Rock guitar hero Jeff Beck remembers falling in love for the first time.
"I'd only ever seen Spanish-style or jazz guitars, and then I saw a Stratocaster," said Beck, 69, of his schoolboy crush. "I was fascinated by the shape, the double cutaways; it was all too cool. It had all these pickups and knobs and controls — it embodied all the excitement of modern living.
"A few years later I saw one in London hanging in a window, and the guy let me try it on," said the former member of the Yardbirds. "It fit me like it was made for me. That was it — we were married. I thought 'This is it,' and I never forgot it."
Virtually all musicians have a similar story surrounding their first high-quality instrument, and for many guitarists, that tender memory revolves around the Stratocaster.
The Strat, which was created by electric guitar innovator Leo Fender in his Fullerton workshop, turns 60 this year.
"I don't think there was ever one soloist or instrumentalist that didn't at some point have their sights set on a Strat, including me and everybody I knew," said ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons, whose solo on "La Grange" was played on one. "The Strat is really the global cornerstone, the reference point of the perception of the contemporary electric guitar."
Buddy Holly became the first major rock star to adopt the Strat as his career took off in the mid-1950s. It features prominently on the cover of his 1957 debut album, "The 'Chirping' Crickets," inspiring legions of followers to covet his guitar.
"It came out perfected, and ever since then we've been trying to copy it, improve it, enhance it," said Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who admires Strats even though he usually plays Fender Telecasters, the Strat's older sibling. "Most things get better over time, but not in this case. Leo did it all in one fell swoop, which is amazing."
The Strat's main rival for supremacy among rock guitar players is Gibson's Les Paul, named for, although not designed by, another celebrated technology experimenter. It was introduced by Gibson in 1952, in response to Leo Fender's success with the Telecaster, which debuted in 1951.
Clarence "Leo" Fender was born and raised in Orange County. He was a quintessential tinkerer whose mission through most of his 81 years sprouted from an innate drive to make a good thing better.
Guitars had been played for hundreds of years, but in the early 20th century, the rise of large-band ensembles playing popular music for dancing relegated the acoustic guitar to a supporting role. Various people experimented with amplifying guitars in the electric age so they could compete against louder instruments such as trumpets, trombones and saxophones.
But amplified acoustic instruments could get only so loud before the signal started feeding back, creating a distorted sound. The goal was to create an instrument without an open sound chamber that created feedback.
Fender came up with his company's first functional electric guitar in 1950, the single-pickup Esquire, a predecessor of the two-pickup Telecaster.
Despite the odd appearance, the new invention's versatility, reliability and affordability compared with other designs found quick acceptance among blues and country musicians of the early '50s. Ike Turner, whose band the Rhythm Kings recorded "Rocket '88'" in 1951, often cited as the first rock 'n' roll recording, was an early adopter of Fender electric guitars.
Fender looked for the next step beyond his Telecaster and soon developed the Stratocaster, a three-pickup guitar, creating more sonic possibilities. It was curvier, with cutaway sections on both sides of the guitar's neck that allowed players better access to the upper parts of the fret board, the body further contoured to more closely fit against a player's torso.
The Strat eventually went into the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its elegant design. Its look was a key part of what drew Bonnie Raitt, one of the first women to be recognized as a master of the electric guitar, to the Strat.