As a curatorial assistant at MoMA, one of the most fun aspects of my job is researching and facilitating new acquisitions for the Museum’s collection. In the Architecture and Design department, we collect a range of materials, from architectural models to video game interfaces. And then there’s the time we acquired a 1957 Fender Stratocaster, the quintessential electric guitar and an important example of 20th-century musical instrument design. The Stratocaster and a 1959 Fender Bassman amplifier were brought into the collection in October 2014, and both are currently on display as cornerstones of the exhibition Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye.
The Stratocaster was an icon of design long before it became part of MoMAs collection. Say “electric guitar” and pretty much anyone will think of the Strat’s asymmetrical, horned silhouette. It was designed by Leo Fender, a self-taught tinkerer who built amplified lap-steel guitars out of his Southern California workshop in the 1930s and 1940s, during the early days of the electric guitar. Bolstered by the success of his 1950 Telecaster, the first commercially popular solid-body electric guitar, Fender, along with Freddie Tavares and George Fullerton, debuted the Stratocaster in 1954.
This new design included a “comfort contoured” body with ergonomically sculpted surfaces (to accommodate strumming arms on the instrument’s face and bulging bellies at its rear), performance-friendly design features like recessed cable jacks and deep double cutaways granting higher fretboard access, and technical innovations such as a three-way pickup switch and a built-in tremolo arm (colloquially known as a “whammy bar”) for a versatile sound.
The end result was a guitar that self-consciously diverged from its acoustic predecessors in form and function, a new type of popular instrument designed for a new era of modern, electrified music. The Stratocaster was originally marketed to country and western musicians, but by the 1960s guitarists like Dick Dale, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan (who famously “went electric” on a Strat at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965), and Jimi Hendrix (who set his alight onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival two years later), had become loyal devotees of its performance and design, firmly establishing the Stratocaster as the unofficial guitar of rock and roll.
MoMA already has a number of innovative instruments in its design collection, among them Alan Gittler’s reductive, almost skeletal Electric Guitar of 1975, and the Amazing Electric Violin designed in 1989 by David Bush, Brian Lepine, and Michael Zimmerman.
We knew the Stratocaster belonged in the design collection too—it was just a matter of identifying the right one. We sought a vintage model from the golden era of Fender production (before Leo sold the company in 1965), one that captured the instrument at the most optimal and influential state of its design. While the wear patterns that develop over years of use create a desirable patina for some guitar collectors (Fender’s Relic collection features meticulously hand-aged yet brand-new guitars that are almost impossible to distinguish from the real thing), our guitar was destined for museum display, and thus needed to be in excellent cosmetic condition.
The modular electronics and bolt-on construction of the Stratocaster made it ripe for custom modification by musicians, and so finding an instrument with original components intact also posed a challenge. We spoke to guitar dealers from New York to Nashville, and scoured inventory around the globe. We looked at older Strats, newer Strats, Candy Apple Red Strats and Lake Placid Blue Strats. It seemed like every guitar expert, dealer or musician we spoke with along the way couldn’t help but effuse about this storied guitar and its undeniable musical and cultural impact.
Eventually, our dream guitar materialized: an all-original 1957 Stratocaster in standard two-tone sunburst, complete with original tweed case. Miraculously, the instrument was in near-perfect condition after 58 years—a true closet classic that had remained with its sole owner until his death. 1957 was a significant year for the Stratocaster and for rock and roll: Buddy Holly appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show performing “That’ll Be The Day” and “Peggy Sue” with his ’57 Strat, canonizing this rollicking new genre on live television, and introducing its flagship instrument to a national audience. The Stratocaster, especially when paired with its logical contemporary, the classic Bassman amp, exemplifies the aesthetics and technology at the cutting edge of rock and roll in its heyday, but it remains a timeless design icon and cultural touchstone even today.
Importantly, this guitar also rocked its play test, producing a characteristically bright and “spanky” sound—this aspect was crucial, as it was being acquired not as a static object but also a playable instrument. If you happen to be visiting the Museum and hear a snarling riff or a distorted, divebomb chord emanating from the third-floor Architecture and Design Galleries, be sure to check it out—we’re letting the Strat speak for itself about why it’s a design object that helped make music modern. Watch clips from some of these in-gallery Stratocaster Sessions below:
Brian Derdiarian, from the MoMA Bookstore, takes a turn at the Strat in the gallery
Special guest Al Houghton of Dubway Studios plays a range of styles to highlight the Stratocaster’s versatility
Pierre Vaz, Film Expiditer in MoMA’s Department of Film, demonstrates the guitar and extols the design virtues of the Stratocaster