Fender Stratocaster graphic

Classic Projects: Fender Stratocaster

Date: 1954Designers: Leo Fender,George Fullerton, Freddie TavaresUnit Cost: $249.50 (in 1954)

There's a terrifying video of Jimi Hendrix setting fire to an electric guitar on stage at the Monterey Festival back in June 1967. He pours lighter fluid on it, smashes it into the stage seven times and throws the charred remains of his instrument into the crowd.

What many see as a turning point in rock music was also one of the iconic moments that have immortalised the Fender Stratocaster. Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore used to routinely trash them on stage (until he realised he rather liked them); Eric Clapton's 'Blackie' sold at auction for a mouth-watering $959,500, while Jeff Beck's finally gave him a sound that he claimed made him sound like himself.

The Stratocaster (or 'Strat') is simply the most easily recognisable guitar in the world. It's been with us for a shade under six decades, essentially unchanged (although there have been countless minor adjustments). For a design classic, it is surprisingly rudimentary. A solid body (since 1956 nearly always made from alder), with a maple neck bolted on: that was the template. Three single-coil pick-ups was a first for Leo Fender in the 1950s, with a three-way selector switch, which enterprising guitarists found could be abused to produce five different sounds (a five-way selector was eventually 'officially' included in 1977).

The Strat's dual-horned, asymmetrical body gave the instrument reasonable balance, while the contours at the back and the chamfered front meant that, in theory at least, the Strat was more comfortable than most. But the beauty and joy of the instrument was always its headstock. Over the years it varied in size, its flamboyance possibly related to the degree of flair in rock guitarists' trousers at the time. Its iconic decals are based on hand-drawn logos by the original designers.

Leo Fender's company was acquired by CBS in 1965, often seen as a watershed by Strat aficionados, who regard the pre-CBS instruments as higher in quality and better in tone. Later mass manufacturing in Japan and Mexico means that the guitar occupies a curious place in the pantheon. Cheap and cheerful versions are today cranked out by the thousand (although the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation doesn't release figures), while rare Stratocasters from the 1950s are regarded as the Stradivariuses of the modern age.

Two of the most obvious reasons for the Strat's enduring popularity with professionals and amateurs alike are that it is a particularly easygoing guitar to play, with the additional benefit of producing a distinctive timbre, which can be exaggerated by using the dual-pick up selections ('bridge and middle' or 'neck and middle'). These two selections are referred to incorrectly as 'out-of-phase', but the mistake has been repeated so often it has passed into the language and folklore of the mythical axe.

The word 'Stratocaster' has puzzled linguists for decades and although it looks as though a Greek scholar could unpick it, the word isn't quite as grand as it sounds. The Strat was part of a series of guitars that started off with the Broadcaster. Don Randall was the aeronautical-enthusiast head of sales at Fender in the 1950s and he wanted a name that sounded futuristic and was copyright-free after an earlier legal battle with Gretsch. A simple binding together of 'stratospheric' and 'telecaster' produced a name that "somehow stuck". Stick it did, and this classic guitar has never been out of production.

Next month: The Anglepoise lamp

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