Sure, the purists will tell you that it’s the chops that matter, not the gear. Most times it’s easy to agree. Yet in the case of one particular Fender Stratocaster, there’s a strong argument that there are a select few instruments that transcend the skills of the player and possess a soul of their own.
Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa rose to prominence at around the same time. The two admired each other’s work and were connected by a Fender Stratocaster that was burned on stage by Hendrix and eventually found its way into the possession of Zappa. This piece of charred timber and molten metal links two of the 20th century’s most influential exponents of rock. Surprisingly, it lives on.
It ain’t just any old guitar. The Fender Stratocaster that was burned by Jimi Hendrix and given to Frank Zappa has a fascinating story… and it’s not over yet.
The Summer of Love
As anyone who survived the counterculture revolution will tell you, The Jimi Hendrix Experience live show was a pretty wild ride. He was known for all kinds of showboating – playing strings with his teeth and behind his back and smashing up stages, all the while treating audiences to an unprecedented display of virtuosity and attitude in rock guitar.
Though this generation was enjoying a cultural awakening, audiences surely wouldn’t have seen this power trio coming. The same could be said about the audiences of Frank Zappa. Though he approached music in a different way, his complex and bizarre take on psychedelic rock and jazz must’ve been mind-blowing on first look. It still is.
It only makes sense that these two iconoclastic forces would have taken an interest in each other’s music. During the “Summer of Love” 1967, the two rendezvoused in New York. They had both been conducting separate experiments with new innovations like the Wah pedal and Hendrix was known to see Zappa and the Mothers of Invention during their residency at The Garrick in Greenwich Village.
The two later performed together at the Underground Pop Festival in Florida, but it was another the festival in that state later that year that the mythology surrounding the burned Fender Stratocaster took root. Back in 1977, Zappa told Guitar Player magazine that, “Another one of my Strats is the one Hendrix burned at the Miami Pop Festival.”
But did the guitar actually come from this hallowed festival set? Well, there’s some conjecture around that as well. In March 1967, The Experience kicked off their first UK tour with a show at The Astoria in London and as a stunt to make a name for themselves, Hendrix lit his Fender Stratocaster on fire. The whole scene was pretty dramatic, according to the Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch, who witnessed the scene:
“Jimi leapt backwards and ran off stage followed by his group. The guitar was left burning dangerously near the closed curtains… An attendant rushed on stage with a fire extinguisher and put out the flames which were leaping ten feet in the air.”
Aside from the accounts from both of these “hot” shows, there is precious little evidence to prove where Zappa’s inherited Strat came from. Zappa believed it to be cremated in Miami, other theories suggest that it came from the fabled, fiery Astoria show.
The guitar found a home in the Zappa trophy room until he decided to breathe some life into it once again. Once he reassembled the guitar, this Stratocaster took on a very different form: supercharged for a new generation.
It was fitted with a mirrored pickguard made from polished steel and custom blend knobs with sweepable EQ knobs. The guitar was immortalised on Zappa’s 22nd album, Zoot Allures and the cover of the January 1977 edition of Guitar Player magazine.
The guitar went onto have a stellar career in its own right and was even played by virtuoso Steve Vai and Adrian Belew when they were in Zappa’s band. After another several deconstructions in Zappa’s touring career, Dweezil Zappa, son of frank and lauded guitarist found the Fender in pieces beneath a staircase.
The younger Zappa took the relic to Fender and master builder Jay Black restored it to its former glory, featuring a maple neck, traditional electronics and as a nod to Jimi Hendrix, a flipped headstock. When Dweezil officially inherited the guitar, however, he had a new neck installed and changed the electronics to suit the expansive sonic options of the Zappa style.
So, whatever the origin, it clearly isn’t your run of the mill Strat. The most popular electric guitar in the world flourishes in many forms, but it’s rare to discover a single instrument which has seen so much and shared between two players that embody two markedly different, yet equally groundbreaking approaches to rock ‘n’ roll.