Sixty years ago, a luthier from California named Leo Fender released the most iconic guitar ever made: the Fender Stratocaster.
The Fender Strat, as it’s often called, is not the first electric guitar ever made. It’s not even the first electric guitar Leo Fender ever made. But even if you’ve never played a guitar in your life, you could probably pick a Stratocaster out of a lineup.
With a smooth body contoured for comfort, a body shaped like no one had ever seen before and a name straight out of the Jetsons, the Strat caught the eye of many young, adventurous musicians in the 1950s.
Even more striking than its looks were the new and previously impossible sounds the Stratocaster made possible. Its distinctive, twangy tone can be heard on some of the most important rock 'n' roll records made in the last 60 years.
Buddy Holly used a Stratocaster throughout his short but highly influential career. His appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1957 helped popularize the guitar:
Twelve years after Holly appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, Jimi Hendrix transfixed a tired and hungry Woodstock crowd with some of the most amazing and creative guitar playing ever heard, of course, on a Stratocaster. Jimi flipped his Strat over to play it left-handed, as few left-handed Strats were available in 1969:
Thirty-five years after Holly and 23 years after Hendrix, Kurt Cobain regularly played Strats and other Fender guitars to get his incredibly abrasive tone that helped change popular music in the late 20th century:
Six decades after it was introduced, it’s still largely the same guitar. Folks have even been known to pay thousands of dollars for Strats that have been worn down to play like ones from the 1950s and 1960s, which is … “controversial” among purists in the music community who seek authenticity.
Whether or not intentionally beating up a guitar to make it look and feel like one from 1954 is actually a good idea is up for debate, but the idea that someone would pay $5,000 for a worn-out guitar goes to show how damn good these guitars actually are.
Just last month, the earliest known Stratocaster sold for $250,000 to a private buyer. It’s suspected to be the first Stratocaster that was commercially available, marked with a 0100 serial number and sold to a noncelebrity guitar player in 1954. He kept it in near perfect condition.
The other "first" Strat is owned by former Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. It’s known as the 0001 Strat for its serial number. There’s debate whether or not this is actually the first Strat, or if it’s actually a “frankenstrat,” a guitar built using parts from many other guitars.