George Harrison “Rocky” Stratocaster Tribute project is just getting started. Ordering parts and will be getting a custom paint job to pay tribute to one of my biggest guitar heros, George Harrison. This is probably one of the most copied Stratocasters. There are some places were you can order this guitar already painted on a Squier, Fender MIM or American Stratocaster. The Fender Custom Shop has also made a version of this guitar. I even saw a company the sells a vinyl “Rocky” decal that you can apply to your Strat!
My goal here is to make a period correct Sonic Blue Stratocaster that resembles the ones the Beatles bought in the 1960s. Then have the “Rocky” paint job done by a pro like the one George did himself on his guitar. What is important is I want a great playing and sounding guitar, NOT just a wall hanger. I PLAY all my guitars. So no cheap parts, must be period correct, authentic looking and play great. Let’s face there is only really ONE “Rocky” Stratocaster and a million copies. Just want mine to be cool and sound good.
I contacted Rob Burger from Burger Guitars to do the “Rocky” paint job. Rob is a real pro and has painted the “Rocky” paint job literally thousand times.
Pictures of George Harrison’s self painted “Rocky” Stratocaster
Can see the pickguard has a bit of a dimple under neck which is often found on vintage Strats due to players trying to adjust the truss rod without removing neck or pickguard. In later years Fender moved the truss rod adjustment to the headstock.
With all five springs and the tremolo claw screws so tight, George was not using a floating tremolo. From most of the videos and pictures I found it appears George did not use the tremolo and played the guitar with locked down bridge. Not a lot of Beatles songs that use a tremolo. Maybe he learned this from his pal Eric Clapton who always puts a block in this Stratocaster tremolo for more sustain. Since George played slide on this guitar this should come as no surprise. Tremolo back cover and ashtray bridge cover is missing and probably been removed for many years.
History of “Rocky” Stratocaster
The “Rocky” Stratocaster started out as a Sonic Blue Fender Stratocaster that was purchased in England. George’s FIRST Fender.
George Harrison and John Lennon decided to get Stratocasters sometime in late 1964. So they sent out roadie, Mal Evans, saying ‘Go and get us Strats.’ And he came back with two of them, pale blue ones.” Ironic that the Fender company would given them ANYTHING they wanted for free, but they still ended up purchasing their first Fenders!
Fender sales chief Don Randall had launched an unsuccessful bid only four months earlier to get the company’s instruments into the hands of the world’s most famous group.
Harrison and Lennon each ended up with matching Sonic Blue Fender Stratocasters, with rosewood fingerboards and white pickguards. Harrison’s Stratocaster, serial number 83840, had a neck dated December 1961, and had apparently spent some time at a music shop in Kent, as a worn label on the back of the headstock read “Grimwoods; the music people; Maidstone and Whitstable.”
George Harrison playing a Sonic Blue Stratocaster in the video below around 22 seconds in. The Sonic Blue Stratocaster with maple neck in this video can’t actually be Rocky because is was from around 1970-71 and by that time Harrison’s original sonic blue guitar had already been repainted. So maybe it was John’s with a different neck? Cool video!
These Stratocasters were used extensively on the album the Beatles were making at the time, Rubber Soul. Most notably on the song Nowhere Man which John and George played the solo in unison.
“Rocky” was born!
According to George “everything was more colorful in the 1960s” so he ended up painting the guitar with Day-Glo paint (new at the time) with a brush. He also used some of his first wife’s, Patti Boyd (later, Layla) nail vanish and naming the guitar “Rocky.” George did not think it was a great paint job and surely had no idea just how iconic it would become.
George played the All You Need is Love on the “Rocky” Strat during in 1967 for the first live global satellite televised event Our World on June 25, 1967. The “Rocky” Strat was also in the Beatles film Magic Mystery Tour on “I Am Walrus” the same year.
Later in 1969, George also added the name “Rocky” to the guitar’s headstock. To honor Rockabilly legends Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins he also added “Bebopalula” to the upper body and “Go Cat Go” to the pickguard.
George loaned the “Rocky” Strat to Eric Clapton, while George played Eric’s Les Paul for the concert to benefit UNICEF in London in 1969. Harrison used the guitar a short European tour with Delaney and Bonnie with Eric Clapton. George played slide guitar for the first time on this tour and the “Rocky” Strat was his “go-to” guitar for slide work for many years.
In 1987, the “Rocky” guitar made an appearance in the music video “When We Was Fab” from Harrison’s solo album Cloud Nine.
George never parted with his first Stratocaster. It remains today in the possession of his family, and is the most colorful guitar in the George Harrison collection. Basically it is priceless.
