Fender guitars are iconic. They have a look, an aura of sleek refinement that says “Play me, play me loud, play me subtly and play me well.” Our celebration of this unique instrument honours Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender, the founder of the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, born on 10 August 1909.
For many people of a certain age, their first awareness of the Fender Stratocaster was on the cover of the 1957 Chirping Crickets album, on which Buddy Holly is clutching his guitar. Two years earlier, Buddy walked into Adair Music in Lubbock, Texas and traded his first electric guitar for a brand new Fender Stratocaster, which back then cost a shade over $300. That equates to about $2,600 today.
Four years later, on the cover of the first album by British instrumental greats the Shadows, Hank Marvin is holding (admittedly not as visibly) the Stratocaster he had bought after seeing Holly’s on the Crickets album. Ask just about any British guitarist that came after the Shadows and almost every one will admit to having been impressed with Hank’s red and white Stratocaster.
Before the Stratocaster there was the Telecaster, the first solid-body electric guitar; the initial single-pickup production model appeared in 1950 and was called the Esquire. It’s known for its bright, rich, cutting tone, referred to as the telecaster twang, as well as its mellow, warm, bluesy tone. It all depends on which pickup is used – “bridge” pickup for the twang and “neck” for the mellow tone.
In the early days, it was country musicians that favoured the Telecaster. James Burton, the guitar wizard who played with Elvis Presley and Rick Nelson, was one of its early stars. Eric Clapton played a Tele while he was with the Yardbirds and Blind Faith. King of the Chicago blues, Muddy Waters, was another who favoured the Telecaster, as did Albert Collins, Stax man and Booker T and the MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper. At the last ever live appearance by The Beatles, on the roof of the Apple building, George Harrison played a custom-made Telecaster. Jimmy Page played one on the solo of Led Zeppelin‘s timeless ‘Stairway to Heaven.’
The Stratocaster came along in 1954 and, more than 60 years later it remains a mainstay of rock bands and just about every other kind of group. Today you can buy an Eric Clapton signature Strat, along with those endorsed by Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Ritchie Blackmore and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
As soon as you hear the opening notes of Dire Straits‘ ‘Sultans of Swing,’ played of course by Mark Knopfler, you know it’s a Strat. The tone gives it away, but you need to be a guitarist of Mark’s stature to make it sing so well.
Clapton used the Stratocaster he called ‘Brownie’ on the Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs album by Derek and the Dominos. Eric had bought Brownie for $400 at London’s Sound City, while touring with Cream in May 1967. It has an alder body, two-tone sunburst finish, maple neck, skunk-stripe routing and black dot inlays. Manufactured in 1956 with the serial number 12073, it can be seen on the cover of his 1970 debut solo album Eric Clapton.
In June 1999, Clapton sold the guitar at Christie’s in New York City to help raise funds for his drug and alcohol treatment organisation, Crossroads Centre. Brownie sold for $497,500, becoming the most expensive guitar ever sold at the time — only to be eclipsed by Clapton’s other favourite guitar, Blackie, which sold for $959,500 in 2004. Brownie can be seen at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington.
Another iconic Fender track is the Rolling Stones’ ‘Little Red Rooster,’ on which Brian Jones plays a Telecaster. In 1981, when the band played Hampton Coliseum, they encored with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ With Mick Jagger draped in his Union Jack/Stars and Stripes cape, Keith Richards riffing and hundreds of coloured balloons showering down from the roof, a fan charges on stage.
Keith swerves, the fan comes back for a second pass and in an instant, the Stone whips off his Fender and smacks the guy around the head with it. The fan stumbles, security escort him from the stage and Keith carries on as though nothing untoward has happened. Despite the attack, the Telecaster stays in tune. According to Keith, “The damn thing stayed in tune, and this is the greatest advertisement for Fender that I can give you.”
We’ve put together a 60-track playlist in celebration of Fender and aside from what we’ve already mentioned, it features music from Pink Floyd, with David Gilmour memorably soloing on ‘Comfortably Numb’; Joe Walsh in his James Gang days, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, The Beach Boys, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robin Trower and Jeff Beck along with many other tracks, some well known, some not so well known. What do you think we’ve left out?
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