My wife made a mistake. For my birthday in February, she bought me a calendar from the Fender Custom Shop. I hung it on the wall directly behind my desk, right in my range of vision, and I have been gazing longingly ever since at beautiful guitars. My longing stayed within reason until I turned the page to April, and saw the Engraved Thinline Telecaster in flame maple. The clumsy copy below the calendar proper says “both nice to look at and a dream to play.”
“A dream to play” has been ringing in my head ever since, the way a phrase from ad copy will do. And two weeks ago, I drove to the nearest Guitar Center and sat down and started playing electric guitars for the first time in 30 years.
Beautiful Telecaster notwithstanding, I played only Stratocasters on that first visit. I have always been a Strat man. Here is a picture of a very nice one, from the current Fender website.
MY PARENTS BOUGHT ME MY FIRST STRATOCASTER when I was in junior high school, in about 1961. Those of you who know the marque will share my chagrin that I do not still have that model, now known as a “vintage” Stratocaster, and much desired. It had belonged to a country western musician, whose big belt buckles had torn up the sunburst finish on the back. I got a Fender Concert Amp with it, and instantly became a popular guy with the two other serious guitar players in my school, Roger Johnson and Bob Cohen. They used to invite me to play with them, mainly so they could use my amp, which was bigger and better than the ones they had.
We once played “Rebel Rouser” for a solid half hour in one of the boys’ bathrooms in our school.
The credit for inventing the solid body electric guitar gets claimed by both Les Paul and Leo Fender. Whoever did it, it happened in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The idea was simple, as Fender told me in an interview I did with him in 1970: “I think if you put the headstock of the guitar in your ear and you pluck the string, why, that’s the prettiest sound you can hear. It’s the pure sound of the string.”
In fact, a solid body improved the electric guitar a hundredfold, making it a totally different instrument from the former hollow body guitar with pickups which had been used in jazz, pop, and country music. Hollow bodies can add resonance. They can also limit how loud a guitar can be played, by introducing feedback and overtones.
Solid body electric guitar design settled into a certain form where it has stayed ever since: Two pickups (generally), one near the fingerboard for a mellow sound, one near the bridge for a twangier sound; a switch to select one pickup or the other (or both); a volume and a tone knob.
REMARKABLY, THE FOUR MAIN ELECTRIC GUITARS in use by about 1956 have stayed, in outer appearance and fundamental design, exactly the same. These are the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, and the Gibson Les Paul and ES-335. The Stratocaster achieved its preeminence in part because of a design feature — three pickups instead of two — and in part because of an accident: players discovered that you could get the selector switch to stick between the click settings for the forward and middle, and the middle and bridge, pickups, creating a different sound, with the two engaged pickups being out-of-phase. A five-position pickup switch is now standard.
And one more thing: The Strat’s volume knob lies very close to the right hand, when you’re playing, so you can curl your right little finger around it and roll it on after plucking a string, getting a steel or Hawaiian guitar effect.
Fender types and Gibson types constitute two branches of the same tribe — though big-time guitarists play both. There is certainly a difference in sound, the Gibson offering a bigger, broader tone, more violin-like, and Fender distinguished by its percussiveness. In addition, Gibsons are short-scale guitars, 24 7/8 inches between nut and bridge (string length, in other words). Fenders, long-scale guitars, measure 25 1/4 inches. Plus — another difference in the amplified sound characteristics — Fenders have single coil pickups, Gibson, double-coil.
A REVOLUTION TOOK PLACE in Fender and Gibson guitar manufacture at about the same time, in the mid-1960s — an unfortunate one. Leo Fender sold his company to CBS, and Gibson was sold to Norlin. Manufacturing standards slid palpably downhill. Everybody who was anybody would play only old, or “vintage” Fenders and Gibsons. Many players still insist on old instruments, and will pay the thousands of dollars such instruments command. Entire dealerships have sprung up to deal in such classic electric guitars.
Thankfully, both Fender and Gibson have since been taken over by more dedicated and interested instrument manufacturers, and quality today is very, very good in both lines. Fender guitars are made in Mexico, Japan, and the U.S., and are labeled by point of origin.
To my ears and my fingers, the new Fender guitars sound and feel very good. I’ve spent a several long sessions so far playing both the model called “the 60s Strat,” made in Japan, and “the American Strat,” made in the U.S.
When or if it comes time to buy, however, I will retire from the noisy main showroom of Guitar Center (or whatever other retailer), and ask for a practice room to myself, where I can lay an ear against the guitar’s body — my version Leo Fender’s “stick the headstock in your ear” — and listen to the pure sound of the string. I’ve owned a number of these guitars. Inevitably, the best-sounding ones have the solidest joint between body and neck, and the clearest, singingest sound of the unamplified string.
Find that, plug it in, and you just get a bonus.