The Fender Stratocaster: A Classic Rock Guitar
Fender Guitar History — The Stratocaster
Section II. Guitar Tech: "Strat" Specs
- A. Electromagnetic Pickups
- B. 3 or 5-Way Selector Switch
- C. Floating-Point Synchronized Tremolo Bridge & Whammy Bar
- D. Body
- E. Neck & Fretboard
- F. Headstock
Section III. Fender Stratocaster Models
- A. Squier (by Fender) Stratocasters
- B. Fender Stratocasters
- C. Fender American Stratocasters
- D. Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters
Section IV. Legacy of the Fender Stratocaster
Appendix A. Fender Guitar History Timeline (Focus on the Stratocaster)
Appendix B. Floating-Point Synchronized Tremolo Bridge U.S. Patent Description (Excerpt)
Appendix C.Tonal Characteristics of Different Fender Stratocaster Body Woods
Fender Guitar History — The Stratocaster
Welcome to this exclusive edition of E.N.B.'s Rock 101 series, boys and girls! Today, we'll be discussing one of the most popular instruments used in the classic rock genre: the Fender Stratocaster (or Strat). Since bursting on the scene sixty years ago, the Stratocaster has become the most popular 6-string in Fender guitar history, as well as the axe of choice for many a rock icon — including Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Bonnie Rait to name a few!
If you have found your way to this page because you are considering buying a Fender Stratocaster, but would first like to perform the due diligence in researching the instrument, then you have come to the right place! What follows is an in-depth discussion of everything you wanted to know (and more) about this classic rock guitar, including history, technical specifications, various models, and list pricing — all in one page! I have even provided portal links to the Amazon Musical Instruments Department, for your convenience. (Direct Amazon links for guitars of specific models are placed next to the relevant passages in Section III. Fender Stratocaster Models.) Should you decide to read this Hub from Strat ... er ... "start" to finish, then you will have become an expert on the subject by the time you are ready to decide whether or not to make a purchase. But, for heaven's sake — don't feel overwhelmed! You may also navigate via the handy table of contents to your right, and read only the specific segments that interest you.
Now then — let's get this show on the road! Please continue chewing your gum, turn the music to loud, and make sure that you are not sitting up straight at your desk, because:
Class is in session!
Strats, Tats, and Rock 'n' Roll: American as Apple Pie
Is there anything more American than Rock 'n' Roll? Besides apple pie and Harley-Davidson tattoos, few things spark a mental image of Old Glory swinging magnificently in the breeze (amid a brilliant blue sky) more clearly, than listening to a record of Jimi Hendrix belting out the National Anthem at Woodstock. From Chuck Berry’s duckwalk to Bruce Springsteen’s trademark stage slide, rock music has been synonymous with our nation’s identity for more than half a century. Ask anyone who was on set for the Arthur Murray Dance Party in December of 1957 — when Buddy Holly & The Crickets showed up — to list the top five greatest moments of their lives, and you can bet your favorite pair of blue jeans that hearing Peggy Sue recorded live ranks somewhere close to “wedding day” and “birth of firstborn child” more often than not.
Incidentally — both Buddy and Jimi were playing Fender Stratocasters when they performed those iconic feats.
Two other luthiers — George Fullerton and Freddy Tavares — assisted Leo Fender with the guitar design that would come to be known as the "Fender Stratocaster."
Note: A luthier is a maker of stringed musical instruments (e.g., guitars or violins)
In 1954, perhaps at the same moment that Elvis Presley was strolling into a studio in Memphis to record Casual Love and I’ll Never Stand in Your Way (for four dollars), Leo Fender was putting the finishing touches on one of the very first Fender Stratocasters, all the way on the other side of the country in Fullerton, CA. Neither the legendary luthier nor the King could have known it at the time, but the Fender Strat was destined to become synonymous with the Rock 'n' Roll movement, and every starry-eyed authority shirking songwriter from seaboard to seaboard, would soon find themselves tripping over hastily laced wingtips in their eagerness to get to the guitar store and purchase one. Decades later, the Stratocaster remains one of the most popular — and easily recognizable — instruments in the world.
Guitar Tech: "Strat" Specs
With a crisp tone and sleek futuristic design, as well as the patented "floating-point" Synchronized Tremolo system (discussed in detail later), Fender Stratocasters have held a coveted top tier position amid guitar enthusiasts for decades. In fact, the Strat’s enduring popularity has led to the instrument becoming one of the two most copied electric guitars in the world (the other being the Gibson Les Paul). Let’s take a look “under the hood” of this iconic Fender guitar, to see what makes it tick:
The heart of any guitar lies in the instrument’s ability to amplify the sound made by a vibrating string. In an acoustic guitar (a Fender Dreadnought, for example), this feat is accomplished by way of the soundbox. However, as anyone who has tried to play a Stratocaster without a power source can tell you, this solid body electric guitar does not have a soundbox like its acoustic cousins. Were you to play one during a blackout, the music produced by the instrument would seem as though it were emanating from a very talented mosquito.
The soundbox is a hollow chamber within the body of an acoustic guitar, that serves to amplify the sound made by vibrating strings. Since the Fender Stratocaster is a solid body electric guitar, it has no soundbox, and must therefore rely on pickups hooked into a power-source for amplification.
Strats, and electric guitars in general, rely on electromagnetic pickups to amplify and enhance the sound that is produced by vibrating strings when they are played. Traditional Stratocasters come factory shipped with three single-coil pickups, which are designated as the neck, middle, and bridge pickups. Much of how an electric guitar will ultimately sound is decided by the type of pickups used in its construction.
