By the mid-’60s the Strat was seen as a clean, polite guitar, far from the fire-breathing weapon craved by the new generation of blues fans. Before long, though, it would be brought back to the forefront by the best exponent of the electric guitar the world had ever seen. Story by Michael Heatley
Born in 1953 and launched in May 1954, the Fender Stratocaster did its growing up in the ’50s along with rock’n’roll. It first grabbed the limelight with bespectacled pioneers Buddy Holly and Hank Marvin, its part in the creation of music history as clear as its chiming single pickup tone. The ’70s saw it in the spotlight again; Clapton made it his guitar of choice, while the likes of Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck and David Gilmour took it to another level. Today it celebrates its 60th birthday as the archetypal rock guitar, the shape most recognised by non-players and the model most imitated by other manufacturers and developed by custom luthiers.
However, the 1960s, in many ways, marked a lost period for the Fender Strat. Blues-rock was essentially built on Gibson foundations, specifically the humbucker-equipped Les Paul, and the trend was for guts, grunt and distortion. It wouldn’t be until Jimi Hendrix burst on the scene that the instrument threatened to lose its reputation for crystal clarity. Even then, it was by no means an instant rehabilitation; Hendrix was such a one-off players that those directly inspired by him were slow to emerge. Robin Trower, for instance, switched to playing his Fender in 1969 when Procol Harum were on tour with Jethro Tull, but would not make waves as a solo artist until the following decade.
Rock may not yet have caught up with the potential of a twangy guitar and a Marshall, but in country and, particularly, black music, the Strat still enjoyed supremacy in the ’60s. Ike Turner was very much out there during the decade, backing up Tina with his whammy-equipped Strat. Bluesman-to-be Sherman Robertson, a Turner fan, recalled it sounding ‘really nice and crisp’ in an era when ‘everybody was using Gibsons for the sound and sustain’.
In 1965 custom colours were still in full swing, and the catalogue showed Strats in sonic blue and burgundy mist.
In Chicago, the up-and-coming Buddy Guy was showcasing the Strat on numbers like First Time I Met The Blues, while in a mellower vein, Curtis Mayfield was propelling the Impressions chartward before kicking off a solo career that would bring his wah wah-flavoured funk (Shaft, etc) to the fore. Ernie Isley just qualifies as a ’60s Stratman, though he like Mayfield would find greater fame with the Isley Brothers in the following decade.
The Band’s Robbie Robertson was a ’60s Strat star, albeit one appreciated more by fellow players than the public at large. His instrument is all over Music From Big Pink and The Band, the two seminal late-’60s albums that practically invented the Americana genre. Rory Gallagher, another man with a reverence for musical tradition, was at that stage toting his Strat in the three-piece Taste, preparing the ground for a stratospheric solo career.
Strats were, at this point, the province of a select few. But sales of electric guitars in general were at an all-time high, the Stratocaster among them; it wasn’t a case of Hendrix putting sales through the roof so much as raising the Strat’s rock profile. Certainly, Fender’s attempt to rival it with the Jazzmaster in 1958 and the Jaguar in 1962 had failed to completely shake its popularity.
As an instrument, the Strat had gone through relatively few changes in the ’50s, proving Leo Fender had hit the target first time out. The same of course applies to the Telecaster and Precision Bass, the designs that, along with the later Jazz Bass, were and remain the foundation stones of the company’s success. But changes there were. The Strat’s body had changed from ash to alder in 1956 for all but blond examples, while the one-piece maple neck with no separate fingerboard would be replaced as standard in mid-1959 by a rosewood board. Some say this offered a warmer, more mellow sound. In addition, the neck profile became flatter, resulting in what is now termed the C-shaped neck – very different to, say, 1957’s sharper V.
Strats with rosewood fingerboards available to August 1962 are known as ‘slabs’ and are now collectable, albeit not as coveted as their ’50s maple-neck predecessors. When the ‘slab’ neck was removed and viewed from the body end, the joint between fingerboard and neck was a straight line. The ‘veneer board’ that replaced it from mid-1962 was thinner, with the base cambered to match the top. The surface of the maple neck it surmounted was shaped accordingly. This change, Leo Fender’s right-hand man George Fullerton suggested, was intended to increase the neck’s stability in different climates.
