NOTE: I have combined this entry and others into a longer article about guitar tone.
The Fender Stratocaster guitar is 50 years old in 2004. Remarkably, it remains the world's most popular guitar despite very few changes in its design. In its time, the Strat was not as revolutionary as the Precision Bass, from which it borrowed its body shape; nor was it as primal as the Telecaster, of which it was the more refined, Space Age younger brother.
Few other pieces of technology (other than acoustic musical instruments like pianos, hollowbody guitars, cellos, and so on) have changed as little. Personal computers made in 1999 are laughably out of date. Televisions may still use picture tubes, but their cases, controls, and electronics are nothing like they were 20 years ago. Even clothing, architecture, picture frames, and baby strollers have gone through huge stylistic changes. No modern car is identical to a '56 Chevy—and the new Mini and VW Beetle merely resemble their predecessors, while being totally different vehicles in reality.
Guitars have changed since the '50s, of course, and there have been thousands of different styles over the decades, from effective and beautiful to, er, questionable. Yet Fender's supremely refined design work at the beginning, combined with the subsequent cult of vintage instruments and sounds among guitar players, means that every other electric guitar is a footnote to the Stratocaster.
Fender has tried to go beyond the Strat too. Dirty Neurotic, the guitarist in my band, played a Starcaster (made from 1976 to 1980) before it was stolen, but while it sounded great, that instrument (like many '70s designs) looks less classic than bizarre now. Today, all of Fender's mainstream models are variants of the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass, and Jazz Bass, all designed more than 40 years ago. (Dirty N. has played a Strat since the theft, of course.)
I have a black 1990 Strat from Fender's budget Squier division, but to anyone but a guitar geek, it is indistinguishable from the original 1954 model, or from the ones played by Buddy Holly, George Harrison, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, and John Mayer. The country guitarists who inspired and helped Leo Fender create the Stratocaster could play my guitar, or a brand new Fender model, without a second thought. And a Strat-playing skate-punk shredder who came across a '54 Strat could just as easily plug it in and go.
Leo Fender would have been puzzled, in 1954, to see people like me with the Stratocaster he knew plugged into an eMac, with all the amplifier effects and recording done digitally. But I think, after a few minutes, he would have understood.