It's sort of mind bending to think that the county responsible for nurturing the careers of such establishment-defending squares as Richard Nixon, Mike Carona and Deborah Pauley also produced a prolific harbinger of rock & roll. We speak of course of Leo Fender, instrumental creator of the Stratocaster and a seminal pioneer of guitar innovation. August 10 marks what would have been his 102nd birthday, but you can celebrate his birthday all month!
Born in Anaheim in 1909, Fender was a consummate tinkerer and got his start futzing with radios built from spare parts. He attended Fullerton High School and went on to study accounting at Fullerton College. Working from his small factory in Fullerton in the late 1940s, Fender set about creating a guitar that was comfortable to handle but was loud enough to compete with the army of instruments found in a big band.
Though he had his hand in the creation of multiple models of guitars, it is the Stratocaster that conjures images of fret boards aflame and has been cherished by a panoply of icons including Hendrix, Clapton, Corgan and Frusciante to name a few.
The curvaceous design of the guitar features a double cutaway body, which makes accessing the higher registers of the neck easier for shredding, and its balanced profile makes it more comfortable to handle whether slung across the shoulder or resting in the lap.
Though the contributions of rival axe-smith Les Paul are not to be diminished, there is something ineffably unique about the ring of the Stratocaster and other Fender guitars that make them immediately identifiable to even casual music aficionados.
For a demonstration of this unique sound quality, listen to clips of Pearl Jam's “Yellow Ledbetter,” Red Hot Chili Pepper's “Under the Bridge” and Jimi Hendrix's “3rd Stone From the Sun.” And while you're at it, here are five ways to celebrate Leo's special day.
5. Go visit his grave: Who says Orange County doesn't have any famous corpses in its hallowed ground? Go visit Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana to see otherwise.
4. Check out the Fullerton Museum: It's located in your own back yard and you've probably never visited (so many bars so close by are an overwhelming distraction). The museum features a permanent Fender gallery currently focused on his work with the Telecaster. This model is popular with country musicians for its twangy sound, but even punk rock musicians sing its praises including Face to Face's Trevor Keith. 301 N. Pomona Ave, Fullerton, 92832, (714)738- 6545.
3. Listen to Rubber Soul: This 1965 Beatle's album represents George Harrison's earliest efforts at recording with a Stratocaster. He would continue to use one frequently in subsequent performances, eventually giving one a psychedelic paint job and naming it Rocky. Check out this clip of Harrison describing his affinity for this venerable instrument.
2. Watch Goodfellas: A prime example of the Strat's long reach into popular culture, this 1990 Martin Scorsese film features one of filmdom's most epic murder-based montages. As gruesome images of freshly whacked mobsters roll on the screen in slow motion, Eric Clapton's soulful wailing from the song “Layla” plays. Carrying on the tradition of naming one's guitar, Clapton is said to have used a Stratocaster named “Brownie” for this jam. An immortal scene, homicide never sounded so inspired.
1 Enjoy this clip of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour playing Stratocaster with serial number 0001: Gilmour's never publicly said what he payed for this artifact, previously owned by band technician Phil Taylor. Gilmour reportedly told Guitarist magazine in 1986 that he lent Taylor the money to buy a house in exchange for the item. This clip shows Gilmour playing the instrument at Wembley stadium in 2004 for Fender's 50th anniversary. Notice the instrument's gorgeous, punchy resonance during the song's intro.
BONUS: The Requisite Jimi Hendrix Clip
What Fender guitar list would be complete without Jimi Hendrix getting freaky with his git box? Here he is at the Monterey Pop Festival. At about 4:50 things get a little strange. At 5:30 he demonstrates the old adage that says if you love a thing, set it free.