Though no longer standard issue, maple fingerboards remained available on the Strat until 1968 as a special order. These could be distinguished from ’50s instruments in having no ‘skunk stripe’ down the back of the neck; the truss rod was now inserted from the front before a separate maple board was glued to the neck. In 1969 Fender would revert to the ’50s-style one-piece neck and so the ‘skunk stripe’ was once again seen.
The Strat’s three-layer celluloid pickguard, introduced in mid-’59, was itself replaced in January 1965; celluloid (also known as nitrate) guards were not only flammable but had a tendency to shrink. They can be identified visually from their vinyl/ABS successors by their greenish tinge. In the late ’60s, white Strat pickguards changed further when the bottom layer (not usually visible) became pearloid. Changes were afoot behind the pickguard, too; wire with shielding made of cotton gave way in 1968 to PVC plastic.
Pickup-wise, the mid-’60s saw the beginning of a gradual slide in output from 6k to 5.7k or less, while 1963 saw the introduction of a standard ceramic pancake-shaped tone capacitor. The latter year also saw the Tolex case material change to white with black leather ends instead of brown Tolex and brown leather ends, as used from 1959 to 1962.
The standard finish of the ’60s Strat was three-tone sunburst, and mid-1964 saw Fender change the way they created this. The yellow element of the sunburst had previously been stained into the wood before the painting process, leaving Fender to spray the remaining two colours, red and brown, onto it. The change to spraying yellow rather than staining it made the finish markedly less transparent, and allowed Fender to use alder with minor defects such as mineral stains because it didn’t show as much wood grain. This is called a ‘target burst’.
Custom colours based on the Dupont range of auto paints had debuted on the cover of the ’59 catalogue in the shape of a fiesta red Strat and came into their own in the ’60s. Rare finishes like shoreline gold and burgundy mist fetch higher prices on today’s collectors market than the ubiquitous candy apple red and olympic white.
The year of 1965 saw changes – shoreline gold was replaced by firemist gold and Inca silver by firemist silver – but the number of options remained at 14. The 1969 list price of a custom colour Strat was $367, inclusive of a five per cent premium, while the occasionally seen option of a matching headstock increased price (and collectability) yet again.
Leo Fender had run his company in hands-on fashion until 1965 when, after a bout of ill-health, he sold it to CBS for a reported $13 million. Fear soon spread that instruments made under the aegis of such a large conglomerate would not match up to Fender’s previous standards. The term ‘pre-CBS’ has since been used to justify the premium prices of instruments made before the takeover date.
The 18 months from late summer 1964 to December 1965 is known as the ‘transition’ era when more mass-production techniques started to take hold, and guitars made between these date are the least collectable pre-CBS Strats. The Strat had not been a product of automation in the early days; only operations like cutting slots for frets had been performed by dedicated machines. But CBS looked for ways to cut production time and costs. When CBS took over Fender, according to sales manager Don Randall, the company was producing 1,500 instruments a week, a good proportion of which were Strats. That compared with the 40 per week output of just a decade earlier.
The 1961 slab-board olympic white Strat belonging to Glenn Tipton
By 1966, Fender had a new factory of some 120,000 square feet (1,115 square metres) operating next to the existing factory at Fullerton. And while semi-acoustics, banjos, keyboards and solid-state amplification were among the product lines being added to the catalogue by a management ever eager for the ‘leisure dollar’, the Strat was still a mainstay.
The year of 1966 brought changes, not only in methods of production but also in the shape of the Strat. The most obvious change was the increased size of the headstock from late 1965, supposedly to counteract warping, and this change would remain as standard through the ’60s and ’70s. The necks of Strats of the period tended towards a ‘U’ shape considered unattractive by many.
At the same time the style of Fender logo changed. The thin ‘spaghetti’ Fender of 1954 had been supplanted by a larger gold logo in the autumn of 1964. The thicker ‘black’ logo that appeared in 1967 was intended to be more recognisable on TV and would last to 1980. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1967 that Fender registered their logo and ‘letter F’ as trademarks, so the name would be accompanied by a capital R in a circle (the registered trademark sign) from then on.
Another great ’61 this one is the standard sunburst
The use of nitrocellulose lacquer was largely phased out by 1967, making the crazed patina beloved by vintage guitar enthusiasts a thing of the past. It was replaced by a glossy ‘thick skin’ finish, which was reckoned to cover the wood with up to 15 layers of polyester as opposed to the three thin layers of lacquer. As with most changes, this did not find universal favour among guitarists.
