Copyists or Plagiarists?
The Fender Stratocaster must be acknowledged as one of the major landmarks in the history of the electric guitar. Its various features, so innovative and revolutionary back in 1954, are still regarded as the standard by which many competitors are judged, and the fact that the design has remained basically unchanged since its inception must indicate that Fender got it right first time. Its continuing popularity has meant that virtually every other guitar manufacturer has at some time found it almost mandatory to produce an equivalent, or even an 'improved' version, incorporating some if not all of the design features so identifiable with the original.
Although not widely available outside America until the early 1960s, the influence of the Stratocaster could be seen in some of the guitars on sale in the UK in the late 1950s, such as the original imported Futurama, as used by many guitarists including a young George Harrison and Jimmy Page. This model boasted triple, moulded pickups (albeit somewhat microphonic), a contoured body and built-in vibrato unit. Although not an obvious copy (certainly not in sound) the overall visual effect was indeed very Fender-like, and it must be regarded as probably the first poor person's Strat.
The Fender-laden Shadows spearheaded the instrumental group boom-time of the early 1960s in the UK, and the corresponding upsurge in demand for solid electric guitars ensured that all competing guitar manufacturers soon latched on to the idea of providing cheaper Strat-style alternatives, catering for those hundreds of hopeful beginners who aspired to own the guitars used by their heroes.
In 1963 the Selmer-owned Futurama brandname was transferred to a range of instruments manufactured by the Swedish Hagstrom concern. Earliest examples had a somewhat clumsy single-sided headstock und a Strat-like body outline (albeit non-contoured), but with a novel one-piece moulded plastic front mated to a vinyl-covered back section. Certainly no copy, but the Stratocaster influence was only too apparent, even more so in the revised versions that followed the next year — now with an all-wood body and a very Fender-like headstock complete with logo lettering definitely designed to impress and confuse. The sound of the three-pickup Futurama 3 De Luxe was quite Strat-y, and proved a good downmarket alternative (priced at a very reasonable £40). Later Hagstroms continued to embody certain Stratocaster features, the Scandi three-pickup solid which appeared in 1977 being a prime example.
Back to the 1960s, and the Selmer company also imported Hofner guitars from West Germany. Following the familiar pattern, the original V series of solids was drastically revamped in 1961 to resemble more closely the Stratocaster, in body and headstock styling if not in sound. Since then the Hofner range has always included a Strat-alike, and in 1972 a definite copy was introduced in keeping with market trends at that time. In 1981 the Model S appeared, with straight-through neck and a more 'accurate' sound, again reflecting then-current design and demand.
Various British makers have produced their own Stratocaster equivalents over the years. The Watkins (later Wilson) Rapier is probably one of the best-remembered Strat-style solids from the 1960s. Its original design was soon abandoned in favour of styling definitely in Strat territory. Again it must be said that its sound bore very little resemblance to the real thing, but it still provided a good starter instrument for so many guitarists of the time.
However, more authentic sounds were possible from other guitars of that era, including the up-market Vox Soundcaster which, as its name suggests, was strongly Strat-based, being offered as a quality alternative and possessing all its competitor's features (and more). The same company produced numerous other "Strato-types", spanning every price bracket and bearing such evocative names as the Dominator, Shadow, Super Ace and Consort; all proved to be good sellers in those heady days. Interestingly enough both the Selmer and Vox companies also imported Fender instruments at various times; to some extent a case of conflicting interests, but at the same time providing invaluable first-hand knowledge of the opposition.
Another leading British maker in the 1960s was Burns. Even the earliest models betrayed a measure of Fender influence, although Jim Burns was too much of an individualist to carry such things to any extreme. However, the Jazz model was certainly Strat-based in body styling, while the famous Burns Marvin, co-designed by Jim and Hank Marvin, was a concerted effort to produce an "improvement" on the original. It was (arguably) successful, and came complete with Rez-a-Matik pickups and Rezo-tube vibrato unit.
By the 1970s the Stratocaster's popularity was, of course, world-wide, and its influence could be seen (and sometimes heard) in models from such diverse sources as East Germany (Musima), Holland (Egmond), Italy (Eko), Australia (Maton), New Zealand (Jansen), and West Germany (Framus, Hoyer, Klira), not forgetting numerous American contemporaries.
The Japanese had produced many Strat-styled guitars during the 1960s under a bewildering array of brandnames, but in the early 1970s the "cheap copy" boom started in earnest and world markets were soon flooded with Stratocaster look-alikes of varying quality, but all apparently selling well. Nowadays that impact has lessened considerably, although authentic copies still abound. There are now also numerous "original" Strat-based designs available from leading Japanese companies such as Ibanez, Aria, Yamaha and so on, but the differences are sometimes purely cosmetic.
Regardless of imitations, alternatives and the challenge they have provided, the Fender Stratocaster's position as a market leader remains virtually undiminished, and indeed it could continue to influence guitar design for another 30 years.
Feature by Paul Day
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