Nile Rodgers, Bonnie Raitt and John Squire on the Fender Stratocaster

Estimated read time 11 min read

‘I found the cheapest Strat in all the shops,” says Nile Rodgers, speaking to me from Miami Beach, the very place he went trawling for what would later be regarded as the world’s greatest electric guitar. “I traded in my Gibson Barney Kessel. The guy behind the counter gave me the Strat – and $300 back. It was the real runt of the litter.”

In a nod to the model played by his hero Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969, Rodgers stripped the guitar and painted it Olympic white. He then locked himself in his bathroom for three days – “woodshedding” he calls it – until he’d mastered “chucking”, a dazzling new technique that blended offbeat strumming with the muting of fretted notes. It’s a style made for the Strat’s rich percussive qualities and slick feel.

Armed with this new instrument, a 1960 model with a 1959 neck, Rodgers set about reinventing music. His unique sound became the gyrating backbone of disco – he knocked out hits for Diana Ross, Sister Sledge and his own band, Chic. Other acts soon came calling, from David Bowie to Grace Jones, Madonna, Duran Duran and Daft Punk. Rodgers’ Strat can be heard on records that have sold hundreds of millions of copies, earning the “runt of the litter” not one but two nicknames: the “hitmaker” and the “$2bn guitar”.

“It’s what people ask for when they ask for me,” he says. “And I swear, I always go in to a recording session thinking, ‘That’s not what they want.’ Then I see them looking disappointed. ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask. ‘This is cool – these chords are great!’ They say, ‘Can you play the Nile Rodgers Stratocaster thing?’ So I get my Strat and do my thing. And they always look so happy. That guitar changed my life 1,000%.”

Bonnie Raitt with her StratocasterView image in fullscreen

Celebrating its 70th birthday this spring, the Strat – or Fender Stratocaster – may now be the most recognisable musical instrument of all time. It is almost certainly the bestselling guitar, loved by legions of riffing stars. “The Strat is as sturdy and strong as a mule,” Keith Richards once said, “yet it has the elegance of a racehorse. It’s got everything you need, and that’s rare to find in anything.”

Bonnie Raitt got her first one in 1969, buying it on the street at 3am after a gig. She has played it at every one of her shows since, and it was pivotal to her 13 Grammy wins. “There’s just a tone that doesn’t happen with other guitars,” she says. “It’s all about that middle pickup – you just can’t beat it.”

Leo Fender.View image in fullscreen

Radio repair man turned inventor Leo Fender could not possibly have known what he was starting when he began designing the Strat in the early 1950s. Perhaps because he wasn’t a guitarist, he approached the design differently, with an eye on not just manufacture but also repairability. Hence the bolt-on, rather than glued-in, neck. He had hit the mark a few years earlier with the Broadcaster, later renamed the Telecaster due to a legal wrangle with rival manufacturer Gretsch. He also designed the Fender Precision bass. Both were instant successes, popular with western swing bands, but the Telecaster was and remains a slab-like, utilitarian workhorse – two pickups, no nonsense. And as much as musicians loved its sound, they often complained that its square edges dug into their ribs and banged their hip bones.

The Strat, with its neatly nipped navel and two-horned cutaways, is probably what first comes to mind when anyone hears the words “electric guitar”. Millions of players have learned on a Strat – whether made by Fender, its budget Squier imprint, or one of the numerous companies producing copies. Many others dream of owning a top-of-the-range model from the Fender custom shop, costing a five-figure sum. Then there are the secondhand Strats with one previous famous owner. The black 1969 model that Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour played on The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall went under the hammer for almost $4m, in aid of a climate change charity.

So what does a Strat sound like? Anything you want. You can get a taste of its range on all these tracks: Misirlou, Apache, Nowhere Man, Little Wing, Smoke on the Water, Comfortably Numb, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Last Nite, and I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.

Blues maestro Joe Bonamassa has one of the world’s largest guitar collections, including many museum-grade vintage Strats as well as the Howard Reed, the first black Strat. “Talk about Leo Fender getting it right the first time!” he says of the man whose small California company changed the world. “Very little has changed between 1954 and now,” he adds. “It’s essentially been the same guitar for 70 years.”

Indeed, there have been only a handful of alterations. In 1956, alder replaced ash for the body, while rosewood fretboards arrived in 1959. Tone knobs have changed shape, lacquer has been improved, wiring has been tinkered with and necks have morphed. But a Strat has always been a Strat.

Joe Bonamassa performing with his 1955 Stratocaster, ‘Bonnie’.View image in fullscreen

“Fender are in a weird business,” says Bonamassa, whose favourite is his 1955 “Sunburst” Strat, nicknamed Bonnie. “Imagine being the CEO of Ford and your core business is making a car that looks the same as the one you made in the 1950s. And your customers don’t want improvements like satnav or electric engines. Guitar companies are selling nostalgia – but also something that’s timeless so it stays relevant. If you have some creativity, ingenuity and a little chutzpah, you can rule the world with a Strat.”

Justin Norvell has given these strange requirements a great deal of thought during his 28 years at Fender. As executive vice-president of products, he has the job of keeping the Strat relevant. “We have to encapsulate the past, present and future,” he says. “It’s who we are, from Hank Marvin to Mark Bowen from Idles. We have to work out how an instrument that’s oddly unchanged since 1954 moves forward.

