The space race forged immortal rock and roll guitars

The space race forged immortal rock and roll guitars

Space Guitars

The space race forged immortal rock and roll guitars

by Mark Kaufman

Space Guitars

The space race forged immortal rock and roll guitars

by Mark Kaufman

From the first steps to the leap forward, Mashable is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with a series that examines its significance — and why we haven’t been back.

Just beyond a long, elegant hall of mostly headless, ancient Greek statues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City lies a chunk of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, which the rock legend doused in lighter fluid, lit ablaze, and slammed into the ground at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June 1967. Wires still protrude from the smashed wood, which over a half-century ago radiated Hendrix’s shrieking, psychedelic notes through big amplifiers, and into the summer air.

Later that year, thousands of miles away, a U.S. government spy satellite photographed something unsettling in Southern Kazakhstan, where the Soviets blasted their rockets into space. The Soviet space agency had rolled out a 34-story rocket to their launch pad. A rocket that big could only be headed to one place, eventually — the moon. A decade earlier, the Soviets had already sent the first dog into space, followed by the first man, and then first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963. America worried its Cold War adversary would leave the first boot prints on the fine, lunar ground, too.

By 1967, the Space Race, which would eventually appear on the cover of Time magazine, lit a fire beneath the burgeoning visionary spirit wafting through America. NASA astronaut Frank Borman, who flew around the moon in 1968, didn’t much care (apparently at all) about ever exploring the cratered, gray, alien moon. He just wanted to win. “I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets,” the bearish 91-year-old Borman recently recounted to This American Life. “But that’s the only thing that motivated me. Beating the damn Russians.”

The climax of the Space Race (watched by some 650 million people) was still some two years off at the time of the Monterey festival. Still, the greater space age and intensely futuristic zeitgeist, brewing since the 1950s, was already reshaping American culture, and on June 18, 1967, Jimi Hendrix brought that electric spirit onstage.

“This has to be one of the greatest design products ever,” marveled Jayson Dobney, the curator in charge of musical instruments at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, as we stood in the museum’s “Play It Loud” exhibition, devoted to rock and roll’s “seismic” influence. We gazed upon one of the first Fender Stratocasters ever built, a sunburst, mint-condition specimen from 1954 designed to evoke a feeling of futuristic exploration. “It became the quintessential electric guitar,” he said.

The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood (left) plays a Stratocaster in 2006. On the right is Keith Richards.

MJ Kim / Getty Images

The Stratocaster rose, gloriously, from the repressed horrors, ashes, and victory of World War ll. The blood, sweat, and ingenuity of American minds and muscles were no longer monopolized for building tanks and bombs, but instead shell-pink Cadillacs with bombastic tail fins, an explosion of televisions, pastel green refrigerators — and mass-produced electric guitars. Rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly plugged in the Stratocaster as drooling teenagers like Paul McCartney, watching on TV, diligently studied how the bespeckled Holly wielded his Strat.

The edgy Stratocaster was officially born in 1954, a year after the U.S. Navy built a plane that flew at twice the speed of sound. At the time, the U.S. began to experiment with missile-shaped, rocket-powered aircraft that would shoot through the stratosphere, hitting speeds of over 4,000 mph and meeting the edge of space. Future moonwalker Neil Armstrong, then a test pilot, flew one of these experimental planes, the X-15, seven times, flirting with high-altitude disaster.

The Stratocaster’s design — a subversion of the classical, violin-like, symmetrical, full-bodied guitars of the past — was quite simply wild. “The Stratocaster was extremely radical when it came out,” said Rick Turner, a guitar innovator who made his own radical guitars, and sold them to the likes of The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.

“It was a new shape,” said Rich Walter, an ethnomusicologist and a head curator at the Musical Instrument Museum. (The museum now fittingly has a special exhibition, “The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon.”) “It was curvy and ergonomic. You could get it in hot rod automotive colors. They managed to make it look really pleasing.”

Top: A 1950s X-15 hypersonic research plane. | Bottom: Buddy Holly playing a Stratocaster in 1957.

Top: NASA | Bottom: CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

The radical instrument really blew up in the early 1960s, around the time President John F. Kennedy told Congress — after admitting historic successes by “the Soviets with their large rocket engines” — that America should go, unwaveringly and backed by stupendous sums of taxpayer money, to the great, gray sphere in the sky. “I believe we should go to the moon,” declared Kennedy.

Roused by the scintillating guitar licks sent over 1950s radio waves, courtesy of the likes of maestro Chuck Berry (who famously played a Gibson), the ‘60s sprouted a deluge of loud, otherworldly rock and roll. The curvy Stratocaster now had a parade of young, eager patrons, inspired by these tunes. “The great success was making something that could be mass-manufactured cost-effectively, right at the brink when a whole generation of people thought it would be nifty to have an electric guitar,” said the Musical Instrument Museum’s Walter.

“The Stratocaster was extremely radical when it came out.”

“By the ‘60s you could see what was possible with one,” said Justin Norvell, the executive vice president of Fender Products. Before the 1960s, many electric guitars, particularly Fenders, weren’t yet widely applied to rock and roll, and eventually, the advent of psychedelia. “The music hadn’t been written yet,” Norvell said.

