Strat's the way to do it

For 50 years, the Fender Stratocaster has laid down the soundtrack of rock. Tonight, legendary guitarists gather to pay tribute to this iconic instrument
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The Independent Culture

Few cultural icons have proven as durable as the Fender Stratocaster. It's hard to think of any design, in any field, that has lasted as long. Nowadays, slicker mass-media processes mean that consumer artefacts blitz the public consciousness, but fall out of favour just as quickly. A few years ago, the original iMac acquired an instant ubiquity, appearing everywhere - on TV programmes, in films, even in adverts for other products - as a signifier of coolness-by-association. These days, nothing looks quite as dated.

It's now virtually impossible for a design to sustain its appeal longer than a few years, which makes the Stratocaster a manufacturing oddity. Only the classic VW Beetle endured as long in its original form, and even that was subjected to a creeping modernisation to make it seem a bit hipper, a bit more "now".

The Stratocaster could never be made more "now"; it has always been the perfect visual embodiment of the future, a perpetual harbinger of tomorrow, more impervious to fashion than such Fifties contemporaries as the tail-finned Cadillacs that sought to evoke the space age.

It has undergone subtle changes, with players able to have instruments customised to their own specification, but the Strat has remained essentially the same since Leo Fender started making it half a century ago - a cultural milestone celebrated tonight at Wembley Arena in London. Here, the Miller Strat Pack concert brings together some celebrated exponents, including Dave Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Joe Walsh, Phil Manzanera, The Crickets (Brian May standing in for Buddy Holly) and, of course, Hank Marvin, the twang that sold a million Strats.

Much of the Stratocaster's success, according to Fender Europe's artist relations manager Jamie Crompton, is due to its being designed specifically with the player in mind. "When Leo was working on the design, he worked with a guy called Bill Carson," Crompton says. "Carson was a country musician who helped to re-contour the shape of an earlier Fender Telecaster, which had more of a slab body. Leo would pass Carson's re-shaped Telecaster on to professional players like Dick Dale, the King of the Surf Guitar, who'd play it and report back about how the guitar felt - its weight, how comfortable the contoured shape felt, that kind of thing. It was this contouring that attracted musicians - before, there had been only slab bodies like the Telecaster, or big-bodied jazz guitars."

The distinctive "horns" of the Strat's body were a brilliant innovation, solving problems of balance and playability at a stroke. "The design is great," says the Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, who owns two vintage Strats. "It's perfectly balanced, so when you let go, it stays right where you left it. The upper horn keeps the strap out of your business, and the lower horn cutaway lets you to play really high on the neck. I don't know how Leo Fender knew to do all that. You'd think they'd start out with a primitive guitar and then improve upon it, but nobody's been able to."

Visually, the horns suggested a wildness and fluidity that echoed the era's trends in car design. Fender emphasised this by using the same paints DuPont had developed for cars - garish hues, with exotic names like Burgundy Mist, Lake Placid Blue, Surf Green and the classic Fiesta Red popularised by Hank Marvin.

The Strat's other innovations were mainly technical: things like the recessed jack-plug socket; the three pick-ups, which afforded a greater range of tone settings; and most of all, the new vibrato unit, or tremolo arm, which altered the pitch of the strings by slackening them via a chamber in the back of the guitar body. This enabled the player to bend notes more easily, and allowed a much greater range of expression. It was a crucial influence on the playing style of Hank Marvin, when he imported a Strat in 1959.

"There was a trade embargo that prevented you buying new American musical instruments in the UK," Hank says, "so Cliff [Richard] bought it direct from the States. It was top-spec, with a bird's-eye maple neck and gold-plated hardware, which lifted the price above standard finish - I don't know how much it cost, but when the embargo was lifted in 1961, they cost about £125 in the UK, much more than British electric guitars.

"But it was a good buy, because it was through getting the Strat with the vibrato bar that I was able to add vibrato to the strings. I used the bar to help me bend the second string up: I'd push it as far as I could with my finger, and then give it a yank with the bar, just giving it a shape, dipping down to notes to give more expression. The technique became an important component of my style: if I hadn't had a Stratocaster with a vibrato bar, I wouldn't have developed my style.

"Of the old Shadows stuff, I think the track that best demonstrates the Strat is something like 'Man of Mystery', where the intro and ending are this big thing with the bent-up second string pushing up to try to hit unison with the first, and a little shake on the bar, which you couldn't really do with another guitar. Then there are things where I slightly dip the strings, like 'Theme from the Deer Hunter'. But you can hear the typical Strat sound on a lot of older stuff, like 'Apache' and 'FBI'."

