Fender Stratocaster

Aiming High
Aiming High

In 1953, Leo Fender started planning a new standard guitar – the Stratocaster. His partner, Don Randall, who headed Fender Sales, Inc., came up with the name before the design was even completed. Of course, the new Fender would compete with Gibson and Epiphone professional models. But Leo intended even more. He believed his continued success meant making the Telecaster obsolete before someone else did. He trusted the essence of its design – the screw-on neck and solid body. But in the inventor’s mind, other details such as the bridge, body shape, and pickups needed refinement. All those would be improved on the Stratocaster. Moreover, Leo would add a built-in vibrato system, a direct challenge to cross-town rival Paul Bigsby. Just as Homo Sapiens were the new, improved version of Homo Erectus, the Strat represented an evolutionary step in the Fender guitar, a new super model. To Leo, the audacious inventor, his new guitar was the design to end all designs.

Freddie Tavares, hired by Fender in ’53, remembered his first assignment with Leo was drawing different renditions of the Strat. Together they sketched lines for the body using the Precision Bass as a model, making many false starts and corrections. Leo had arrived at the bass’ profile through much trial and error, achieving the right balance by creating the body horns. Deep cutaways made the upper frets more accessible and reduced an instrument’s weight. Bill Carson, who was at the factory regularly during these weeks and tested the first prototype when it was ready, remembered Leo making several different versions of cutaways for the Strat body. Yet Freddie always maintained that the guitar’s outline came from the first drawings he and Leo made, not from experiments on wood. By the time Leo built the first prototype, he had decided on the degree of cutaway.

In addition to deep cutaways, the Strat had what Leo called “contours,” a scooped-out cut on the back and a smooth bevel on the front under the player’s arm. These sculptured areas allowed a snug fit to the player’s body and had been suggested by guitarist Rex Gallion. Tavares remembered Rex saying to Leo that a solidbody did not require an acoustic sound chamber and therefore did not require a squared-off body. He implored Leo, “Why not get away from a body that is always digging into your ribs?” Leo probably made bodies with different contours to test (and over the years the contours varied from deep to shallow).

The Strat’s contoured and deep-cutaway body gave the guitar its streamlined, modern appearance, but its hallmark was the built-in vibrato. Its shimmering steel-guitar-like effects were achieved in a way that minimized tuning problems associated with older units like the Kauffman Vibrola. The fresh vibrato came with a new-fashioned bridge. Fender, again seeking to outdo other designers, made each section adjustable for length and height. The prototype tested by Carson had intonation screws that adjusted from the pickup side