Its seductive looks and futuristic design have endeared the Fender Stratocaster to generations of guitarists. As an icon of rock turns 60, Jonathan Glancey looks back.

Old rockers wrinkle as they strut into their sixties, yet the Fender Stratocaster, best loved of all electric guitars and synonymous with rock from Buddy Holly through Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Jack White, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Arctic Monkeys, refuses to age. Celebrating its 60th anniversary, this highly versatile, sleek and supremely good-looking musical instrument defies its age in the most convincing and elegant manner.

Hank Marvin of The Shadows’ fame, who made the ‘Strat’ fashionable in Britain, was given his first – fiesta red with a maple fingerboard and gold-plated fittings – by Cliff Richard in 1959. Recently, Marvin, whose playing is universally admired, told Roger Newell of that the Stratocaster “was like something from space, really, it was so futuristic in its design. Also... the contoured body was very comfortable, and it’s not a heavy instrument. So... you could swing it around a little for posing and leaping about. It lent itself very much to the visual aspect of rock’n’roll.”

So much so, that Jimi Hendrix famously smashed and set fire to his ’65 Strat at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. “The time I burned my guitar,” he said, “it was like a sacrifice. You sacrifice the things you love. I love my guitar.” Pete Townsend of The Who played a Stratocaster at the same Californian gig: in his brilliant, firebrand career he too has evidently loved a good many guitars.

Labour of love

Few prized Stratocasters are likely to be sacrificed today. Townsend himself auctioned a ’57 model in 2000 in aid of Oxfam –it had been a present from Eric Clapton. Townsend bought it back as part of a syndicate with David Bowie and Mick Jagger and presented it to Tony Blair, the Strat-loving New Labour prime minister who, in turn, gave it back for auction where it fetched £75,650 ($125,000). Prices since have soared into the financial high Cs with the guitar Clapton recorded Layla with going for anything but a song a few years later: £317,000 ($525,000).

Fender continues to craft hundreds of Stratocasters a day in its factory at Corona, California. Its ‘signature’ models –named after famous rockers –  sell at a hefty premium. These include the Eric Clapton, the Jimi Hendrix (flameproof, hopefully) and two David Gilmours, one of which matches exactly the patina of the Pink Floyd guitarist’s famous ‘Black Strat’ featured on The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall. Gilmour owns Stratocaster number 0001; although made in 1954, this is not the first of the breed, but the first to be given a serial number.

Curiously, perhaps, Leo Fender, the Californian inventor who created the Stratocaster, along with draftsman and steel guitar virtuoso Freddie Tavares, and with a little help from musician friends, never learned to play the guitar. What he understood though was that a new wave of young musicians playing roadhouses and dance halls wanted a bright-sounding instrument that was easy to hold, tune and play. He had an early success with the Telecaster, but the Stratocaster grabbed attention like no other electric guitar before or since. Its seductive looks, while not an accident, derived from functional requirements. The double horned shape is nicely counterbalanced while also allowing muscians’ fingers to roam freely along neck and fretboard. Three pick-ups allow three very different sounds while a tremelo arm offers that distinctive waver popularised by Hank Marvin. The guitar’s ‘Comfort Contour Body’ fits comfortably into the torso.

Born in the USA

The Stratocaster was also a part of a wave of deeply stylish mid-century modern US designs. The year of its launch, saw the Boeing Dash-80, prototype of the 707 jet airliner, take to the air. President Eisenhower announced his highway modernisation programme as Greyhound unveiled its GM Scenicruiser, a split-level coach designed by Roland Gegoux that caught the public imagination: “Every mile a magnificent mile”was the slogan. This was also the year of the first generation Ford Thunderbird, the prototype of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson’s beautifully sinister Mach 2 Lockheed Starfighter and Charles and Ray Eames’s beautifully balanced and lightweight DCM chair (an ideal prop for the design-conscious Strat player). In New York, construction began on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s peerless Seagram Building.

Buddy Holly was one of the first hugely popular stars to play a Strat and many budding musicians were captivated by the sight and sound of Fender’s masterpiece when the bespectacled singer appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. And while such appearances and word of mouth brought healthy sales,  Fender also invested in memorable advertising campaigns. These were the brainchild of Don Randall, his sales chief, working with the Californian photographer Bob Perine.

‘You won’t part with yours either’ was the slogan appended to stylish black and white images showing cool young dudes skydiving, yachting and even commanding a US Army tank  – all clinging on to their Fender Stratocasters. Another campaign by the same team, Wherever you go, you’ll find fender includes a shot of a young man, guitar strapped over his back, climbing aboard the rear platform of a London Transport double-decker making its way down the Embankment. It is indeed fascinating to recall that the bright, cheerful and utterly modern Stratocaster made its debut in a year when the hard-pressed British were still carrying ration books on their way to the shops, or even to the latest coffee bar where new guitar sounds might be heard.

Fender also played on its West Coast roots, revelling in adverts featuring California girls and boys, all sun, surf and T-Birds. What better, then, when bands like the Beach Boys picked up Stratocasters, their infectious sound selling a lifestyle, new forms of music and thousands of Fender guitars?

Health fears led to Leo Fender selling his company to CBS in 1965. Cost-cutting and other management strategies tarnished Fender’s glowing reputation, but in 1985 the company was bought by a group of investors and employees who restored it to grace. Today, many of the more expensive, and especially the signature model Stratocasters appear to be bought by school-of-Tony Blair politicians, businessmen, medics and media folk who might otherwise spend on Harley-Davidson motorbikes, trying to recreate a youth played out to a backdrop of Smoke on the Water and All along the Watchtower. Or even, in a more laid back mood, to the Stratocaster played as slide guitar in the deft hands of Ry Cooder; do you know the poetic soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ 1984 film Paris, Texas?

The Stratocaster is truly an instrument for many styles of music and for several generations of musicians. Crease-free, it sets out in its seventh decade, as bright red and beguiling as it was in 1954, the year before Bill Haley rocked around the clock and three before a 15-year old Jimi Hendrix picked up a one-stringed ukulele, perhaps imagining himself playing, if not smashing and burning, a gleaming Fender Strat.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.