More than six decades after its introduction, the Fender Stratocaster is still one of rock 'n' roll’s most iconic electric guitars. Here’s everything you need to know about the beloved Strat.
1. Leo Fender didn’t come up with the name.
By 1952, legendary instrument maker Leo Fender’s company had already developed the Telecaster guitar and the Precision bass (which was inspired by a mariachi band he once saw). Its next solid-body guitar was already a few years in the making when, in early 1953, Don Randall—Fender’s sales and marketing wizard—christened it the Stratocaster. Randall was a pilot and aviation fan, and it’s believed the name was a tribute to aircraft technology.
2. The Strat made huge advances in player comfort.
The Stratocaster, which debuted in 1954, looked and felt different from other guitars on the market. It featured a rounded edge where the guitar meets a player’s ribcage and a flatter, forearm-friendly contour to the guitar body. Country guitarist Rex Gallion reportedly inspired the former feature when he asked Leo Fender, “Why not get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?”
3. Fender firsts on the Strat included the pickup and bridge setups.
On top of these design improvements, the new model boasted several key new features that its predecessor, the Telecaster, lacked. The Stratocaster came with three pickups (the Telecaster had two) and featured a bridge with a pitch-changing, string-bending vibrato bar, a key selling point in an early print advertisement.
4. Buddy Holly boosted the Stratocaster’s profile in 1957—twice.
Early electric guitar rock 'n' rollers such as Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran preferred Gibson and Gretsch guitars, but Fender had a valuable advocate for the Stratocaster. Crickets leader Buddy Holly was a Fender electric man and one of the first rockers to play a Strat. He held one on the cover of 1957’s The ‘Chirping’ Crickets and played a Stratocaster when the band performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on December 1, 1957.
5. When CBS bought Fender, the Strat changed—and not for the better, in the eyes of certain collectors.
The 1965 sale of Fender to CBS was followed by alterations to the instruments’ pick guards, contouring, and finishing, presumably to facilitate mass production. (There was also a redesign of the headstock, which was made larger in order to fit a bigger Fender decal.) As a result, pre-1965 Strats are generally held in higher regard (and priced higher) by collectors and enthusiasts than those made during the CBS era, which lasted until 1985.
6. Bob Dylan was armed with a Stratocaster when he “went electric.”
On July 25, 1965, five days after releasing “Like a Rolling Stone,” a Stratocaster-strumming Bob Dylan showcased his new electrified sound and his new song at the Newport Folk Festival—to the vocal disapproval of the audience. Dylan’s Newport Strat was auctioned for $965,000 in 2013.
7. Jimi Hendrix upstaged everyone at 1967’s Monterey International Pop Music Festival by setting his "Strat" on fire.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a relatively unknown act in the United States in mid-1967. But the band’s profile rose after its June 18, 1967, performance as part of California’s star-studded Monterey Pop Festival. Toward the end of the group’s set, Hendrix squirted lighter fluid on his Strat, lit a match, and dropped it on the guitar, which he then smashed on the stage. Nearly 45 years later, the manager of Jimi Hendrix’s record company revealed that Hendrix had switched out his Strat for a cheaper guitar, setting that one on fire and putting it up for auction. Hendrix's undamaged Strat sold at auction for £237,000.
8. Hendrix’s Strat-tastic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a defining moment at 1969’s Woodstock Music & Art Fair.
When he closed the Woodstock festival in upstate New York on August 18, 1969, Hendrix used his Strat to put his own spin on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The musician played around with his guitar’s vibrato bar in order to create noises that highlighted certain lyrics (most notably during “And the rockets’ red glare”). The following month, a humble Hendrix discussed the artistic choice with TV’s Dick Cavett: “I thought it was beautiful.”
9. The Stratocaster that Eric Clapton used to record “Layla” was a second-hand purchase.
Eric Clapton found the sunburst-finish Stratocaster he nicknamed “Brownie” at a London shop in May 1967. Three years later, Clapton used this 1956 instrument to record the classic “Layla.” The guitar is shown on the back cover of the song’s album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos.
10. Clapton’s other famous Strat was a composite.
The Clapton guitar known as “Blackie,” which he used into the mid-1980s, was assembled from three Stratocasters. “He bought a bunch of Strats in 1970 … and [from those] he took a ’56 body, a ’57 neck and the pickups from a third guitar, and made Blackie,” Clapton guitar tech Lee Dickson told Vintage Guitar in 2004. “Blackie” was auctioned for $959,500 in 2004, with proceeds going to Clapton’s Crossroads Treatment Center in Antigua.
11. Fender’s Artist line of Stratocasters honors some of the best guitarists of all time.
12. Pete Townshend punctured his right hand onstage with his Stratocaster’s vibrato bar.
Maybe it was karma catching up with The Who’s Townshend for all the guitars he destroyed. Regardless, while windmilling his way through “Won’t Get Fooled Again” during an August 1989 gig, Townshend jammed his right hand into his Stratocaster’s vibrato bar, puncturing his finger webbing. (He promptly left the stage for treatment, leaving the band to play encores without him.)
13. Rolling Stone included the Fender Stratocaster in its "American Icons"-themed issue in May 2003.
The Strat, wrote senior editor David Fricke, is rock 'n' roll’s “ultimate guitar … a knockout package of the sex and futurism in the music itself.” Jeff Beck, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, and The Band’s Robbie Robertson were all quoted praising the instrument.
14. Not all Strats have been made in America.
Fender’s manufacturing headquarters are in Corona, Calif., but not all Strats come out of the Golden State. A Fender plant opened in Japan in the early 1980s, followed by a Mexican factory in 1990. Some Strats are crafted in China and Indonesia.
15. The sticker price for a brand-new American Vintage ’56 Stratocaster will set you back a cool $2299.99.
That’s one of the priciest Stratocasters included in Fender’s 2015 U.S. Pricelist. For wannabe Hendrixes on a budget, other Strats in the guide are listed as low as $499.