For instance, a Stratocaster has a distinctive sound that can be described as clean, present, and airy. This is in stark contrast to the other top dog guitar in American Rock 'n' Roll history — the Gibson Les Paul. These Gibson guitars can be said to have a fatter, more bass-heavy tone, thanks to the dual double-coil (or “Humbucker”) pickups used in their construction. There are other differences between these two titans among guitars a la electric — some obvious, and some more subtle — that influences the final sound that they will have, and all of these factors work in tandem to create the unique timbre of a Strat or a Les Paul.
Electric guitar pickup configurations are entirely customizable. A common alternative to the S-S-S layout found on the American Standard Stratocaster is the S-S-H configuration, found on a so-called "Fat Strat" (released as a part of Fender's "Ultra" series).
Note: Where "S" stands for "Single-Coil Pickup," and "H" stands for "Humbucker Pickup" (also known as a "Double-Coil Pickup")
The neck, middle, and bridge pickups found in today’s American Standard Stratocasters are all Custom Shop Fat ‘50s Single-Coil Strat pickups. As they are all single-coil, these American Strats are said to ship with an S-S-S pickup configuration. The differences in tone between the pickups may be attributed to various factors, including the pickups’ position on the body of the guitar, distance from the strings (adjusted by screws), and polarity.
For these reasons, the neck pickup is said to have a full, mellow, and warmer sound compared to the high-treble, sharp "bite" of the bridge pickup. As you might expect, the middle pickup falls somewhere between these two extremes.
Although Stratocasters built according to the traditional design are similar in that they are all shipped with an S-S-S pickup configuration, pickups of varying quality are used in the construction of different Stratocaster models. For example, the Squier (by Fender) Affinity model Strats — which retail for $279.99, and are widely considered to be the most cost-efficient Stratocasters — are built with three Standard Single-Coil Strat pickups, whereas Fender Custom Shop Eric Clapton Signature Stratocasters are built with three Vintage Noiseles Pickups. One major difference between these two pickup builds is the resultant "hum" that may be heard when playing an Affinity with Single-Coil Strat pickups in the first, third, and fifth selector-switch positions, contrasting the "lack of hum" from the Vintage Noiseless Pickups equipped Eric Clapton Signature when played from these same positions (an explanation of selector-switch positions is provided a bit later).
3 or 5-way selector switch
Vintage Stratocasters employed a three-way selector switch that players could use to alternate between the single-coil pickups housed within the guitar while performing. However, Fender guitarists soon discovered that by jamming the switch between positions one and two (or two and three), two of the pickups could be activated simultaneously (the neck and middle pickups or the middle and bridge pickups, respectively). When players started wedging toothpicks and chewing gum into the selector switch to more easily sustain these jerry-rigged settings, Fender had apparently had enough, and Strats with five-way selectors were soon rolling out of the manufacturing warehouse in Fullerton, CA — for years Fender’s hub of production and main guitar center (closed in late 1984 when Fender manufacturing relocated to Corona, CA, about twenty miles away).
Floating-Point Synchronized Tremolo Bridge & Whammy Bar
A defining characteristic of what makes a Strat a Strat is the patented Fender floating-point synchronized tremolo bridge and whammy bar combination. In a guitar, the bridge is the apparatus by which the (non-headstock end of the) strings are anchored to the body of the instrument. In most guitar designs, it is fixed in place, in order to maintain the level of tension on the individual strings that is obtained by manipulating the tuners on the headstock of the guitar. A Stratocaster differs, however, because it is constructed in such a way so that the bridge may be left to “float” between special springs that anchor it to the guitar body (pulling it one way), and the tension of the strings themselves (pulling it the other way).
Eric Clapton disliked the Floating-Point Synchronized Tremolo Bridge & Whammy Bar aspects of the Stratocaster's design, due to the potential for these features to throw the guitar out of tune. Mr. Slowhand would instead place a block of wood underneath his Strat's backplate, between the bridge and guitar body, thereby circumventing the spring-to-string tension ratio entirely! In response, Fender began offering the "Hardtail Stratocaster" — an alternative version built with a non-tremolo bridge.
The guitar stays in tune by virtue of the zero net force on the bridge between the two equal but opposite tensions, and a musician may play a Strat just like any other guitar without ever giving the matter another thought. But for those who wish to spice up their playing with a little panache, the Whammy Bar may be attached to the bridge and manipulated in real-time to achieve a tremolo effect during performances. Additionally, the number and position of the springs that tether the bridge to the guitar’s body may be adjusted by removing a Stratocaster’s backplate.
Adding springs increases the tension that tethers the bridge to the body, while simultaneously reducing the sensitivity of the bridge to whammy bar movement. Removing springs has the opposite effect. Typically, guitarists will employ between three and five of these bridge-tethering springs under the backplate of a Strat, depending on personal preference and play-style.
(Note: Appendix B contains a detailed analysis of Leo Fender's original patent for the Floating-Point Synchronized Tremolo Bridge and Whammy Bar system.)
The official name for the Fender Stratocaster's sleekly curvaceous and double cutaway design is the "Comfort Contour Body."
Stratocasters are easily identified in a lineup of the usual (electric guitar) suspects, due to their retro-futuristic space age design. The so called double-cutaway shape allows for easier access to the higher frets. Another feature that serves to differentiate the Strat from other models, is the guitar’s smoothly contoured and angular body shape — including a recessed “beer gut” curve along the top — making the instrument look almost aerodynamic.
Original (1954) Stratocasters came with a 2-tone sunburst finish, on a solid body carved from ash wood. Two years later, Fender began offering alder-body Strats, and in subsequent years poplar wood has been added as an option. Limited edition Stratocasters have even been commissioned with basswood, koa, and mahogany body woods.
(Note: See Appendix C for a synopsis of the tonal characteristics for alternate Stratocaster body woods.)
