Fender Week: Legends of Fender
Published on 30 July 2019
At guitarguitar, we love all things guitar, as you know. Traditional brands, contemporary brands, classic stuff and more ‘esoteric’ pieces: we’re enthusiastic about it all. Of course we are! What else is there?
Fender, one of the first companies on the block, still hold a particular fascination. Why? We aren’t sure about particulars, but Fender as a company slam-dunked so many of the things we take for granted as guitarists today (bolt -on necks, 25.5” scale, the Strat & Tele body shapes that everybody has copied, not to mention their amps, basses and just that Fender sound), it seems that their pre-eminence in the Land of Guitars could be no other way. The Fender Stratocaster is what the majority of the planet’s populace think of when they hear the words ‘electric guitar’. Fender are the top dogs. It’s clear.
Indeed, lots of pioneering and influential musicians thought or think the same way, as we shall see! This artist influence element is difficult to underestimate: think how different the world of music would be if Hendrix played, say...a Rickenbacker? Or a Gretsch! These are great guitars, to be sure, but there is something specific and deliberate in Hendrix’s choice of guitar that informs our perspective on his art. There are mercurial thoughts, but we all have connections to our gear and a lot of it is based on what we love and envision in our minds. We all look to the titans of music for clues to our own path ahead. The fact that the majority of them use Fenders says plenty.
This blog today highlights our picks of some of the most legendary musicians who have predominantly played Fender instruments. They may also have played other brands, but the popular association for each player is with Fender. As always, we’ve agonised over our choices, as space has not permitted us to include everyone we wanted (Jeff Beck narrowly lost out to Eric Clapton, sorry folks), but we still think this lists stands tall!
We’ve stuck to the more ‘classic’ or obviously influential musicians here. We’re following this up with another blog on ‘Alternative Legends of Fender’, so keep an eye out for that if you’re wondering where Kurt and Marr are!
Okay, on with the show!
The influence of Hank’s melodic playing and ghostly tone is immeasurable. Ask any guitarguitar staff member today and they’ll tell you that not a week goes by without a customer asking for tips on how to get Marvin’s tone. Accessibility seems to be the key with Marvin’s influence: his tone, incredible as it is, is pretty straightforward, and his melodies are catchy and memorable.
Fender often release limited edition Fiesta Red/Flamingo Pink Strats (we will not enter that particular colour debate) with gold hardware, and though nobody outright says it, Hank’s enduring magic is the reason why.
Hendrix’s dominance over the world of the electric guitar is beyond obvious. We’ve mentioned him enough in recent blog posts, but really: how can anyone write about influential Fender guitar players without putting James Marshall Hendrix up there? Today, in 2019, his inventive and mould-shattering guitar playing is as other-worldly and inspirational as it was fifty years ago.
Hendrix brought the art of expression to new levels on the instrument, seeing dissonance, texture, phrasing and context as being as legitimate and significant as chords, melody and tone. He was a Master of It all, and he preferred to weave his magic on an upside-down Fender Stratocaster.
Eric is an enduringly influential player, blending some of the fire of Hendrix with the accessibility of Hank Marvin (not in terms of his actual sound or playing, more in the ability to know how much to play in order to keep everybody on his side) that led him to become of one the most celebrated living guitarists in the world. Different eras of Clapton’s career have seen him making use of different guitars, but ‘Blackie’ is by far his most famous. This was a partscaster, pieced together from five or six used Fender bought whilst on tour.
Clapton was in fact the first recipient of a signature guitar model from Fender. That model has gone on to become one of Fender’s all-time best-selling guitars, attesting to the universal and constant appeal of Clapton’s music and playing.
There are many lessons to be learned from studying Keith Richards as he performs on stage. Some of them relate to music but most of them are more ephemeral: nobody can pull a pose like Keith; nobody can strike a guitar like Keith and nobody can bring as much swagger and charm to their performance like Keith.
He basically is Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Richards is most associated with Fender Telecasters. You often see him playing ‘Blackguard’ ’52 reissues, ’72 Customs and of course his most famous axe, ‘Micawber’. This is a pretty battered ’52 Tele with a neck position humbucker.
