by Art Piccio . December 4th, 2015
Ask any random layman on the street to draw an electric guitar, and chances are the iconic Fender Stratocaster shape will be the one they make.
The perennially futuristic-looking Stratocaster, or “Strat” as many guitar players call it, was first sold over 60 years ago. While it wasn’t the first electric guitar by any means, it introduced a number of groundbreaking design features that took the music world by storm. Here’s a short intro to this model’s early history.
The previously unheard-of ergonomics (officially referred to in Fender literature as the “Comfort Contour Body”), versatile range of sounds that could cover anything from disco funk, to psychedelia, to dreamscape 50’s pop to death metal, and its pioneering bridge design which allowed a previously unattainable range types of expression also contributed to its long-term popularity.
Wayne’s World (1993); NBC Films via Paramount Pictures
This particular guitar has made a huge dent on popular culture, with strats and their variants the most common and most sold electric guitars in the world today.
They are such a fact of life that you hardly notice that they were designed in an era just 10 years after WW2, using technology that was basically around since the 1930’s.
Tremolo device for stringed instruments US 2741146 A
You can now get guitars with essentially the same design for anywhere from $100 all the way to the low millions.
Funny enough, a number of its features, as with its predecessor the Telecaster, were born out of the desire to keep costs down. These included the mass-produced slab bodies and bolted on necks, where other guitars had arched or carved bodies carefully crafted by artisans and had painstakingly glued neck joints.
Paints for Fender strats were also either only sunbursts, or whatever the Ditzler or DuPont catalog had at the time – which is why many early instruments had the exact same colors as whatever cars were coming out of Detroit’s once dominant automobile industry.
But perhaps one of the Stratocaster’s most interesting design features was one it originally never had, and one most laymen never really think about — the controversial “big headstock”. The first few models had headstocks (the part of the instrument that holds the string tuning pegs) like this:
In January 5, 1965, the CBS corporation – a broadcasting company, bought out Fender. This era is generally agreed to have been the worst for quality control, but also produced interesting developments.
CBS instituted a wide number of changes to Fender’s corporate structure and processes. A few notable changes were made to specific parts of the Stratocaster design, the most obvious of which was the headstock.
Functionally, the new Fender strat headstocks were the same. The biggest difference was the larger size – around 10% larger than the previous ones, and the funkier shape. Some theorize the resulting increase in mass or surface area helped the instruments “sustain” notes longer, though this is still debated. This unproven benefit nonetheless was advertised by Fender from the late 60’s through the 70’s.
Less obvious — but more critical — would be larger fonts on the decals. The logo was now a bolder black instead of silver with black details. The thin “Stratocaster” model name became much bolder and in-your-face. A “bullet” truss rod adjustment later completed the now far less minimalist design.
These changes happened gradually, as old supplies and stocks got depleted and as more meddling was done to the design.
The new Fender strat headstock used a bit more wood, and made the whole guitar less-balanced looking for many. The decals especially, were not as conventionally “balanced” looking as the old design. Most graphic designers here would probably prefer the old decals.
Remember that CBS also had a significant stake in television broadcasting. The old small silver font decals simply didn’t show up clearly on the black and white TV sets of the time.
“The rationale was simple,” says Richard Smith, author of Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World.
In order to make the Fender logo more visible on television — and theoretically so they could sell more guitars — CBS ordered a redesign of the headstock so it could accommodate a bigger, more TV-friendly logo. In a time before online shopping and reviews, mass marketing though radio and television was often the way to go.
In this video from 1963, four of the musicians have pre-CBS Fender instruments. You couldn’t see the logos on them very clearly.
Contrast that with this 1972 video. The bolder font on the CBS-era Fender strat headstock is actually legible at times:
Granted, television cameras had improved as well in the intervening years, but most television sets would not have had the capability to reproduce pictures as clearly as we normally enjoy these days. Even with a cleaner signal and nicer picture quality from the camera end, not all TV’s would have been clear anyway. The old headstock decals would still be indistinct on black and white, given they were silver.
There was no intention to actually improve the design sonically, or otherwise improve on the quality and ergnomics — all of which many argue deteriorated during the 15 odd years the large headstock became standard not just for strats but for many of other Fender’s guitars as well.
To be clear, there are actually several versions of the Stratocaster headstock, of which a few are below. These span the time from when the Stratocaster was first produced, up to just after the end of the CBS era in the 80’s. Because the picture’s in black and white, it’s clear that the versions with bigger, bolder decals are indeed much more visible, not just for TV, but likely for the product catalogs available at the time as well.
Today, there are hundreds of different versions of both the large and small headstocks from both Fender and its less creative competitors, and each camp has its vocal fans, though right now most seem to dislike the large headstocks.
It’s been well over 60 years after the Stratocaster was designed, and 50 years after the headstock was first changed. But designers still face the same issues they’ve always had: understanding form, function, economic necessity, emerging technologies, competitors, fickle bosses, and a fickle market — and creating something that is truly worth more than the sum of its parts.
Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.
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