If you had to get a child to draw a picture of an electric guitar, then they’d probably draw something that looks a lot like a Strat. Lozenge shaped body, softer than the squared-off boxier Telecaster, two cutaways where the bolt-on neck meets the solid body, made from ash (more desirable) or alder (less so). Blonde maple or brunette rosewood fretboard. The classic pickup configuration is three single coils. The sound is precise, resonant, with a sharp attack from the bridge pickup and is warm, round and soulful in the neck position.
The first classic player was arguably Buddy Holly, who pioneered the ‘between bridge and middle positions’ pickup selection by using a matchstick to get that now classic out-of-phase, airy Strat sound. He was followed in the 60s by Hendrix, 70s by Clapton and 80s Stevie Ray Vaughan. But the list of iconic strat players goes on and on; Hank Marvin, Rory Gallagher, Dave Gilmour, Buddy Guy, The Edge. Although Keith Richards is more strongly associated with the Telecaster, he often plays a Strat as well. Jimmy Page unexpectedly picks a Strat over a Les Paul as his first guitar love in the movie It Might Get Loud.
In the 1980s, the Strat also underwent a metamorphosis. Influenced by Eddie Van Halen’s self-built Frankenstrat guitar, makers such as Ibanez, Jackson and Charvel, started creating strat-like guitars with humbucking and active pickups, locking tremolo systems and super-fast necks. These beasts became the weapon of choice for the eighties wave of hair metal and shred players and became known as Superstrats. I used to own a kind of Superstrat-lite: A jet black Japanese built Aria Pro II Wildcat with a humbucker in the bridge position. I got it for my 15th birthday, it was my first decent six string. It fell into disrepair and I gave it away to a friend about ten years later.
I think partly due to this 1980s metal period and the strong association with players such Gilmour and Clapton, the Strat became less than cool by the 1990s, as musicians favoured Les Pauls, Telecasters and semi-hollow guitars instead. The Edge used a black Strat with black pickguard as his main instrument up to and including The Joshua Tree tour, but the time U2 had finished reinventing themselves with Achtung Baby album, he had by and large switched to Gibsons. It is still unusual to see a modern player with any pretensions of hipness using a Strat. Jack White– arguably the most compelling guitarist of this young century– even implicated the Strat in a tirade against “note-pushing Stratocaster white-blues bullshit“. However, I contend the Strat is a design classic. As evocative as an original Coke Bottle, a Coupe de Ville or a Boeing 747. Almost all the great guitarists have at least flirted with them. They’ve been used in the creation of some of the best music ever. Was Electric Ladyland note-pushing Stratocaster bullshit, Jack?
Thanks to Fender, It is now possible to get a Strat for any budget from the very affordable (less than $200 new) Squier Affinity series, through Made in Mexico (‘MIM’) Fender-branded models, to the American Standard and on to expensive artist signature models and Fender Custom Shop creations that go for thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. Vintage Strats with the right serial numbers or pedigree sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.
I own a Strat, a Made In Japan Fender sunburst model purchased in 1994 when I got my first pay cheque after university and then paid for in installments, along with a Tascam Portastudio and Trace Elliott Supertramp combo, both of which I also still have.
I love my Strat. It is truly irrepraceable. It’s in storage back in Finland and I miss it very much.