Fender Week: One Guitar to Rule Them All?
Published on 01 August 2019
Can one guitar do everything?
Can one single design cover the entire ground of the electric guitar vocabulary?
In this blog, we’ll be saying a clear ‘yes’ to those questions. We know you already know which guitar we are artfully dodging here, but do indulge us...
In Guitar-Land, we all have our allegiances. To the outside world, a guitar is a guitar, but we know better! The infinite nuances that exist between guitar models mean that there’s a potentially dizzying level of choice out there. Shape and colour are the obvious factors, but we’re going in deeper, since there’s far more to the subject than just that! We’re talking about scale length, fingerboard radius, wood choice, pickup configuration, bridge type...there’s a lot of variation out there, and certain permutations will inevitably combine to form your own favourite flavour of six-string mojo.
And of course, overriding all of this, laying down the rules, are the Big Two. These are the two major ‘schools of design’ that almost completely dominate the subject of guitar design and building. We all know it! Let’s just be honest: 99.9% of all guitars out there owe a debt of influence (whether relatively subtle or outright plagiaristic) to either Fender or Gibson. Between these two massive shadows, all major guitar types have evolved, including hybrids of both styles combined.
Each ‘house’ has its own properties and its own ways of doing things. Gibson make use of Mahogany, set necks, PAF humbuckers and P90s. If there’s a tremolo, it’s most likely going to be a Bigsby. The scale is almost always 24.75” and people always expect them to sound ‘fat’ and ‘warm’.
Fender, on the other hand, like to use Alder & Ash; they bolt their necks on, favour single coil pickups and have invented a few types of whammy bar. The scale is 25.5” and the frequently-trotted out descriptive terms applicable here tend to fall into the ‘twangy’ and ‘jangly’ ballpark, with honourable mentions for ‘glassy’ and ‘bell-like’. When does a guitar ever sound like a bell?
We’re being only half-serious here, because those somewhat tired terms turn out to be pretty true! The two brands are most definitely as different as mainstream electric guitar brands conceivable can be. Between them, they comprehensively covered the available real estate for electric guitar ideas, at least in terms of popular culture.
We may wonder at this: why are there not more designs? More varieties? Well, let us address it this way: look at the world of classical instruments and you will see identical violins, cellos and violas. They don’t even bother trying with colours and finishes! We understand that the differences in these instruments are not massively visible, but even so! Why not have a sparkly Silver cello? The guitar world is therefore already bolder and more dynamic by comparison.
Also, the evidence seems to suggest that those early designs by Fender and Gibson just hit the guitar playing nail firmly on the head. They aced it, right out the doors. Everything since has been a matter of refinement and alteration for changing musical trends. Other observations may include the difficulty that truly different guitar brands have suffered in reaching a sustained market. As of writing, Parker guitars, for example (remember the Fly?), have no production or distribution anywhere in the world. Neither do BC Rich, that most flamboyant of ‘shape’ brands. It seems that people just flat out prefer the classic designs created in the fifties and will only accept deviation to a certain extent. Why? Pass.
With this is mind, we’d like to draw your attention to the most pre-eminent of these designs. You already know the guitar, of course. It’s the most versatile electric guitar ever, the most famous and perhaps the most timeless.
Today we celebrate the Fender Stratocaster.
We won’t go into details about its production history: this blog is to highlight how adaptable, useful and indispensable Fender’s finest is. You may be a Telecaster player, an Offset fan or indeed not much of a Strat fan at all, but we trust you’ll concede its significance at least. Also, what’s wrong with you?
If we were to summarise the accumulated effect for the Stratocaster, we’d maybe say that it was used by both Buddy Holly and Iron Maiden, as different perhaps as popular music can be. We could say that it was there for essentially the dawn of Rock ‘n’ Roll and is still Fender’s biggest selling design by far. It’s the most recognised definition of ‘electric guitar’ across the globe. As an instrument, it’s as incalculably versatile as it is popular and iconic.
So why is it so versatile? That’s a good question. The Stratocaster occupies a space that few pieces of design ever do: it is simultaneously very specific and very open. Its shape is equally comfortable for girls, boys, tall people and short people. This same shape is, as we mentioned, unmistakable throughout the world. People who couldn’t care less about guitars still no what a Fender Stratocaster is.
The body shape must work, because it’s also by far the most copied guitar design in history! What was your first guitar? Did it look like a Strat? Thought so! Fender missed a trick by not properly copywriting the famous Strat silhouette back in the day, meaning every other company can now have a shot at it. It’s too bad for Fender (it was their design, after all), but it also speaks to the universal popularity of the Strat. The shape has been designated as ‘generic electric guitar’ by the Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. They could’ve worded it a little better, but the point remains!