Marvin opted for the Strat partly by accident. His favourite guitarists at the time were Buddy Holly and James Burton, who played "some cracking solos" with Ricky Nelson, and later Elvis. Hank knew Holly played a Strat, and assumed Burton did too: how else could he bend the strings so much? He didn't realise that Burton used a Telecaster (the Strat's precursor) with a banjo string as the first string - in effect, a G string tuned down to E - the first string moved to serve as the second, and so on, giving him a light-gauge string set before they were actually made.

"I couldn't work out how he could bend the strings so much, because we were using seriously heavy strings," Marvin recalls. "I just assumed that the Americans had incredibly strong fingers! So it was an accident, getting the Strat. But it looked sensational, and we knew it would sound good: we'd heard the Holly stuff."

Holly and Marvin revolutionised the look and sound of rock'n'roll guitar, through appearances such as Holly's on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Shadows' on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Soon, kids across the world were slapping down deposits on Strats and fumbling their way, bloody-fingered, through Bert Weedon's Play in a Day manual - kids like John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, and just about every musician who helped to transform pop culture. It's amusing, but also heartening, to think that the entire Anglo-American cultural renaissance of the Swinging Sixties was arguably triggered by these two geeky, bespectacled chaps with their futuristic instruments and slick sounds.

Years later, when Fender honoured Hank Marvin with a presentation lunch in 1985, he was surprised, and moved, when a string of guitar legends came out from behind a curtain to pay their respects. This was the cream of British musicianhood, such giants as Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour, Richard Thompson and Jeff Beck - all aficionados of the Strat, yet each with their own unique sound and style, an indication of the guitar's infinite flexibility. Add the achievements of other Strat users such as Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Pete Townshend, and it's clear that the instrument's possibilities are pretty much limitless.

Much of the Strat's appeal, of course, is down to the posing opportunities it offers. "It's a great guitar for performing live, because it's very light," Marvin says. "It's an easy guitar to posture with: because of its shape and weight, you can add a bit of visual drama to your playing more easily than on, say, a Gibson Les Paul."

Think of the classic axe-hero poses: the Keith Richards slouch, the Pete Townshend windmill, the Jimi Hendrix phallic extension. This became as important a factor as the instrument's sonic qualities, as Phil Manzanera found out when he successfully auditioned to join Roxy Music.

"I had a Gibson 335, and Bryan Ferry and Eno said, 'No, it doesn't look any good!' What was needed was a white Stratocaster, so I had to borrow a hundred quid from a bank - can you believe this? - to buy a white Strat so I could join Roxy. It's on the cover of the first album. It shows the power of an icon: they sussed that my jazzy-looking 335 just wasn't acceptable as an image," Manzanera says.

"The funny thing is, Eno asked me later, 'Do you want to buy a Strat? * * Because my milkman has just sold me one for £30 with 'JH Experience' on the back.' Believing it was one Hendrix might have used, I bought it and used that with Roxy, as well."

The siren lure of the Hendrix Strat sounds over the vintage-guitar market, which has soared in recent years. An instrument played by Hendrix is the Holy Grail of rock memorabilia. As he was wont to torch or trash them, they're pretty rare.

"In terms of the Strat, Hendrix's are definitely the most sought-after," says the Fender archivist Mike Charalambous. "The white Strat he used at Woodstock was bought from an Italian DJ for an undisclosed sum by the Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. He had it flown over in its own first-class seat, with his secretary sitting alongside. It's now in the Experience Music Project in Seattle, a rock'n'roll museum.

"The Strat he torched at Monterey would be worth a lot, but there's probably nothing much left of it. There's another one that was burnt at the Miami Pop Festival in 1968, which has been owned by two famous guitarists: first by Hendrix, then by Frank Zappa. It went missing until Frank's son Dweezil found it in the workshop and fitted a new neck, pick-ups and pick-guard on to the charred body. He did try to sell it at auction, but it didn't reach the $1m reserve, so he still has it."

The magic million-dollar barrier was almost breached this year at an auction of Eric Clapton's guitars at Christie's in New York. America's largest instrument retailer, Guitar Center, paid $959,500 (£535,000) for Blackie, the black guitar that was a hybrid of three Strats bought by Clapton in Nashville in 1970, and his main stage and studio instrument until 1985.

The biggest buyers of rare guitars now are mostly corporate concerns such as Guitar Center and the Hard Rock Café chain. Who knows: your pension fund might have one stashed away in a vault. But there is still great interest among the more well-heeled film and rock stars, such as Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, who owns a 1954 Strat, serial number 0001 - the very guitar I hear wailing in the background when I telephone Fender's Jamie Crompton at the rehearsals for tonight's show. Joe Walsh's 1954 model is probably older, judging by his description: most likely a transitional model, lacking the vibrato unit and retaining some of the original Telecaster characteristics.

