RARE FIND ’54 STRATOCASTER
By Dean Thomas
Recently at Christies in New York a Stradivarius violin sold for a record US$3,544,000. And while this Stratocaster isn’t worth that much yet, I have always seen the ‘54’s as the Stradivarius of guitars. Even their popular names, Strad/Strat, are similar. And the ’54’s are the real deal, not the birth but the fulfilment of the dream. The birth was the Telecaster. The Stratocaster was the guitar that brought it all together.
My favourite ‘54’s are the ones made before the Stratocaster went into full factory production in November of that year. These earlier models have a real hand-made feel to them. For example, sometimes the body contours are not perfect and show a few ripples in the carved out areas. And all the sharp edges on the neck and headstock are rounded off by hand, a nice touch that had to be dropped when they started making a lot of them. These earlier guitars are like prototypes. They were often made for players to take out on the road and give the factory feedback on the new model and that’s why they are not always perfectly finished.
Imagine what it would have been like to play one in 1954. There was nothing else remotely like it. As its name implied, the Stratocaster could have come from beyond the stratosphere. For the first time the guitar player at the back would have attracted more attention than the singer out in front. Well, there was that wild shape, a futuristic bit of industrial design that literally caused mouths to drop open. Then there was the extravagance of three pickups instead of one or two. The simplicity of the bolt-together design, so unlike the traditional craft of instrument making. And a tremolo (or vibrato) system that for the first time actually worked and came back in tune, no matter how hard you pushed the arm.
And there were some extra Strat tones that were accidentally discovered by players. The Strat had a three-way switch (the gear stick) that allowed players to select the different pickups. If you jammed the gear stick in between the set positions you got an out-of-phase blend of two pickups, giving a possibility of five different sounds.
The tonal range made possible with three pickups, the out-of-phase sounds and a tremolo arm that allowed for big string bends would over time let players like Buddy Guy, Hank Marvin, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix create a new instrument with the Strat. Certainly the sounds they made were unlike any you could get from a mere guitar.
This took a long time to happen but the amazing thing is, when the players were ready to go there this guitar, first made in 1954 and virtually unchanged since then, was able to go with them. It was more versatile that anyone, even its creators at Fender, could have possibly imagined.
It has been estimated that around 300 Strats were made before the guitar went into full factory production in November ’54. Those early Strats are very important, historical instruments that will only become more valuable as time goes by. It is not inconceivable
that they will one day be as valuable as a Stradivarius violin. Especially when you think how few of those 300 would have survived intact. Also destined for future value shock is any Stratocaster from the 1950’s. While the production models don’t have the quirks and hand-made feel of the first guitars, they are still beautifully made and are selling for record prices. Indeed, all old Fender Strats and Teles in original condition have at least doubled in price over the last year. In some ways, it’s a shame because they are more difficult for players to acquire but it had to happen. Violin players have suffered this indignity for centuries and the solid-body electric guitar, just over 50 years old, is coming of age.
Soon only institutions (or people who should be in one) will buy them and they will be lent to deserving players or locked away in collections. Or players will have to choose between investing in an instrument or a house. Or if you are a true prodigy, perhaps a kindly benefactor will buy you one. These scenarios are already a fact of life for violinists. Read the book, An Equal Music by Vicram Seth.
Martin Cilia of the Atlantics doesn’t have this problem as he bought his ’54, shown here, years ago. They were expensive then but still vaguely affordable. Martin’s Strat was made in May ’54 and its serial number is 0256. Over many years of collecting, Martin has at owned a ‘50’s Strat from every year. He says the ’54 is the best sounding one he has ever had and he sold some other ‘50’s Strats to buy it. According to Martin, the neck is perfect, it always stays in tune and it’s in original condition, except for the frets, which were redone by Piers Crocker.
By chance the other day I was talking to a friend who was involved in the production of the latest Atlantics recording. He didn’t know I was writing this story. Oddly enough, the first thing he mentioned was the sound Martin got out of his ’54.
That’s what you pay for.
Our thanks go to Dean Thomas for allowing us to reproduce his article on this site.