Dancing With Destiny
Guitar Player|December 2019
Robbie Robertson tells the history behind the bronze Fender Stratocaster that became the guitar star of the last waltz.
Jamie Dickson

From backing a newly electrified Bob Dylan to carving out woody, jagged guitar lines in the Band, Robbie Robertson has been part of the fabric of American rock. And no instrument is more associated with him than the bronze-coated ’54 Strat he used on the night that Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters and many other notable performers joined the Band for the concert known today as the Last Waltz.

Held on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the concert both closed and crowned an era. For Robertson and bandmates Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, the event marked the end of a touring career that had covered untold thousands of miles. As the Hawks, they’d played at Dylan’s side around the globe in 1965 and ’66, when irate fans stormed the stage in protest to their folk hero going electric. As the Band, they cut a legendary debut album at Big Pink, a house in West Saugerties, New York, and were among the artists to perform at Woodstock in ’69.

For nearly all of his time with the Band, Robertson favored Fender Telecasters for his terse but soulful playing style, but he later found his ideal match in a ’54 Stratocaster and a tweed Fender Twin. By the time of the Band’s 1976 Winterland show, the Strat had been given a bronze finish. In that guise, it would go on to become a star in its own right when Robertson wielded it at ”the concert, which was filmed by director Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz. The Fender Custom Shop recreated the guitar in 2016 as the Last Waltz Stratocaster (shown here in detail photographs), a limited-edition model that reflected the original instrument as it was at the time of the 1976 concert. But as Robertson explains, he almost took a pass on the instrument that would become one of the most famous electric guitars in rock and roll history.

How did you come to own the ’54Stratocaster?

I got the guitar from Norm’s Rare Guitars in Los Angeles. Norman Harris always had spectacular guitars. This was one that he brought me. It was originally red, which was kind of unusual, because the guitar is from 1954. [Most early Stratocasters had two-tone sunburst finishes, though Fender made the guitar in custom colors at a customer’s request.] The serial number is 0234. Anyway, he brought me a bunch of guitars to try out. In that batch there was a Telecaster with a V neck. It was beautiful. I had played Telecasters for years, starting back with Ronnie Hawkins, because we had to play long hours and it was one of the lighter guitars. It didn’t hurt your shoulder at the end of the night. Anyway, I was drawn to this Telecaster, and I played it and it felt really good. This V neck was great on it.

Then he brought out this Stratocaster. I had played a Stratocaster years earlier, but because of the tremolo bar on it and the way that whole thing works, if you break a string it goes wildly out of tune. The tremolo bar also makes it hard to keep in tune as well. I just didn’t want to be bothered with that. So I veered away from Stratocasters and went in the direction of the Teles.

But when he gave me this guitar to try, it felt amazing. There was something about the neck on it, the balance. And when I plugged it in, the sound. It just completely swayed me in that direction. I said, “I am going to take this Stratocaster, and I want to show this Telecaster to Bob Dylan, because I think this would be great for him.”

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