Rock and pop legends prepare a star-spangled 50th birthday for the ultimate electric guitar

When Jimi Hendrix electrified the Woodstock festival with his blazing rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner", it was a Fender Stratocaster guitar he was playing.

When Jimi Hendrix electrified the Woodstock festival with his blazing rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner", it was a Fender Stratocaster guitar he was playing.

A decade earlier, Buddy Holly had been the first rock and roll star to let rip on its curvaceous body and Pete Townshend was a later fan though it did not stop him smashing a fair few to pieces during the heyday of The Who.

Eric Clapton even has a mass-produced model named after him, made in the image of his favourite, known as "Blackie".

In the annals of pop and rock history, probably no other instrument has enjoyed a bigger starring role. Invented in 1954 by Californian radio repairs man Leo Fender, What Guitar? magazine recently named it the world's greatest electric guitar.

And now some of its biggest fans are being brought together to celebrate its 50th birthday and raise funds for the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy centre in London which uses music to help disabled children.

From David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Joe Walsh of the Eagles through to Johnny Marr of the Smiths and the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, all will gather at Wembley Arena on 24 September to play homage to the guitar.

Other confirmed performers include Hank Marvin of the Shadows who was the first person in Britain to own one, Mike Rutherford and Paul Carrick of Mike and the Mechanics and Paul Rodgers of Free.

The event was launched at the legendary 100 Club in London last night with a performance from the latest Strat recruit, Leah Wood (daughter of Ronnie), in the presence of the very first Fender Stratocaster ever made, worth a reputed £1 million and now owned by David Gilmour.

Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music, said it was an instrument that "just takes you to another place". "Imagine you're a youngster in the 60s and turn on the telly and Jimi Hendrix appears making it sound like something you've never heard in your life - that's what happened to me. You run towards the television and you want to jump in there. You can't believe what you're hearing.

"Each generation has been able to take the Strat and do something extraordinary. It shows off the particular decade. When you see it strapped around Buddy Holly and around Jimi Hendrix, you see what it stands for, culturally, socially."

In his own case, ditching his Gibson 335 guitar was a requirement for him joining Roxy Music. "They said, 'That just isn't right, but if you get yourself a Strat you can join the band.'" His first, visible on the band's debut album cover, was bought for £60 from fellow band member Brian Eno who had bought it for £30 from his milkman.

The idea of getting to play with some of his guitar heroes is a thrill, Manzanera admitted. "Guitarists always like to have a jam with other people. David Gilmour has been one of my heroes for ages. And Hank Marvin - there's a number of Shadows records that we all bought and copied."

Amy Winehouse, whose third-hand Strat was her first ever guitar, said she "can't wait" to take part in the anniversary concert. "It's my favourite guitar. It's classic, it looks good and it sounds beautiful. It really lends itself to anything. It's such a warm sound, something you don't get with a cold instrument like the piano or keyboards."

Like Manzanera, she admitted drooling when she visits guitar shops although she has no particular guitar heroes - "apart from people like Jimi Hendrix that everybody looks up to whether you're a guitarist or not".

The Fender Stratocaster developed out of work that Leo Fender began in his radio shop in California in the 1940s, making custom guitars and amplifiers. In 1951, he introduced the Broadcaster, the prototype solid-body guitar (as opposed to the hollow guitar of the Spanish/ classical model) that would eventually become the Telecaster and by 1954, the Stratocaster.

It became the instrument of choice for generations of musicians right up to Radiohead, the Strokes and Alanis Morissette today with the rarest examples - in unusual colours such as Sonic Blue or Green Foam - commanding thousands.

Although Leo Fender sold the business to the giant corporation CBS in 1965 because of poor health, it was sold on 20 years later to a small group of employers and investors who continue production today. Interest is rising with more than 60,000 expected to be sold in the UK this year compared with 50,000 only two years ago.

Barrie Cadogan, of the Vintage and Rare Guitars shop in London which has just sold a good condition 1956 model for £18,500, said the point of the Strat was that it had proved itself over many years.

Although in the 60s it lost some ground to the Jazzmaster and the Jaguar, the arrival of Jimi Hendrix, and later Eric Clapton, got sales soaring again.

"Guitars do come and go out of fashion, but it's been popular throughout the decades," Mr Cadogan said.

"It's very well-designed and it has a very versatile range of sounds. Yet Leo Fender couldn't actually play. He relied on feedback from musicians. That's what made his guitars so different."

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