|George Fullerton - Leo Fender - Freddie Travares - Bill Carson|
It was Fender's head of sales, Don Randall came up with the name; Stratocaster.
|1950 Fender Broadcaster|
Leo Fender had designed and produced the Fender Telecaster four years earlier. This was a “Spanish guitar” adaptation of the lap steel guitars that he and Doc Kauffman had developed as early as 1944. The original Telecaster/Broadcaster had a similar 3 section adjustable bridge saddle which were similar to some of the units used on Fender/K&F lap steel guitars.
The Stratocaster was a whole different guitar than the Telecaster. Perhaps the biggest difference is the two offset horns. Besides just looking plain cool, those horns actually gave the guitar some balance, and provided a great position for the strap button, not to mention easy access to the upper register.
|1953 Stratocaster Prototype|
The original 1953 design for the Stratocaster was quite different than the final product. Some say it looked more like a Telecaster. You can see it has metal knobs.
|1953 Strat Prototype|
The earliest prototype I can find is from 1953. It looks like the 1954 model, but has a much smaller route in the back to hold 3 tremolo springs, and the inertia block.
The designers wanted to create a more versatile instrument that had a different sound than the Telecaster. Instead of two pickups, this guitar would have to have three. And those pickups need to be different than the Telecaster pickups. And the body needed to be different.
Note also the center routing. This would later be changed to a slightly narrower channel between the pickups for placement of the wiring.
|George Fullerton and Freddie Travares|
Freddie Travares was the one that sketched out a new body design.
|Rex Gallion with a '54 Stratocaster|
|1954 Pre-production Stratocaster|
These sculptured curves known as the contoured body are perhaps my favourite part of the Stratocaster. In his later years, George Fullerton shows off his pre-production model.
|Fullerton's Pre-production Stratocaster|
The lower portion of the bout has a definitive bevel that makes for very comfortable arm placement. To do this in 1954, the wood was rift sawn. The blue lines in the photo indicate the saw markings.
|1954 Fender Stratocaster|
This beveled section of the guitars top section gives the Stratocaster a slight offset, since it effects its symmetrical shape.
|1954 Stratocaster Back Side with cover|
|1954 Fender Stratocaster|
|1954 Pick Guard and Pickups|
The creators of the guitar saw no need for a tone potentiometer for the bridge pickup. I suppose they figured players wanted to maintain the high end sound for lead work. The instrument had only a single volume control for all the pickups.
That volume knob is well placed for guitarists that use it for “swell” sounds, that can imitate a steel guitar or a trumpet.
|1954 Strat close-up|
|1954 Strat Pick Guard|
Because the first Stratocasters came with the 3-way switch, some guitarist would jam a piece of a matchstick in the selector to prevent the switch from springing back to the single coil mode. It would not be until 1977 when Fender adopted the 5-way switch as standard equipment.
The plastic switch tip on the '54 model was slightly longer than on models from 1956 and later.
|1954 Strat Pick Guard back side|
Expediency in manufacturing was a key feature of the Fender pickguard, pickups, and electronics. The first pick guards were made of a single piece of .060" thick ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) vinyl. Some sources say this was made of Bakelite.
The 1954 pickguard, pickup covers, switch tips, and knobs have a tendency to crack over time. The knobs on the 1954 model were slightly shorter.
The electronics, including all three pickups, the three-way switch, the potentiometers, the 250k ohm capacitors, and all the wiring were assembled by Fender workers directly on the pick guard. A small sheet of aluminum was placed below the electronics for shielding.
|1954 Stratocaster routing|
Another feature that set the Stratocaster apart was its floating tremolo.
|Fender Stratocaster blue print|
He insisted that this feature was necessary to compete with guitars being manufactured by other companies.
|Impression of how a 1953 Strat |
may have looked with a roller bridge
The initial tremolo system used a stationary bridge with individual rollers for each string that went to a separate tailpiece. Bill Carson and Leo thought this sounded fine, but George Fullerton disagreed.
