Even after all these years, William "Bugzy" Boyer remembers it as the best birthday gift ever.
Boyer had just turned 16, and while his friends were getting cars for their birthdays, he was presented with his very own Fender Stratocaster.
He was not disappointed.
"It's been almost 20-plus years, and I still remember getting it," said Boyer, a professional musician and music teacher from Galloway Town-ship. "Today, I have about 30 guitars, but the Strat is the one I always go back to. It's what I'm comfortable with. The contour of the body feels good, the neck feels a little bit more friendlier than on other guitars."
Virtually all musicians have a similar story surrounding their first high-quality instrument - and for the past six decades, many of those stories have involved the Fender Stratocaster, which marks its 60th anniversary this year.
It was the guitar Buddy Holly held as he crooned about "Peggy Sue" and the instrument Eric Clapton made cry as he sang about his tormented love for another man's woman in "Layla."
Dick Dale made his Strat growl as he gave birth to instrumental surf music with "Miserlou" while another left-handed musician, Jimi Hendrix, held his upside down and took guitar music to places it had never been with songs such as "Purple Haze."
Thousands - if not millions - of other, less famous musicians also have embraced the Strat.
"You are going to sound like you on whatever guitar you play - no guitar will save you if you are a bad player. But the Strat has a lot of versatility, and it's a great-looking guitar. You can use it in just about every application," said Boyer.
Not bad for an instrument created by a guy who never learned to play guitar.
That guy was Clarence "Leo" Fender. What he lacked in musical training, Fender made up for in technical skill and imagination.
Born and raised in Orange County, Calif., Fender 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 guitar players were rarely the stars of big bands - their instrument wasn't loud enough to be heard over horns and other instruments. Amplified acoustic instruments could get only so loud before the signal started feeding back, creating a distorted sound.
Fender came up with his company's first functional electric guitar in 1950, the solid-body, single-pickup Esquire, a predecessor of the two-pickup Telecaster.
The Telecaster became a classic, but Fender created his masterpiece on his second effort. He crafted a three-pickup guitar with a curved body and cutaway sections on both sides of the guitar's neck that allowed players better access to the upper parts of the fret board. The curves, while looking very space-age in the late 1950s, also allowed the guitar 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.
"How you feel in the guitar is probably as important as how it sounds," Raitt said. "For portability, sexiness and the way it feels on your body, nothing beats a Strat. When you strap on a Stratocaster, you feel just like your heroes. I don't think you can separate how it makes you feel from the memory of other people playing it."
"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."
"It's the only thing that I know of since 1954 that hasn't changed much," said Billy Walton, a professional musician from Egg Harbor Township who has played with the likes of Southside Johnny and his own Billy Walton Band. "It's really the same basic design - the cut of the body, the angle of the pickups, the bolt-on neck. It's amazing for something to last that long."
The bolt-on neck was one of Fender's strokes of genius, resulting in a quality instrument that could be mass-produced and still be affordable. For that he's often lauded as the Thomas Edison and Henry Ford of the musical instrument world.
New Stratocasters manufactured at Fender's Corona, Calif., plant retail for about $1,300 and up. Cheaper versions manufactured in Mexico and Asia start around $500. Vintage models from the 1950s and early 1960s fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auctions. The Guitar Center paid close to $1 million for Clapton's celebrated "Blackie" Strat a few years ago. Fender's first production Stratocaster recently sold for $250,000.
Boyer, of Galloway Township, is a fan of the American Standard Stratocaster, the instrument made in this country. When his first Strat was stolen when he left it in his jeep for a few minutes, Boyer used the insurance money to buy another of the same model, this time a bright red.
"I'm a musician for hire. In my band we played music with a harder edge, but I will play anything from Top 40 to Klezmer. In most cases, I can use the Strat," he said.
Walton owns several Strats, some of which show up on the new album he is set to release in June.
"There is a lot of Strat on the album, because it is so versatile," Walton said. "You can get a nice clean sound, you can get angry with it, you can get many different tones from it. Where other guitars are almost like one-trick ponies, you can get a lot of different variations with a Strat."
Another thing that makes the Strat so special is the list of superstars who are so closely associated with the instrument. Young guitar players see Clapton, Hendrix, Bob Dylan or U2's The Edge on stage with a Strat and they want the same guitar.
"What kind of guitar you're most attracted to is a reflection of what kind of music you grew up with," said John Mayer. "I'm a Strat guy. ... When I see Clapton play a Strat, it's like a kid putting his hands on a Spalding basketball when he sees Michael Jordan spinning the ball. It's how you approach that place you dream of getting to."
And once they own one, most musicians wind up falling in love with their Strats.
"My guitar has gone down flights of stairs, I've ran over its case with a car and I've used it for self-defense as well - it's quite a weapon if you have to to use it," Boyer said. "The strat is versatile, and for the money, you can't get anything that sounds better. I've had one for a long time, and it's helped me avoid getting a real job for a number of years."
The Los Angeles Times and Press Staff Writer Steven V. Cronin contributed to this report
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