Even with 30-some Stratocasters in the bar, Russ Nasset's was hard to miss.

His 1961 Fender has the kind of character that comes only with windshield time and thousands of gigs. The contoured body is unevenly blotched with large patches where the sunburst finish is worn through to the wood.

It's been his main instrument with his country and honky-tonk band, the Revelators, since he got it in the mid-1970s.

"It's all stock. Nothing's ever been done to it except play the s— out of it," Nasset said.

From the '70s and '80s, when a band could roll into a new town and book five nights in a row, to the present, he put the guitar to work.

He's one of the rare Missoula musicians who makes a living solely from live performances.

"I play as often as I can because it's all I do," he said.

And so his '61 has seen more gigs than you can count.

"A few years back, I played 150 times a year with that thing, man," he said.

***

Nasset and other guitarists gathered last Tuesday evening at the Badlander to mark the 60th anniversary of the Fender Stratocaster, still the most iconic model of guitar for rock 'n' roll and blues.

Michael Avery, who's hosted open mics around town for more than a decade, decided to throw a concert for the occasion, although technically the guitar went into production in 1954.

He divided the guitarists up into groups, most of them featuring at least three, and they played half-hour sets from 7 p.m. to close.

Gavin McCourt, of "mountain surf" band the Skurfs, said his Tex-Mex Strat is a "workhorse" guitar that can be adapted to any style.

Indeed, the terms used over and over to describe the Stratocaster that night were "workhorse" and "versatile."

You could see his point with the range of musicians on stage.

They included veteran gigging musicians like Nasset. Younger guys who play funk and psychedelic hip-hop, or surf and rock. Guys who play metal, jazz, blues, country.

***

Instruments occupy a special place in the lives of their owners – a prized tool or extra limb, an extension of their mind or creative self.

With that favored status comes behavior unusual to everyday possessions.

Players will tell you how much they underpaid for theirs, or refuse to mention what it's worth now.

They'll drag them on the ground till they have some character, like Owen Ross did, or decorate them with designs by hand, like Guy Blankenau.

His "Guytar" has "E=mc2" and a cross painted in white lines on its black body.

They have sentimental attachments – how they got them and why, or why they'll never sell them.

Neil Funk plays an American-made Strat that he's altered with bridge pickups from a Gibson SG. It gives him a thicker tone when his band, Dusk, plays metal songs.

After his father died, Funk came into a little bit of an inheritance.

"He didn't have much money, but I spent it all on this guitar," said Funk, who's played since he was 10 years old, or some 43 years.

"He was a musician, I figured he'd love it," he said.

Boston McDonald had the most glam-rock guitar in the Badlander, although he's not a glam-rocker by any means.

He plays psychedelic hip-hop with Mesozoic Mafia, and rock with his group Boston Tea Party.

His 2007 custom-body Strat is coated with a sparkle finish that defies easy description.

"What would you call that? Burnt orange or something?" he said.

His best friend spied the guitar a few years ago at a pawn shop that had been flooded.

For insurance reasons, they were selling all their gear at a steep discount, and McDonald's friend picked it up for him.

No matter the style of music, it's his workhorse.

"I just like how it plays. I've got a handful of guitars, and it's probably the most versatile one I have. It sounds good with literally anything I play," he said.

***

Tommy Pertis wasn't sure if he really wanted a Stratocaster, and he's the kind of player who can play most any style.

He teaches classical guitar at the University of Montana. He started up the Jazz Martini Nights at the Badlander, where he performed with the Front Street Jazz Group and currently plays with the Josh Farmer Band.

Like many players, he started out with blues and rock.

"It took me a long time to settle into the Strat as a main guitar," he said. "I came to realize after a while, after a long time of playing, that this is the guitar that sounded exactly like what you expected it to sound like."

After some thought he concluded, "It's that sound that got you playing guitar in the first place."

Before investing the money in an authentic model, he built a Strat from parts himself, what guitarists call a "Parts-caster" or "Franken-Strat," he said.

After a year or so, he was ready for the real thing.

He called the factory directly to order a 2012 American Standard model.

"Word had it around the Internet that 2012 was the best production year since the early '70s," he said, citing improvements to the neck and bridge.

He'd waited till the end of the year, and an employee told him he could get a newer one.

"I asked them for a 2012 in cherry red, and the guy was nice enough to tell me, 'Hey, we got the 2013s. They're rolling off the rack right now, why don't you wait a couple of days and get one of those?' " Pertis said.

Pertis declined, and got his 2012 in cherry red.

"I think I made the right decision," he said.

***

Of course, not all the guitars on stage Tuesday night were Stratocasters.

Aaron Jennings, who plays with Joey Running Crane and the Dirty Birds, a high-volume alt-country act, brought along a rare instrument.

He heard about the Fender Custom Triple Steel, a 1954 model with three eight-string necks, from a fellow steel player.

On the front of its wooden base is vintage lettering that once said "Billy Joe Wright," although the "b-i" and the "w" have gone missing, so it spells "-illy Joe -right."

Jennings has it because the owner of the instrument went missing years ago. He purchased it from a Havre resident, whose mother worked at a honky-tonk.

"It was left there by a musician," he said.

Jennings got word of the guitar two years ago, and a week before Christmas drove all the way to the Hi-Line to buy it. While there, he gathered information on Wright worthy of a short documentary on its own. (It involves fleeing Texas for Havre, fleeing Havre for Canada to evade taxes, and getting run over by a train.)

***

Jay Straw has played around Montana for decades, run a recording studio and a sound company, Hi-Tech Audio and Lighting.

He has a 1976 blonde Strat with a maple neck that he bought for himself on his birthday decades ago. (He got it for half-price because of the occasion.)

He picked it because he wanted its sound and "purity of tone," and hasn't felt the need to modify, or "hot rod," it.

Even when overdriven, the Strat has a sound that distinguishes it immediately, Straw said, such as its clarity.

Like all vintage equipment, he thinks there's a warmth and mystique that keeps people buying them.

"It has a certain unique quality, and there's a lot of things that you can do with it that all the gadgets in the world won't emulate," he said.

When Tim Ryan, one of his musician friends from Nashville, comes to town, he asks if can buy it. Alas, Ryan has to settle for borrowing it for a gig.

"He's one of the few people who gets to take it out of my house without me," Straw said.

Even that's a big favor when you think about it.

It is, after all, his Strat.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.