We Can Rebuild You
The Stratocaster’s modular, replaceable build, designed to be deliberately so by Leo Fender, has been one of the big secrets to the Stratocaster’s unending appeal. The neck can be quickly and simply removed, allowing repairs and indeed replacements to be carried out with minimal hassle. Players, therefore, are not tied down to the dimensions of the guitar’s neck if they’d prefer something else. As larger frets and flatter radii became the norm, players could update their guitars simply by taking off the neck and changing it. Obviously, this is good news for when parts need replacing, but guitarists, notoriously fickle tinkerers that they are, can’t leave things alone and always want to mess around with their gear. Fender guitars in general lend themselves to this brilliantly.
This ‘tinkerability’ is also true of the pickups and electronics. Leo wisely put all of these changeable electrical parts directly on to the pickguard, which itself is simply screwed down onto the body. It’s not unusual to keep a few pre-loaded pickguards waiting in the wings with different hardware. A quick screwdriver-and-soldering session will deliver you an almost entirely new guitar playing experience!
Fender’s trademark single coil sound could be supplemented by chunkier-sounding humbuckers in all kinds of configurations, as they became available. The 80s, for example, brought with it a huge trend for adding bridge position humbuckers to Fender-style guitars. No potentially-disastrous routing of the body is required either-Strat’s are generously scooped out under the hood already-so a guitarist looking for a simple way to supercharge their guitar could do this easily.
The HSS Strat, as we call a Stratocaster with a bridge humbucker (Hum-Single-Single) is easily the most versatile guitar in existence. We can’t think of a musical genre that can’t be satisfyingly attacked with an HSS Strat. We’ll concede that a Strat’s 50s-style good looks may be a little tame for the Death Metal crowd, but sonically, an HSS Strat would fit in just fine!
A modern example of a heavily modified Stratocaster is the EOB model for Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. His Woodstock-referencing White-and-Maple Strat has a Sustainer pickup, a bridge humbucker and a repositioned output jack. To most audiences, it’s a typical white guitar. To you and I, it’s an exciting step forward for Strats, bristling with creative potential whilst looking traditionally beautiful. Good work, Ed.
That Fender Sound
The rare duality of design we mentioned earlier applies to the sound of the Stratocaster too. The clear, ‘bell-like twang’ (there you go!) of a Strat is instantly recognisable to any guitar fan, yet the instrument remains a blank canvas for players. Could it be that it simply has an ‘available’ character to which you then imprint your own unique personality? Clearly, Mark Knopfler, Rory Gallagher and David Gilmour all sound distinctly different, and yet they all play relatively unmodified Strats in relatively regular contexts.
The ability for the Strat to translate your own touch, feel and approach to playing is maybe the real key to its popularity. The characteristic Strat twang (especially through a Fender tube amp) has decades of misty-eyed musical history behind it, recalling those early days of more innocent Rock ‘n’ Roll. Again, though, that sound could just as easily be late 60s ‘Little Wing’ early 90s ‘Wicked Game’ or early noughties ‘Chilis funk’.
It’s not all about the cleans, either. The Stratocaster was what Jimi used to make his swirling, howling, immortal guitar cries. The Strat was one of Kurt Cobain’s main instruments for venting his fury. We’ve covered famous Fender players in two separate blogs already, so we won’t repeat ourselves here, but it’s obvious that the Stratocaster has a chameleonic quality, despite its obvious sonic fingerprint. Like we said about the shape, this foot-in-both-pathways position is not an easy one for any object to occupy.
Moving with the Times
As musical tastes have progressed, so have the variations of Stratocaster made available by Fender. The pickups got a little hotter in the 60s, the fingerboard flattened out a little in the 80s, and options for a locking Floyd Rose tremolo came along. Hardtail models with no tremolo at all were made, as were Strats with the HSS modification already applied at the factory. Double humbucker models (Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo is a big fan of this style, though his is a 'partscaster') and HSH models appeared too (Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray made good use of this), whilst a combination of the above features found their way to superstars like Bon Jovi’s Richie Sambora.
It’s worth remember that, whilst all of these changes were brought in by Fender, they continued to offer the more classic, traditional Strat too. Musicians could always pick up a new Stratocaster with three single coil pickups and a ‘synchronised tremolo’.
The Stratocaster has been continuously available since 1954, just like it’s Telecaster and P-Bass siblings. Every decade has brought forward another set of notable players who have championed the Strat, and guitar fans will forever look to the 60s and 70s Golden Era for their inspiration. As we make our way through almost two decades of the 21st century, we see no sign of the Strat slowing down. Modern players like Slipknot’s Jim Root and the aforementioned Ed O’Brien from Radiohead have their own signature models alongside Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy. Contemporary guitarists like Empire of the Sun’s Luke Steele and Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil are bringing the classic look and sound of the Strat into ever-new contexts, proving once again that the Fender Stratocaster is the One Guitar to Rule Them All!