I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Fender Stratocaster
The Fender Stratocaster is a versatile guitar, one of the most famous instruments in the world. Players in every music genre have found a way to put it to work and squeeze out incredible tones. From rock to blues and even heavy metal the Strat comes through again and again.
Some pretty talented guitar heroes have relied on the Stratocaster since it was first introduced back in the1950s. Maybe your favorite guitar player uses a Strat. Heck, maybe you play a Strat. But did you ever stop to wonder why?
Sure, the Fender Stratocaster, with its double-cutaway design, three pickups, and flat, solid body, was a pretty innovative instrument when it first came out so many decades ago. But today the original Strat design has been improved upon by just about every guitar maker under the sun, and even by Fender themselves.
Still, the basic Stratocaster, built around that original style, is one of the most beloved guitars on the planet.
Of course, there are reasons. The first is because Fender makes a darned good guitar. Even the best Strat clones don’t quite copy the vibe of a real Fender Stratocaster.
The second reason is the guys you’re going to read about in this article. These are some of the most influential guitarists in history and every one of them did or does play a Fender Stratocaster.
There is a reason they chose the Strat as the guitar they’d make history with. And if it’s good enough for them, well, you know.
Here are some of the most influential guitarists to ever wield a Fender Stratocaster.
Eric Clapton is, without a doubt, one of the best guitarists of all time, and a musician forever linked to the Fender Strat. Particularly during his time with Cream, Clapton opened up new avenues and ideas for electric guitar players everywhere.
Thing is, back then he was playing a Les Paul! His legendary solos on the Beatles’ song While My Guitar Gently Weeps was recorded with a Les Paul. During his early career, he played everything but a Strat, including Telecasters, Jazzmasters and the Gibson SG. It wasn’t until 1969 that he switched to the Stratocaster.
Everyone knows the now-famous story. Clapton bought a bunch of Stratocasters, took them apart, and assembled the best pieces of each into the guitar he would name Blackie. In the years that followed, Clapton cemented his status as one of the greatest guitarists ever and spent the next decades wielding a Stratocaster.
Hendrix certainly deserves mention as one of the most iconic Stratocaster players ever. He was a left-handed guitarist, but good luck finding a leftie guitar in the 1960s.
He sometimes played a Gibson Flying V, which helped due to its symmetrical body design, but more often he played an upside-down Stratocaster, strung in reverse. It became the classic Jimi look, and for a while, Fender even made a custom guitar for right-handed players with a reversed body.
As a guitarist, Hendrix would change it all. Musicians like George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards gravitated to his shows to soak in the new sound he had created. Jimi played a lot of different Strats during his career, and his on-stage antics matched his wild, innovative playing style.
He burned his Strats, threw them, and played them upside down and behind his head. The white Woodstock Strat is probably his most famous.
A Strat is Born
There are few names more synonymous with the Stratocaster than Jeff Beck, though he made his mark as much with the Gibson Les Paul as he did his Fenders.
Widely thought of as one of the most innovative guitarists of all time, Beck’s genre-spanning style encompasses everything from jazz to hard rock. After early commercial success with the Yardbirds, he built an impressive body a solo work and project albums that has influenced generations of young musicians.
Beck’s playing is known for its expressiveness, which may explain why he has gravitated to the Strat. He plays with his fingers, not a pick, and the layout of the Strat allows easy access to the volume knob and the vibrato arm for a player unencumbered by a plectrum.
Of course, all we can do is speculate, as getting into the mind of such a legendary guitarist and trying to figure out what makes him tick is beyond the abilities of mere mortals.
Buddy Holly wasn’t a guitar virtuoso, and when compared to the other musicians on this list it might seem like he doesn’t belong. However, without him the Stratocaster may not be where it is today.
Holly was the first artist of any fame to be seen with the Strat, which was quite a new-fangled design at the time. His appearance on television programs such as the Ed Sullivan Show, and in concert, with this wild new Fender guitar no doubt contributed to the popularity of the instrument.
While Holly may not have had the chops of those whom he would influence, his songwriting and rhythm style played a huge part in molding the sound of early rock music, and everything that came after. Holly played a few different Strats, but the most revered is a stock ’58 model that now resides at the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas.
He’s the father of neo-classical shred, and an influence on every heavy metal guitarist who has picked up the instrument in the past 30 years, whether they know it or not.
First with proto-metal legends Deep Purple, and then with Rainbow, Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar playing was the next big step for a hard rock world still happily dazed by the contributions of Hendrix and Clapton. Of course, since 1970 he’s been doing it with a Fender Stratocaster, or we wouldn’t be talking about him here!
Blackmore’s experimentation with classical music influenced players like Yngwie Malmsteen and Randy Rhoads, two guitarists who would go on to further cement the connection between metal and the classical genre. Indeed, without him, it’s hard to imagine modern metal today.
Forever the innovator, Blackmore went on to form Blackmore’s Night, which furthers his exploration of classical and medieval music.
