Leo Fender set the bar really high when he introduced the Fender Broadcaster solid body electric guitar. Although the name of the Broadcaster was changed to Telecaster due to a legal issue, Leo really made waves when he introduced the Fender Stratocaster solid body electric guitar. Where the Telecaster was simple, functional, and conservative, the Stratocaster was radical, wild, and space age. The simple "slab of wood" body of the Telecaster was nothing like the curvy, contoured body of the Stratocaster. Where the Telecaster had two pickups, the Stratocaster boasted three. The simple bridge of the Telecaster was quite basic in comparison with Leo's sleek floating bridge on the Stratocaster with a brand new design for what he called a "tremolo" unit. Just an aside that what Leo dubbed a tremolo unit was actually a vibrato unit. Tremolo is a change in the amplitude (volume) of a sound, and vibrato is a change in frequency (pitch) of a sound. The Stratocaster "tremolo" unit actually produces a change in pitch, which others call "vibrato".
There are a wide variety of variations available within the Stratocaster model of guitar. This section addresses the most common attributes of the Stratocaster electric guitar. The Stratocaster typically comes equipped with three single coil pickups. However, some variations are available that include a double coil humbucking pickup placed in the bridge position. A (typically) five position switch allows the player to choose what pickup(s) the player wishes to use. Most often, the switch allows the player to use any of the three pickups individually, or the first and second pickup together, wired out of phase, or the second and third pickup together wired out of phase. Most Stratocasters have a single (master) volume control, and a tone control for the first pickup and a tone control for the middle pickup. The bridge pickup does not have a tone control.
There are two basic variants of bridges on the Fender Stratocaster. The most common is a floating bridge with a tremolo (whammy) bar. The other variant has the bridge attached solidly to the body without a tremolo unit and is called a "hard-tail" Stratocaster. Both bridges have six individual bridge elements (one for each string) that can be adjusted for both height and length. This allows the intonation on a Stratocaster to be set very precisely. In both cases the strings pass through the body. Hard-tail Stratocasters have a set of ferrules that the strings pass through whereas the tremolo units have a more complex arrangement in the back of the guitar with an area routed away for the tremolo springs. There is a plastic cover that hides the springs on a tremolo model Stratocaster.
Stratocasters have a maple neck with an adjustable truss rod. Some Stratocasters have a rosewood fingerboard, whereas others have the frets placed directly in the maple neck. In a much less common arrangement, some Stratocasters have a maple fingerboard attached to the maple neck. Those with rosewood fingerboards have pearloid dot position markers inlaid in the fingerboard. Older vintage Stratocasters with rosewood fingerboards have what are referred to as "clay dot" position markers. Fretted maple necks and maple fingerboards have black dot position inlays. They typical Stratocaster neck has 21 frets, and a 25 1/2" scale. There are different radius fretboards available depending on guitarist preference, but the original vintage Stratocasters have a 7 1/2" radius.
Stratocasters Through The Years
The Stratocaster has a remarkably interesting history. Vintage Stratocaster enthusiasts, and books like "The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat" intended for Stratocaster collectors can tell you in amazing detail each change made to the Stratocaster since its introduction in 1954. (There were a few models released in 1953, but for the most part most people consider 1954 to be the first production year.)
A detailed listing of every variation is way beyond the scope of this article, but I will highlight a few of the most noticeable changes. First, though, it is important to note that with Fender, just about anything is possible. There are numerous examples of "one-offs" that were made in some way different than the standard production model, so it seems that almost anything could have come out of the Fender factory.
In the beginning, the Fender Stratocaster came equipped with a fretted maple neck, and a two-tone sunburst finish. (Throughout Fender's history, "custom color" models were available, but I am referring to the most common "standard" model. In the late 50s, red was added to the two-tone sunburst making it a three-tone sunburst. Sometime in 1959, they switched from a fretted maple neck to a rosewood fingerboard on a maple neck. In the early years, the rosewood fingerboard was attached to the maple neck by planning both the neck and the underside of the fingerboard flat. The early years of the rosewood fingerboard were also fairly thick and were referred to as a "slab board". Somewhere in 1962, instead of a flat mounting technique, the rosewood fingerboard was placed on the curved surface of the neck resulting in what is known as a "veneer board" Stratocaster.
In 1965 the Fender Company was purchased by CBS. This was a major change in the company, and many believe that there was a serious decline in the quality of the instruments they produced. One visible change that was made at this time was that they made the headstock larger. Some customers liked the old fretted maple necks from the 50s so Fender made an optional maple fingerboard that was attached to the maple neck. These necks are called "maple cap" and don't have a "skunk stripe". In the 50s, when they placed a truss rod in the maple neck they did it from the rear of the neck by routing a slot in the back of the neck. Then, a piece of dark wood was placed behind the truss rod yielding a strip in the back of the neck. Maple cap necks were able to have the truss rod placed from the front of the neck just like the rosewood fingerboard necks. Thus they did not need the rear route, or the filler wood. Maple cap necks therefore, did not have a "skunk stripe". There were not very many maple cap Stratocaster necks made, and thus they are rare today. In the late 60s, Jimi Hendrix favored the maple cap neck Stratocasters and was frequently seen playing them. The fact that Hendrix most frequently played Stratocasters led to an acceleration in the popularity of the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. Numerous other popular guitarists began playing Stratocasters including Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck.
The Fender Stratocaster Today
The Fender Stratocaster, or "Strat" as they are affectionately called is available in many different incarnations today, suitable for nearly any budget. There are lower cost Stratocasters that are made in other countries like Mexico, Japan, and Korea, as well as Fenders made in the United States which cost somewhat more. At the higher end of the cost scale, you can order very high quality Stratocasters from Fender's "Custom Shop" including true customization that is as radical as you can dream up….at a price. For those with very large budgets you can buy a vintage Stratocaster. Those from the 50s command the highest prices, but in general any "pre-CBS" Stratocaster (before 1965) commands a hefty premium. If you find a Stratocaster that was played by a genuine guitar hero like Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, you can be sure that it will cost a bundle. A more run of the mill Stratocaster is something like the Fender Standard Stratocaster Electric Guitar.
Fender Stratocaster Summary
In summary, the Fender Stratocaster Electric Guitar has stood the test of time. It has served as the "work horse" guitar for thousands of guitar players. Today you can get a Stratocaster that will meet your needs and hopefully your budget in nearly any color you can think of. One thing is for sure….. As the electric guitar evolves, there will be something resembling the Stratocaster for a very long time.