From Cali to the Cosmos: tracing the legacy of the legendary Fender Stratocaster

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From Cali to the Cosmos: tracing the legacy of the legendary Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster vintage ads
Words by Paul French

Driving out of Hollywood and onto the 101 Highway, it all starts to make sense.

Fender USA West Coast

The palm trees, the subtle nods to 50’s car culture, the Spanish place names, the combination of urban sprawl offset by a stunning coastline—it’s been there all along staring us straight in the face.

As an Australian who up until this point, had never been to California, it is easy to be detached from the inherently Californian origins of the Fender brand and the various ways this has seeped into the company’s culture and overall aesthetic. I mean, the ubiquitousness of the Fender Stratocaster and Fender brand name abroad and its contributions to music history in the international sense is enough that it is easy to gloss over how intimately connected the story of Fender is with this particular locale.

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To us non-Americans, Fender is simply the world’s guitar. One visit to Fender’s manufacturing facility in sunny Corona, CA and all of these profoundly west coast influences start to coagulate in real time.

“As a native Californian it’s definitely meaningful to share something that feels like our culture with the whole world.” explains Master Builder Andy Hicks.

Fender Factory California

“Fender is a world renowned brand, and yet I can still say I work for a local guitar builder and both can be true.” he chuckles, with a breezy demeanour that echoes his Californian roots. 

As I peruse the factory floor, a heavy set gentleman with slicked back hair and an Orange County punk t-shirt gives me a knowing nod as he begins to buff a guitar body fresh from the paint room, before sending it off to the next stage in Fender’s very hands-on assembly line. 

The body he is working on will eventually come to comprise the bulk of a Fender Stratocaster guitar, Fender’s most iconic release of all (and whose 70th anniversary is the reason the world’s media have descended upon the Corona factory at this time).

Leo Fender

Designed by the legendary Leo Fender himself and named after the impending space race, the Stratocaster is for many, the high watermark for guitar design in the modern context, a prime example of a company landing on such a unique and perfectly executed piece of ingenuity that it is still yet to be bettered, some 70 years after its initial inception. 

“To put it simply—it’s the best guitar that’s ever been designed,” remarks Andy, when quizzed as to why he believes the Stratocaster holds such an important reverence amongst luthiers and guitar players alike. 

“With the Telecaster and then the Stratocaster, it was like Leo invented Baseball and then his first two at bats were home runs.” he remarks, simultaneously testing my baseball knowledge to its limits.

Suffice to say, as a concept, the Stratocaster was aeons ahead of its time, with its ergonomic and undulating body contour (taking stylistic cues from the Copenhagen school of boatbuilding no less), 3-way pickup system and revolutionary vibrato bridge taking it into previously uncharted territory. This wasn’t just a small step beyond its predecessor. This was a giant leap for guitar making, across the board.

“The body is quite simply the most comfortable guitar shape ever created.” notes Hicks, before adding “Every guitar that has come since has tried to emulate the feel of the Stratocaster body.”

Fender Stratocaster

While Fender himself knew the significance of what he had created, it took the general public a little longer to fully grasp exactly what they were looking at. As the 50’s gave way to the 60’s however, Leo’s futuristic endeavour finally took its rightful place as the world’s most popular guitar, due in no part to the Strat finding its way into the hands of many of the defining guitarists of the era-Hendrix, Clapton, Harrison etc.

It was this recognisability that took Fender and the Stratocaster global, making it the icon it is today, transcending geographical barriers and becoming the guitar of choice for a plethora of regional music scenes and sub-genres around the world. 

This modern universality is something that is all too apparent in Fender’s recent YouTube short ‘Voodoo Child: Forever Ahead of Its Time’, featuring such sonically and geographically diverse Strat wielders as Mateus Asato, Tyler Bryant, Rebecca Lovell, Tom Morello, Simon Neil, Ari O’Neal, Rei, Nile Rodgers, Jimmie Vaughan and our own Tash Sultana, all putting their own flavour on the Hendrix classic.

Seeing them all back to back like this, it’s interesting to note the stylistic differences in tone, playing style and approach that each player is able to pull out of the same basic foundation-the Strat. 

Aesthetics and celebrity endorsements aside, there has to be a practical reason as to why this specific guitar, by this specific manufacturer, has experienced the broadest adoption of any guitar model in history—transcending its Californian Surfy roots and becoming a foundational element for everyone from the choked, single-coil scuzz of the Melbourne punks to the soaring cleanliness and bell-like tones of the West African Highlife players and everyone in between.

Hicks, (who has built Custom shop guitars for Malcolm Young and Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray) has his theories as to the enduring omnipresence of the Strat:

“I think the combination of the versatility of the original 3-way pickup and the evolution of the 5 position selector switch, the body design itself and the ease of access beyond the 12th fret, as well as the playability and consistency of the neck from one model to the next-all these things definitely played their part,” he muses.

“It’s also a guitar that takes to different amps and pedals exceptionally well, meaning you can really take it anywhere you want to go, artistically.”

Across the pond, current Fender CEO Andy Mooney had his own formative experiences with the brand and its most famous silhouette, as a touring musician in the UK throughout the 1970’s.

“Growing up in Scotland, I always associated the Strat with the British Hard Rockers, Ritchie Blackmore and people like that,” he recalls. 

“It’s actually quite interesting to think. Back when I was living in the UK, I would have put Jack Daniel’s and Harley Davidson in the American camp, but I would never have put Fender in that same camp, simply because of its association with the British Rockers and the Scottish musicians I was seeing locally.”

“To me, that was Fender. It was always universal.”


Fender Tash Sultana

Fender’s Corona factory is a long way from Mooney’s native Scotland (and even further from my Australia), and as I sit back and watch our friend with the Orange County punk shirt expertly buff out any imperfections on the already stellar finish, Mooney’s words really start to hit home.

When something has the kind of international reach and reputation as an American-made Strat, the smallest details take on a weight far beyond that of your average assembly line product. There is a larger narrative at play. You aren’t just making a guitar in a cultural vacuum, rather you’ve been handed the relay baton and now your job is to preserve this legacy as best as you can, which of course can only be done through extreme attention to detail and strict quality control.

Fender Factory

This permeates throughout the Fender camp from top to bottom. From the various Directors and Master Builders, through to the guy cutting the fret wire—there is a real sense of pride and accountability amongst all the employees that work here, knowing that these guitars will be representing Fender (and by extension, California) on the world stage.

Seeing these specialised skill sets in practice, one can’t help but liken it to another very Californian pursuit, that of custom car culture and pinstriping. The attention to detail and technical ability of these master craftspeople is something to behold and this extends to every part of the process, from the painters and component manufacturers in the main factory, right through to legendary Custom Shop pickup winder Josefina Campos, who’s angelic demeanour and remarkable technical ability have seen her become a cult hero in the world of custom guitar electronics.

It is people like this who have all contributed to the enduring legacy of the Strat, in the same way that Leo Fender and the players themselves have all played their part in ensuring that this specific guitar, from this specific place, has a meaning and reverence far beyond a couple of pieces of wood and some shiny hardware. It’s a legacy 70 years in the making, one which only seems to get stronger the more fingerprints are on it. 

Keep reading and shop the range of 70th Anniversary re-issues at Fender Australia.