He even took the prototype and played it with his band. He said it sounded like an amplified banjo, and lacked sustain. So it was back to the drawing board.
|Patent for Guitar |
The new tremolo unit was actually based on a gram scale that Leo had in his office. The entire bridge assembly moved. much like the plate on the scale. The strings were fed through a solid steel inertia block that attached to the bottom of the bridge plate. This steel block aided with the sustain. And each string had individual adjustable saddles, that could be moved up and down, back and forth to give them the correct height and intonation.
|Patent for Guitar |
Vibrato Apparatus Fig 2
The bridge unit attached at the front of the body with six screws that were countersunk on each side, thus giving it a knife-like edge, allowing the bridge to rock up and down. The rear of the bridge was not anchored to further allow the up and down movement.
|Routing on '54 Strat for vibrato springs|
This gap was wide enough to allow the block to move forward and backward. A rectangular piece of ABS was screwed onto the back to cover the assembly. This was held in place by six wood screws. Six holes that were placed directly under the inertia block acted as slots to thread the strings into the guitar.
|Strat with five springs like the originals|
|Cover plate on |
back of a 1954 Strat
Then there are those players that do not use the tremolo at all; sometimes placing a piece of wood between the trem-block and the end of the cavity to prevent movement.
|1954 Hard-tail Fender Stratocaster|
That guitar had a stationary bridge, anchored by six screws, with the strings fed through the body attached to grommets in the back, just like on a Telecaster. Only a handful of these guitars were sold.
|Eldon Shamblin with 1954 |
Stratocaster, custom gold finish
Leo Fender used to give guitars to well known players that came by the Fullerton shop, to try out, and give him feedback on what they did or didn’t like. He did this with the Stratocaster. Many of those players were from Country Western bands in the California area. One result of these encounters was the recessed input jack on the guitars face.
The Stratocaster was the only guitar to be equipped with this feature. Although it was later copied by other manufacturers. The recessed input was meant for the cables with straight plugs.
|'54 Strat neck|
|'54 Strat neck|
The position markers found on the 1954 Stratocaster were made of dark, baked clay molded into 1/4" dots. Smaller clay dots were placed on the upper side of the neck. On the back of the neck you find what came to be known as the "skunk stripe", which was a strip of walnut wood, glued into the routed area covering that area of the neck where the truss rod was installed.
|Bigsby and Strat headstock|
The Fender six-on-a-side headstock was probably copied from Paul Bigsby's design. Bigsby and Fender knew each other. The Telecaster prototype had a three-on-a-side headstock design, while the production model did not.
In fact the Stratocaster headstock looked much more like Bigsby's design. Leo's design for the neck and headstock was based on ease of manufacturing. Keep it simple. The headstocks for the necks were cut using a template for the shape. Then another cut on the band saw removed the upper half of the wood on the headstock. A bevel was then created starting at the bridge saddle area.
|Straight vs Angled Headstock|
On guitars with the angle, the slope of the headstock aids to keep the strings aligned properly from the saddle to the post.
|'54 Strat - Kluson keys|
The metal tuning keys were made by Kluson and were similar to those found on the Telecaster. The 1954 model had one rounded string tree for the 1st and 2nd string.
Stratocasters, or any Fender guitar with Ybarra pickups are special. Other workers that installed the electronics signed their name or initials to indicate their job was done. Commonly on these older Fender Stratocasters you will find the name Mary (Mary Lemus) or Gloria (Gloria Fuentes).
|1955 black Strat owned|
by Howard Reed
It wasn't until 1956 that Fender produced Stratocaster bodies painted with colours based on Dupont automobile paint. Aside from Shamlin's gold strat, this 1955 black Stratocaster was custom built for Howard Reed, who was the guitarist for Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. The original 1954 Fender Stratocaster used Canary Yellow, and an amber paint called Dark Salem to create the two-tone sunburst finish. It was sprayed with a nitrocellulose lacquer.
|1954 Stratocaster body made of ash|
|Leo with Alvino Rey|
|Dick Dale with gold Stratocaster|
However the Stratocaster that Dick Dale is most associated with, is nicknamed, The Beast. It was not created until 1960, and was a gift from Leo Fender.
Dale removed the tone potentiometers from his guitars, and put metal caps in their place. He left the 250 ohm volume potentiometer and the 3-way pickup selector switch. Dale also has a mini-toggle switch that turns the middle pickup on.
The other player associated with the 1954 Stratocaster was Country and Western Swing music guitarist, Eldon Shamblin.
|Eldon Shamblin, later in life, |
with his original 1954 Stratocaster
|Shamlin's guitar and |
Leo gave Eldon Shamblin one of the first Fender Stratocasters It is dated 05/04/1954. It is unique because it was the only guitar that year to have a gold finish. Shamblin also used a 1953 Fender Bandmaster with a single 15” speaker when playing with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Throughout the years the Fender Stratocaster has undergone many changes, however the original 1954 model is the archetype model that many other electric guitars are based on, including those designed by many other companies. When the Fender Stratocaster was finally offered for sale, the retail price was $249.99 for the tremolo model, and $229.99 for the hard-tail version.
Click on the links under the pictures for sources. Click on the links in the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only) 2018
The next two videos are from 1957, but demonstrate how Fender manufactured their guitars back in the day.
There are also some scenes from trade shows.