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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016

Rock 'n' roll icon turns 50

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Steven Clinton of SEMO Music Centerin Sikeston plays a riff on his favorite Stratocaster, a '94 model made in Japan.
SIKESTON - It wasn't the first electric guitar, or even the first solid body electric guitar. It wasn't even the first guitar Leo Fender designed and produced for the market.

But it is the first one people usually picture when they think of electric guitars, and area musicians are joining guitarists around the globe in celebrating a half century of Fender Stratocasters.

"The Strat turns 50 this year, probably in March or April," said Steve Clinton of the SEMO Music Center who, over the course of nearly 30 years as a musician, has owned about two dozen Stratocasters.

In those 50 years, the Stratocaster has gone from being merely a guitar to an icon of rock 'n' roll. From the roof of Collins Music in Sikeston to Hard Rock Cafes far and wide, giant Stratocasters say "rock 'n' roll" as clearly as red and white striped poles say "barbershop."

"Fender's first successful guitar was the 'Broadcaster,' but he had to change the name because Gretsch had drums trademarked with that name," Clinton said. Renamed the "Telecaster," it remains a very popular model to this day, especially with country music artists.

But it was the Stratocaster that made Leo Fender famous.

"It's the most copied guitar in history," Clinton said. "A very, very versatile instrument - from jazz, to blues, to rock, to country - all styles. It's the workhorse of the industry."

Competitors have tried for years, unsuccessfully, to come up with a more appealing design for electric guitars. "Now everybody makes some kind of 'Strat' design," Clinton said.

Fifty years later in an industry that competes heavily for artist endorsements, the Fender Stratocaster has no lack of high-profile endorsers. The list of "signature series" Strats reads like a "who's who" of rock and modern blues artists.

Clinton said, however, that the two artists that influenced the most people to buy a Strat were Buddy Holly, who was among the earliest to embrace the design with his '54 model, and Jimi Hendrix.

Images of Hendrix almost always show him playing a Stratocaster. A lefty, Hendrix flipped standard Strats over to play left-handed with its double cutaway providing easy access to notes which were inaccessible on most other guitar designs at the time. It is the guitar that he played with his teeth; the guitar he set on fire.

"Hendrix was the guy that made the Strat the most versatile guitar on the planet," Clinton said.

Clinton said at first, professional guitarists passed the Stratocaster up, favoring more expensive guitars made by Gibson and other companies until they saw the dynamic young guitarist do amazing things with his. "Hendrix just turned their heads, I guess," Clinton said.

The sound of George Harrison's gently weeping guitar was actually the sound of a Stratocaster as played by Eric Clapton.

With its bolt-on neck and easily-accessed innards via the large pickguard, the Strat is also a dream come true for those who like to tinker with their instruments.

"The Strat has been modified more than any other guitar," Clinton said. "With (Gibson) Les Pauls you usually leave them alone."

Among the most famous modified Strats is Clapton's "Blackie" which he assembled using the best parts from three Stratocasters purchased at a Nashville, Tenn., music shop in 1970, according to Clinton.

As Clinton looked over his current bullpen of Strats, two customers visited his shop. One could be young enough to be his son, the other old enough to be his father. Both of them own and play Fender Stratocasters.

Ryan Davis, 19, plays a late-model '50s reissue Fender Stratocaster. Davis said he prefers the feel of the Telecaster neck, "but I like the shape of the Strat," he said. "It's more comfortable to play."

Frank Jones, who describes his playing style as being in the Merle Travis vein, has an '83 Stratocaster.

"The only thing that beats a Strat is the Gibson 335," Jones declared.