The Stratocaster’s journey began tentatively. While the earliest known production guitar (serial number 0100) is dated to April 1954, Fender didn’t commence production in earnest until October of that year. With a host of design upgrades, their new solidbody was intended as a replacement for the Telecaster, however, orders for Fender’s seminal “electric Spanish” (released in 1950 as the Broadcaster and renamed the Telecaster in early-1951) kept flooding in, and the humble Tele has remained in production ever since. But with only 268 Stratocasters known to be shipped in 1954, along with a further 452 in 1955, it would be a few years before Fender’s most successful design ever began to really catch on.

In many ways, the Stratocaster is a guitar designed by guitarists for guitarists. It’s true that Leo Fender was more of an engineer and inventor than he was a musician, but he sought a great deal of feedback and advice from guitar players, some of whom were directly involved with the Strat’s design. Most of those musicians who were engaged with Fender in the early days were based locally in California. But by the end of the decade, the Stratocaster was a national phenomenon, having been adopted by the likes of Texan rock ‘n’ roll icon Buddy Holly who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in December 1957 with his ’55 Strat, and Chicago blues luminary Buddy Guy who is believed to have acquired a ’58 model.

As the Stratocaster grew in popularity, Fender continuously responded to requests from musicians and dealers concerning the guitar’s design, all the while attempting to improve their newfound production methods. Some of the earliest changes occurred in 1956 when the neck profile became less rounded, taking on more of a ‘V’ shape, and the body changed from ash to alder (although ash was retained for those instruments with a transparent blonde finish). More subtle adjustments included the replacement of ‘no-line’ Kluson Deluxe tuners by the ‘single-line’ type, and the introduction of a butterfly string tree in place of the original round variety.

In 1957, the Strat’s fragile polystyrene parts began to be phased out while harder-wearing ABS plastic pickup covers and knobs were introduced. Meanwhile, the guitar’s two-tone sunburst changed appearance as Fender decided to speed up production by dipping the bodies yellow (as opposed to spraying). The classic ‘V’ profile was retained for much of ’57, although by the end of the year the neck had slimmed down into more of a ‘C’ shape. In ’58, Fender attempted to gussy up the Stratocaster’s finish by introducing a third/red layer to the sunburst. Unfortunately, however, the aniline dye they used was prone to fading in sunlight. Much like the Gibson Les Paul Standards of this period, the issue was eventually addressed in 1960, resulting in many faded examples from ’58 and ’59 appearing to have a two-tone sunburst.

The Stratocaster’s most prominent alteration to date occurred in 1959 when Fender introduced rosewood fretboards across their entire range of guitars, as per 1958’s top-of-the-line Jazzmaster. In 1962, these early flat-base ‘slab’ ‘boards changed to a rosewood veneer which became thinner the following year. Also, in ‘59, the Strat’s original white single-layer pickguard was superseded by a three-layer (white/black/white) ‘mint green’ nitrate ‘guard, lasting until 1965 when a more stable plastic was introduced. The Strat would see many more changes during the 60s and beyond, but its various guises throughout the 50s remain as appealing as ever.

One of those very early Strat’s from the Spring of ’54 is currently available right here at Vintage ‘n’ Rare Guitars:

March 04, 2021 — Steve Hove