Electric guitars and testosterone go together like Jimi Hendrix and lighter fluid, but the latest hot musical instrument is a Hello Kitty Stratocaster.
The average price of a vintage pink strat emblazoned with the face of the cartoon cat-girl has more than doubled since 2019, and some owners are now asking more than $1,000.
Reverb, the online marketplace for musical instruments, began tracking the hyper-cute guitars after its analytics team noticed people searching for the guitar in large numbers.
It had become a “recurring search term, near the top of the list”, said Cyril Nigg, Reverb’s senior director of analytics. “The price trend of this guitar has gone from around $200 and now it’s selling for over $700. There’s cases where people have paid over $1,000 for it.”
A video by YouTuber TheDooo kicked off interest in the instrument, he said, but demand had remained high even since he stopped featuring the guitar in videos.
Guitar makers often did tie-ups with big brands, Nigg added, examples being Marvel-themed guitars for Iron Man and Captain America, instruments featuring The Simpsons and Pokémon characters, and partnerships with beers such as Budweiser and Heineken. He said: “There’s a handful of them that are desired, but for the most part you tend to see them in a pawn shop or a guitar store for a few bucks, and they’re sitting there for months on end.”
Fender began selling the limited edition Hello Kitty Stratocasters under its budget Squier range in 2005. At the time, marketing executives at the instrument maker said, apparently seriously, that “by teaming up with the Hello Kitty brand, we hope to show young women just how much fun playing the guitar can be”, according to Tony Bacon, a guitar historian. “It’s patronising really – how insulting can you be?” he said.
The guitars were available at first only through Sanrio, which owns the Hello Kitty brand. “Then Newsweek, at the end of 2005, gave it the top spot for the Christmas list of gifts for the musically obsessed,” Bacon said. “That did them no harm, and they began to sell them generally in January the next year.
“What seemed to happen is that there was a postmodern irony, or what I think I called in the book a post-punk duality, where male players started to pick them up.”
Fender gave away several of the guitars at a Billboard awards ceremony, and soon Slash from Guns N’Roses and Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers posed with them. But that seems to have had little impact on the value of the guitars until more recently.
Paul Atkinson, a design professor at Sheffield Hallam University, said that guitars and musical instruments often held or appreciated in value. A Hendrix strat from 1968 sold at auction for $2m in 1998. The guitar he set aflame on stage at the Monterey festival did not survive, but one torched at the Astoria in Finsbury Park years earlier fetched £280,000 in 2008.
“Without a doubt, it’s the most copied guitar ever,” Atkinson said. “If you look at adverts or cartoons with guitars, they’re either a Stratocaster, a Les Paul or a Flying V. If you ask a child to draw a guitar, they’ll draw a Stratocaster.
“For years, it was only associated with males. But then, obviously, that has changed over the past 30 or 40 years, and now it’s no surprise at all to see women playing electric guitar.”
Hello Kitty was “a heavily gendered object”, he added. “So it’s this very deliberate irony.”
• The headline of this article was amended on 11 December 2022. An earlier version referred to the Hello Kitty guitar as “Stratocaster’s hottest property”. This has been changed to the “hottest Stratocaster” to clarify that the “Strat” is a model rather than a brand.