Gear Tales: The Strat that broke his heart

This Gear Tale came from Richie Mayer, who spent time in Chicago in various bands and as the singer and songwriter in the new wave/power pop band Loose Lips, releasing the 1980 EP "Hung Up On Pop."

Mayer went on to record with Epic Records, moved to Toronto to write and produce for BMG/RCA, winning two Junos along the way. He’s been living in Sonoma for the past seven years and is currently mixing an album of new material in Austin and Berkeley at Coast Mastering.

Here’s Mayer’s Gear Tale, word for word, and for background information, I should point out that, for those unaware, Fender Stratocasters are the iconic electric guitar.

“It was the mid ’70s and I was living in Chicago and playing guitar in a touring rock band. Whenever I came off the road some musician friends of mine would always harangue me about coming to a local country bar for a Sunday night jam session. I had no idea why because, in truth, I knew a total of three country guitar licks. Total. I could rip off a creditable Jeff Beck or defile Hendrix with the best of them, but Chet Atkins? A minefield to my fingers.

“I finally went to the Cameo Lounge one night to jam and as I walked through the smoky club my eyes caught sight of the band and an old guy sitting on a chair next to the drummer. He was playing a sunburst Fender Stratocaster and the closer I got, the more I realized it was unlike any I'd seen before. I was always into vintage guitars, my current then being a pawnshop-find blonde, 1960 Gibson ES345.

“But this Strat was different; it had a very dark tobacco sunburst and the case that was leaning against the back of the stage was shaped like the guitar on one side and square on the other.

“As he came off the stage I introduced myself and asked about his guitar: ‘It's a 1954 Stratocaster that I bought from the first Fender sales rep in Chicago. I paid $184 for it. Here let me show you.’ He brought the guitar and the case to the edge of the stage and it was beautiful: deep grain running across the body and a golden color in the middle of the sunburst.

“He reached into the case and brought out a piece of paper: ‘Here's the receipt.’ Sure enough. On June 4, 1954 he paid $184 for it. Being a typical rock musician, I was quite sensitive, so marshaling all the considerable tact at my disposal, I blurted out ‘Do you want to sell it?’”

"‘No,’ he responded laughing. ‘No, I could never sell it. My name's Bill.“ We went up to the bar and threw back a few as he told me more about his long ownership of this beautiful instrument.

The band was heading for the stage for the next set and Bill said, "Want to play it?" I just smiled like an idiot as he handed me the guitar and plugged it into his amp which was a Sears Airline model known primarily for its complete lack of any mojo whatsoever. And as I slung the guitar over my shoulder I realized that it was strung with ancient flatwound jazz strings the size of piano wire. This was going to be a challenge.

“The band took off and I gave it my best shot, using the old trick on a Strat pickup switch where you positioned the switch between two pickups giving it an out-of-phase sound that made Eric Clapton famous. My left hand immediately fell in love with the fat neck and the amazing vibration that was ringing through the body of the guitar and into my chest.

“The set was over too soon and as I gently put the guitar back in its case with my newly blistered fingers, he came up to me and said, ’What do you think?’ Once again. the words just tumbled out of my mouth: ‘Do you want to sell it?’ He just laughed and shook his head no.

“We went back to the bar with the rest of the players for one more drink and as I turned to leave to say goodbye to the guy, he was gone.

“It was a better evening than I had ever expected and as I reached for the door, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see Bill with the guitar case in his hand. ‘Here,’ he said, handing me the guitar. ‘I've been trying to make the guitar sound like that since I bought it.’ And he gave me the guitar.

“A 1954 tobacco sunburst Fender Stratocaster, serial number 0159.

“I stayed up until dawn the next morning, holding it, turning it over, taking in every detail, feeling every contour, tapping it to make it ring like a piano, inhaling the 21 years of scents drifting from the open case. It was a high I will never forget.

“I played that guitar religiously for years, making numerous recordings that had the engineers gaping at the tone, and that brought musicians at live gigs out of the audience like lemmings. (That's how I met Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick and we became decades-long guitar buddies.)

“As will happen when you play original music for a living, times got tough and I reluctantly sold the guitar only to convince the guy four months later to sell it back to me.

“Finally, after an auto accident I had to let go of it for good. I received more money for that guitar than anyone had ever heard of at the time, but since then I have felt the loss as if it were a lover painfully departed.

“And though it may sound risible to anyone who has never been possessed by an object, there will always be a vacancy in my soul where number 0159 lived.

“P.S. My old 1954 Fender Stratocaster serial number 0159 is now featured on page 35 of ‘The Fender Stratocaster’ book by A.R. Duchossoir with the caption: "Neck marking and serial number of one of the earliest 1954 production models."

Now, that is a story.

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