The Blackmore Strat
Pink Floyd was, without a doubt, about the trippiest band that ever existed. But behind the psychedelic sounds and head-scratching lyrics is the smooth lead guitar work of David Gilmour. Gilmour’s main guitars through the years have been Fender Strats, heavily customized with aftermarket pickups and other swapped-out parts.
Those who aren’t so into the ‘Floyd vibe may have to dig a little to get to Gilmour’s best work, but the journey is well worth it. He’s an innovator, the kind of guitar player who made his mark not only with his skills as a musician but with his imaginative engineering of tone and sound.
Gilmour’s most legendary instrument has been in his arsenal since 1969 and is known simply as The Black Strat. The guitar underwent numerous modifications over the years and is the subject of a 2008 book by Gilmour’s guitar tech, Phil Taylor.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
For non-guitarists, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s music is most recognized for catchy chorus sections and shuffling rhythms. Indeed, Vaughan’s songs got a lot of radio play in the ‘80s and early ‘90s and are still popular to this day.
But if you are a guitar player you also recognize SRV for two additional things: Insane blues chops and mind-blowing tone. Ever since Vaughan hit the scene players have been trying to find ways to get their Stratocasters to sound more like his. Soon enough we all learn: There is more to tone than the guitar.
Vaughan played a few different Strats, but Number One is by far his most famous. It’s a ’62 body with a ’63 neck and rosewood fingerboard. The tremolo is reversed, apparently for ease of use, and the pickguard features SRV’s initials.
Stevie was said to be very rough with his guitars, and today Number One shows the scars of abuse and countless repairs. He played the guitar live and on every studio album from 1973 until his unfortunate death in 1990.
Eddie Van Halen
Unless you’ve been living under a Marshall 4x12 cabinet for the last thirty years, you know Eddie Van Halen is high up on the list of most influential guitarists in the history of the universe. Like Hendrix before him, his playing brought in a fresh new batch of amazing sounds.
It goes without saying that Van Halen has been an innovator that guitarists have been trying to copy since Van Halen’s debut album back in the 1970s. But his gear is almost as ground-breaking as his skills.
So, did Eddie Van Halen play a Stratocaster? Well, sort of. Eddie loved the feel and playability of a Strat but wanted a thicker tone, so he went to work building what he needed. The result of his mad-scientist tinkering was the Frankenstein Strat, a guitar made from aftermarket Stratocaster parts, a Gibson PAF pickup and Fender hardware.
Many guitarists in the 1970s were already finding ways to stick a humbucker on a Stratocaster, but Eddie’s success arguably paved the way for the Super Strats of the 1980s. Eddie went on to make custom guitars with Ernie Ball, Peavey and later under his own brand, but many hallmarks of the classic Strat can still be seen in his instruments.
Yngwie Malmsteen is one of the most amazing classical/metal guitarists who ever walked the earth, known for his incredible technique and lightning-fast playing. He began his career in bands like Steeler and Alcatraz but his solo album Rising Force would launch him into the stratosphere as a neo-classical shred legend.
Even today, thirty years after its release, Rising Force is regarded as one of the best pure guitar albums ever made, especially in the metal genre.
Malmsteen’s Duck Stratocaster was long his instrument of choice. The Duck is a white 1971 Strat with a scalloped maple fingerboard, custom pickups, and other mods. Yngwie did the scalloping himself as a teenager, after learning the technique from a violin maker.
Duck got its name from the Donald Duck sticker on the headstock, and over the decades it’s taken a beating, endured many repairs and faded to a yellowed finish. Today it looks about how a well-loved Strat should!
What does the most legendary heavy metal band in the world know about Stratocasters? In the old days, Maiden almost always had a Strat onstage in the hands of at least one of their guitarists.
When you look at their music, it makes sense. ‘Maiden’s sound is heavily driven by the bass of monster musician Steve Harris. Harris is one of the best bassists in metal history, and the midrange rip of Iron Maiden’s guitar sounds complement his low end perfectly. The Fender Stratocaster is the right tool for the job.
Today, Iron Maiden’s guitar trio of Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers still all play Strats in some shape or form. Murray’s guitars feature either a pair of humbuckers or Hot Rails pickups, a maple fingerboard and a Floyd Rose. Janick Ger’s main Strat features Seymour Duncan pickups. Adrian Smith historically played a Stratocaster, but even now his Jackson-made Custom Signature Model sure looks a lot like a Strat.
Adrian Smith's Custom Jackson
Thanks to the influence of Eddie Van Halen, it’s probably fair to say that most hard rock guitarists in the ‘80s grew up playing hot-rodded Stratocasters. However, by the time they hit it big with their first album most had graduated to a super strat made by someone besides Fender, often a custom model built to the wishes of the musician.
In many cases, it’s easy to see the influence the Strat had on the custom specs these guys requested in their gear. Richie Sambora was no different. However, unlike most others, he eventually returned to the Fender Stratocaster, and is now firmly linked to this iconic guitar.
Sambora’s Stratocasters aren’t exactly stock; they feature the Floyd Rose bridges and humbuckers you’d expect for hard rock music. Fender has released several signature models over the years. These days, while Sambora himself has moved on to endorse another guitar company, it’s still tough to picture him with anything but a Fender Stratocaster.
