One of the most iconic instruments of the last 70 years is the Fender Strat. Screaming solos by guitar gods on the Stratocaster defined the rock n’ roll sound of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
But what makes this one instrument so unique? What draws the virtuoso guitarists to the unmistakable shape and sound? And why is it called the Stratocaster?
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What is a Fender Strat?
Before the first electric guitar in 1936, guitars were rhythm instruments. By adding a pickup into an acoustic instrument, guitarists were suddenly able to solo and be heard over a band. Guitarists in jazz and rhythm and blues bands used the new electric guitars. But, for rock ‘n roll, artists needed something different.
Leo Fender designed and built the first solid-body guitar, the Fender Esquire, in 1948. The solid-body reduced the amount of feedback that electrified acoustic guitars dealt with.
The solid-body meant that guitarists could focus on the tone of the strings. Solid body guitars also used magnetized pickups to transmit sound to an amplifier (amp) that produced the sound.
The Birth of the Stratocaster
In 1954, Leo Fender and his team released the Fender Stratocaster. The horn-shaped body, called a double-cutaway, made it an instant icon. With three pickups instead of the usual two, guitarists could control the tone in precise ways they couldn’t before.
Fender also added a vibrato arm so guitarists could bend notes or make them shimmer in new ways. These micro-adjustments made the Strat a hit with the cream of the guitar elite.
When it came to the name for this new guitar, the sales chief for Fender, Don Randall, came up with Stratocaster. He wanted players to feel transported to the stratosphere when playing the instrument. After a slow start during which Fender and his team made some adjustments, by 1957, the perfected Fender Stratocaster was ready to take the world by storm.
Once The Crickets debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show with bespectacled Buddy Holly on a Strat, things changed for Fender. Suddenly every guitar player wanted one. For a few years, the Strat was the favorite. After a decline in the mid-60s, Jimi Hendrix brought the Strat back to the top with his explosive style.
CBS Instruments bought Fender in 1965, and the quality of the instruments fell. Most guitarists prefer vintage Fender Strats, although Fender continues to innovate even today.
Stratocasters have graced the hips of rock icons since the beginning. Sadly, some of the best players are no longer with us. Buddy Holly brought the Strat to a broad audience with The Crickets.
Jimi Hendrix exploded in 1966 as the most innovative player the world had ever seen. Stevie Ray Vaughn revolutionized the blues with his trio Double Trouble. And who knows where The Beatles would have gone with George Harrison rockin’ his Strat.
But this list is focused on guitarists who currently play the Fender Strat. Pour one out for our dearly departed and dig into this list of current guitar gods.
#1 David Gilmour
David Gilmour is best known for his work with the iconic British band Pink Floyd, pioneers of synth and guitar-driven psychedelic space rock and progressive blues-rock.
Both styles relied heavily on the blues-influenced guitar work of Gilmour. Gilmour was born in England in 1946. After an academic childhood, he set out for a life of music.
Gilmour’s early musical explorations copied American blues and early rock n’ roll. He met the future members of Pink Floyd in high school. While in school, Gilmour formed Jokers Wild and recorded his first single. In 1967 Gilmour replaced Syd Barrett in Pink Floyd.
The Black Strat, Gilmour’s most iconic guitar, was used in almost every live Pink Floyd concert and all of the studio albums. Gilmour bought it in 1970 after all of Pink Floyd’s gear was stolen in New Orleans.
#2 Eric Clapton
Rolling Stone magazine ranks Eric Clapton as the #2 greatest guitarist of all time. Like many great guitarists from this era, Clapton is English. Born in 1945, he grew up in a strange situation. His grandparents told him his mother was his older sister!
On his 13th birthday, he received his first guitar. Clapton played with an early version of The Yardbirds before forming Cream with Ginger Baker in 1966. Cream was the band that shot Clapton to fame.
Clapton says Robert Johnson, famous for selling his soul to the devil to play better, is his most significant influence. Clapton’s creativity and experimentation over the years changed his style, but it always comes back to the blues.
After playing Gibson guitars in his early career, Clapton switched to the Strat in 1969. Blackie, his best-known guitar, debuted in 1973. He played it live until 1985. Blackie was a Frankenstein of three Strats Clapton bought on tour in 1970.