In 1959, Fender standardized a selection of DuPont (or “du pont de Nemours and Company”) lacquers that could be painted onto a Strat at a five percent additional sales cost. Many of these colors were also popular with automobile customization enthusiasts of the era. It was therefore not uncommon for folks to see souped up hot rods driving about their town, bearing the same color of body paint as Fender Stratocasters hanging on display at the local guitar store!
Neck & Fretboard
Nitrocellulose is a chemical compound formed by exposing cellulose to nitric acid, which was once used as a lacquer on the fretboards of early-model Stratocasters.
Strat necks were originally cut from a solid piece of maple wood. At first, a solution of nitrocellulose was used to laminate the guitar’s fretboard, but the compound wore through quickly, leaving the bare wood exposed during play. One-piece maple necks were temporarily discontinued in 1959, in favor of maple necks which were capped with a slab of rosewood that had been milled and then glued on.
The fretboard — alternatively known as the "fingerboard" — is the strip of wood laminated to the neck of a guitar, that players use to manipulate the length of string vibrations to form different notes.
However, this innovation proved to be unreliable in its own way, as Strats with a slab fretboard had a tendency to twist at the neck. In 1964, Fender developed a solution to the problem by designing a new fretboard cap that curved slightly at the edges. Unlike the former slabs, this new guitar fretboard was pre-radiused and maintained an even thickness across the neck of the instrument.
Today, guitarists may choose among Stratocasters with a one-piece maple neck, or maple necks with a capped fretboard of rosewood or maple. Higher-end editions from the Ultra series are even available with a stained ebony fretboard. Vintage Strats from the mid-1950s (constructed with the original one-piece maple necks that were coated with nitrocellulose) may still be found on the market as well, and are often sought by guitar connoisseurs who acquire them for vast sums.
A Stratocaster's neck and body are joined together with four screws that are secured by a holding plate on the back of the guitar. As such, they are said to have a bolt-on neck, an electric guitar design feature that had previously been uncommon prior to the Strat's emergence.
The headstock is the misshapen structure at the end of the neck (furthest from the guitar body) where the tuning machines are housed. Stratocaster headstocks look like the inverted hind leg of a small dog. In many other guitar designs, the tuner knobs are distributed evenly on opposite sides of the headstock, but Strats differ in that the tuners for all six strings are located on a single side.
Fender Stratocaster Models
There are four major classes of Fender Stratocaster available on the market today, each with a varying number of sub-models. In order of increasing quality, these are: Squier (by Fender) Stratocasters; Fender Stratocasters; Fender American Stratocasters; and Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters. The Fender Musical Instruments Corporation's (FMIC) major production center in Corona, CA, is home to both the Fender American and Fender Custom Shop departments. The Fender Stratocaster department is located in Mexico, and Squier (by Fender) guitars have been made in various locations, usually in the Far East.
Though Strats largely appear similar at first glance, differences in cost between the classes may be attributed to such factors as the country where guitars are made, as well as the quality of components, fit, and finish used in their construction. The skill level of a Stratocaster luthier is another major determinant of a guitar's ultimate worth. For example, a Fender Custom Shop "Master Builder" in California is at one end of the spectrum, while a laborer on the floor of a Far Eastern Fender production warehouse is at the other.
The actual design differences between various models may include the number of frets on a guitar (either twenty-one or twenty-two) and the radius of the fretboard, the curvature of the neck, as well as a Strat's "factory-shipped" pickup configuration. Additionally, two other bridge designs are available as alternatives to the synchronized tremolo bridge found on original Stratocasters.
As touched on earlier, it is generally accepted that the most skilled Fender craftspeople work out of the American production plant in Corona, CA. Running a close second are the folks working out of Fender's other main hub of production in the area, two hundred miles from Corona in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. In fact, many Fender workers travel back and forth between these two plants.
Fender's production plants in the Far East rank third in terms of quality, due to the extensive use of cheaper components and labor. However, production standards for these types of Strats — such as those made in China — have seen marked improvement in recent years. Far Eastern Stratocasters are often an acceptable alternative to guitarists who want a Strat, but cannot afford the cost of an American-made model.
What follows are detailed descriptions of the four classes of Fender Stratocaster available, as well as the corresponding sub-models within those classes, in order of increasing quality (models within the classes themselves are listed alphabetically):
Squier (by Fender) Stratocasters
Squier (by Fender) Stratocaster guitars have been produced in several nations over the years, including China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and even Mexico. From the Fender website, the stated intent of the Squier imprint is to be the:
" ... '[V]alue brand' alternative to its big brother, Fender ... [T]he launching pad for beginners, pointing intermediate and advancing guitarists toward their ultimate goal — owning a Fender!" (via: http://www.fender.com/squier/about/)
As such, these guitars are typically constructed by cheap laborers, and may contain lower quality components (such as pickups, electronics, and lumber) than their North American Fender Stratocaster counterparts. However, many electronic and miscellaneous parts on a Squier may be replaced or otherwise customized piecemeal by players as finances allow. Popular models included in the Squier Stratocaster line are the:
Squier Affinity Stratocasters
Dubbed "the best value in electric guitar design," Affinity Stratocasters are constructed with an S-S-S configuration of three Standard Single-Coil Strat pickups. They have a headstock that is fashioned in the style of a 1960s Stratocaster, and 21 "Medium Jumbo" frets. Affinity series Strats have alder bodies with a polyurethane finish, a "C" shaped maple neck with either rosewood or maple laminate fretboard, and a 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo bridge.
Affinity Strats have one great strength: i.e., they're affordable! Typical prices range from $175 - $200. So, if you've just got to have a Strat but lack the funds, an Affinity may be right for you.