“If I’d had my way, the Strat would have been my first guitar,” Harrison said. “I’d seen Buddy Holly’s Strat … on the Chirping Crickets album cover, and tried to find one. But in Liverpool in those days the only thing I could find resembling a Strat was a Futurama. It was very difficult to play, (the strings were) about half an inch off the fingerboard … but nevertheless it did look kind of futuristic.”
George tried to buy a used Strat at one time, but the guitar was snatched up first by a band member of “Rory and the Hurricanes” which was Ringo’s band at the time. George ended up buying the used black Gretsch Duo Jet instead which he considered his first good guitar. George did not get his hands on a Strat until years later when he got the Sonic Blue one that became Rocky guitar.
In the early 50s and 60s it was extremely hard to buy American products like guitars in England due to embargo that existed at the time. Some merchant sailors in Liverpool would bring items back from New York and sell them. One reason bands in Liverpool had a bit of an advantage in those days as they could sometimes get better instruments. The cost of these guitars was also extremely high.
George used the Fender Sonic Blue Stratocaster that became the Rocky Strat in the studio to record some classic songs. Here is a partial playlist.
- Nowhere Man
- I Am Walrus
- All You Need Is Love
- Cloud Nine
- That’s What It Takes
- Just For Today
- This Is Love
- Someplace Else
This will be an elaborate partscaster using select quality parts. I bought a relic Sonic Blue Fender MIJ (Made in Japan) on eBay. Since the body with be getting the “Rocky” paint job, looks like the perfect base to get started with this custom build. The body I bought already has Fender tremolo, jack cup and strap buttons included I will be using. It has a neck plate and screws and I will only use the screws.
The neck is on order from Musikraft. Looking at the real “Rocky” the neck is a quite beautiful Birdseye maple with a rosewood fingerboard. Since the neck on George’s guitar was stamped 1961 from what I have researched. My best guess is it has a slab rosewood board as a opposed to veneer that Fender used a few years later. Since I like the slab board better that is what I custom ordered.
Custom Musikraft Stratocaster Neck specs:
- 25.5 Standard Fender Scale with 21 Frets
- Nut Width: 1-11/16 (42.85mm) with Slotted Bone Nut
- Drilled for 11/32 Vintage Kluson Style Tuners
- Vintage Single Acting Adjust @ Heel Truss Rod
- Birdseye Premium
- Rosewood Slab with 9-1/2 Radius and Medium 6105 Nickel Silver
- Real Aged Clay Dots
- 12th Dots: Wide – Pre ’64
- Real Aged Clay Side Dots 2mm
- Semi Rolled Edges and Medium C .83 X .92 Back Profile
I have a set of medium relic Kluson tuners with the logo like Fender used in 1961 – 1963 on the way.
Ordered a neck plate with serial number 83840 to match George’s from Ron Kirn via eBay. He makes custom stamped serial numbers that are just like the ones Fender used in the old days. I used one of these on my Mary Kay Tribute Stratocater.
For simplicity (and cost) I bought a loaded Fender pickguard with all electronics and Fender ’57/’62 Stratocaster pickup set. Good price and less work for this project.
The “loaded” Stratocaster pickguard has Fender ORIGINAL’57/’62 pickups with All genuine FENDER parts. I will have to swap the volume and the tone knob like George did on “Rocky.” Makes me wonder if this was done by accident when he painted the guitar or was done on purpose for some reason? Maybe George liked the way it looked better with the knobs swapped?
- Fender ORIGINAL ’57/’62 Stratocaster pickup set, part number 0992117000
- Fender 5 way switch, part number 0991367000
- Fender Standard Stratocaster pickguard WHITE, part number 0991360000
- Three Fender/CTS 250k split-shaft potentiometer, part number 0990830000
- Fender Stratocaster knob set WHITE, part number 0991369000
- Fender/Switchcraft output jack, part number 0021956049
- Wired with vintage-correct cloth-covered wire
I will probably end up swapping out the white pickguard as the hole pattern is a bit different than a ’61-’63 Stratocaster. Plus John and George’s Sonic Blue Stratocasters had rosewood fingerboards and light mint green pickguards. From the pictures of the guitar John is playing it clearly has a mint green pickguard which was common in that era. The pictures of the real Rocky Strat looks a bit whiter. Hard to be sure as it could be the lighting in the photos and the way it appears against the other colors on the guitar. I have a few Fender pickguards on order and I will pick the closest one before the “Rocky” paint work is started.
So this project will be using almost ALL Fender parts, except the neck as I could not find a Birdseye Fender neck that was period correct.
