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The History Of The Stratocaster

Strangely enough for a company synonymous with electric guitars, Fender's reason for being owes much to the elimination of feedback. Before Leo Fender, a onetime account accountant and radio repairman, took up musical instrument manufacturing near the end of World War II, many players had tried to amplify the guitar. The problem was that no one was able to make feedback the servant, rather than the master. Leo fixed the problem, then rode two waves: postwar prosperity and guitar popularity. Add to the mix novel designs, close with perfect timing. The end result was a guitar, the Stratocaster, that redefined music as we know it.

Leo was successful before the Strat, as the Telecaster is the older sibling. (Extra trivia points if you know the Tele's original name... the Broadcaster. Nice edit, Leo.) But whereas the Tele has never gone far beyond an extremely large and loyal niche audience, the Strat ruled the world. Why? Simply put, the Tele let the Strat be better. Since Fender wasn't looking to pay the bills right away with his new baby, he was able to experiment with design elements without a stringent deadline. And once that moment of freedom had sunk in, he wound up creating a guitar that seems eternally modern and streamlined. There is just something timeless about a Strat.

Like most 50s designs, there is something about them; an excitement, a technology that could never be obsolete. From a more practical standpoint, the deep cutaway body gave improved balance, better access to the high frets, and less weight. But all of that could be put to one side for this simple point: the Strat made the guitar player, for lack of a better word, sexy. Hendrix made it clear to all, but the tools were already in place. Since the Strat was lighter, it allowed for more showmanship. Since the high frets were accessible, emotive playing was welcomed, rather than restrained. And since the entire guitar hugged the body without overwhelming it, the guitar *always* made the player look great. The next time someone gives you an extra look on stage, thank Leo.

Getting back to the sound the advanced built-in vibrato gave the player shimmering and sustaining sound (ah, the sustain). The headstock let the strings pull straight over the but, cutting down on returning. Leo even made each bridge adjustable for length and height, then tested a number of pickup coils and pole pieces. Once the Strat got into the hands of the public, musicians soon began to find unintended uses for it. By carefully positioning the switch between settings, the signals from both pickups mixed, kicking out a snarling nasality. Imagine a muted trombone hooked up to a power generator, and you get the picture: pure unbridled won't-you-turn-that-thing-down mayhem. No wonder Strats caught on as well as they did.

The first Strats shipped in 1954, a product purely for rebellious teens. While the guitar sold well at first, it didn't dominate the market until later. One of the first to put it to use was Dick Dale, who pioneered surf music on Strats in the early 60s. But it was a couple of unruly Brits with bad hair. Lennon and Harrison, otherwise known as John & George to make the guitar mainstream, and a budding pyromaniac named Hendrix to make it dominant.

The biggest threat that Fender has ever faced came from, well, Fender. Leo and original partner Don Randall sold the company to CBS in the mid-60s, and the conglomerate eventually did what no one else could: make the Strat less powerful. As time went buy, new players bought Fender while experienced players turned to vintage Strats for the eternal brilliance of its design, combined with the understated remarkable versatility. After all, if the guitar is easy and fun to play, and produces a wonderful clean tone, why not use it for everything and just work out effects later?

By 1985, the Strat had been copied, stripped, doctored, and otherwise abused. It needed an overhaul, and the sale of the company away from CBS provided it. (Who bought it? Investors and employees and the latter probably has more to do with the renaissance than any other factor.) First, Fender improved production from its foreign plants, giving a much-needed shot in the arm to the low end of its line. Eventually, this lead to the company building its own factory in Corona, CA, and another in Ensenada, Mexico for the lower-priced models. Then, the luthiers got the green light to give the player more choices in new guitars, rather than making the pursuit of the perfect tone entirely dependent on the player. In five short years, the company rolled out dozens of new and different Strats, and gave the very well-to-do a chance to build their own with the Fender Custom Shop. (Previously, the company had done custom work only for the rich and famous, on a one-to-one basis... and you can even order your own custom amp now, too.) Everything had changed, and yet nothing had, really: the tone said more than any words could.

Since the rebirth, Fender has maintained its hold on the hearts, minds, and fingers of guitarists everywhere with relentless quality, as well as some of the highest research and development commitments in the industry. It also doesn't hurt the companies success has allowed it to buy out Sunn, Trace Eliot and Guild, joining the house brands of Squier and DeArmond. At every turn, Fender acquired more expertise. Fender became the world leader by defining the sounds we hear, meeting the needs of musicians, creating quality products, and backing them up with service and stability. This history and quality is why this site came to be.

 
 
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