Prototype Stratocasters

The stratocaster development was a direct response to the release of the Gibson Les Paul in mid-1952 and intended to be an upgraded design to the Telecaster.  Leo Fender, Don Randall, Rex Gallion, Freddie Tavaras, Bill Carson, and George Fullerton were the main staff involved in developing one of the most iconic guitars in all of music history.


Unfortunately, There are no known photos of the actual prototyping stages of the stratocaster, which likely began in mid-1952.  However, there are clues in a variety of books which described what it may have been.  Most of these descriptions can be found in the popular books:  Fender:  The Golden Age of Strats and Fender:  The Sounds Heard Around the World.


The earliest known strat prototype supposedly emphasized the following in circa mid-1952 to early 1953:


Prototype Spec Overview

The strat body originally started out as a smaller Fender Precision bass without cutaways.

The headstock was supposedly very similar to the early Bigsbys.

The originally tremolo design was supposedly similar to the Fender Mustang tremolo but had roller saddles and shorter distance between the tail piece and saddles.

Elevator plates were used and possibly similar to a Telecaster pickup.

The Body

The body originally started out a Precision bass design (seen above).  The P-bass already had good upper-fret access, which was a great starting point.  The initial prototype body supposedly didn’t have the forearm and back contours.  The body blueprint was drawn at the main Fender drafting table sometime in mid to late 1952, and the employees of Fender would consistently erase and change the blueprint, trying to perfect the shape. 


Eventually, Rex Gallion suggested the strat body didn’t require square edges like the telecaster because the guitars were not hollow-body.  Furthermore, Bill Carson, Freddie Tavares, and other field testers already criticized the issues of telecaster bodies digging into rib cages to due the lack of ergonomics contours.  Carson even used a hacksaw to make his own contours on his telecaster, something which Leo likely took note of.  


The belly and arm contours were finalized sometime in mid-1953, and even then, the contour depth and length varied in early production.  But, the forearm and belly contours were a staple in every strat body likely starting with the Field Test strats of late 1953 and early 1954.


According to Bill Carson, there was supposedly one prototype body that didn’t have a lower horn (and upper horn possibly longer), which balanced the guitar better.  However, it was deemed too ugly and the idea was scrapped very quickly.   


The pickup electronic routes are unknown, but it was ultimately decided that three pickups were the best decision, and Leo already had three-selector switches from the telecasters.  That being said, Four and Five pickup configurations were discussed during the drafting phase, to which Leo shot down claiming it that number of pickups wouldn’t fit right in the body. 


The original prototype body(ies) were also routed for an entirely different unseen tremolo system that seems to have been erased from history.

The Neck

The core of the neck was similar to the typical telecaster:  Maple, one-piece with truss rod/skunk stripe, etc. but the headstock shape was reminiscent of the Bigsby guitar headstock (shown above), and many historians claim that Leo essentially copied and slightly manipulated the Bigsby headstock into what we now know as the strat headstock.  

On May 25, 1948 Paul Bigsby finished Travis Merle’s guitar and stamped the serial number 52548 on it. On May 29 Bigsby delivered the guitar to Travis at a Cliffie Stone show in Placentia, CA. This photo was taken by Scotty Broyles on stage at the Bostonia Ballroom in El Cajon, CA. Information provided by Andy Babiuk’s book, “The Story of Paul Bigsby.”

Paul Bigsby, inventor of the Bigsby tremolo, also built a handful of guitars and actually lived very close to Leo Fender.  Page 96 in the book Fender: The Sound Heard Around the World discusses the Bigsby connection in detail.


Paul Bigsby built a guitar for Merle Travis, a popular country guitarist, in 1948.  According to Travis, he met up with Leo Fender sometime in 1950 and let Leo borrow the guitar for the week.  Later, when the strat was developed, Merle Travis and Paul Bigsby claimed that Leo copied elements of the Bigsby guitars into the strat.  Leo, however, fully denied any of these allegations.  


According to Leo, he never had Travis’ Bigsby guitar and only seen him play it out in clubs in Placentia, CA.  Leo claimed the strat headstock shape was influenced by visiting museums over the years and seeing early European guitars and violins with scroll headstocks.


While Leo Fender (and George Fullerton) deny that Leo was influenced by the Bigsby headstock, others in the Fender corporation have different recollections.  Don Randall, President of sales and partner in Fender Inc. is referenced saying that Leo perhaps copied the Bigsby when talking about Merle Travis to F.C. Hall, a Fender partner at the time who was supposedly a “non guitar fan”:


Merle Travis is on the program and he is one of the country’s foremost guitar stylists.  He is playing the granddaddy of our Spanish guitars, built by Paul Bigsby – the one Leo copied.  Merle liked our guitars very well and our Pro-Amp very much.”

This is an age-old controversy which perhaps we will never know the definite answer to.  In any case, according to recollections, we can assume the original prototype strat neck(s) that are unphotographed supposedly had a headstock similar to the Bigsby.

Phase 1 Prototype Strat Tremolo

A major issue with the telecaster bridge is it couldn’t be intonated properly due to the three-saddle design.  Leo thought all other tremolo designs were not adequate, so in the prototype phases of the strat, Leo was adamant in creating the ultimate tremolo.  Unfortunately, Leo’s first prototype, of which no known photographic evidence exists, was quickly discontinued after unsavory responses from Fender’s test players.


Based on employee recollections, the tremolo was essentially similar to the Fender Mustang’s tremolo released in 1964.  However, the original Fender prototype had roller saddles and a shorter distance between tail piece and saddles.  


On paper, the roller saddle design would have held much better tuning than all other bridges on the market.  Unfortunately, the tremolo supposedly sounded horrible due to it having a dampening effect on the strings.  Employees at the factory claimed it had a “plunk” sound similar to that of a banjo.  


Leo, already retooling the factory to create them (around 400 were possibly made and likely destroyed or thrown away), had to completely discard the design and start fresh.  This delayed Fender from displaying the stratocaster at the 1953 summer NAMM show and angered Fender Sales, as they wanted to quickly release the new Fender product.  


Under pressure, Leo quickly designed an entirely new tremolo system that would change the guitar world.  He finished the new design at the end of 1953, and the rest is history.  The “rush” tremolo he created is still a staple on all modern Fenders, and it is considered one of the greatest and most iconic tremolos of all time. 

Electronics and Pickups

Not much is known or discussed about the prototyping phase for the strat pickups.  However, based on former employee references and what Fender was using at the time, it’s likely they emphasized features of the telecaster pickups of the time:

-Alnico 3 magnets

-100K pots

-3 selector switch

Fender’s 1953 inventory sheets list 117 “elevator plates” which were likely incorporated into the prototype designs.  However, the elevator plates in the telecaster pickups produced more feedback, which is why the idea was discontinued.  

In any case, the earliest known strat prototypes pickups were essentially similar to telecaster pickups.  

It’s also important to note that during the prototype phases of the body and pickups, the idea of having four or five pickups were also discussed.  Leo did not like this idea, claiming they wouldn’t fit properly. 

Lost to the "Sounds of Time"

While most Fender history has been preserved and well documented, these very early prototype Fenders have unfortunately been lost to the Sounds of Time.  No one knows what happened to the original Phase I prototype tremolos, even though around 400 were likely built.  When the factory moved, most of these relics were likely thrown out, but hopefully some exist in a secret collection, which brings me to:


Do you have any photos of information relating to these super early prototype strats?  If so, please contact me.


Please read the next article relating to the Field Test tests with three-spring bodied.  


Also, check out the Legend of the Prototype Strat Tremolos article which discussing the very first known fulcrum strat tremolos.