It never ceases to amaze me: how the hell did they even imagine this in 1954, let alone make it?
In his book The Stratocaster Chronicles, respected guitar author and historian, Tom Wheeler, goes deep into the many accounts of how the Strat first came to be: who was involved and what their input was in order to present – if not entirely reconcile – some differences of opinion and memory from those early days.
It was ultimately Leo’s baby, nobody disputes that, and in its debut year, featured a highly stylised, ‘Comfort Contoured’ ash body, partly in response to player feedback that the Telecaster’s body edges were ‘sharp’ and uncomfortable. There were no CNC machines back then – if there were, Mr Fender would surely have used them – so the bodies were cut on a bandsaw, then shaped and sanded by hand. Ash was reportedly a little harder to work than alder, with a more open grain structure that also required more pore filler before finishing, two reasons the Strat later switched to mostly alder bodies during 1956.
Holding this one now, it’s hard to imagine that the solidbody guitar was still such a new phenomenon back then, widely referred to as the ‘Electric Spanish guitar’, in fact. It’s so curvy. Earlier Strats are known in general – and I stress ‘in general’ – to have slightly deeper, more rounded contours than later guitars. This one flaunts its 60-year-old shapeliness more elegantly than it has any right to, even if its thinned, worn nitrocellulose-lacquer coat has seen better days. It’s got to that wonderful point where it feels at one with the wood – and were it not for the prevalence of good vintage replicas these days, it would probably feel a little bit alien. You can feel more wood than finish; you can hear more music than guitar.
This neck came as a bit of a surprise. You might expect something fairly chunky, maybe even a V (not introduced until 1955, as I later discovered). It’s not one of the very thick, rounded profiles of ’54 folklore, but something that I’d happily pick up and play every day of the week. It feels remarkably like some of the modern-day Fender Heavy Relic necks, which is a testament to the Custom Shop’s attention to detail, perhaps more so to the original design’s enduring brilliance: it worked then, it still works now.
This one has had a refret at some point, making it all the more pleasurable to play; a little extra height on the frets makes choking less of an issue on the vintage-style, curvy maple playing surface (one piece with the neck, remember). You’d scarcely know this was a 60-year-old guitar, and that is perhaps the standout observation.