And if Clapton's and Hendrix's guitars are worth the best part of a million dollars, what price the Strat played by Buddy Holly at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on 2 February 1959 - the last guitar he handled? Gary Busey, the actor and musician who played Holly in The Buddy Holly Story, paid $242,000 for it in 1990. It will have tripled or even quadrupled in value. (Not that it's for sale: it's on permanent show in the Buddy Holly Centre in Lubbock, Texas.) At the same time, Busey also bought an acoustic guitar that had belonged to Holly, which provided a piquant postscript to the actor's auction adventure when he took it to Fender's custom shop in California to be preserved. As Fender's luthiers removed the scratchplate, they found one of Buddy's picks wedged underneath.

Over the years, the market in customised Strats has also expanded, to fulfil increasingly bizarre demands. You can have Strat bodies built in ash, poplar or alder, each of which has its own tonal characteristics. Some are made of swamp ash, grown underwater and lighter than most woods. Necks of maple or rosewood; mother-of-pearl inlays; silver or gold hardware; any number of finishes - it's all possible. At the more absurd end, semi-precious gems can be incorporated. Fender even made a chrome-plated Strat for Harley-Davidson.

Weirdest of all are surely the seven solid bronze-bodied guitars, studded with rhinestones, that Fender built in the Seventies. It's not known whether they were ever played. Or even lifted. What is certain is that if Pete Townshend got hold of one, he'd have a job to smash it up.

Mind you, even standard Strats are so solidly built that they're almost impossible to break. Bands that specialised in trashing their instruments either laid into the more fragile Gibsons, or cunningly loosened the screws that secure the Strat's neck to the body so the two would separate easily and could be screwed back together for the next night's show.

"I've tried to smash one, but they're really hard to break," Joe Walsh admits. "You can beat the shit out of one, and it'll just laugh at you. You can look pretty stupid on stage trying to break one. Townshend and I have often joked about this. Bob Frinton, who's been with The Who for years, told me they had about five guitars for breaking. Whichever parts busted off, he would glue bits of different ones together to make up a whole one, so that every night Pete would have about three guitars to break, rather than buying new ones."

Such showboating will always be a distraction from the main point of the Stratocaster, which is its sound. And this can be as individual a matter as one's taste in shoes, thanks to the wide range of tones available from the various combinations of the three pick-ups.

"It has definite moods," Manzanera says. "The top pick-up is very dark, and it shades down to a much lighter, treblier sound on the bottom pick-up. So you can easily adjust to the mood of an individual song. And the older models do sound better - they almost play themselves. It's a bit like a Stradivarius - early Fenders are like cream, the tone is so beautiful."

All Stratophiles seem to agree on this, whatever their playing style and taste in music. It's largely a matter of maturation: as the wood gets older it dries out, and the copper wire from which the pick-ups are wound relaxes into a more stable state, as do the strings.

"Even the older ones sound different to one another, depending on the year they were made, the winding and the pick-ups," Hank Marvin says. "For example, my '57 model sounds totally different to my '58. The '58 has a much warmer sound, and the '57 is clear as a bell, with a thinner sound, so you have to compensate through how you set up the amp."

Joe Walsh perhaps puts it best: "I think the old Strats sound better. There's a grace that they have. It's like wine, they just seem to get more and more lovely the older they get."

THREE LIMITED-EDITION FENDER STRATOCASTERS TO BE WON

To celebrate the Stratocaster's 50th anniversary, Fender and The Independent have teamed up to offer you the chance to win one of three limited-edition 50th anniversary Stratocaster guitars. Ten runners-up will receive a pair of tickets to tonight's Miller Strat Pack 50th anniversary concert at Wembley Arena and a crate of Miller Genuine Draft beer. The show is a charity event for Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy and includes performances by Queen guitarist Brian May, Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and Jazz sensation Jamie Cullum. The ticket hotline is 0870 220 0260. See Fendereurope.com for further details.

To enter, please answer the following question: The first Fender Stratocaster was sold in what year?

a) 1944

b) 1954

c) 1964

Email your answer, address and contact number to: competitions@independent.co.uk

Entrants must be 18 and over. Applications must be received by 2pm today, and winners will be contacted by 3pm by telephone.

Editor's decision is final. See www.independent.co.uk/legal for standard Independent terms and conditions.

The Miller Strat Pack Concert, featuring Dave Gilmour, Joe Walsh, Hank Marvin, The Crickets, Brian May, Phil Manzanera, Paul Rodgers, Gary Moore, Johnny Marr, Mike & The Mechanics, Jamie Cullum and Amy Winehouse takes place tonight at Wembley Arena

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