IN PRAISE OF: The Fender Stratocaster

One of the most iconic and enduring designs of the 20th Century
One of the most iconic and enduring designs of the 20th Century

When it was launched in 1954, the Fender Stratocaster looked so far ahead of its time it could have fallen from a flying saucer.

That futuristic design was thanks in part to Western swing guitarist, Bill Carson. Frustrated by what he regarded as shortcomings on the earlier Telecaster, Bill pestered Leo Fender to improve the guitar with body contouring, more pickups and a vibrato unit.

Instead, Leo and his team went back to the drawing board. Like the Telecaster, Leo's new guitar had an ash body (alder was introduced in 1956) and a bolt-on maple neck. There the similarity ends.

The double cutaway body, lifted from the '51 Precision Bass, was contoured for comfort ("It fits better to your body like a well tailored shirt," said Carson) then loaded with three single-coil pickups and an innovative vibrato, albeit misnamed as a 'synchronized tremolo'.

The Strat not only looks the absolute balls, its instantly recognisable tone unites guitarists as diverse as Buddy Holly, soul legend Curtis Mayfield, Eric Clapton, Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora and Slipknot's Jim Root.

Yngwie Malmsteen wouldn't unleash the fury on anything less; Stevie Ray Vaughan called his battered '63 model 'Number One'. In Wayne's World, a white '64 Strat is Wayne Campbell's 'Excalibur'. "It will be mine. Oh, yes!"

The Strat is Jimi Hendrix mangling The Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969 and Mark Knopfler's '61 ringing out on Sultans Of Swing. Like the song says, 'an old guitar is all he can afford'.

It's Hank Marvin of The Shadows playing the first UK-imported Stratocaster on echo-drenched classics such as Wonderful Land (1961) and Jeff Beck's devastating whammy control on Where Were You (on 1989's Guitar Shop).

The Strat has been tweaked relentlessly over the years: a rosewood fingerboard in 1958; a big headstock in '66; a five-way switch in '77 (after players began jamming the three-way switch to 'in between positions'); locking vibratos and humbuckers, thanks to Eddie Van Halen's influence; and more recently, a nine-and-a-half-inch or even 12-inch fingerboard radius for easier string bending.

Pimping aside, whether it's an entry-level Squier or a top-of-the-line Custom Shop model, the DNA of all Strats can be traced back to Leo Fender's drawing board in Fullerton, California.

Fender Stratocaster timeline

1954: Leo Fender launches the Fender Stratocaster, it's a timeless classic

1966: The big headstock makes its debut

1977: The five-way pickup selector switch becomes standard

2011: Fender currently produces 59 different Stratocaster models