Why Did The Stratocaster Become So Popular?

Bob Leggitt | Thursday 26 December 2013
Fender AVRI '57 Stratocaster with gold anodised scratchplate

It’s a good question. Why DID the Fender Stratocaster become so world-beatingly popular? Copied by countless manufacturers, the legendary Strat design has come to personify and epitomise the electric guitar. But actually, the instrument in its classic form is far from perfect. It has a serious problem with background electrical noise; it has a comparatively low-volume output; the fretting is narrow, making string-bends and finger-vibratos more of an effort; the long fingerboard scale demands bigger (and potentially more difficult) finger stretches from the player; the design is relatively cheap and utilitarian compared with the luxury of traditional guitar crafting… I could go on.

Fender Stratocaster guitars

What’s perhaps most amazing of all is that the Stratocaster design is now around 60 years old, and real fans of the guitar still find its original incarnation of the greatest appeal. Despite all of the issues listed above, the classic Stratocaster is widely acknowledged as the world’s best guitar. Why?

I mentioned in my Late ‘60s Strat article that Stratocasters experienced a serious lull in popularity during the mid 1960s, and that production was scaled down as a result. Had it not been for the proclivities of Hendrix, the guitar copy market which sprang up in the ‘70s could actually have gone in a very different direction. But whatever had happened in the late 1960s, the diverse musical trends and tech gadgetry of the 1980s would almost certainly have asserted the Fender Strat as the world’s number one guitar.

The Strat’s progressive rise to global dominance, however, began well before the 1980s, and it couldn’t really be attributed to any one guitarist. The kind of buzz Hendrix generated around the instrument could not really out-survive the musical trend he drove. That’s evident if you look back at pre-Hendrix Strat heroes like Dick Dale, Hank Marvin and Buddy Holly. All these artists had an incredible influence on popular music and/or guitar playing, but even their influence combined could not prevent the Strat from enterting a sales slump in the mid ‘60s. As soon as the musical trends they’d spearheaded lost the Zeitgeist, so did their guitars.

The early 1970s saw a number of high profile, Hendrix-influenced guitarists using Fender Stratocasters, but Gibson or Gibson-derivative guitars were still the default rock instrument. Strats were, by the average rock guitarist, considered too lacking in gain and frankly, too much like hard work. They didn’t produce the sustain or overdrive saturation of a Gibson Les Paul, their electrical buzz was intrusive at high gain, and there wasn’t much available technonolgy-wise to assist. Guitarists couldn’t just nip to the shops and get a Hot Rails, a pre-gain-equipped amp, and an FX processor with mid-boost, built in noise gate, etc. None of that gear or anything like it existed at the start of the ‘70s. If musicians couldn’t plug a guitar directly into the most suitable amp and get it to behave as they wished, there was very little they could do beyond changing the guitar.

Through the ‘70s, the Stratocaster largely struggled to move forward in its quest for world domination. Glam rock, prog rock, and even the punk and new wave era of the late ‘70s failed to acknowledge the Strat as the most suitable guitarist’s tool. However, within the genres of funk and disco, the Strat was starting to reveal itself as an indispensable piece of gear. Particularly in those genres, more and more guitarists were discovering that if you jammed the Strat’s three-way switch in between its click stops, so that two pickups were operating together, you got a unique tone which no other major commercial guitar could produce. What’s more, it was a really attractive and incredibly funky tone. ‘70s funk and disco guitarists weren’t the first to discover these hidden sounds, but they began to adopt them as a genre trademark, in a way no musical style had previously done.

Stratocaster compilation

INTO THE 1980s

And it was right in the middle of the disco era that Fender finally ‘un-hid’ the sounds by fitting a five-way selector switch in place of the previous three-way. Until 1977, two fifths of the Fender Strat’s personality had, at least officially, been missing. The five-way switch, added that year, meant that Strat users no longer had to discover those in-between ‘quack’ (or ‘out-of-phase’) tones for themselves, and artificially wedge the selector into a position where it wasn’t designed to stick. The sounds were now officially part of the guitar. This was probably the beginning of the big time for the Strat, and the fitting of the five-way switch came just in time.

In the 1980s, when clean and sparkling, yet full-bodied and characterful guitar sounds really became trendy in pop music, there was no longer an alternative to the Strat. Those close-set, ‘out-of-phase’ pickup selections defined the pop guitar sound of the ‘80s. The Les Paul couldn’t produce them, the ES-335 couldn’t produce them, the Rick 330 couldn’t produce them – not even Fender’s own Telecaster could produce them. It had to be a Strat.

Meanwhile, in the world of cutting-edge rock, the customisation craze of the late ‘70s had brought the Stratocaster out of the backwaters and back onto centre stage. The Strat’s bolt-together construction and scratchplate-mounted electrics made it the perfect base for customisation, and rock players were increasingly attracted by some of the new whammy bar effects they were hearing. Now that third parties were manufacturing hot replacement pickups, wilder whammy systems, and a much wider range of electronic effects to address the Strat's shortcomings, the Stratocaster could finally subordinate its long-time rival the Gibson Les Paul at the top of the rock guitarist’s list of desirables. The ‘SuperStrat’, as it became known, totally overwhelmed the rock guitar market through the 1980s. Many ‘SuperStrats’ were made by third parties and differed hugely from the original 1954 Stratocaster, but they were still shaped like Strats, bolted together like Strats, and acknowledged as Strats.

THE 1990s

If the ‘80s was a decade of novelty, the ‘90s saw the electric guitar returning to its roots. You might have expected the early ‘90s blues revival to re-establish some long-absent and esoteric guitar designs into the limelight. But it really didn’t to any great extent. Many of the main players in that revival were using Strats. Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, Otis Rush… And they weren’t just using Strats, they were using Fender Strats, either actual vintage instruments, or based closely on the original design. Interestingly, the Strat’s in-between, ‘out-of-phase’ sound featured very, very heavily indeed in that revival. It wasn’t only perfect for funk, disco and ‘80s pop – it was perfect for earthy, roots-flavour blues too.

For a lot of guitarists, the early ‘90s and the relentless vintage Strat hype that came with it, evoked an epiphany. There was a common factor to every influential guitarist who’d played a Fender Strat over the years… They all sounded unique. Even though they were using the same guitar, they sounded totally different from any other Strat hero. Stevie Ray Vaughan sounded nothing like Nile Rodgers. Mark Knopfler sounded nothing like Ritchie Blackmore…

I remember David Gilmour saying in a documentary around that time in the ‘90s, that he chose the Stratocaster as his main instrument because it was the guitar which allowed the player to express his or her personality the best. And I think that’s a key observation. With a Les Paul, you kind of get the guitar rather than the guitarist. Strats have always made you work harder, and they still do, but what the audience hears, is not the Fender Stratocaster – it’s YOU. For a musician, that’s the Holy Grail. If you can sound like no other guitarist in the world, you’ve cracked it, and judging by history, a Strat is probably your best bet in achieving that. So the instrument’s exceptional popularity is far from a mystery. The Fender Stratocaster is route one to the Holy Grail, and that’s priceless.