Squier Bullet Stratocasters
Bullet Strats (with tremolo) are designed specifically for beginners. These guitars are constructed with basswood bodies, are covered in a polyurethane finish, and have "C" shaped maple necks with rosewood or maple laminate fretboards. Like Affinity Strats, Bullet Strats have 21 "Medium Jumbo" frets, three Standard Single-Coil Strat pickups, and a 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo bridge. Headstocks are of the traditional shape, contrasting the 1960s style headstocks found on Strats in the Affinity series. Additionally, Bullet Stratocasters have a so-called Slim Body Profile (42mm), and white dot position inlays.
Squier Standard Stratocasters
These Strats are described by Fender as "... great playing guitar[s] with a traditional vibe and modern feel." They are constructed with agathis bodies that are covered in a polyurethane finish, and have "C" shaped maple necks with rosewood or maple laminate fretboards. Guitars in the Squier Standard series have 22 "Medium Jumbo" frets, contrasting the 21 frets found on other models, which allows for a slightly higher range. Moreover, Standards are built with a slimmer neck for easier playing, and have three Standard Single-Coil Strat pickups. Headstocks are fashioned in the 1960s style, and these models are designed with a 2-Point Synchronized Tremolo with Block Saddles bridge.
Squier Vintage Modified Stratocasters
Vintage Modified series Strats are designed with the heyday of 1970s Rock-n-Roll in mind. These guitars are constructed with basswood bodies that are coated with a Gloss Polyester finish, have "C" shaped maple necks with rosewood or maple laminate fretboards, and 21 "Medium Jumbo" frets. Additionally, Standards come equipped with three Duncan Designed™ SC-101 Single-Coil pickups — SC-101B, SC-101, and SC-101N — with aged white covers, a 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo bridge and accompanying Vintage-Style Tremolo Arm. Chrome tuners on the 1970s style headstock are also made in the Vintage-Style.
Fender Stratocaster guitars are generally made two hundred miles from Corona, CA, in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. For this reason, you may hear a guitar produced in Ensinada referred to as an "MIM Strat" (or "Made in Mexico Stratocaster"). Generally, these instruments are believed to be of only slightly lower quality than their American-made brethren. (In fact, many guitarists consider MIM Strats to be on a par with American Strats!) Some popular models included in the Fender Stratocaster line are the:
A Blacktop Strat's most defining attribute is its pickup configuration — generally H-H for two humbuckers (or "double-coils") — and the resultant aggressive, "fat," and "meaty" tone that is characteristic of the guitar. The two Hot Vintage Alnico Humbucking Strat pickups are over-wound for higher gain, making Blacktop Strats a great choice for hard-driving modern rock music. Additionally, a variation of the H-H pickup configuration is offered by Fender, and Blacktop Strats are available with a Blacktop Single-Coil Tele pickup placed between the two humbuckers, for an overall pickup configuration of H-S-H.
Blacktop Strats are constructed with alder bodies coated in a Gloss Polyester finish, have modern "C" shaped maple necks (which have a Gloss Urethane finish) with either rosewood or maple laminate fretboards, and 22 "Medium Jumbo" frets. 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo bridges are generally used for Blacktop Strats, although the series also includes guitars with Floyd-Rose Locking Tremolo bridges.
Classic Player Stratocasters
Fender's Classic Player Series is the spiritual successor to the Classic Series. Two Strats are offered in this particular branch of the company's catalogue: the Classic Player '50s Stratocaster and the Classic Player '60s Stratocaster. These guitars were both designed by Fender Custom Shop Master Builders — Dennis Galuszka and Greg Fessler, respectively.
- Classic Player '50s Stratocaster - This guitar is constructed with an alder body coated in a Polyester Finish, has a soft "V" shaped maple neck (Gloss Urethane coating), and 21 "Medium Jumbo" frets. Three '57/'62 American Vintage Single-Coil Stratpickups are housed in the body of the guitar, with the middle pickup being reverse wound in order to achieve a reverse polarity effect. The model has a 2-Point Synchronized Tremolo with Vintage-Style Stamped Steel Saddles bridge, Gotoh Vintage-Style locking tuners, and aged plastic on volume/tone knobs.
- Classic Player '60s Stratocaster - This guitar also comes with an alder body (coated in a Polyester Finish) and 21 "Medium Jumbo" frets, but has a Gloss Urethane coated "C" shape maple neck with rosewood or maple laminate fretboard. Similarly, a 2-Point Synchronized Tremolo with Vintage-Style Stamped Steel Saddles bridge is used for the Classic Player '60s Strat just like the Classic Player '50s Strat, but the pickups used for this '60s design are (three) Custom '69 Single-Coil Strats. Aged plastic volume/tone knobs are likewise used for this model, as well as a Vintage-Style tremolo arm and Vintage-Style tuning machines.
Classic Series Stratocasters
Predecessor to the Classic Player Series, the Classic Series of Stratocaster was first commissioned in 1999 to serve as a more affordable alternative to the American produced Vintage Series (first commissioned in 1998), which strove to imitate the specs and features of Strats from the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As such, three Strats are included in the Classic Series, and each one is designed to personify one of those iconic decades in guitar music history.
- Classic Series '50s Stratocaster - These retro Strats take you back to the era of rollerskating waitresses, nickel comics, and cadillacs with fins. The guitars are constructed with alder bodies coated in a Polyester Finish, have a soft "V" shape maple neck with rosewood or maple laminate fretboard, and 21 Vintage-Style frets. Three Vintage Style Single-Coil Strat pickups with staggered alnico magnet pole pieces deliver an unmistakably '50s Strat sound, and the model is built with a 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo bridge. A 5-position selector switch makes the Classic Series '50s Stratocaster a bit more versatile than the originals of the era, although the aged plastic used for volume/tone knobs and the switch tip serve to add to the instrument's nostalgic vibe.