UPDATE: More parts have arrived including Fender pickguards.
Fender pickguard colors are sometimes had to match. For this project the pickguard will be painted, but the pickguard color will show through. The original pickguards on the two Fender Sonic Blue Stratocasters the Beatles bought were mint green. You can see this clearly in the John Lennon picture above plying the guitar. The pictures of George Harrison’s Rocky Strat do appear a bit more white. The natural aging does turn these older pickguards more green or pale over time. In my opinion new Fender genuine mint green pickguards come the closest to the older ones as opposed to third party makers.
The natural aging, lighting and the juxtaposition of the pickguard on the painted guitar will all have an effect on how it appears. It is clear to me that the pickguard is not pure white. Below I have white, parchment and mint green Fender genuine pickguards to show comparison.
It is amazing how different they appear when put on the painted body. Depending on the color of the Stratocaster body they have a different look. I have used different ones over the years on different bodies and I have found the only way to judge is to see it on the body.
The white Fender pickguard has a different hole pattern which is different then the 1962 style pickguards. I will not be using the white one for this project.
I have to decide to use either the Parchment or Mint Green Fender pickguard for this project. I also have a set of Parchment colored Fender pickup covers and knobs I will use. The white ones are not correct for this guitar.
Copper foil treatment for the routes for shielding. The magic in the copper tape is actually the adhesive which is conductive. I like to do this on all my builds especially when I will be using single coil pickups that are a bit noisy in general. The trick is to make sure you properly ground the copper foil to the rest of the electronics. If not properly grounded it can act like an antenna and actually make the noise worse than no if you had no shielding.
I will be using a Fender aluminum shield under the pickguard as well. I am working on aging some screws and tremolo springs.
Musikraft licensed Fender neck has arrived and it looks very nice for this project.
Time to mount the aged vintage style Kluson tuners. Use a reamer to slightly enlarge the holes from the from of headstock so I can install the ferrules easier. I tap them in with a small fret hammer as these tuner ferrules stay in via tight fit so you need to make sure not to enlarge the holes too much. Only enough to allow the ferrules to slide in snug.
Next, I use a steel six inch ruler (any straight edge would work) to align the tuners. I use “Frog” low tack tape to hold it all in place and make sure the tuners are in perfect alignment.
After the tuners are set in place I can drill the holes for the screws that will hold the them in place. Must be careful not to drill too deep and come out the front of the headstock…. it can happen. Install the screws and remove the tape and ruler and it is all set.
The bone nut came installed from Musikraft, but a little smoothing and filing is needed as it is a new nut install.
I ordered the neck with a very thin lacquer applied by Musikraft. The front of the headstock will be painted. The back of neck is very light finish. I just used a bit of lemon oil on the rosewood fingerboard and the back of the neck. No heavy poly finish on this one!
Neck is ready to be mounted to body.
I mounted the neck using the custom neck plate with serial number 83840 to match George’s Rocky Strat as a tribute to one of the most famous Fender Stratocasters of all time.
I have screws and the extra two tremolo springs to lightly age. Looks like the Fender Parchment pickguard, pickup covers and knobs will be used. It looks fairly close to the pictures of the actual Rocky Strat and it will be painted the same way. I will use the Fender that is more mint green for another project I have in mind.
I used a Fender aluminum shield behind the Fender pickguard. With the copper foil and grounding should be quiet the single coil pickups and have less hum.
Just have to finish up the aging of the hardware. Then I can get it all together and ship to the painter.
Guitar assembly was completed and shipped out to the painter to work his magic transformation into a Rocky Strat.
Got the guitar back from Rob Burger at Burger Guitars. The paint job Rob did is spectacular. Looks like the original and nails the vibe completely. Rob was a total pleasure to work with on this project. If you are interested in a Rocky Strat visit Rob Burger at Burger Guitars.
Rob’s paint work is very detailed and is a great tribute to the original George Harrison Rocky.
The fret work is usually pretty good on the Musikraft necks I have ordered, but this one needs a little help. The fret ends are a bit sharp and they can use some polishing. I removed the neck and protected the fretboard with “frog” low tack tape. I filed down the fret ends and used a bit of steel wool. The used dremel tool to polish the frets. Used some lemon oil on the rosewood.
Put the neck back on and put the strings on. Neck is nice and straight. Plays nice. Just need to tweak the setup and intonation.
All done and looking good.
The guitar started out as a nice Fender Sonic Blue Stratocaster
George Harrison playing the “Rocky” Guitar
The George Harrison Guitar Collection