A man and his guitar
Photo by Scooter Brown
According to music legend, guitarist Chet Atkins was in a Nashville studio warming up for a session. A young technician came into the studio and stood watching open-mouthed until Atkins finished.
”Gee, Mr. Atkins, that guitar sure sounds fabulous,” the tech exclaimed.
Atkins placed the guitar on its stand, smiled at the tech and said, “Well, son, how does it sound now?”
In 1975, Norman’s Rare Guitars opened in Reseda, California. It was a small, word-of-mouth shop specializing in vintage instruments known among musicians as the go-to location for the finest guitars available in the United States. In 1978, Tulsa blues musician Steve Pryor walked in to Norman’s, knowing he wanted to buy an L-series black Stratocaster. The only specification he wasn’t sure about was the year. After a bit of discussion, ten black 1964 Stratocasters were brought out for Pryor to inspect. He spent his entire day there, trying each guitar with equal interest. By the end of the day, he walked out with the black Stratocaster he still plays today. It cost him $200 and a Music Man amplifier, which the store agreed to take in trade.
Since that time, Pryor and his guitar have traveled many miles, played thousands of venues, and shared the stage with the likes of such blues greats as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Paul Butterfield, Bugs Henderson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. The guitar has accompanied him to his 2006 induction into the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame and his 2009 induction into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame as a blues inductee.
The first Fender Stratocaster appeared in 1954. The body of the Stratocaster was more sleek and contoured than any other guitar that preceded it. The guitar’s build allowed the musician to move more freely and allowed for greater showmanship on stage. Once it was embraced by rock icons such as Buddy Holly, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, the guitar’s popularity soared. Simply put, the Stratocaster looked “cool.”
Interestingly, this is one of the reasons, aside from sound, that Pryor went into Norman’s Rare Guitars that day way back in 1978 and requested a black Strat. Pryor’s guitar needed to be black for one reason and one reason only: Jimi Hendrix’s last guitar, a 1968 Stratocaster, was black, and photographed with his black Strat, Hendrix looked very cool.
Pryor has made some unique modifications to his instrument, thanks in good part to the expertise of Tulsa Guitar and Electronic’s own Steve Hickerson, known affectionately among musicians as “Doc.” Pryor explains the modifications, which involve terminology such as “bridge pickup,” “saddles,” and “open string harmonics.” Suffice it to say, the modifications have made the guitar sound better—in fact, the modifications have made the guitar sound like no other.
While many musicians have given their guitars nicknames—Willie Nelson and “Trigger;” B. B. King and “Lucille;” Stevie Ray Vaughan and “Number One”—Pryor’s Strat has never had a name. But this does not mean the guitar isn’t treated well. When at home and not in its case, the guitar rests high up off the floor on a soft pallet. And only once did the beloved guitar get mistreated by its owner. In a frantic and hurried restringing session, Pryor lost his temper and threw the guitar across a concrete dressing room floor. The guitar did indeed suffer an injury, which Pryor repaired himself with a vial of super glue. Fortunately, it did not change the sound.
So, has Pryor been asked to sell his guitar? Absolutely. Has any offer tempted him to date? Nope. Pryor predicts his Strat will always be repairable, though he does occasionally toy with the idea of retiring it and getting a new one.
Has anyone else ever played Steve Pryor’s Stratocaster? Pryor hesitates, and has to think about that for just a moment. “Well, yes, sometimes, but only if I’m standing there," he says. "There’s no borrowing.”
So, now for the big question. Is it the guitar that makes the musician, or is it the musician that makes the guitar, or is it a combination of both? On this question, Pryor does not hesitate. With complete humility, he asserts that the guitar does not make the musician. What does help is a level of familiarity with the instrument. “It is really more a matter of personal comfort,” he says.
In other words, harkening back to 1978, Pryor could have walked out with any one of those ten Stratocasters that day and the results would have been the same.
Thirty four years and five albums later, thousands of live performances, and Pryor would still be the guitar virtuoso that he is today. As the world renowned Andres Segovia once explained, “Lean your body forward slightly to support the guitar against your chest, for the poetry of the music should resound in your heart.”