- Classic Series '60s Stratocaster - Peace signs. Free love. Mind expanding ... music. The Classic Series '60s Stratocaster pays homage to the decade that gave birth to legendary acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Features on this groovy guitar include an alder body with a Polyester Finish, maple "C" shape neck with Gloss Urethane Finish and rosewood laminate fretboard, as well as 21 Vintage-Style frets. The model also includes three Vintage Style Single-Coil Strat pickups, a 5-position pickup selector, 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo bridge, and Vintage Style aged plastic volume/tone knobs and selector switch tip.
- Classic Series '70s Stratocaster - Rock music from the 1970s was hard, gritty, and passionate. Just imagine a sweat drenched Ritchie Blackmore pouring his soul into an epic guitar solo, and you will understand the era that the Classic Series '70s Stratocaster is meant to personify. This guitar is constructed with a Polyester Finish ash body, has a maple "U" shape Gloss Urethane coated neck with rosewood or maple laminate fretboard, 21 Vintage-Style frets, and a large '70s Style headstock with logo. Three Vintage Style Single-Coil Strat pickups drive the guitar's sound, as well as a 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo bridge. Vintage-Style "F" tuners, a 3-Bolt "F" stamped with Micro-Tilt neck plate, "F" stamped tuning machines, and a Vintage-Style tremolo arm round out the guitar's features.
The Deluxe Series of Stratocasters were born of the popularity of the 1997 Nashville Telecaster, which set the stage for the entire Deluxe line. These instruments may look like their traditional counterparts, but have been supercharged with powerful pickup combinations and other electronic tweaks, such as alternate switching controls. Additional aesthetic designs are also available on Deluxe guitars, including gold hardware and tortoiseshell pickguards. Four Stratocasters are offered in the series, as follows: Lone Star Stratocasters; Players Strats; Power Strats; and Roadhouse Stratocasters.
Road Worn Stratocasters
You know those perplexing stonewashed jeans with holes around the kneecaps for sale at the mall? They give the appearance of being hard worn when they're actually brand new! That's what the folks at Fender were going for with the Road Worn Series. These guitars look like they belong to the veterans of many a long road trip, undertaken to play an unending chain of obscure nightclubs, each paying just enough to gas up the van for the next venue — and so on, and so forth.
When considering whether or not to buy a Road Worn Stratocaster, just keep one thing in mind: guitar chops are sold separately!
(So, don't let your ego write checks your frets can't cash!)
Road Worn Series instruments make baby-faced garage band rhythm guitarists look like seasoned pros. With faded finishes, heavily aged parts, and even (if you can believe it) rusted hardware, these junkyard Stratocasters have been assembled to create an aura of legitimacy for players. Just as no one wants to tangle with the toughest looking guy in a bar brawl, no one wants to challenge the guy or gal with the most battle-scarred Strat to a "solo-off." Models included in this series, are the: Road Worn '50s Stratocaster; Road Worn '60s Stratocaster; Road Worn Player Stratocaster; and Road Worn Player Stratocaster HSS.
Standard Series guitars have been around since 1987, serving as the backbone of Fender's production line. Solid and reliable, they are the workhorses of the music world, striving to meet the tough demands of a multitude of guitarists (from an eclectic variety of musical backgrounds) who employ them. Standard Series Stratocasters deliver that classic Strat sound and style without breaking the bank. Models included in the line are the Standard Stratocaster and Standard Stratocaster HSS. Additionally, maple tops and/or locking tremolo systems are available for Standard Series guitars.
Fender American Stratocasters
These guitars are made in Corona, CA, by Fender's highly skilled luthiers. To employ a metaphor: if Fender (MIM) Strats are AAA baseball, then Fender American Stratocasters are the Big Leagues. As was mentioned previously, many guitarists swear they can't notice any tonal degradation between Fender and Fender American guitars. However, for those who can, it makes all the difference! Models included in the Fender American line are the:
American Deluxe Stratocasters
American Deluxe series Stratocasters are designed to allow guitarists to make epic string bends and virtuoso vibratos effortlessly, anywhere along the neck, by way of the compound radius fretboard feature. Additionally, American Deluxe Strats come equipped with N3 Noiseless Pickups, which eliminate the characteristic "hum" associated with traditional Stratocasters (when they are played in the 1st, 3rd, and 5th pickup positions). Moreover, S-1 switching allows players to employ an alternate wiring configuration with the push of a button — housed within the volume control — for a total of ten pickup combination options.
American Deluxe series Stratocasters are constructed with alder or ash bodies that have a urethane finish, Modern "C" shaped maple necks (alternatively, Soft "V" necks are available) with rosewood or maple laminate fretboards, and 22 Medium Jumbo frets. They have a 2-Point Deluxe Synchronized Tremolo (With Pop-In Arm) Bridge, aged white plastic control knobs and switch tips, and locking tuning machines. Other American Deluxe Strat models include the American Deluxe Stratocaster HSS, and the American Deluxe Stratocaster HSH.
American Special Stratocasters
The American Special series Stratocaster line was commissioned in 2010, in response to the economic depression precipitated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis. These guitars are marketed as being built "by the People, for the People, and within your reach." Although that may be laying it on a little thick, I suppose the reduced pricing for these instruments makes the blatant exploitation of working class sentiment swallowable. (God bless America!)
Strats from the American Special series are constructed from alder with a gloss urethane finish, have Modern "C" necks made from satin urethane-coated maple (which reduces sticking caused by friction and sweat during strenuous play), a Large '70s Style headstock, and twenty-two Jumbo frets. Three Texas Special Single-Coil Strat pickups power the guitars, and they come with 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo bridges. Additionally, American Special Stratocasters have a Greasebucket Tone Circuit, that rolls of high-end frequencies during play, without adding more bass. Strats with an HSS pickup configuration are also available in this series.