Talking of battered, there is a prevailing story about Keith being the man who unwittingly invented the whole notion or ‘relic’ guitars, but that’s a story for another day. Keith Richards ably demonstrates the amount of attitude you can derive from a Telecaster.
How many guitarists listen to Pink Floyd and then instantly want to rush out and buy a Strat? Yeah, we know, us too. Owning a Strat will not make us sound like big Dave either, but that is his primary tool of expression.
Gilmour is yet another legendary player who prizes melody over flash: this seems to be key in having your music taken in and loved by the masses. Certainly, Pink Floyd are one of the most beloved bands ever, and Gilmour’s lyrical, beautiful guitar playing is a significant factor in that. His epic and dramatic guitar solos on songs like Comfortably Numb and Time are the sorts of moments most players aspire to producing. Playing them is one thing: writing them in the first place is quite another.
His famous Black Strat was recently auctioned, along with almost every other notable axe in his collection, but we expect it’ll be some form of Stratocaster we’ll see in his hands next time he goes out on stage. Make that happen soon, Dave!
Bonnie Raitt’s slide playing is phenomenal. Her control and authority of this particular artform is peerless, and she plays with a passion and finesse that nobody else has. Bonnie favours Strats, and in particular ‘Brownie’, a no-finish Strat she’s used on every gig since 1969! As she says herself: "I raised the action a little bit, and I’ve always loved that Stratocaster ergonomically and for the feel. So many of my heroes played a Stratocaster, and I’m sure that had an influence on my choice as well. But I’ve played that guitar on every single gig I’ve ever done.”
Bonnie favours a glass slide (on her middle finger) and never uses a plectrum. This aspect in particular is handy to know: having your right hand fingers available is crucial in silencing unwanted strings.
Fender awarded her with a Signature model back in 1995, a striking Blue Burst model which is now something of a collector’s piece.
Rush’s inimitable frontman is a master of multitasking. Not only does he play bass (incredibly), he sings lead vocals AND operates synth parts with his feet! Musical octopus, indeed.
It’s all the more impressive when you think about how complicated Rush’s particular strain of Prog Rock can get in terms of time signatures and so on. Rush are one of those bands that are quietly huge: they are not necessarily household names to everybody (this could well be a ‘media thing’) but have raked in a staggering 40 million record sales!
Geddy has his own signature Jazz bass with Fender, a popular instrument that is played by people who aren’t even necessarily Rush fans, such is its quality and relative anonymity. Geddy is a very influential musician: bassists from bands like Iron Maiden, Metallica and Dream Theater have all cited Lee as a primary influence on their own art. Job done!
Talking about record sales, this guy knows a thing or two about reaching an audience. When you think about Bruce Springsteen, what springs to mind? Here’s what comes to us: denim, Stars ‘n’ Stripes, massive arms and Telecasters. Sound about right?
Bruce Springsteen has been a faithful Telecaster player for pretty much all of his career. In fact, we can’t really understand why Fender don’t make a signature model for him, unless of course he doesn’t want one. Either way, Bruce’s famous Born to Run/Born in the USA guitar is the one we mostly relate to him.
These days, he tours with Custom Shop replicas of this guitar, but the recipe is the same: Ash body, natural finish, black pickguard and Maple neck. The original had an Esquire neck bolted to a Tele body, but that’s a relatively minimal detail.
Springsteen, in many ways, typifies the Telecaster player: forthright, confident, and ready to get the job done with the right tool.
Steve Ray Vaughan
For Blues fans, there’s no been no one quite like SRV. With his cowboy hat, soul patch and heroically battered Strat, he cut a figure in 80s blues that was instantly iconic.
The influence of Hendrix was clear, but Vaughan injected his own chemical into proceedings. With strings as reputedly heavy as .017 on the high E (which is RIDICULOUS, though his more ‘standard’ choice of a .013 still beggars belief), Vaughan brought a mix of passion, precision and pure strength to his fiery, lyrical playing.
SRV’s main guitar, known to all as Number One and to his sometimes as his ‘first wife’, has a neck from 1963 and a body from 1962. The pickups are from a ’59 Strat. This guitar was already pretty clapped-out when Vaughan acquired it in a trade. The left-handed tremolo, popularly thought of as being a nod to Hendrix, was in fact all that was available to his tech at the time. He simply put in what was there to be used and ended up preferring it!
