The Strat. It compliments rock like hot gravy on mash. Released in 1954, it was Leo Fender’s second guitar in the Fender stable. Don Randal, Fender’s marketing guru named the sharp new axe ‘the Stratocaster’, taking cues from his enthusiasm for aviation. The guitar has since become famous in the hands of multiple legendary players, many of who have made the guitar their own. Here are the stories behind eight famous Stratocasters.
The Stratocaster has defined the rock and roll landscape for decades, here’s eight famous Strats that really left their mark.
Buddy Holly’s 1955 Sunburst Stratocaster
First on the list, and first to popularise Stratocasters in rock music, is Buddy Holly. The Stratocaster had been designed with country in mind but with more versatility than its stablemate the Telecaster. Holly blew everyone out of the water when he began to use the Strat for rock ‘n’ roll.
It was 1955 when he bought his first Strat from Adair Music in Texas, borrowing a bit of money from his generous brother. It had an ash body, maple neck and sunburst finish, and along with his thick-rimmed glasses, crisp suits and lanky stance, he made dorky look cool for the first time ever. Holly’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan show cemented this image and introduced the Strat to the masses for the first time.
He was known to toggle through pickups and fiddle with his tone knob endlessly to create different dynamics. For Holly, the Strat offered all the flexibility he needed. His fingerpicking blended lead and rhythm styles, often using downstrokes in a style similar to sweep picking. His chugging rhythms and lead lines that would go on to inspire new generations of rock musicians.
Van Halen’s Frankenstrat
One of the stranger entries on this list, Van Halen’s noble steed is one to make Fender purists cringe. For the rest of us though, there’s definitely something cool about his custom paint job.
Van Halen liked the feel and playability of the Stratocaster, and don’t we all. The curved shape fits well against the body and is well balanced with the neck. The metal pioneer, however, wanted something with a thicker tone, without having to succumb to a thicker body (i.e. a Gibson).
So, he figured he would have the best of both worlds by taking a beefy Gibson PAF pickup from an ES-335 and wiring it into a Strat body he had picked up for $50 at a factory seconds outlet. He also potted the pickups with paraffin wax to reduce microphonic feedback. Layers of paint were added, with masking tape strips, giving the guitar the infamous Pollock-like streaky finish. Finally, he whacked a Gibson decal on the headstock to emphasise the cross-over. Talk about a home job.
Hank Marvin’s 1959 Fiesta Red Stratocaster
Hank Marvin’s fiesta red Strat. It’s basically what every 10 year old pictures when they beg their parents for their first guitar.
Another early adopter of the guitar, the Shadows’ lead guitarist settled on a Strat after seeing Buddy Holly wielding one on his Crickets album covers. He ordered the top of the range model and was immediately enamoured by its futuristic looks, as well as its tremolo system, a handy little addition that would go on to define the Shadows’ early releases.
His particular guitar also came with thick gauge strings (13-56). This limited Marvin’s ability to bend notes, however, the thicker strings produced a rich sound, and rather than changing them, Marvin accustomed himself to bending the tremolo arm during his licks, creating the infamous surfy, spaghetti western tones that he became famous for.
Eric Clapton’s ‘Blackie’ is one of the most famous Stratocasters in rock history, however, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. In his early career, Clapton played everything but a Strat. His Cream sound was defined by Gibson SGs, and in the late ’60s, he experimented with Jazzmasters, Les Pauls and Telecasters. But, by the turn of the decade, he decided it was time to give the Strat a go.
While in Nashville, Clapton visited a guitar shop called Sho-Bud, which had a number of 1950s Stratocasters all going cheap (can you imagine?), the earlier model looking outdated next to the shmick late ’60s and ’70s model with its fat, funky headstock. He stocked up, buying a number of them, giving some as gifts to the likes of Steve Winwood, George Harrison and Pete Townsend. He kept a few and decided to make his own from the best parts of three models; so good was the sound of the resulting guitar, dubbed ‘Blackie’, that he used it for just about every gig thereafter. Clapton described the process in an interview with Music Radar.
“I made Blackie out of a group of them. I took the pickups out of one, the scratchplate off another, the neck off another and I made my own guitar, like a hybrid guitar that had all the best bits from all these Strats.”