American Standard Stratocasters
Not to be confused with the previous incarnation of the same name (manufactured from 1986 - 2000), the current American Standard line of Stratocasters were introduced in 2008. Much like the Fender Standard series is to MIM Strats, the Fender American Standard series is the backbone of Fender's stateside-designed Stratocaster line. When most people think "Strat," they are thinking of these guitars.
Typically constructed from either alder or ash, American Standard series Strats have a thinner undercoat finish for improved body resonance. They have Modern "C" maple necks which are back-coated with a satin urethane finish, a gloss finish on the headstock face, and either maple or rosewood laminate fretboards. Three Custom Shop Fat '50s Single-Coil Strat pickups drive the American Standard's characteristic sound, as well as a 2-Point Synchronized Tremolo (With Bent Steel Saddles) bridge. These guitars also have twenty-two Medium Jumbo frets, chrome hardware finish, and aged white plastic tuner knobs and selector-switch tips. An alternate HSS pickup configuration is also available on American Standard series Stratocasters.
Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters
Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster models are built for guitar connoisseurs. They are designed and hand-crafted in the United States by Fender's master luthiers. These types of guitars are generally offered in limited quantities over a limited time period, and may therefore appreciate in value year over year. Many times, a Fender Custom Shop Strat is commissioned to honor a specific musician, his or her play style, and/or personal Stratocaster modifications.
For example, the Fender Custom Shop Eric Clapton Stratocaster (listed at $5,350.00, and not to be confused with the Artist Series Eric Clapton Stratocaster, which is listed at $2,199.99) is built to the artist's exact specifications by Fender's Master Builders . The guitar comes with an S-S-S pickup configuration with three Vintage Noiseless Pickups, and has a special V-shaped neck. Additionally, this Strat has a blocked synchronized tremolo bridge, in accordance with Clapton's personal Stratocaster modification during the 1970s, where he would place an actual block of wood between the floating-point synchronized tremolo bridge and the body of his guitar (thereby circumventing the spring-tethered bridge's tendency to throw a guitar out of tune during hard play).
Though the technical specifications for a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster and a comparable Fender Artist Series Stratocaster may be very similar, or even identical, remember that one of the reasons for the vast price difference between the guitars is due to the skill level of the luthiers constructing them. Just as you would pay more for the services of a master carpenter than you would for a journeyman carpenter, so too would you pay more for the precision work of a master luthier.
Legacy of the Fender Stratocaster
For more than fifty years, the Fender Stratocaster has been the instrument of choice for countless Rock 'n' Roll guitarists across the country. From the sunny beaches of California to the historic fairgrounds of Woodstock, NY — and all points in between — Strats have served faithfully in partnerships with some of the most famous musicians in American history; including legendary figures like Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, blues maestro Stevie Ray Vaughan, and slide-string ballad queen Bonnie Rait. For the serious American rock guitarist, no collection is complete without a Fender Stratocaster.
Check out the short video below entitled “A Strat is Born,” to see what all goes into the construction of an American Standard Stratocaster at the Fender production warehouse in Corona, CA (successor to the Fullerton plant that closed in late 1984). Afterwards, if you have been convinced that you simply must purchase your own Strat, don't forget about those handy portal links to Amazon's Musical Instruments Department, following the descriptions for individual guitars in Section III of this article!
Video Courtesy of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC)
Fender Guitar History Timeline (Focus on the Stratocaster)
1954 - The first Fender Stratocaster electric guitars — designed by Leo Fender, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares — are made available for purchase.
1956 - Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) begins issuing Stratocasters with alder bodies. Previously only ash.
1959 - One-piece Maple neck is discontinued. Strats begin to be made with rosewood "slab" fretboards as standard, to compete with rival Gibson's designs. They are 4.8mm at the thickest point in the center of the neck under strings 3 and 4. DuPont colors are standardized and made available at 5% additional sales cost, many of which are automobile lacquer colors.
1964 - "Slab" rosewood fretboard design is abandoned in favor of maple necks with fretboards of rosewood that are pre-radiused. These fretboards (known as "veneer") have an even thickness across the neck. During this time, one-piece maple necks are available by special order only.
1965 - CBS purchases Fender, quality control suffers in favor of reduced production costs. Strats are given a broader headstock with altered decals to match the size of other Fender guitar models (i.e., Jazzmaster and Jaguar). Pickguard's are changed to a 3 or 4-ply multilayer with 11 screw holes.
1967 - "Maple Cap" necks — a separate glued on maple fretboard — are made available as an alternative to rosewood fretboards.
1970 - One-piece maple necks are reintroduced after a decade. Some guitarists begin to replace the S-S-S pickup configuration in Standard Strats with H-S-H, H-H, and H-H-H pickup configurations. Fender eventually responds with the "Fat Strat," a member of the "Ultra" series.
1977 - The middle pickup in the S-S-S series Strats are reverse wound in order to reverse the polarity. 5-way selector switches introduced.
1979 - "Veneer" fretboard procedure is discontinued.
1981 - Fender-CBS hires William Schultz, John Mclaren, and Dan Smith from Yamaha's U.S. division; Schultz is named President, Mclaren is named Managing Director, and Smith is named Director of Marketing. The trio focus on a return to quality at FMIC. The 1982 Stratocaster is released, and briefly becomes the new Standard Stratocaster. Later re-dubbed "Dan Smith Stratocasters."
1982 - Design changes to the trio's 1982 Standard designed to cut costs are implemented, but the model is discontinued in 1984, though a similar version was produced by Fender-Japan until 1986 (22-fret, 9.5" radius, and medium-jumbo fretwire); Squire started making guitars rather than just strings.
1982-1984 - '57 One-piece maple neck, '62 rosewood-fretboard Stratocaster reissues are released, and are called "American Vintage Re-issues." Fullerton, Ca, plant closes in late-1984.
