back. In an age when effects pedals were a twinkle in the eye, Holly manipulated the pickup switch and tone knob to create his signature sounds: a big tick for the versatility inherent in the controls of the guitar.
Hank Marvin of The Shadows was another key early adopter. And though the heavy-gauge strings that he favoured restricted his ability to bend strings, his ’59 model was fitted with a floating tremolo system, perfect for his booming clean tone leads, with Spaghetti-Western inspired vibrato tails.
This early era of the Stratocaster – before the company’s takeover by CBS in 1965 – produced very high-quality instruments. As such, guitars of this vintage can fetch insanely high prices. The relics of the Fender Custom Shop make the models from this epoch at least a little more accessible. They’re newly made with strict adherence to the specifications of the time.
Feelin’ the Blues
Blues music is the ultimate vehicle for guitar – repetitive song structures, ample room for soloing and the use of pentatonic scales that are just made for the fretboard. With the Stratocaster being the most popular of electric guitars and capable of pulling a wide range of tones, it was only natural that this ax would be adopted by classic blues slingers.
Interestingly, two of the pivotal blues Strats straddled both sides of the infamous CBS takeover. Eric Clapton‘s “Blackie” was actually an amalgam of a few different late ’50s models, which demonstrates that the guitar is also quite easy to modify – so don’t be afraid to customise your own perfect model.
Jimi Hendrix‘s immortal Olympic White Strat that he played at Woodstock was made in 1968. By this stage, the Stratocaster had grown its headstock, but not much had changed under the hood since the guitar’s advent in the early ’50s. Of course, what set Hendrix apart was how he played the damn thing, not the minutiae of specs, or lapses in quality control at the Fender factory. His style – more so than the guitar itself – is the true mark of the Strat’s capability.
Another Strat from this so-called dark period in the history of the company was David Gilmour‘s “Black Strat.” Gilmour’s guitar recently sold at auction for a world record price of $3.975 million USD. Of course, the lucky owners of this piece of rock history aren’t likely to take it to the pub to play a gig, but it goes to show that while wasn’t of the most salubrious vintage, this ’69 Strat could make a quite a good sound. The models from this era can still fetch a pretty penny, but not quite as much as those from a decade earlier.
Play it Loud
Beyond the guitar gods of the vintage blues and rock era, the Stratocaster also found a home in glam-rock and hair-metal, adopted by certified shredders of all types. Eddie Van Halen, for example, was a fan of the famous guitar, but the traditional stylings of yesteryear weren’t going to cut it for him.
His “Frankenstrat” consisted of Gibson PAF pickup, a stack of paraffin wax crammed into the pickup cavities to reduce microphonic feedback, topped off with a hell of a lot of paint and masking tape.
Swedish neo-classical shredder Yngwie Malmsteen is another exponent of the Stratocaster. On first glance, his preferred setup seems more conservative than that of Van Halen’s, but on further inspection, it reveals something altogether more unusual – a scalloped fretboard. The concave carvings between each of the frets allows him to slide effortlessly all over the fretboard with blinding speed. So it turns out the humble Strat can be supercharged!
Into the Future
The Stratocaster, more so than most, has an eye toward its glorious legacy. And why wouldn’t it? Immortalised by some of the most iconic players in history, the past glories of this guitar are worth celebrating. Fender has, however, sought ways to ensure that this model maintains relevance.
With the Parallel Universe series, for example, the iconic silhouette has taken on the traits of the Telecaster and Jaguar, alternative pickup configurations like humbuckers and true-to-the-period Nocaster pickups are fitted to new Strats, metalheads can indulge their dive-bomb fetishes with Floyd-Rose tremolo systems and more.
All these variations on the Strat speak to the guitar’s versatility – it can function as a blank canvas that you indelibly mark with your personality. Paradoxically, it also says something about its individualism – despite its ability to take on several forms, this particular guitar is always recognisable.
So whether you’ve got your heart set on a vintage model, or you’re keen to push the boundaries of what an electric guitar can be, the Fender Stratocaster that’s right for you exists somewhere in this world.