The Fender Stratocaster Remains the Most Recognizable Instrument on Earth

70 years since its initial release, the iconic guitar is as relevant as ever — and the best of them are made right here in the U.S.

July 2, 2024 11:10 am
Fender Stratocaster
The Fender Stratocaster is an American classic.

This is part of InsideHook’s list of The 100 Best American-Made Products, a celebration of the gear, clothes and goods that make up our lives, and are the life’s work of our fellow Americans.

If you think back 70 years, there aren’t many facets of popular culture that have stayed the same. Clothing and hairstyles have gone through their natural trend cycles, of course. Films look different. Music sounds different. The distribution channels by which we enjoy pop culture are even different, now that Instagram, TikTok and YouTube have replaced radio and television as dominant forces. 

But one item that’s remained a constant over the years and has in fact become an internationally recognized icon, a shorthand of sorts, is the Fender Stratocaster. From the earliest TV appearances of Buddy Holly and Richie Valens in the ‘50s to H.E.R. on stage with Usher at the 2024 Super Bowl halftime show, the Stratocaster has been ubiquitous in popular music. 

Designed in the early ’50s by Leo Fender and George Fullerton and first released in 1954, the Stratocster built upon the success of the comparably bare-bones Fender Telecaster, which was characterized by its simple electronics and workmanlike appearance and build quality. The Strat, as it’s come to be known, was an altogether sexier and more premium-looking instrument. The double-horn design that’s been copied by manufacturers worldwide for decades was groundbreaking at the time, as was the contouring of the guitar’s body, which made for a more comfortable playing experience. The Strat also featured an innovative tremolo system (the “whammy bar”) and three pickups for a level of versatility that has perhaps never been surpassed.

The instrument was first adopted by the earliest Rock ‘n’ Roll artists, but was also popular with guitarists who played country and blues. It was in the ’60s and ‘70s, though, that its icon status was cemented, as it was widely used by some of the biggest names the guitar world has ever known: Pete Townshend, Stevie Ray Vaughn, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and, most famously, Jimi Hendrix. Mark Knopfler and Eddie Van Halen kept it front and center throughout the ’80s, and then it exploded in popularity once again in the ’90s when Kurt Cobain used them (as often for smashing as for playing). Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready also famously plays a 1959 version, a recreation of which you can currently purchase for a whole lot less than the real ’59 is worth. In the indie rock world, Doug Martsch of Built to Spill has played them exclusively for decades. Mac DeMarco is a loyal user, as are Ed O’Brien of Radiohead and Adam Granduciel of War on Drugs. Basically anyone who’s serious about guitars has at least one in their arsenal.

As is the case with most products that have managed to stand the test of time, one of the most impressive things about the Strat is how relatively unchanged it’s remained after all these years. To the untrained eye, there is exceedingly little difference between an original 1954 version and one made this year as Fender celebrates the guitar’s 70th anniversary with a slew of models at various price points. There are more colors offered now, and there are slight differences in the types of woods being used (due primarily to availability), but its defining characteristics — the three pickups, the shape, the tremolo system — are all there, just as they were in 1954. And presumably they’ll stay that way for a long time to come.

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