Classic Gear: The 1956 Fender Stratocaster

There has been no more influential nor more widely imitated electric guitar ever made than the Fender Stratocaster.
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There has been no more influential nor more widely imitated electric guitar ever made than the Fender Stratocaster. Released in 1954, when rock and roll was at the forefront of a post-War cultural revolution and a curvaceous solidbody electric guitar seemed about as radical a work of design-art as could be imagined, the Stratocaster has survived astoundingly well. Indeed, this screwed-together creation in ash and maple remains all the guitar that many players will ever need. And clearly its timeless appeal comes down to the extent to which Leo Fender and company got it all so very right from the start—even if the new model nearly fell at the first hurdle.

Around late 1952 or early ’53, with the Telecaster having solidified its place in the market, the need to add a new solidbody to the lineup was more than apparent. Although likely driven by the head of Fender Sales, Don Randall, the development of the Stratocaster was a team effort. Leo Fender was known for probing local musicians on the veracity of his designs, and many features—the need for a more comfortable body among them—were clearly put forward by Western Swing artists like Bill Carson and Rex Galleon. These and others likely suggested the need for greater sonic diversity, although the selling points provided by having three pickups and a vibrato tailpiece would have been supported by Randall as well. And while many essential elements seem to already have been in place by the time SoCal lap-steel session ace Freddie Tavares was hired on in for product development, he is generally credited with having penned the Strat’s sexy, space-age body lines. Finally, Randall himself, a licensed aircraft pilot, gave the new guitar its lofty name.

Fender initially hoped to have the Stratocaster ready for the summer ’53 NAMM show, but the new model initially stumbled due to a faulty vibrato design. Having been rushed along by Randall, design boffins Fender and Tavares were really only part way through devising an acceptable bridge for the guitar, and the first examples off the line proved extremely thin sounding and lacking in sustain. Going back to the drawing board, the pair concocted the now-ubiquitous steel trem block (aka inertia block) to make up for the mass lost by the semi-floating, spring-loaded design, and it was all-systems-go for a Stratocaster launch in 1954. When it finally hit the scene, the Fender Stratocaster was utterly groundbreaking, and in numerous ways. Among its most notable features were:

• The more comfortable body shape with contours for the player’s forearm and ribcage

• A built-in vibrato unit (aka Synchronized Tremolo, in Fender-speak) that outdid Bigsby for range and stability

• A broader tonal palette, thanks to the three pickups

• A superbly ergonomic control layout, with “pull-out safe” jack plate

• And, arguably it’s most eye-catching feature: a superbly stylish, modernistic new body shape

The Stratocaster’s unprecedented versatility clearly has a lot to do with its abiding popularity. With its 25.5" scale length, clarity-enhancing tonewoods, and tightly voiced pickups, it has a firm, piano-like low end with plenty of trebly sparkle—all leading to a balanced voice that cuts beautifully through any mix. As used on this template, these low-output single-coil pickups are particularly dynamic, offering compelling twang and jangle in the bridge position and one of the throatiest, most emotive tones in popular music in the neck setting, with outstanding variation in between. Add the pitchbend antics of an extremely usable vibrato unit, along with the almost otherworldly way in which a Strat hits a fuzzbox or an overdriven tube amp, and you’ve got an outrageously expressive musical tool!

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

• Solid ash body with ribcage and forearm contours

• One-piece maple neck, attached to body with wood screws

• Three narrow single-coil pickups All-in-one “Synchronized Tremolo” vibrato unit

• Two-tone sunburst finish

• 3-way switch, master volume, tone controls for neck and middle pickups

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