That changed. Bob Dylan took the stage with a Stratocaster on July 25, 1965, inflaming his folk devotees with an amplified, at times almost punk, electric sound. The player they called “God” in London, Eric Clapton, mastered a Strat in the ‘60s. The Beatles’ John Lennon and George Harrison acquired matching, sonic blue Stratocasters in 1965. Vibrantly colored Fenders, included the Telecaster, were high altitude dreams for budding rockers and soon-to-be legends like Led Zeppelin’s’ Jimmy Page. 

“When they first saw a Telecaster or Stratocaster in a [store] window, they said it looked like it was from outer space,” said Norvell.

“To capture people’s imagination [Fender] applied these really thought-provoking names to the guitars,” explained Walter, referencing the Stratocaster (stratosphere) and Telecaster (television). “There was this sense that we were moving ahead and, as a society, we were on the brink of new frontiers.”

Indeed, the frontiers were 250,000 miles beyond the stratosphere — Earth’s moon.

And as the space race ramped up, the Stratocaster stoked another competition: a guitar race.

Apollo 11 astronauts on the way to their moon-bound rocket.

NASA

Another guitar making heavyweight, Gibson, watched America race through the lofty stratosphere and into space. Gibson, too, wanted in on the futuristic zeitgeist.

“Gibson asked, ‘How the hell are we going to compete with Fender?’” said the Met’s Dobney.

In 1958, Gibson responded to the Stratocaster with both The Flying V and Explorer guitars. They were not curvy like the Stratocaster. Instead, they were exceptionally pointy. They were brash. They looked like they were sent from the future. They were, like the Stratocaster before them, radical.

Top: A 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar. | Bottom: A Gibson Explorer guitar.

Top: Philip Dowell / Getty Images | Bottom: Geoff Dann / Getty Images

“We are now in the space age,” noted Dobney enthusiastically, as we stood in front of a 1958 Gibson Explorer, its wooden frame cut into far-out, zig-zagging, sharp edges. By then, the Soviets had successfully rocketed both the first satellite into space, Sputnik, and the first dog, the Siberian Husky Laika.

“This is George Jetson,” Dobney said when describing the Explorer, referencing the early 1960s cartoon character who resided in a mythical “Orbit City,” zipped to work in a floating “Aerocar,” and employed an affable robot, Rosie, who cleaned the Jetson’s futuristic family home.

“[The Explorer] fits with the whole aesthetic of not being conservative,” said Walter. “The music wasn’t supposed to be conservative, so why should the instruments look conservative? It looked free from the bounds of a previous generation.”

“We are now in the space age.”

Even Hendrix, famous for shredding (and sometimes destroying) Stratocasters, eventually employed perhaps Gibson’s most iconic space age guitar, the Flying V. Set upright, it shamelessly embodies a rocket. The top of the guitar, the headstock, looks aerodynamic, like something that might be blasted through the stratosphere, noted Dobney.

By the early ’60s, cheaper, spacey guitars could even be found in giant department stores, like Sears. A stop-sign red Airline guitar — which looks like the Explorer’s younger, whacked-out cousin — could be plucked off the shelf, like a blender.

Other big guitar makers, like Rickenbacker, also stepped into the space craze, producing the asymmetrical Model 360/12, and gave one to The Beatles — which they used.

Buzz Aldrin setting out scientific experiments on the moon.

NASA

But just as rockets run out of fuel, the space age sputtered out in the early ‘70s. As the world witnessed at 4:18 p.m. ET on July 20, 1969 — less than a month before Jimi Hendrix unrepentantly wailed a demented, deafening, distorted version of “The Star Spangled Banner” on a white Stratocaster at Woodstock — America triumphed over the Soviets when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the chalky lunar ground. NASA ended the moon program in 1972, and with this loss of cosmic exploration came the end of the futuristic zeitgeist embodied in American cars, furniture, and TV.

But the space guitars never died. Fifty years after the moon landing, guitar shops everywhere are brimming with Stratocasters. The radical design hasn’t changed.

“We are stewards at this point,” said Fender’s Norvell. “It really is something amazing. When you look at cars, they don’t stay the same. [The Stratocaster] is as it was. It just worked.”

The Flying V design exploded in popularity in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The likes of Neil Young toured with the sharp-edged guitar for decades. The Explorer lives on as a ghost in countless reincarnations of the original 1950s model.

The guitars persist because, while the moon-bound rockets have long been retired (though America’s moon ambitions have recently been reignited), the spirit of musical exploration never wavered. It’s blazing out of amps across the globe. 

Hendrix in 1970.

Evening Standard / Stringer

“Music as a creative output just kind of speaks to the idea of exploration,” said Norvell.

“The guitar has been a good companion to that idea of searching and exploring,” agreed Allen. “It’s something with which you can explore new territories.”

And for many, these space age guitars, notably the Stratocaster, embody something as ineffable and transcendent as the deepest, darkest secrets of the ever-expanding, infinite universe.

“It means the idea of rock and roll,” said Norvell. 

  • Author

    Mark Kaufman

  • Editors

    Nandita Raghuram and Brittany Levine Beckman

  • Top Image

    Robin Strower / Shutterstock

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