Meanwhile the Strat’s body became markedly less contoured, adding to the feeling that the instrument was somehow being ‘watered down’. In truth there weren’t enough people at the top who cared about its reputation and its legacy, and this led to a spate of departures; men who made Fender, like Forrest White, George Fullerton and Don Randall, quit for pastures new, while Leo himself was banned from competing for five years – by which time his health issues had been resolved.
So did the changes make the ’60s Strat a better or worse instrument? According to G&B columnist Phil Harris, ‘It made it different. A 1966 Strat has a slimmer neck and it’s got a larger headstock. All Fender instruments, not just the Strat, went through some changes with the CBS corporate takeover. They were upgrading the range – at least that’s what they thought they were doing at the time; they were actually downgrading them, in a way.
‘They did make some good instruments, though. In the ’70s I had a ’58 Strat with a maple neck and a friend of mine had a ’66. I would quite often nick his ’66 and use it on stage. My ’58 was very twangy and the ’66 had the latest design pickups, which basically hit you right between the eyes like a howitzer. It was like a caricature of the earlier Strats, and a lot more powerful.’
As far as the Strat in Britain went, the lifting of the trade embargo saw Hank Marvin’s salmon pink six-string joined by more examples as the ’60s progressed. Jennings, the first official distributor of Fender in the UK, had been supplemented by Selmer in 1962, but both were replaced by Arbiter, who began a near four-decade tenure in 1965. ‘Because we didn’t get ’50s Strats in England,’ Phil Harris explains, ‘the real English Strat, the one that hits you right in the spinal cord, is from 1961 to early ’64 – that’s the one that made all those noises and did thousands of songs we love.’
A blue 1964 Strat with green guard and ‘transition’ logo.
Western Europe was Fender’s biggest export market, but the Strat’s impact might have been even greater had one of the Beatles or Stones been identified with it. Not until George Harrison had his blue Strat refinished in psychedelic hues for 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour movie were Britain’s most famous group publicly associated with the instrument. George’s Strat had, in fact, first featured on 1965’s Rubber Soul when roadie Mal Evans was dispatched to buy one for him and another for John Lennon; the pair played them in unison on the solo of Nowhere Man. But while George toted a rosewood Tele in Let It Be, and Fender Rhodes pianos were also seen on camera, the Fender/Fab Four interface was to remain decidedly limited.
A ’68 model with optional maple fretboard and larger headstock
By the end of the ’60s Strats were a bargain buy – a pre-CBS rosewood-neck Strat might fetch between $300 and $400, a new example little more. Eric Clapton found a rack of vintage Fenders, priced in the low hundreds of dollars to reflect their unfashionability, in the Sho-Bud guitar shop in Nashville, Tennessee, a 1970 tour stop with Derek and the Dominos. ‘They were going for virtually nothing because they were so unwanted, so I bought a big pile of them for a song.’ Sharing his good fortune, he gave Steve Winwood one, Pete Townshend another, George Harrison a third and kept the rest.
Changes made to the Strat in 1971, taking the truss rod adjustment to the headstock end of the neck and introducing a separate string guide for the middle pair of strings, have come to characterise an undesirable instrument. The four-bolt neck plate present since 1950 was replaced at the same time by a three-screw design featuring a neck tilt adjuster, and this was particularly displeasing to purists, as Phil Harris explains. ‘Walter Trout and Ritchie Blackmore speak very highly of bullet truss rod Strats, but my opinion is how much of the neck is touching the body? There isn’t that body-neck joint.’
So if the Strat had remained essentially unchanged in the ’60s, the omens weren’t looking so bright in the new decade. The guitar sales boom is reckoned to have peaked in 1972, and at that point it’s probably safe to say Fender were producing more average Strats than exceptional ones.
But many still swear by ’60s Strats. Phil Harris, who’s owned Starts of all hues, has a stripped and refinished ’63; ‘I wouldn’t hire it to Jimi if he came back from the grave ’cos it’s so personal to me. It’s well used, it’s been refretted, I’ve had to fill the pickguard and add a piece to the bottom horn where it’s shrunk. The back of the neck is so filthy the previous owner must have been a miner. It plays like a demon and I love it so much. It’s not about originality, it’s something you can’t see or taste – but Leo is in there somewhere!’Tags: Features, Fender, Home, Stratocasters