More on Pryor's Stratocaster
Entering the serial number printed on Steve’s guitar into a database called “The Guitar Dater Project” produces the following information: “Your guitar was made at the Fullerton Plant (Fender - Pre CBS Era), USA in the Year(s): 1964.” Leo Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965 and pre-CBS Era guitars are highly sought after by collectors.
If you place Steve’s guitar next to Strats owned by Stevie Ray Vaughan and John Mayer, the scuff marks above the pickguards on all three guitars would line-up almost exactly, reflecting similar styles of playing and hand movements.
Pryor’s black Strat, upon closer inspection, has an undercoat of Sherwood Green. Fender frequently painted its guitars with two layers, sometimes to hide flaws, and sometimes to meet customer demand for a particular color. The colors chosen for undercoats were used by Fender based on availability, and combinations of primers and finishes are inconsistent. Fender custom colors were highly influenced by the colors of the most popular automobiles of the day.
Famous Stratocasters and the musicians who played them
Oklahoma born country and western swing artist Bill Carson (1926-2007) is known as the test pilot of the Stratocaster. Leo Fender himself actually employed Carson as a field tester for his evolving guitar design and made suggestions to Mr. Fender, particularly regarding the contoured body shape. By 1957, he was employed by Fender on a full-time basis, rising to the head of Fender’s artist relations offices in Nashville. In 2006, one of Carson’s strats, a 1959 Fiesta Red model, sold at Christie’s Auction House for $66,000.
Eric Clapton’s Stratocaster, nicknamed “Blackie,” was a composite of three models built between 1956 and 1957. Blackie first appeared publicly in the early ‘70s and was retired in 1985. To raise funds for Crossroads, Clapton’s alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, the Strat was auctioned in 2004. Blackie fetched a record $959,500.
Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour is the proud owner of Strat #0001, often mistakenly believed to be the first Stratocaster ever made. However, Fender did not use sequential serial numbers, so though this is not truly #1, it was manufactured in 1954. The guitar remains in service today.
In 1965, George Harrison obtained a Sonic Blue Stratocaster which he subsequently hand-painted with day-glo paints and nail polish. He also painted the guitar’s nickname “Rocky” on the headstock. Elsewhere on the guitar, the words “Bebopalula” and “Go Cat Go” also appear. The Strat remains in the custody of the Harrison family.
Eddie Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen, who enjoyed tinkering with instruments, combined a Stratocaster body with parts from Gibson and other guitars. The guitar is known as “Frankenstrat” and was hand-painted by Van Halen in a recognizable black/white/red design featured on the cover of the popular video game “Guitar Hero: Van Halen.” Frankenstrat is currently in retirement from touring, and in 2006, Fender issued a replica of the guitar.
Being left-handed, Jimi Hendrix chose most often to play a right-handed guitar flipped upside down and played from the opposite side of the body. Hendrix played a 1968 Olympic White Stratocaster when he appeared at Woodstock in 1969. This guitar is most memorable for Hendrix’s stunning rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Most recently, the white Strat has been on display at the EMP Museum in Seattle, Hendrix’s hometown.
Frank and Dweezil Zappa
After Jimi Hendrix set fire to a Stratocaster, what was left of it (a scorched body) was gifted to his friend Frank Zappa. Zappa restored the guitar to playable condition in the mid-1970s and played it himself for several years. The guitar disappeared for a while, and reappeared when Frank’s son Dweezil found the guitar stashed under a staircase in a studio. For unknown reasons, the Strat had been dismantled and damaged. Dweezil took the guitar to the Fender custom shop, where it was once again restored and is in service today.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s most recognizable guitar was a 1963 Stratocaster nicknamed “Number One.” It was widely believed that Vaughan was buried with this guitar in 1990. The truth is, Number One belongs to Stevie’s brother, musician Jimmie Vaughan. The guitar was publicly displayed for the first time in 2012 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in downtown Austin.