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'Like Something From Outer Space' – 70 Years of the Fender Stratocaster, the Guitar That Changed the World

From Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan to the Arctic Monkeys, Nile Rodgers to Idles, the Strat has soundtracked more iconic moments than any other instrument.

jimi hendrix
Source: mega

The Fender Stratocaster has shaped 70 years of popular music.

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In the spring of 1954, something happened that was to change music forever. Its impact would be more profound than Elvis’s Sun Studio recordings that same year, or even the BeatlesEd Sullivan appearance a decade later… and it continues to influence and define what we listen to and create today.

In a small guitar factory in Fullerton, California, a man named Leo Fender unveiled his latest design. He called it the Stratocaster… and it arguably changed the world. From Buddy Holly to Alex Turner and via artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Nile Rodgers, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore, Hank Marvin, Billie Joe Armstrong, George Harrison and Mark Knopfler, the history of the Stratocaster has, to all intents and purposes, been the history of popular music.

And the really revolutionary thing is that when it came out, it didn’t even look like guitars were supposed to. The Stratocaster was the first Fender to feature three pickups, and also the first to feature a curved, contoured body, with double cutaways to allow players easier access to the higher fret positions on the neck.

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“If you ask someone to draw an electric guitar today, they’ll draw something that looks very much like a Stratocaster,” says Justin Norvell, Fender’s Executive Vice President. “But in the ‘50s that was not what an electric guitar looked like. The French curves, the use of car colors that were bright instead of the natural woods that previous jazz guitars used… it was revolutionary. Leo Fender famously said if he had $100 to design something, he'd spend $99 making it work and one dollar making it pretty. That is like the best spent dollar ever.”

Fender is marking the 70th anniversary of the iconic guitar with a range of events, as well as releasing a new line of anniversary models, and a limited edition collection that they say “celebrates the rich heritage and legacy” of the instrument.

They also persuaded 10 of the Stratocaster’s most innovative artists, including Nile Rodgers, Tash Sultana, Tom Morello and Jimmie Vaughan, to come together to record a searing new version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” – check out the video below.

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When the Stratocaster was first unveiled in the spring of 1954, however, it was not an immediate hit. By the company’s own admission, “maybe a few hundred” were sold in its first year of production… but as rock ‘n’ roll exploded, so did electric guitars. And in 1957, when a hot new combo calling themselves the Crickets appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, performing “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue”, everything changed. The band’s frontman, a 21-year-old named Buddy Holly, played a sunburst Stratocaster – and suddenly it was the only guitar in town.

Unfortunately for British bands, the post-war ban on U.S. imports meant that getting a Stratocaster was impossible until 1959 – but once the embargo was lifted, one of the very first British artists to own one was Hank Marvin, of Cliff Richard’s backing band, the Shadows.

“We’d seen Buddy Holly with one on the Crickets album cover, and it was pretty cool,” he later said. "It was like something from space, really, it was so futuristic in its design. The three pickups, the white scratchplate, the red guitar, the beautiful birdseye maple neck and all the gold plating, it just looked sensational.”

buddy holly
Source: Getty Images / Fender

Buddy Holly's guitar was as iconic as the singer himself.

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The Stratocaster not only looked sensational: the sound that Buddy Holly got from it – clean, jangly, somehow louder than had been heard before – was every bit as exciting.

“It started as a guitar that was built for being played clean,” says Norvell. “There was no thought of distortion, there was no thought of what guitar solos would become. There was definitely no idea about the guitar smashings and the feedback solos of Hendrix that would come. But then musicians, as experimentalists, were able to try different things and this was just a very responsive guitar that was able to go in those new directions and do those new things whilst still sounding good.

“It had a bit of a brighter attack, it was a little bit more urgent, vital, like the sound of the youth. In that moment, at its inception, rock and roll was coming around and there was this generation of people looking for something new and they wanted to have something they could make their own kind of music with. Music was changing and bands could get louder… and it kept pace with that. Its ability to go from timely to timeless is the really incredible thing.”

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In 1964, ten years after its inception, it was with a Stratocaster that Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival; three years after that Hendrix took a can of lighter fluid to his Strat onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival, telling the crowd, “I’m gonna sacrifice something right here that I really love”. Two years later he threw another Strat into a squealing, feedback soaked take on “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.

“One of the fascinating nuances about Jimi was that his guitars weren’t just instruments to him, but extensions of him… part of his persona,” says step-sister Janie Hendrix. “He communicated a different vibe through each guitar and that’s what made him select certain instruments for certain songs. It was about the mood and feelings he wanted to evoke. When he picked up his Stratocaster, strap yourself in, because he’s going to take you on a wild, free ride. If you listen to songs from Are You Experienced you feel the electricity of his Strat that he played in live performances, bringing that unmistakable surge created by Jimi through that extension of himself. It’s a thrilling thing to see and hear.”

hendrix burns guitar
Source: © Iconic Images | The Ed Caraeff Archive

Hendrix burns his Strat at the Monterey Pop Festival.

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After Buddy, Bob and Jimi came a host of now-legendary guitarists for whom the Stratocaster was the essential guitar. Ritchie Blackmore wrote the riff for “Smoke on the Water” on a Strat, Pink Floyd used the guitar on Dark Side of the Moon, and Nile Rodgers all-but-invented the classic disco sound on his vintage white model.

“I got my Stratocaster in 1973 when I realized that it was what my sound was missing, and once I did it changed my life 1000 percent,” Rodgers says. “I have been able to write the jazz influenced dance-disco funk pop songs that people have loved for decades as well as rock, country, folk and EDM collaborations thanks to my Strat.”

If early adopters sought the guitar for the way it looked, the subsequent dizzying range of styles employed by those guitarists meant that the Stratocaster took on a new appeal.

nile rodgers
Source: Alysse Gafkjen

Nile Rodgers credits his Stratocaster for finding his disco-defining sound.

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“So you’ve got ‘Smoke on the Water’ and you’ve got ‘Lost inMusic’,” says Norvell now. “It's like, they couldn't be further apart!

“It’s the design, sure, but it’s also the music that was created on it and the list of artists is incredible: from Hank Marvin, Mark Knopfler, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, The Strokes, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Arctic Monkeys, Hendrix, NirvanaKurt Cobain’s known for his Jaguar and Mustang, but he played a Strat almost as much, if not more, than anything else.

“You've got all of these songs and players that culturally were at the forefront of different movements and the Strat always finds itself right at the center of it.

“There's this individualistic nature to a Stratocaster where you have all these guitar heroes but they don't sound like each other, they sound like themselves. There’s a real sense that it’s a vessel and a channel for someone's creativity.”

alex turner
Source: WENN/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Alex Turner sparked a huge demand in white Strats after the Arctic Monkeys' first LP was released.

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But at the end of the day, every past, present, or future guitar hero was once a kid gazing at their own heroes and thinking: ‘Damn, they look cool’. And right now there’s someone looking at a band on YouTube and feeling exactly how Hank Marvin felt looking at his Buddy Holly LP.

“When that first Arctic Monkeys album came out we literally could not make enough white Strats,” says Norvell, “It was just insane. Everyone suddenly wanted a white Strat. And now you’ve got artists like Mark Bowen from Idles, Michael Kiwanuka… somebody’s going to create the next big thing, write the next ‘Teen Spirit’ – and the chances are they’re going to do it on a Stratocaster.”


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