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The Stratospheric Fender & the Stratocaster

B y S i n g u l a r N e w m a n

Where would the world be without guitars, without electric guitar sounds, the whine and echo and vibrancy of attenuated metallic strings? Where would we be without the sounds of the Beach boys, The Beatles, Elvis Presley? Would we live on the same planet? Would Earth still be revolving around the sun? Would the stars still shine? Well let’s not get that far into the future but let me say that this society, culture, just about everything around us as far as pop culture is concerned would be very different.

In Risky Business1), Tom Cruise would be running around in his underwear to a Mozart symphony perhaps? Stadiums would be filled with violin concert goers and piano lovers, as the guitar would be ignored and most likely forgotten in the fog of history.

For one, perhaps there would be no MTV, no VH1, no Rock-N-Roll concerts, no flaming stage shows and no Rolling Stones, no Kiss and no Van Halen, no flaming bleached blonde hair2) and no rocking and no rolling. Well I suppose we would survive, we would still revolve around the sun, birds would still be singing and fish would still be swimming and boys and girls would still be falling in love and I suppose we would be just fine, just a whole lot different that’s all. The planet would be cruising along to Sinatra and Vivaldi, pipe organs and violins, quite peaceful if you think about it.

Perhaps this alternate universe isn’t so hard to imagine if you ignore the one thing that made guitars famous. From the car to the store, from the movie theatre to the mall, videogames and trade shows, restaurants and public restrooms, presidential inaugurations and even church music, the electric pickup can be heard everywhere, permeating the world beneath and even reaching out into the vastness of space. No longer confined to a players arms, the electric pickup has given the guitar, electric wings. A journey that took the lonesome classic guitar and turned it into the instrument of choice for the world’s musicians.

The guitar just like all stringed instruments has always relied on the resonance factor. Simply put, the very sound coming from the guitar’s strings reverberate a thin acoustic surface, made of wood. In turn the small wooden surface, amplifies the vibrations caused by the strings as the players fingers strum across the chords. This action and reaction creates sound.

While quite sufficient for a small room or chamber that in turn resonates the sound farther, the guitar gets drowned out by a choir easily. As well, while the regular Spanish guitar is loud enough to be heard by a silent night crown, playing the guitar on a street corner or on a stadium will produce very poor results. The classical guitar simply doesn’t have the auditory volume to compete with the realities of large outdoor performances or mixed musical instrument orchestras.

The guitar was doomed to become just another instrument, forgotten by the pages of history, most composers choosing to write for the piano, organ or violin. Luckily that all rapidly changed, basically overnight, as the classical guitar entered the electric age. The man responsible for the classical guitar’s evolution from a secondary fiddle to superstar status is American Leo fender of Stratocaster3) fame and fortune!

Who was Leo Fender? If pressed I’d say he was a simple man, in the right place at the right time. As my ancestors that wrote the Torah once reflected in Ecclesiastes 9:11, “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

As the passage suggests, the race is not won by the swift but by those that were in the right place at the right time. In other words, Leo Fender would have remained a lowly radio repair man had he been born in the 1980’s. But as fate would have it, Clarence Leonidas Fender4) was born on August 10, 1909 in a barn on his parents’ orange grove farm, located between Anaheim and Fullerton California. By the time Leo became a teenager, the electronics and electric revolution was in full swing. The world he grew up in went through dramatic changes, his parents most likely having used horses for transportation and as Nikola Tesla hooked up the Niagara to an electric dynamo the world would never be the same.

Fender went to school to become an accountant but as far back as six, he showed great passion for electronics. Recalling his youth, Fender talked about a special radio his uncle had built in his auto parts shop. He would later remark that the sound that particular radio made, struck a fateful note in his young mind. Keeping his passion as a hobby, Leo went on to graduate as an accountant.

As fate would again be kind to Leo, his side hobby of fixing radios, PA systems and amps, developed into a successful business. It is in this manner that he became acquainted with local musicians that were entrusting him, with their amplifiers used in live musical performances. Word quickly spread, as to the quality and performance, of the Leo designed and serviced vacuum tube amps adding to his good reputation, and to make a long story short, Leo decided to go into business for himself. His decision was made easier no doubt, his job as an accountant for the California Highway Department having expired suddenly, due to the Great Depression raging in America at the time.

As the desert rose blossoms, in 1946 at the young age of 37, Leonidas Fender opens up shop in Fullerton California. Fender Electric Instrument Company would go on to revolutionize the entire world, one note at a time.

According to people that got to know him, Fender was somewhat shy and introverted, a mark of a true genius may I add, as Einstein and Tesla5) were much the same.

A perfectionist at heart, Leo spent countless hours refining his inventions, of which there were many. At first Leo concentrated his efforts on designing better tube amplifiers. Paying close attention to his customers needs, he became exposed to the idea of creating a better sounding electric guitar, a guitar that would solve the feedback loop problem.