It wasn’t just Fender’s guitars the Stevie loved: he had a particularity for their Vibroverb combos too: a pair of ’64 models to be precise, along with various Twin Reverbs. Vaughan was known to continually play with the amp’s controls during the length of a gig, opting to famously roll his hand along the entire control panel and ‘dime’ each setting for his ultra-loud finale. We like his style.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the greats, and his dedication to Fender equipment was integral to his sound. Today, when people talk of ‘Texas Blues’, they really mean Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Unquestionably the most famous living bass player, Flea’s masterful take on bass playing is a perfect balance of raw instinct and studious technique. Flea’s personality is all over his playing, which is the mark of a great artist in our books.
It’s a fair point that Flea has - and does - play a range of basses, but we feel his inclusion here is merited by his worldwide influence alone. Fender have released a number of Flea signature models, from a Roadworn Jazz bass in Shell Pink to an altogether more singular Flea Bass II, which borrows the outline of the Jazz bass, loses the pickguard and single coils, and adds a fat active humbucker.
Flea’s bass playing is flashy enough to command some attention, but more importantly, it’s musical and supportive of the song at large. His taste and ability define his playing, not to mention having the good fortune of being in one of the world’s biggest bands!
Some would say that we are at fault here for not including Mr Malmsteen’s own inspirational Fender guy, Ritchie Blackmore, but we think the Swedish shredmeister has somewhat eclipsed his erstwhile mentor quite significantly. Malmsteen would, in fact, tell you that his primary influence is in fact Paganini, which we can understand, even though Paganini was a violinist from the 16th century. This is what you get when you enter the world of Yngwie.
We love hearing stories about Yngwie’s madcap behaviour, from his mid-flight aeroplane rants to his fleets of Ferraris: this guy is great fun! His real first name is also Lars, which begs the question of why he bothered changing it, since Yngwie is infinitely harder to pronounce. Eccentric. We’re the ones talking about him though, so he wins!
Of course, none of the madness would add up to much if he were unable to back it up musically. Thankfully, Yngwie quickly set about well and truly smacking gobs when his debut album, Rising Force, was released in 1984. Already a member of Alcatrazz, Malmsteen wanted an instrumental outlet for his furious, incendiary playing. In the end, there were some vocals added to the tracks by Jeff Scott Soto, but the guitar was the real star here. Unbelievably fast, incredibly precise, and nothing like any guitar players who had come before, Malmsteen taught the world new things about how to shred.
‘Neoclassical’ was not a word people used in guitar terms until Yngwie made that happen. He did it on a cream Strat, modified to have a carefully ‘scalloped’ fretboard. This carving of the wood between the frets allowed Malmsteen to turbo charge his playing: he hardly had to touch the string to get his note, meaning he could fly twice as fast!
Not long after releasing the Eric Clapton signature Strat, Fender brought out the Yngwie Malmsteen signature Stratocaster. This makes him the second person ever to have their own Fender Artist signature model. Let that sink in. He got one before Hank Marvin, David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and EVERYBODY ELSE apart from Ol’Slowhand.
There’s no one out there quite like Yngwie Malmsteen. For every reason that makes him unique, we cherish and salute him!
Well, it wasn’t easy to narrow our list down to these eleven. We couldn’t even manage ten to make it all neat! We wanted bassists in there, since Fender are probably the most significant bass brand out there. That meant no Mark Knopfler (plus, his Money for Nothing tone was made on a Les Paul so he’s a traitor), no Jeff Beck (for similar reasons, though these people are both Strat masters), and all of the other artists we’ve kept for the ‘Alternative’ blog.
What we have noticed is that, with the notable exception of Yngwie, each of these musicians is adept at playing music that has accessibility at its heart. They are all incredible players, but they play on a level that everyone can appreciate and feel. This is hopefully the main takeaway form this blog, apart from hopefully highlighting how versatile Fender’s main instruments are!
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading. We know you’ll agree with some of our selections and scoff noisily at others. We accept this and humbly ask your forgiveness. We know! Rory Gallagher isn’t on there either. He was great. Sorry!
Tune in next time for our line-up of Alternative Fender Legends.
Until then, enjoy Fender week and we’ll be seeing you!