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What Exciting New Technology Led to Rock 'n' Roll?

Surf Green Chevy

Fender’s Stratocaster truly spoke to the spirit of the times both in its appearance, which screamed modernity, and in its sound, which was bright, forward and in your face. This was an instrument with a sound just awaiting a new music to be born. And that music would be called “Rock and Roll.”

In time even the Stratocaster’s colors – originally only a rather staid brown fading into drab yellow  – jumped  into the Rock era when, starting in the late fifties, a purchaser was able to order their new Stratocaster in “custom” colors – which meant any color he or she wanted that was then available on an American automobile.

The “Surf Green” Stratocaster above, for instance, was painted a color most famously seen on what has become an equally iconic item: The 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.

Along with its iconic shape and its rockin’ colors “The Strat” (as it had come to be called) had numerous features that made it the ideal Rock and Roll guitar. Among these was its dual cutaway body –a design that gave the player easy access to the instrument’s upper frets. Another feature was the Strat’s three pickups (“PUP”s) – the electric sensors that ‘pick up’ the magnetic waves created by the guitar’s vibrating strings and send the resulting electrical signal to an amplifier to create the instrument’s sound.

On a Stratocaster the three PUPs could be used individually or, as guitarists themselves quickly discovered, with a little finagling in groups of two.  (Only in the mid-1970s did Fender finally change over to the five-way switch which made such finagling unnecessary).  These pickup combinations gave the instrument five distinct sounds which a creative musician could use to good effect, from bright, sparkling, leads to funky, bass filled, rhythms, and virtually anything in between.

A third feature of the Stratocaster – one which in time came to influence the very sound of Rock and Roll -- was the guitar’s ingenious, but oddly misnamed, “Tremolo Bar.” –A device, in fact, not for creating a tremolo effect (which is a wavering of the instrument’s volume), but a vibrato effect (a steel guitar-like wavering of the instrument’s pitch). As time passed Rock guitarists started using this device in ways Leo Fender, its designer, could scarsely have imagined. Making swooping, “dive bombing” --  sometimes even totally atonal -- bends in the music’s notes and chords

The Stratocaster permanently entered the public’s consciousness as the Rock and Roll guitar in the Summer of 1957 when Buddy Holly’s first hit, “That’ll Be the Day,” reached Number 1 on the US charts. The rest, as they say, is history.