A feedback loop is created when, the electric guitar signal being amplified by the electric amplifier, travels back and starts resonating with the body and strings of the guitar itself, creating a loud and may I add intolerable, extremely high pitched sound. Fender solved this issue by making the guitar body out of solid wood rather than using a customary resonating cavity as used by the classic Spanish guitar. To allow for high note fret access on the finger board, he also redesigned the top of the guitar body, by cutting into it on both sides, giving the new guitar a lighter body as well as killer curves. To top it off, he added a bridge device that was attached to a vibrato bar, allowing much increased freedom of pitch emulation and tonal customization. It was an instant hit with Jazz players, the great Charlie Christian being one of the earliest adopters.

The pace of musical instrument innovation, historically takes centuries and even millennia to transform. However, as I mentioned previously, the place and time were perfect for Leo’s ideas. California in the early 40’s and 50’s was the birthplace of modern electronics technology. The booming electronics manufacturers and US defense contractors were a dime a dozen on the California landscape in those days.

The radio and TV movement owes a major part of its development to war time technology, and huge government investments into high technology applications, being rapidly implemented and mass produced virtually overnight.

I give Leo much credit however, one, because he was not professionally trained in electronics and is self taught, and second, because regardless of the catalyzing environment he was immersed in, his designs and technique and sheer quality of his inventions have stood the test of time and the immense scrutiny that comes when hundreds of thousands of people use your products. A third and the greatest credit in my opinion, is due Leo because, and I was shocked to hear this, Leonid Fender was not even a guitar player. This in my book, is the equivalent of a plumber designing a Ferrari engine, and I am not trying to flush on any ex plumber Ferrari engineers here.

Through his applied genius, he revolutionized the world of the electric guitar and the world at large right along with it. As we all know, the musical explosion that followed, known as Rock N Roll, rode the high wave of the electric string symphonies being played by the likes of the king himself, Elvis Aaron Presley6) and the man who really showed the world how to play an electric guitar, Jimmy Hendrix7), both fans of Fender.

It is simply beautiful, and marvelously simple. A man so in tune with his passion, he is able to reach further into the outer reaches of his imagination universe, and materialize this idea into reality, so that we could all go to where no man has gone before. The imprint this simple invention left on the whole world is inestimable. In terms of change values, I would rate the invention of the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, right next to the moon landing, assuming that it really happened and Stanley Kubrick didn’t film it in a studio.

By itself the electric guitar has made possible the broadcast of live music on a scale unprecedented. Its sound quality and aesthetic has permeated every corner of God’s green earth. Starting with Anno Domini 1946 on forward, we shall continuously hear the sound, made by Fender’s electric guitars, well except come hell or high water that is, or I suppose if the Sun throws up an X class flare to short circuit all electrical transformers on the planet. Short of that, nothing will stop the Fender.

This new sound, rained over all, creating a hurricane of new music, the world is still twisting and shouting into. Introduced in 1954, the Stratocaster was the world’s first commercially viable solid body electric guitar. It was as well the first successfully mass produced Spanish style electric guitar. Not revolutionary but rather evolutionary, the Stratocaster introduced three single coil pickups with staggered pieces, a Synchronized Tremolo, six fully adjustable individual saddles, a “Whammy” vibrato bar8) that allows the live turning of a string’s pitch, and finally a more ergonomic, fully contoured body. Most importantly the Stratocaster is much lighter than its main competitor, to this day, the Gibson Electric guitar. It allows the user a more lively stage performance, not to mention it is much easier on the most often frail body frame of a young Rock- N-Roll idol.

Perhaps the most important design aspect was the double cutaway of the body, allowing the guitarist much greater overall access to the high chords. A more ergonomic shape, being roughly half the depth of a standard Spanish guitar, allows for more spirited playing. For example Charlie Christian used to play it behind his head, while doing the splits! I would not recommend trying that with a mahogany solid body Gibson.

The second most important design aspect is that of having three single coil pickups. This setting allows more tonal depth and clarity to be redistributed to the amplifier. Many musicians prefer this to any other guitar available.

Fast forward fifty seven years later, the Stratocaster is still the most widely used and played Electric Guitar on earth. This tremendous loyal following, is quite a testament to its genius construction.

The Stratocaster uses mainly Ash and Alder woods which are fairly light as compared to the heavy Mahogany wood used in the Gibson. Both woods are as well, widely available in North America, making them ideal for mass production.

Fender is today a privately held company and the actual numbers are secret, but using the web I was able to come up with a few figures, as to how many Guitars Fender sells every year. According to a few bloggers on a tdpri.com 9) an open forum, the Fender Corporation sells between three hundred and five hundred thousand guitars every year. Assuming every guitar goes through at least twenty pounds of wood, the total amount of wood Fender needs every year is in the neighborhood of roughly ten million pounds of wood. The average harvesting weight of a maple tree trunk being that of two thousand pounds, I assume that Fender needs around five thousand trees annually to fulfill their production quota.

According to the new Portland State Institute for Sustainable Solutions, Portland State University’s paper usage comes in at around two thousand trees yearly, therefore Fender’s tree usage is minimal and of no concern. However, I would encourage the company to look into tree farming as soon as possible, in order to offset the environmental impact.