“My favourite term for this is ‘colouring inside the lines’. The Strat exists – and there are things you can tinker with inside that. It’s what Leo Fender did and it’s what we continue to do. What’s fascinating is that it has never become a relic. That’s down to new bands coming along and blowing up the music scene with a 70-year-old design. The Strat is reinvented with each generation.”

Hank Marvin in the film of The Young Ones, 1961.View image in fullscreen

For all its instant recognisability today, the Strat that Fender first designed was basically a glorified Telecaster. But the arrival of designer and engineer Freddie Tavares changed that. He took inspiration from the two-horned Precision bass while adding innovative touches including the gamechanging tremolo bridge – incorrectly named since the pitch-shifting effect the short metal arm creates is actually vibrato. Three pickups and advanced switching offered greater tonal variation than almost any other guitar on the market, while curves, contours and chamfers were added in all the right places, meaning the Strat sits on the hip and clings to the body more like an item of clothing than a musical instrument.

The Stratocaster – named by Fender sales chief Don Randall – debuted at the National Association of Music Merchants trade show in January 1954 and appeared in shops that April. It was not an immediate success. Sales weren’t good, despite rock’n’roll taking off. As Tom Wheeler writes in his 2004 book The Stratocaster Chronicles, the instrument appeared to be “as far removed from conventional guitars as, say, a baritone ukulele or even a banjo”. He added: “Plenty of professional musicians saw the new Fender as unworthy of serious consideration. Merely a tool, a gimmicky contraption – even a joke.”

Things were worse in the UK, where it wasn’t even possible to get one. Due to a British embargo, Strats didn’t officially arrive until the early 1960s – although the first model somehow arrived in 1959. This was a fiesta-red model that Cliff Richard gave to Hank Marvin, the guitarist of his band the Shadows. Marvin instantly became Britain’s first guitar hero – and a lot of future stars were watching.

“My first guitar had to be red because of Hank Marvin,” says Dire Straits co-founder Mark Knopfler, who used to pass a guitar shop on his way home from school. He recalls pressing his nose to the window to get a closer look at a red Strat. He would eventually own one, famously playing it on Dire Straits’ 1978 breakout hit Sultans of Swing.

The Strat’s popularity grew throughout the 1960s. The tipping point came when Hendrix arrived, possibly the most influential guitarist of all time and rarely seen playing anything but a Strat. “One of the fascinating nuances about Jimi,” says his sister Janie, “was that his guitars weren’t just instruments to him, but extensions of him, part of his persona.”

Squire also rocking out on his StratocasterView image in fullscreen

When the Stone Roses were recording their eponymous debut album in 1988, the producer John Leckie was unimpressed with the thin sound coming from John Squire’s Gretsch Country Gentleman, so rented him a Strat. “I ended up buying it,” says Squire. “It was a battered pink one – and it was a great guitar.”

Squire says he’s not a collector, although, while he’ss speaking to me by phone from his home, there are four Strats around him. His favourite is a candy apple red that can be seen in the video for Just Another Rainbow, the recent single from his collaboration with Liam Gallagher. This 2012 masterbuilt 57 reissue is “all over” their new album: Squire says if could get away with it, it would be the only guitar he’d play. “They’re like a Swiss Army Knife,” he says. “They can do everything. There’s a sound in there that reminds me of Hendrix’s less ferocious moments. I think of them like a pair of brogues – something that just doesn’t need any more refinement.”

Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro was given his first Strat by a bandmate’s dad. “I recorded our first three records on that Stratocaster,” he says. “It’s the most expressive guitar I’ve ever played. There’s a reason I’m still playing it now. I don’t think I could write music in the way I do without the Stratocaster.”

Mac DeMarco, meanwhile, says he was initially intimidated by artists such as Hendrix, Clapton and Jeff Beck, given their association with the Strat. “Those guitar gods!” he says. “I felt like I had to carve my own path. Jeff Beck was the boss of this guitar. You couldn’t compete. But, at a certain point, after trying other things and not getting on with them, I caved and bought a 1970s Strat. Hands down the nicest instrument I’ve ever owned. Then I realised that so many people have played Strats that it actually makes them blank slates. It’s like a Toyota – they’re just so reliable. It’s the only thing you need.”

Rodgers in a pink suit, smiling, with a beat-up old StratocasterView image in fullscreen

Leo Fender sold his company to media giant CBS in 1965. While collectors covet pre-takeover instruments, citing a drop in quality under CBS, the company increased sales by 30% in its first year, and 45% the year after, taking the electric guitar to dizzying new heights. After a steady decline in sales in the 1970s and 80s, though, CBS sold the firm to a group of investors, including employees in 1985. These days, Fender is largely owned by Servco Pacific. As a private company, it doesn’t release sales figures, but Norvell nods when I suggest there could be millions, possibly tens of millions, of Strats in existence. It was also reported that the pandemic years saw Fender’s best ever sales, suggesting there is still plenty of appetite for this 70-year-old classic.

And all this from the mind of Leo Fender, a man who apparently couldn’t even tune a guitar, and who used to say that if he had $100 to make something, he would “spend $99 making it work and $1 making it pretty”.

Mission accomplished.


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