Me and Maybe You
Here’s one more musician who loves the Fender Stratocaster and depends on it for his sound: Yours truly! Okay, so maybe I'm not fit to carry any of these guys' practice amps, but the Strat is for everyone looking for great tone, even you and me.
I’ve played a lot of different guitars during my three decades as a musician, mostly Les Pauls and superstrats. One day it struck me: Just about every guitar player I admire plays a Stratocaster. Most of them are on the list above. So, I took another look at my Strats and what they could do for my sound, and eventually, they became my main guitars.
So what about you? Are you a Strat person? Do you want to be a Strat person? If the musicians in this article don’t convince you, I guess nothing will! These days Fender makes a Strat for every level of player, from inexpensive Squiers, to custom-shop models. If you want a Strat, what’s stopping you?
Hey, don’t worry. If you’re stuck in the Les Paul world I understand. There are days when I hear Gibson calling me back, that’s for sure! I guess the great thing about being a guitarist is that there are many different guitars, one for every mood and style. It doesn’t make sense to commit to just one. But if you were going to commit to one, the Fender Stratocaster isn’t a bad choice!
Jim quinn on November 21, 2019:
If it hadn’t been for Hendrix fender would have went bust,Check the facts guys
Mike Lopiccolo on July 14, 2019:
I'm glad Buddy Holly made the list since indeed he was the one to put the Strat on the map. He played rhythmic style lead guitar. Without Buddy's large influence on those boys across the Atlantic, I seriously doubt we see the likes of any of of the other great guitarist mentioned here.
dyemy andré on December 04, 2018:
The 1962´s fender stratocaster of John Frusciante, icon...
Liam on February 21, 2018:
You forgot Mark Knopfler
keith riches on October 06, 2017:
I have been a Beck fan since before his Yardbirds career I have seen most of the famous guitarist including Jim H but none compare to the guitar god Jeff , although he would not agree with me a truly modest man of supreme talent.He should have been recognised more by the British Public but I suspect he has been offered the title which he probably told them where to stick it.Hope he never retires or what else would I be able to listen too with such passion, many thanks Jeff for 6 decades of true entertainment.
John on July 01, 2017:
I have a1964 statocaster and it is by far the best guitar i ever played!
Michael James (author) on October 05, 2015:
Sounds awesome, Kev! And that's one of the great things about the Fender Stratocaster - mix and match parts!
Kev on October 03, 2015:
I have been a Strat guy from my teens. I started with the great Japanese Strats to the MIA guitars. Now take the parts I like the best and just put it together.
Michael James (author) on March 04, 2015:
You're welcome Jan. Don't worry so much and enjoy your new guitar. Remember: Great players make good guitars sound great! Good luck!
Jan on March 03, 2015:
Thanks again Guitar Gopher! I didn't know a lot about guitars when I bought my MIM Strat a month ago.. I like it very much but now I wonder if I should have held out and waited to afford an American Strat. I just want to learn on a great guitar and I guess the American Strat is just worth more.. Well anyway, I am going to play around with my MIM for awhile and see if I'm happy with it.. I really didn't know there was any difference in the 2 guitars when I first went looking.. that is how naïve I was! Thanks for your input Guitar Gopher.
Michael James (author) on March 02, 2015:
You're welcome, Jan! Sounds like you are looking for some reasons to feel good about choosing an MIM Strat. Here's my 2 cents: I feel the MIM Strat is a great guitar and I have one myself. I like it a lot, and wouldn't hesitate to use it for recording or gigs. Is it a good enough guitar for just about anything you want to do with it, including become a successful musician? You betcha.
However, "comparable" isn't really the right word when it comes to the MIA Strat. American Strats include better components, better woods, better craftmanship, etc. Generally speaking, they are better guitars. But they also cost more.
So, the question to ask yourself is: "Do I really need to spend the cash on a superior American Fender when an MIM Fender is a darned good guitar?" For some people the answer is yes, for others it is no. Neither is wrong.
Jan on March 02, 2015:
Thank you Guitar Gopher... do you feel the MIM Strat today is comparable to the American made ones?
Michael James (author) on February 28, 2015:
Hi Jan. These guys made their marks before the MIM Strat even existed, so no. However, today Fender does have a few signature models that are MIM and even in the Squier lineup.
Jan on February 27, 2015:
Does (did) any of the greats play a Mexican Fender Strat? Just curious!
Eduardo 1957 on December 23, 2014:
Brilliant Article, took me back through the years
Michael James (author) on December 11, 2013:
Thanks chasmac! I'll have to give some thought to a Les Paul article. I think I can come up a few guitarists who'd fit right in.
chasmac from UK on December 11, 2013:
This is a great hub about a great guitar. Very informative and readable. Most of my (electric) guitar heroes use a strat and are somewhere in your list. I can't think of many that I associate with Gibson Les Pauls, though, apart from Jimmy Page. Maybe you should do a Les Paul follow-up hub.