#3 Jeff Beck
Visionary English guitarist Jeff Beck was born in 1944 and cut his teeth alongside Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds. Beck’s first guitar was cobbled together from cigar boxes and a sanded fencepost. When he was a teenager, his sister introduced him to Jimmy Page and the rest, as they say, is history.
When Clapton left The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page was the ideal replacement. He declined and suggested Beck to the band. Beck lasted 20 months before they fired him for being a constant no-show on tour. In 1975, Beck switched to a mainly instrumental style. The rest of his career has focused on instrumental music.
Beck’s most important contributions were distortion and feedback. Before him, most lead guitar sounds were bright and jangly. But, distortion, fuzz, and the whammy bar made his playing compelling. Beck’s influences started with American blues guitarists. He branched out in the late 1960s to include Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar.
#4 Mark Knopfler
Scottish guitarist Mark Knopfler led the band Dire Straits to the top of the charts in the late 70s. Born in 1949, Knopfler started playing young and always wanted a Fender Strat. Before Dire Straits, Knopfler played with his band Cafe Racers.
In 1977, Dire Straits recorded their debut album with hits like Sultans of Swing. That track was a runaway hit for Dire Straits and featured Knopfler’s lyrical soloing throughout.
Knopfler is unique because he’s left-handed but plays the guitar right-handed. Unlike many men on this list, he’s also a fingerstyle guitarist. His style evolved when he began playing in this style. Most music of the late 70s was lumbering rock or thrashing punk. Knopfler’s complex and evocative playing gave listeners something new.
Best known for playing a 1961 Strat with Dire Straits, Knopfler finally got his hands on the fire-red Strat of his dreams.
#5 Nile Rodgers
Representing the other side of the pond, Nile Rodgers is an American guitarist born in 1952. Rodgers came up with new music in the air, which influenced his playing. Chic, the band he formed with fellow Sesame Street band member Bernard Edwards, brought his playing to the world.
Playing a blend of jazz, funk, and soul, Chic netted hits with We Are Family and Le Freak. Disco fever faded, and Rodgers worked more as a producer, working with David Bowie, Diana Ross, and Madonna.
Rodgers is known for chucking on his cream-colored Strat, Hitmaker. This technique creates a backbeat that’s common in funk and disco. Rodgers brought this sound to all types of music in his work as a producer. Rodgers’ hand, and guitar, can be heard in hits from the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and today.
#6 Ritchie Blackmore
British guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, born in 1945, made a deal as a child with his father. He could play the guitar, but he had to begin with classical guitar. At 15, he left school and started learning electric guitar, and we’re sure glad he did.
Deep Purple formed in 1967 as a psychedelic jam band, but by 1970 they transitioned to hard rock. Blackmore wanted Deep Purple to play as fast and loudly as possible, and they did.
After Deep Purple, Blackmore formed Rainbow with Ronnie James Dio in 1975. Blackmore continues to tour with Deep Purple and different lineups of Rainbow.
Blackmore’s playing is versatile. He can shred with Deep Purple, explore the classics with Rainbow and mellow out with Blackmore’s Night. Playing his Olympic white 1974 Strat, Blackmore often solos without a pick. His guitars also feature a scalloped neck, so his fingers float over the strings, almost like flying.
#7 Yngwie Malmsteen
You almost have to be a guitar god with a name like Yngwie Malmsteen. Born Lars Lannerback in 1963, Malmsteen changed his name at age 12. Influenced by classical music during his teen years, he chose Niccolo Paganini as his idol.
By the 1980s, he was leading his band Rising Force. Malmsteen was the second guitarist to have a signature Strat; Eric Clapton was the first.
Malmsteen’s style is rooted in classical music, a departure from the blues-influenced guitarists we’ve discussed. Malmsteen says Ritchie Blackmore most influenced him. Extremely fast and precise playing is his signature, something metal guitarists still copy.
The scalloped neck on his guitars makes this kind of playing possible. His most famous guitar is a yellow 1972 Strat, nicknamed The Duck. Yngwie isn’t known as a songwriter like many of the guitar gods. Instead, he’s a soloing artist who sends tidal waves of notes out to his audience.
The Fender Strat’s Influence Rocked the Music World
The electric guitar ruled the airwaves for most of the last 70 years. And, for much of that time, the Fender Strat was king. Looking back at the consummate artists who used the Stratocaster as their weapon of choice is inspiring. Leo Fender couldn’t have known, but his little creation has changed the world.