The Guitar that Invented Rock n’ Roll

By BOB WIRE

As the automotive world has its Big Three—Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge—so does the guitar world. Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of brands and models of electrics played by musicians of every stripe, the three most popular guitars are the Gibson Les Paul, the Fender Telecaster, and the Harmony H-15 Bob Kat.

Just kidding. No one’s ever seen a Harmony H-15 Bob Kat. The third electric of the triumvirate is, of course, the venerable Fender Stratocaster, which is the most popular electric guitar in the history of the universe, and happens to be celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Hang on. This just in: it’s 2015. Okay, the Strat is celebrating its 61st birthday!

There are very few American products more than fifty years old whose design has been untouched since they day they were introduced. Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars come to mind. Ray-Ban Wayfarers. Levi’s 501s. The spoon. When a design is the perfect confluence of function and form, you don’t monkey with it. (I’m looking at you, cheap Mexican pot.)

The Strat is the very symbol of rock and roll. Stevie Ray, Jeff Beck, Clapton and Jimi are indelibly wedded to its iconic shape. Its importance to rock music can’t be overstated. The Strat is to rock and roll what the basketball is to basketball.

They’re a blast to play, and with their three single coil pickups and five-way selector switch, they have a pretty wide tonal range. As an all-around guitar, you can do a lot worse, and pay a lot more money. A U.S.-made Strat goes for about $1100 new, and the import version can be had as cheap as $400, depending on whether the country where it is built is in the third world or the second world.

Strat-Head (2)

Somehow the Louis XIV headstockendures.

The design has held up because it is sheer genius, cooked up by Leo Fender and three other people who actually played guitar. So many brilliant features. The double cutaway allows for easy access to the upper frets for Yngwie Malmsteen types who solo up in the dog-whistle register. There is a scooped contour on the back of the body to make room for the guitarist’s rib cage, or if he or she is a punk rocker, the kneecap. Some electrics, like the Gibson SG, can tend to be neck-heavy, but the Strat’s upper horn where the strap attaches provides perfect balance. It is also a bit lighter than its older brother, the Telecaster, and way lighter than the Les Paul, which weighs about the same as a manhole cover. This makes for easier acrobatic moves like playing behind your head or doing a complete guitar spin (see accompanying video for cautionary footage).

I don’t currently have a Strat in my arsenal, and I miss it. The style of music I play is more suited to the Telecaster or Gretsch, but it’s always nice to have a Strat around for a change of pace. I used to have a Les Paul too, but like most guitarists with a mortgage and kids who need braces, the collection expands and contracts. Like I always say, it’s better to have a daughter with straight teeth than to be able to play a convincing version of Dick Dale’s “Miserlou.”

One of the best features of the Stratocaster is the whammy bar. That’s the lever that moves the bridge up and down to change the pitch of the strings. Where the old-school, spring-operated Bigsby vibrato on the Gretsch can give chords a shimmery waver, the Strat’s five-spring floating bridge is a far wilder beast. Dive-bombs, nauseating pitch drops and slippery air-raid squeals can be coaxed from the ax. For examples, listen to the intro to Montrose’s “Bad Motor Scooter” or the end of Richie Blackmore’s solo in Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.” A well-set up Strat will hold its tune pretty well after such wang bar abuse, but a lot of players don’t like the instability. Well, those are probably people who pay their mortgage on time.

I’m a sucker for a pretty face, and a nice tobacco sunburst Strat with a rich rosewood fretboard can make me weak in the knees. It’s just so…rock and roll. The factory colors of the fifties actually employed automotive paints by DuPont, chosen for their toughness. That’s a good indication of the Strat’s durability. These things can take a punch (as you can see in the video).

This guitar was designed to be used by country artists in the burgeoning honky tonk realm, but it was quickly co-opted by guitarists catching the first wave of rock and roll. Buddy Holly never played anything else. Surf music may not have existed without it. If Jimi Hendrix had lit a Martin D-28 on fire at Monterey, he might be working as a Walmart greeter in Tacoma today instead of famous and dead. The Strat has made an indelible and continuing impact on popular (and crappy *cough* Smashing Pumpkins) music.

The six-on-a-side tuning pegs allowed for a very ornate headstock, which is a toned-down (yes, I’m serious) nod to the baroque monstrosity created by Paul Bigsby for his electrics of that era. But this is yet another ergonomic design triumph—the inline machine heads make tuning quicker and more straightforward than other, three-on-a-side guitars. This is especially important when you’re treating that wang bar like Ray Rice treats his wife, while trying to make your guitar sound like an ambulance in a train tunnel.

So happy birthday, Fender Stratocaster. I’m keeping a spot open in my studio for the arrival of the next specimen, whenever that might be.

If you want to see some of Missoula’s finest Strat stranglers in action, come down to the Badlander on Tuesday, January 27th. Mike Avery is hosting a celebration of the beloved guitar’s 60th anniversary, and you can witness a rare gathering of guitarists who have fallen under the spell of Leo Fender’s perfect invention. Music starts at 7:00.

Check it out–I’m playing a strat in this video.  The Trouble starts at about 2:45

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blogarchive.

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Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an openmind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.

 

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