Swing was one of the most popular musical genres in the West during the first half of the previous century. Swing bands were fighting a battle of sound, trying not to be drowned by the horn and drum sections. They were losing the battle and musicians were looking for an instrument that was small and loud enough to be prominent in the full band. This need gave birth to the solid body electric guitar.
George Beauchamp was an American inventor of musical instruments and a founder of National Stringed Instrument Corporation. He was inspired by Hawaiian music and the sound of the acoustic guitar, so he thought of ways how he could amplify it. In 1936 he made a hollow-body electric guitar, called the electro Spanish guitar, and his patent changed the music forever.
Electric guitar allowed the guitarists to be a more prominent band members (sound-wise, and later personality-wise), as they were able to express their skill and style more freely. They were empowered to create melodies and fill the sound, unlike earlier when they would just strum the rhythm.
The hollow body of the first design wasn’t quite the best, as it was prone to feedback. The design was bound to be evolved and in 1950 Leo Fender built the first solid body electric guitar. It had a single cutaway and two pickups, and instead of being constructed individually, it was mass produced. Fender called it Broadcaster but had to change it to Telecaster, because the first name was already in use by another company.
Telecaster was initially built for country music market, but swing musicians became quite interested too. Bill Carson was thrilled by the instrument, but also felt its flaws, so he requested from Fender a new design – with wider tonal range, a vibrato unit and more comfortable body. That was the seed for the emergence of legendary Stratocaster.
Stratocaster was made in 1954 and really fulfilled all the requests. Body was made more ergonomically and a tremolo arm was added, which was used to move the floating bridge underneath the strings, thus producing the vibrato effect. Prominent double cutaway allowed the guitarists to play notes at the very top of the range. Three single-coil pickups had plastic covers to eliminate feedback. Although this design was way ahead of its time, it didn’t have instant success.
First contact Strat had with a wider audience was when Buddy Holly released his album The Chirping Crickets in 1957, where he appeared with it on the cover. After that and few of Buddy’s appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, Stratocaster caught the eye of the public and became a must-have for every young guitar player.
Emergence of surf rock continued to popularize the guitar and the interest just kept spreading. Bob Dylan “changed the structure of folk music” when he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, playing a three song set on the Strat. Regardless of the success and good marketing, by the end of 1966 it had a decline in sales, after Fender had sold his company to CBS.
Stratocaster’s popularity rose again (and later skyrocketed) when Jimi Hendrix stepped on the scene. Jimi’s unique style of playing has shown Strat’s full capabilities and endurance. Hendrix called it “the best all-around guitar for the stuff we’re doing” and it’s no wonder. Stratocaster allowed freedom of expression and experimenting with tonal range and pedals, making his sound so versatile. And it has quite the endurance too – just ask Pete Townshend of the Who. Known for smashing his instruments, this musician came to find that Stratocasters are easier to repair and more hardwearing compared to his other guitars.
Jimi Hendrix started the new generation of guitar players, giving Stratocaster the immortality it deserves. It was, and still is a guitar of choice for big names like Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many others.
We can hear its sound from classical music to heavier subgenres of metal and everywhere in between. It paved the way for new music and genres to emerge, allowing the artists to express their individual style and to experiment with tone. It can be said without a doubt that Stratocaster has brought variety and raw power to music, changing it forever.