These days ’50s Strats go for monumental amounts of money, but Blackie took the cake back in 2004 when it sold for $959,500 at auction.
David Gilmour’s ‘Black Strat’
David Gilmour’s legendary black Stratocaster, simply named ‘The Black Strat’, joined the Pink Floyd family shortly after he did. Perhaps what makes the guitar so legendary is, in Gilmour’s constant pursuit of tone perfection, the way he regularly modified for years after its purchase.
Bought from the famous Manny’s guitar store in New York in 1970, the guitar has had just about every part – bar the body – swapped and changed. It can be seen in a relatively stock-state during the ’71 Live at Pompeii concert, however soon after he added a ’50s rosewood neck and drilled a hole in the side to fit an XLR input to eliminate noise from his Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face.
The guitar sported a Gibson humbucker for a short stint in 1973, and in 1974 the guitar scored its defining black scratch plate. A new maple neck soon followed. Perhaps the most intuitive modification of the Black Strat was the addition of a custom toggle switch which allowed Gilmour to select the neck and the bridge pickups, which a normal Strat wouldn’t allow. The guitar has featured on many legendary tracks over Pink Floyd’s career, such as Money, Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Comfortably Numb.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was a big ambassador for the Stratocaster. He played a number of different models in his career, but the most famous is his ‘Number One’. The guitar was given to him by the owner of Ray Henning’s Heart of Texas music shop in 1973, and was his main companion throughout his career, Vaughan sometimes referring to it as his ‘first wife’.
The guitar’s body was from a ’62 model and the neck was from a ’63, with a rosewood fingerboard. He reversed the tremolo for ease of access (inspired by Jimi Hendrix) and added his initials ‘SRV’ in white along the side. He was said to be frisky with his guitars, his Number One wearing many battle scars from its long years on the road. Coupled with an Ibanez Tubescreamer, the guitar produced the classic blues tones heard on all of his studio albums, singing licks on tracks such as the infamous Pride and Joy.
No Stratocaster list would be complete without a mention of Hendrix. Although he was associated with numerous Strats over his short-lived career, he is probably best known for the Olympic white model he played at Woodstock.
Hendrix purchased the 1968 model from Manny’s music in New York, the new axe becoming a favourite of his. He treated the guitar well compared to some of his other units, which ended up as kindling. The model had a maple neck, featuring the larger late ’60s headstock. A flipped nut accommodated Jimi’s upside down/back-to-front stringing method.
A seperate maple fretboard was another unique addition, which Fender offered for a short stint in the late 1960s. The guitar was used until his final live performance at the Isle of Fehmarn in September 1970, from which The Experience’s drummer Mitch Mitchell took ownership. In a statutory declaration for the guitar’s auction, Mitchell Stated:
“I said to him ‘I’ll have that guitar before you break it up’ (I do not think that he would, in fact, have broken this particular guitar). He said, as was his way “You got it” and he then gave me the guitar. In retrospect, I think it was by way of a gift as my daughter had just been born a few days previously.”
The white Strat was purchased in 1998 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for 2 million dollars, making it the second most expensive guitar ever sold.
Frank Zappa’s Rebuilt Hendrix Miami Pop Festival Strat
The wildcard on this list, Frank Zappa’s Stratocaster started life in the hands of Jimi Hendrix, who put on a particularly ‘heated’ show with it at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival. The two were close friends at the time, and Hendrix’s roadie kindly gave Zappa the burnt remains of the guitar body (the neck had been snapped) after the show.
Zappa kept his Stratocaster on his wall until the mid-’70s when he decided he needed to restore the sooty bit of memorabilia and give it a new life. The guitar was fitted with a mirror pickguard fashioned from thick polished steel, as well as custom blend knobs and sweepable EQ functions. Zappa used the shiny new Strat on his 1976 album Zoot Allure, and he was featured on the front cover of Guitar Player Magazine with his shiny new axe for their January 1977 issue.
The guitar went through numerous neck changes and other modifications during its life and was also used by Steve Vai for a time when he played in Frank Zappa’s band. The guitar was lost for a time before being found under a stairwell in pieces by Frank’s son Dweezil, who reconstructed it and continues to use it to this day.
Dweezil has refused numerous offers for the guitar, but has said may consider a sale for the right price…