What we can learn from the fender stratocaster

I must admit I’m not terribly impressed by the quality of today’s software—my benchmark for good product design isn’t defined by the output of Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, or other respected software companies. Those companies produce some good work, of course, but the software industry, though no longer in its infancy, still seems to be working through its gawky adolescent stage. So, when I think about high quality products, I think of BMW automobiles, Eames furniture, and the Fender Stratocaster guitar.

The Fender Stratocaster is no less than one of the most popular, recognizable, influential, and best-selling electric guitars ever made. The Stratocaster was introduced in 1954 and has thrived fundamentally unchanged throughout 47 years of production, becoming the favored instrument of millions of guitarists including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Stratocaster—along with another revolutionary guitar, the Gibson Les Paul—stands head and shoulders above any other solid body electric guitar made. Ever. It is a model of good product design.

Today’s Fender Strat (above) looks, works, and sounds the same as the original model introduced in 1954 (below).

In 1953, Leo Fender—the founder and visionary of the Fender Electric Instrument Company—began working on the next step in the evolution of the solid body electric guitar. Leo worked with Fender employees Freddie Tavares and George Fullerton, as well as musicians Bill Carson, Rex Gallion, and others to understand needs and check assumptions during the design process. Leo’s goals were to build the best solid body electric guitar ever and to expand the Fender product line to increase sales.

One key to the Stratocaster’s success was that the design took into account the needs and desires of professional guitarists. Not being a musician himself, Leo relied upon input from guitar players to guide the design of the instrument. As a result, it fulfilled the musicians’ goals of playability, comfort, and good sound, while being easy to repair and/or customize. Benefits and features of the 1954 Fender Stratocaster included:

  • An ergonomic design with forearm and tummy bevels and better overall balance that made the guitar more comfortable to play
  • A "drop-in" pickguard and pickup assembly that made the Stratocaster substantially easier to mass produce, repair, and customize
  • A bolt-on neck that was less expensive to manufacture (the necks of one-piece guitars sometimes warped during production and the whole instrument would need to be discarded) and easier to service
  • The ability to produce new sounds not possible with other instruments, which in part inspired new musical genres like Surf and Hendrixian-style psychedelia

In addition to these benefits, early Stratocasters looked modern and cool, and came in all kinds of funky colors that no other company was using. All the other solid body guitars of the day—including Fender’s own Telecaster model—had natural wood or "sunburst" finishes (one notable exception being the Les Paul "goldtop"). By contrast, Fender, taking a cue from the automobile industry, used automotive paints in lively solid colors such as Daphne Blue, Surf Green, and Fiesta Red.

In many ways, the Stratocaster was also an early example of a platform, spawning an entire industry of replacement and custom parts manufacturers. Today, there is no single component of the Stratocaster for which you can’t find a custom replacement, from multiple vendors. For example, guitarists looking for a new set of pickups to personalize their instrument can choose from broad product lines offered by manufacturers such as DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, Lindy Fralin, Joe Barden, EMG, and even Fender itself.

Interestingly, the Stratocaster was also unique for what it wasn’t:

  • First to market. The well-known Fender Broadcaster/Telecaster (1950) and the Gibson Les Paul (1952) guitars were introduced earlier, but even they weren’t first to market. They were preceded by the Ro-Pat-In (later known as Rickenbacker) A22 and A25 guitars in 1932, as well as the more contemporary looking Bigsby/Travis guitar in 1947. Only hardcore guitar geeks have even heard of the Ro-Pat-In and Bigsby/Travis guitars. Being first to market made them a footnote in history, but it didn’t make them successful. The Stratocaster wasn’t first to market, but it was arguably best to market.
  • Designed to match the feature list of competitors’ guitars. Fender’s competition touted the carved tops, glued-in necks, and ornate fretboard inlays of their guitars, which were selling quite well. The safe, easy route would have been to build a comparable guitar with similar features.
  • Planned to be obsolete. On the contrary, Leo Fender said, "…I was always able to see the defects in the design of an instrument which overlooked completely the need of its maintenance. If something is easy to repair, it is easy to construct. The design of each element should be thought out in order to be easy to make and easy to repair."

Today, a vintage 1954 Stratocaster in mint condition can bring tens of thousands of dollars on the collector’s market—not bad for a guitar that cost under $300 brand new. What’s more, a modern guitarist could play that old 1954 guitar on his next hit record and it would still sound great. Did the Stratocaster evolve and improve? Sure. But it was designed to be great from the start.

So, what does this have to do with building software-enabled products?

Everything.

All the principles that made the Stratocaster successful can be applied to the design of software as well: It should be built as efficiently as possible without sacrificing quality. It should be easy to use. It should satisfy the goals of its customers. It should be easy to maintain, upgrade, and customize. It should exhibit the highest quality possible at its price. It should be aesthetically pleasing. It should inspire loyalty.

But we’re not talking about altruism here. In the case of Fender, all the time and effort Leo and company spent sweating the details and keeping quality high went straight to the bottom line. Leo Fender had a nicely profitable business for many years, and the Stratocaster created a loyal following of musicians who insisted on playing Fender instruments. In 1964, Leo sold the business for $13 million, quite a respectable sum for a company that was initially ridiculed by other manufacturers for selling a "canoe paddle with strings."

Leo Fender, a solitary man with a small team of like-minded individuals, spent countless hours thinking through all the tough issues required to make a hunk of wood with steel wires and a couple of magnets into a huge artistic and business success. Does your flagship product deserve any less from your company’s team and resources

2 Comments

Warren Walker
The first Stratocaster I ever saw was being played by Buddy Holly on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957. He should head your list of guitarists who used the Stratocaster.
Jim Bordner
I think it's important to note one more thing the Stratocaster wasn't: an overnight sensation. Leo imagined that it would obsolete the Telecaster, but country players still preferred the twang of the chunky 2-pickup guitar. MOR players like Buddy Merrill and Alvino Rey flashed Strats every week on The Lawrence Welk and King Family TV programs, but no jazz or big-band guys bought them (Leo was still tinkering with designs that he hoped would attract such players when he sold the company). The Strat was all but on the marketing ropes until Jimi Hendrix picked one up and said, in effect, "Here, this is what THIS can do." Perhaps visionary design requires visionary users who can point the way.

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