Greatest Hits of the Stratocaster
By Daniel Brooks
The Fender Stratocaster debuted in 1954 to become one of the most popular electric guitars ever. Three years after the release of the Fender Telecaster and the Precision Bass began turning heads and earning admiration, designers Leo Fender, George Fullerton and Freddie Tavarez sought to improve the electric guitar even further with radically innovative design recommendations from the musicians who used them.
The specifics are familiar to everyone who has ever picked up a Stratocaster. A comfortable, contoured double-cutaway body (based on the Fender P-Bass) allows players to reach every note on the fretboard with ease. The synchronized tremolo adds an extra dimension of expression to the player who can fluidly modulate the pitch of every note. Three single-coil pickups provide a broad range of clean, well defined sound, from the rich, dark neck pickup to the bright bridge pickup and the well-balanced middle pickup, and although the Stratocaster came with a standard three way switch (which was finally changed in 1977), guitarists quickly discovered additional tonal possibilities by carefully positioning the switch between the 1st and 2nd (bridge and middle) positions or the 2nd and 3rd (middle and neck) positions, to create an utterly unique “out-of-phase” sound from the interaction of the two selected pickups.
With such expressive versatility, easy comfort and playability and its own unique, sinuous beauty, it is no wonder that the Stratocaster immediately became one of the most popular guitars of all time and has remained so for nearly sixty years. The roster of artists who have relied on their beloved Stratocaster to provide a sonic palette worthy of their most inspired creations represents as good an introduction to rock and roll history as anything. Here are a few we think worthy of special notice.
Dick Dale might not have been the first to pick up a Stratocaster, but he certainly pushed the guitar to its limits. Known for his percussive staccato picking, on an upside-down guitar with ultra-heavy strings (.016 -.058) and a loud amped drenched in reverb, Dale combined the sensibility of surf music with the exotic musicality of his Lebanese, Polish and Belarusian heritage to create the beautiful mayhem of songs such as Miserlou.
Chicago Blues’ influence on Rock history is well documented. Like his contemporaries Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Otis Rush and so many others worth your time and attention, Buddy Guy lit the fire for many of Rock’s greatest guitarists and tirelessly continues to inspire generations of listeners with his showmanship and his Stratocaster.
Jimi Hendrix is, of course, considered by many to be the greatest guitarist ever. A completely inspired original who created a whole new vocabulary for music. And while he certainly did play other guitars on a few notable occasions, he is best known for the restrung, right-handed, upside-down Stratocasters he used to redefine the creative possibilities of the guitar. Of his many outstanding masterpieces, one that best illustrates his use of the Strat as a sonic paintbrush to create an almost visual aural landscape is Machine Gun.
One of the most important acts to evolve out of the psychedelic sixties was Pink Floyd. When original guitarist and songwriter Syd Barrett lost his way in a haze of psychedelic drugs and mental illness, the remaining members recruited guitarist David Gilmour to help carry on to a new incarnation of greatness. For many, the next and highest peak of their creative genius found its voice in their Progressive-rock masterpiece, Echoes.
With an enormous sound and an abundance of soulful inspiration, Robin Trower kept the fires lit for many who longed for the sound of a Strat played through a Marshall amp. Trower’s rich, guitar-oriented palette often inspired and invited comparisons to Hendrix, but he was and continues to be his own artist. Here is one of his many great moments, Bridge of Sighs.
With an easy, graceful mix of country, jazz and rock and roll influences, and rock solid songwriting, Mark Knopfler used that in-between, out-of-phase Stratocaster tone to put Dire Straits on the map with Sultans of Swing.
Right around the time Punk, Disco, and far too many synthesizers had left what seemed to be an indelible mark on Rock music, along came Stevie Ray Vaughan to remind us why we still needed a Stratocaster. His all-too-short life and career as a bluesman ended tragically in 1990. But he left us with a whole new appreciation for the blues, for the guitar and more than a few truly great songs, among the best is this one he wrote for his wife titled, Lenny.
Few guitarists, few artists of any kind, for that matter, continue to redefine their greatness in ever-expanding terms as the years unfold. But then again, few guitarists could have filled the vacancy left behind by Eric Clapton’s departure from the Yardbirds as well as Jeff Beck, and then gone on to even greater accomplishments. For those who thought Jeff Beck’s reinvention of Stevie Wonder’s Because We’ve Ended as Lovers was perfect when he first released it in 1975, here is perfection improved upon
Of course, there are many other songs by each of these artists, and others left unmentioned, that are certainly worthy of your respect. Half the fun is hearing what you would have put on the list of greatest Stratocaster songs (So far).