Leonid Fender strikes me as the born tinkerer, sort of like an old grandfather, picking up his grand child’s toy and saying, here kiddo, let me take a look at that, see if I can make it better.

Now looking back at my own history, the first time I laid eyes on a Fender guitar, I was hooked. I stood and stared, I remember thinking that this guitar is not my father’s guitar, not that he had one but my grandfather did and it didn’t look like this.

The first one I saw was a customized model, painted a sports car metallic red with gold flakes and chrome hardware. It showed some serious wear and had scratches and marks on it. It was heavy, and I was about four so it was taller than me by a bit. I knew right away this was a serious tool. A real music mans tool. It attracted me and I wanted to hold it, to caress its metallic strings. It was a base guitar and the strings were hard and course. Reminded me of piano wires.

I had no idea this design was invented half a century before I was even born. It looked to me like the latest design available. Perhaps it is my designer’s eye or my attention to detail but I immediately realized that this instrument was different from the rest. That feeling didn't change to this day. An instant classic, it is a true American legend.

This design is instantly recognizable and has become an icon of our civilization. If I had to name the most memorable design of the 20th and 21st the Stratocaster would be right up there with the 57’ Chevy10), The Colt 191111), the Chuck Taylor sneaker12) and the Coke bottle. Now if you combined all four you’d have yourself a real Rock star!

Amongst the most famous players of the Fender Stratocaster are Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton and the King himself Elvis Presley. With a list of clients like those you need nothing more. The genius of Leo Fender will live on forever, cemented thoroughly in musical as well as popular culture. It is the benchmark upon which all the rest will be judged, starting with the year it was introduced.

Frankly, as far as electric guitars are concerned, I do not believe that this design will ever be beaten or even equaled for that matter. It is as timeless as a three piece suit or a pair of round eye glasses like the ones John Lennon and Le Corbusier used to wear. Ergonomic and easy to use, it is a perfected musical tool, in my opinion, the last iteration in the long line of string instruments.

According to the Holy Hebrew Torah, the father of all string instruments such as the harp and the lute, was a man by the name of Jubal13), he was the son of Lamech, the son of Methusael, the son of Irad, the son of Enoch, the son of Cain, the son of Adam, the first man created by The Divine. Basically in roughly six thousand years of documented history, starting with the representative of the sixth generation in history, Mr. Jubal, Leo Fender and Mr. Gibson share the top honors in the all time Guitar hall of fame.

I don’t know what the future will bring but it most likely, will involve all electronic and perhaps electro kinetic instruments14) like the Theremin15). I don’t believe that natural materials like wood, metal and the human touch will ever be combined together in such perfect order. An instant legend, the guitar Leo Fender built, will forever shine brightly wherever and whenever a lonely musician with an amp and a constant electron stream come together. In closing, I have included a few quotes, by musicians that have had their lives, forever transformed by the electrifying power of the Stratocaster.

“If you took all the country and western music there is in the world, & took Rock'n'Roll, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and SRV and then took away the Stratocaster, you wouldn't have much left”. Steve Miller16)

“The Strat is like picking up a Stradivarius and saying, ok, now I'm in the big league. This is the big boy's tool, you know. This is no Toy. This is the hardware department”. Keith Richard

“How do I explain the appeal of the Stratocaster? It's sort of like how you pick a person that you wanna hang out with - it just fits”. Bonnie Raitt

“My first wife said, 'It's either that guitar (Strat) or me', you know - & I give you three guesses which one went”. Jeff Beck

“It's like going home”. “I've moved around with many guitars and tried many different things, and I've always come back to the Stratocaster” Eric Clapton

“The Stratocaster's definitely a modern work of art…..Just look at one- it's better than a painting to me”. Jeff Lynne

“It's difficult to say now what it was like seeing that Stratocaster in the flesh for the first time. It's pretty old hat now because everybody's seen so many, but at the time it was like seeing an instrument from another planet”. Hank Mavin

“The Strat just has its own thing. When you put it on, it's like putting on a pair of shoes”. Jimmy Vaughan

Bibliography

The Hebrew Torah The Holy Bible, King James Version of 1611 http://acapella.harmony-central.com/showthread.php?2062326-Great-Stratocaster-Quotes http://robertlloydrussell.blogspot.com/2010/06/strings-and-wind-instruments.html http://www.pdx.edu/sustainability/paper-taskforce http://www.tdpri.com/forum/bad-dog-cafe/85673-how-many-guitars-does-fender-sell-per-year.html http://www.freeinfosociety.com/site.php?postnum=808 http://vsap.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/fender-vs-gibson-age-old-comparison-never-fails-for-good-argument/ http://www.ricklollar.com/hfair/old/index.htm http://www.arizonaforthompson.com/227/leo-fender-and-his-guitars/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_coil http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/239519/gibson_les_paul_standard_vs_fender_pg2.html?cat=19 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Gibson_Guitar_Corporation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Fender http://www.fender.com/news/index.php?display_article=359 http://jodycarver.com/book.html


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