1985-1986 - Fender is bought from CBS by a team of investors, including Bill Schultz. Manufacturing resumes high quality. Corona, Ca plant continues to produce Vintage Re-issues, and during 1986 some are produced from parts left over from Fullerton plant. Additionally, the new American Standard Stratocaster is released.
1989 - Fender Stratocaster Ultra series is unveiled, and ebony fingerboards are officially offered on some models.
1998 - Many high-end US-made Strats (American Deluxe, American, Hot Rodded American, American Standard) came with H-S-H rout as opposed to "Swimming Pool" (or "Bathtub") Routes, to accommodate players who modded their Strats to house Humbuckers.
2000 - The American Standard Stratocaster series unveiled in 1986 is discontinued, and a series bearing that name will not be seen again for almost a decade.
2008 - The latest incarnation of American Standard series Strats are released.
2010 - American Special series Stratocasters are designed to be sold at a reduced price, in response to the nationwide belt-tightening precipitated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
Floating-Point Synchronized Tremolo Bridge U.S. Patent Description (Excerpt)
The following is an excerpt of Clarence L. Fender's original patent application for the Fender Stratocaster's tremolo bridge, which was filed on 1954 Aug 30. The application was accepted on 1956 Apr 10, and granted a patent publication as US 2741146 A by the United States Copyright Office. I have attempted to condense the application, as well as to re-word the important sections, in order to relay the most relevant information in a reader-friendly manner. However, for those who would like to see the original document, in all of its splendid verbosity and legalese, this link has been provided:
"[Clarence L. Fender's] invention relates to tremolo devices for stringed instruments, and included in the objects of [Clarence L. Fender's] invention are:
"First, to provide a tremolo device which is particularly adapted for use on guitars and similar stringed instruments played in such manner that one hand is in the region of the bridge, there being a tremolo control arm so arranged as to fit within the palm of the players hand.
"Second, to provide a tremolo device which is incorporated in a novel bridge structure so arranged as to have limited pivotal movement, in order that the tension applied to the strings of the instrument may be readily varied to produce a tremolo effect.
"Third, to provide in a tremolo device a novel sectional bridge so arranged that the effective operating length of each string and its height may be individually adjusted to facilitate proper tuning of each string without interfering with simultaneous tension variation of the several strings required to produce a tremolo effect."
"Figure 1: is a fragmentary top view of a guitar incorporating [Clarence L. Fender's] invention;
"Figure 2: is a fragmentary sectional view through 2-2 of Fig. 1;
"Figure 3: is a fragmentary bottom view, taken from the plane 33 of Fig. 2 with the cover plate removed;
"Figure 4: is an enlarged fragmentary sectional view through 4-4 of Fig. 1; and
"Figure 5: is a perspective view of one of the bridge's elements."
4, 5, 6. Pickup units
7, 8, 9. Control knobs
11. Jack outlet
12. Vertical "Slot" Chamber
13. Horizontal Recess
14. Bass Plate
17. Upturned Flange
18. Tension Screws
19. Sectional Rectangular Bridge Elements
21. Horizontally-Folded End
22. U-shaped Cross-Section
23. Height Adjustment Screw
26. Bores (Vertically Extending)
27. Anchor Element
28. Tension Springs
30. Tension Plate
34. Whammy Bar
35. Perpendicular End (Whammy Bar)
36. Lengthwise Portion (Whammy Bar)
37. Handle (Whammy Bar)
Contained within the body (1) of the guitar is a hollowed "slot" chamber (12). This vertical chamber (12) joins at the under side of the body (1) with an additional, albeit horizontal chamber — or recess (13), which is directed toward the neck (2) of the guitar. Mounted on the guitar body (1) on top of this slot (12) is a base plate (14), one margin of which slopes to form a fulcrum (15). The sloped margin of the base plate (14) is secured to the body (1) by screws (16) which permit limited pivotal movement of the base plate (14) about the fulcrum (15). This fulcrum (15) is located forward of the slot 12 — that is, toward the neck (2) of the guitar.
At the rear margin of the base plate (14) is an upturned flange (17). Tension screws (18), one for each string (3), extend forward through this flange (17), to sectional rectangular bridge elements (19). Springs (20) are threaded through the connecting tension screws (18), between these bridge elements (19) and the flange (17).
Each of these bridge elements (19) is formed of a strip of sheet metal bent at the back to form a horizontally folded end (21), in order to receive a tension screw (18). Contrarily, the forward portion of each bridge element (19) is folded upward and doubled on itself to form a U-shaped cross-section (22) just beyond the adjacent base plate's (14) fulcrum (15). Additionally, each bridge element (19) bears a height adjustment screw (23) which is perpendicular to the base plate (14). Each bridge element (19) is provided with a slot (24).
Secured to the base plate (14), and filling the chamber (12) is a bar (25). This bar (25) is hollowed out with six vertically extending bores (26), one for each string (3). Each string (3) is equipped with an enlarged anchoring ballast at the lower extremity, which has a larger diameter than a narrowed opening at [the bass plate (14) end of] the bores (26). As such, six strings (3) pass through their own corresponding (and tapered) bore (26) in the bar (25), through a corresponding hole in the base plate (14), and finally through a corresponding bridge element (19) slot (24). At this point, the strings (3) are draped over the U-shaped cross-sections (22) of their corresponding bridge elements (19), before traveling the length of the guitar to be fastened to the tuners (headstock and tuners not shown in the diagram).
Secured to the lower end of the bar (25) are several tension springs (28). These springs (28) extend along the recess (13), and are relatively stiff. The forward section of the tension springs (28) are retained by hooks (29), which are formed along a margin of a tension plate (30). This tension plate (30) has a flange (31) at its forward margin that receives screws (32) adapted to be driven into the body (1). A back-plate (33) closes the recess (13).
On the top (playing surface) side of the guitar body (1), on a lateral side of the base plate (14), is an extending Whammy Bar (34). The Whammy (34) includes a perpendicular end (35) which is tooled to resemble a blunt screw-head. This perpendicular end (35) serves to screw the Whammy into a hole in the base plate (14) and the bar (25). The lengthwise portion (36) of the Whammy (34) terminates in a handle (37) to be grasped (as needed) while performing.
Tonal Characteristics of Different Fender Stratocaster Body Woods
Though originally constructed from ash, Fender Stratocaster body woods have grown to include several varieties over the years, including alder, poplar, basswood, mahogany, maple, and even koa. Purists would argue that the type of wood used for a Strat's body has a significant impact on the overall timbre of the guitar. However, the casual listener will probably note little (if any) difference. Nevertheless, Fender canon specifies that the tonal variances for Stratocasters made with the following body woods are true:
- Alder Stratocaster - These guitars are said to have a richer, fuller sound. Low-end frequencies are more "fat," mid-range frequencies have a pleasing "cut," and the overall tone has a sustained "warmth." Strats with alder bodies are considered to be one of the traditional varieties, the other being Strats with ash bodies.
- Ash Stratocaster - The original wood used in Strat construction, models with ash bodies are described as having a "snappier" tone and a "bright edge," a long sustain, and a warm bass. Strats with ash bodies are considered to be one of the traditional varieties, the other being Strats with alder bodies.
- Basswood Stratocaster: Basswood bodies are principally seen in Japanese-made Strats. Similar to poplar, a (solid body electric) guitar made with a body of basswood is said to have a very similar tone to that of a guitar with a body of alder. Basswood is also more readily available in Asia than alder, and is therefore used more extensively in guitars constructed there.
- Koa Stratocaster - Koa is a medium to heavy hardwood species native to Hawaii, that is sometimes used in bass guitars.. The tonal characteristics for Strats with koa bodies are said to be deep and warm, similar to Mahogany body Strats. Care should be taken by potential buyers interested in "Koa Strats," however, as this term usually implies a guitar with a koa "top" superimposed onto an alternate body wood (such as alder). Stratocasters with bodies made wholly from koa are available through Fender's "Custom Shop."
- Mahogany Stratocaster - Mahogany body Stratocasters are said to have a warm and deep mid-range sustain, as well as a nice "bite."
- Maple Stratocaster - Maple body Strats are unusual, as the wood is particularly heavy. Still, a model built with a maple body may be said to sound bright and punchy, with a bite on the high-end frequencies. More commonly, maple is used for neck and/or fretboard construction in Fender Stratocasters.
- Poplar Stratocaster - Poplar is a softer hardwood, and when used for a Strat's body wood, the guitar is said to have a nice and resonant tone with a "meaty" quality. Poplar body Strats are said to have a tone that is similar to alder body Strats. As such, many luthiers substitute poplar for alder.
- 'Close-up view of a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar with a maple fretboard.' Source: 'Fender Neck', by Bill Bradford, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr: 2004 Aug 23 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrbill/241682/
- 'Jimi Hendrix, c. 1967' as photographed by A. Vente, CC-BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Clausule. Available from: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jimi_Hendrix_1967.png
- '2003 Fender American Standard Stratocaster with a 3-Color Sunburst body and rosewood fretboard.' Source: 'P9290040' by José Luís Agapito, CC-BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr. 2003 Sep 29 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/blvesboy/74777460/
- 'Stevie Ray Vaughan named his favorite Stratocaster 'Number One.'' Source: Joe Bielawa, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr. [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joebielawa/3495982712/
- 'Pick-up selector and volume/tone dials: Vintage 1976 Fender Stratocaster.' Source: Freebird_71, CC-BY-SA-2.0, via Flickr. 2009 Sep 1 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/freebird_71/3916475228/
- 'Closeup of (a part of) the bridge on a Fender Stratocaster.' Source: Ferran Nogués, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. 2012 May 14 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fnogues/7192578116/in/photostream/
- 'Eric Clapton playing his Fender Stratocaster 'Blackie,' while singing with Yvonne Elliman.' Source: ultomatt, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr. 1975 Aug 15 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ultomatt/642426172/
- 'Black & White Fender Stratocasters.' Source: Christopher J. Bowley, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr. 2008 Apr 17 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dampowls/2422174050/
- 'Bonnie Raitt: Another rock icon who favored the Fender Stratocaster (circa 1976).' Source: David Gans, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. 2006 Dec 10 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dgans/318892621/
- 'Fender Stratocaster with a rosewood fretboard.' Source: Freebird_71, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. 2011 Jan 7 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/freebird_71/5332737249/
- 'Back of a 2008 Fender Stratocaster Kenny Wayne Shepherd Signature, showing the holding plate and four screws of the Strat's bolt-on neck (as the well as the backplate that protects the guitar's bridge).' Source: Freebird_71, CC-BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. 2009 Sep 1 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/freebird_71/3916640502/
- 'Eric Clapton in Rotterdam playing Blackie.' Source: Chris Haakens, CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons. 1978 Jun 23 [cited 2014 Feb 2]. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eric_Clapton2_in_1978.jpg
- 'Headstock of a Fender American 'Deluxe' Stratocaster.' Source: John Georgiou, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr. 2009 Apr 25 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/53141956@N03/4906660335/
- 'Logo on the headstock of a Fender American 'Deluxe' Stratocaster.' Source: John Georgiou, CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr. 2009 Apr 25 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/53141956@N03/4906660841/
- 'Sketch of the tremolo system on the Fender Stratocaster from from Leo Fender's original patent application.' Source: Leo Fender, PD-US-Patent-No-Notice, via Wikimedia Commons. 1954 Aug 30 [cited 2013 Nov 20]. Available from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fendertremolopatentsketch.png
© 2013 Earl Noah Bernsby