Here’s a short extract from The Stratocaster Book. This is from the 70s part of the main text, and in it I look at some of the changes Fender was going through at the time and how they affected the Strat.
The search for old guitars and the notion that they were mysteriously and inherently better grew steadily during the 70s. Stephen Stills summed up the attitude to vintage axes in a 1975 interview, when he said: “Nothing new has been built since the 60s that’s worth a damn.” Norman’s Rare Guitars, established in California during the middle of the decade, was one of the new dealers specialising in the vintage requirements of rock players. Proprietor Norman Harris was in no doubt why so many guitarists were taking up older instruments – like those he offered for sale. “You simply cannot compare what I have to offer with what the big companies are mass producing today,” he boasted. The first published attempt to sort out the various old Strats and their dates of manufacture came in Tom Wheeler’s The Guitar Book in 1974 and later more specifically in André Duchossoir’s The Fender Stratocaster (1988).
Freddie Tavares’s son Terry recalled how one person’s junk can become another’s collectable. “I can remember dad bringing home trunk-loads of rejected necks and bodies which the saws and routers had nicked, and we burned them in the fireplace. Little did we know that if we had just saved them for 45 years they’d be worth millions today as ding’d-up mid-50s Strats and Teles.”
Meanwhile, over at Fender HQ in Fullerton, California, CBS management was cutting back on the existing Fender product lines and offering hardly any new models. The last Esquires and Duo-Sonics of the period were made in 1969. The Jaguar disappeared around 1975, and by 1980 the Bronco, Jazzmaster, Musicmaster, and Thinline Tele would all be phased out of production. The humbucker-equipped Telecaster Deluxe and Custom models had both gone by 1981, the same time that the Mustang went. Most were later reissued, but back in the day it made for a bare catalogue. The original acoustic flattops had all gone by 1971, and ten years later the steels and pedal steels would disappear, with only amplifiers (some 14 models) offering anything like Fender’s early coverage of the market.
The December 1974 pricelist revealed just a few options for new Stratocasters. Most of Fender’s original Custom Colors had been discontinued in the late 60s and early 70s. By now the with-trem Strat was available in just six finishes: standard sunburst ($405), or blond, black, white, natural, or walnut ($425). The regular model had the rosewood fingerboard of the period, but a maple board was an option for a few dollars more. Left-handers and trem-less versions were also available, in the same finish and board options.
The catalogue was settling down to a revised pattern. After the cold reception for the recent spate of ‘new’ humbucker-equipped Teles, Fender’s taste for fresh designs slackened off considerably. A glance at the chronology assembled at the rear of this book tells its own story about the singular lack of new models in the 70s. It’s clear that Fender was quite sensibly concentrating in general on its strengths – and as a result was enjoying its most successful period, producing a greater quantity of instruments than it had ever done in its entire history. “There were some improvements we wanted to make on the Stratocaster,” said Freddie Tavares in 1979, when he was still a consultant to Fender’s R&D department. “However, marketing’s attitude was not to fool with success.”
Fender’s UK distribution company, CBS/Arbiter, was a joint venture formed with Ivor Arbiter, who had been the company’s British agent since the mid 60s, when he’d taken over from Jennings and Selmer. Arbiter opened the Fender Soundhouse, a new instrument superstore in central London, toward the end of 1973. Sculptor Jon Douglas had worked at Arbiter’s house, and Arbiter invited him to visit the store. When Douglas noted that most of the guitars looked boring, Arbiter invited him to do better. Douglas came up with a replacement Stratocaster body made from cold-cast bronze, employing a metallic layer over a fiberglass shell. A prototype was made, followed by six more models.
Each featured the sculpted body, in a variety of shades, and after a suggestion from Arbiter, Douglas set rhinestones into the body’s surface, providing the instrument’s name. This small batch of Rhinestone Stratocasters was put on sale at the Soundhouse in 1975, but unfortunately a fire destroyed the premises soon afterward. It seems that two of the ‘production’ models had already been sold, but the other four probably perished in the flames. Douglas made fresh moulds for a further run of around 25 examples in the early 90s, some adapting old 70s parts, others with modern components, and all identified by a numbered plaque set into the moulding on the rear of the body. The originals were in effect the first of Fender’s ‘art guitars’, a category that later would flourish at the Custom Shop from the 90s.
At the Fender factory a shortlived revival began in 1977 of the antigua finish, a light-to-dark shaded brown colour that had first been offered as an option during the late 60s on some Coronado models. Back then, the finish was used as an emergency measure to disguise manufacturing flaws. This time around, for just a couple of years, it was used purely for the look. Also featured on the Antigua Strat was the new black hardware that Fender started to use from 1975. All the plasticware – knobs, pickup covers, switch caps – was black, and this certainly enhanced the overall look of the antigua-finish instruments. It was also around this time that Fender replaced its tuners with closed-cover units bought in from the German Schaller company, a supplier used until 1983.
CBS was selling 40,000 Fender instruments a year by the end of the 70s. A further sign of such an enormously increased production rate was the end of the tradition for putting a date on an instrument’s neck. Since the earliest days, workers had almost always pencilled and later rubber-stamped dates on the body-end of necks. It remains about the most reliable way to date a Fender of the period (leaving aside the question of fakes). But from 1973 to the early 80s Fender stopped doing it. Presumably they were simply too busy.
By 1976, Fender had a five-acre facility under one roof in Fullerton and employed over 750 workers. John Page, who would run Fender’s Custom Shop from the late 80s until the early 2000s, started working for Fender in 1978. He spent some months on the production line before moving to R&D. There was rampant departmentalism at Fender in the late 70s, he recalled. “You couldn’t even tell Purchasing what part you wanted or where you wanted it from; all you could tell them was the spec of the part you wanted,” Page explained. “It was so compartmentalised, and virtually no one got to know anyone else in any of the other departments. There was no communication.”
Page recalled his horror when he discovered one of the CBS executives cheerfully disposing of Fender’s history. “This guy came through our office, and he was putting green dots on all our guitars. I asked what he was doing. ‘Oh, well, I got this great programme: I’m gonna give these away to dealers, yes sir.’ What! And before we were able to stop it, he had given away about 80 percent of our original prototypes and samples.”
Fender began to fit a five-way selector switch to the Stratocaster from 1977, replacing the old three-way unit. From its launch in 1954, the Strat had a selector pickup switch that offered three firm settings: neck pickup, or middle pickup, or bridge pickup. Almost immediately, some players began to discover that if the switch was lodged precariously between the official settings, two new combinations of pickups became available. A boost for the idea came when Eric Clapton mentioned it in a 1970 interview. “I just set the switch between the first and middle pickups,” he said. “There is a little place where you can catch it so that you can get a special sound, somehow. I get a much more rhythm and blues or rock kind of sound that way.”
Lodging the three-way between neck and middle settings gave those two pickups combined, and similarly for middle and bridge. There was a change to the quality of the sound in these in-between positions, caused by phase cancellation, producing ‘hollow’ or ‘honky’ sounds – as well as a volume decrease – that could be quite useful musically. Players would sometimes loosen the spring inside the switch to make it easier to lodge the switch at in-between settings. Some accessory manufacturers spotted the trend and began to offer replacement five-way switches that gave the standard three positions plus two firm, clickable settings for the new sounds. That it took Fender until the late 70s to adopt the five-way says much for the firm’s remoteness from players at the time.
One guitarist identified with these ‘hollowed-out’ tones was Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, whose debut album of 1978 was awash with the sounds of in-between Strat pickups. Knopfler’s Strat was a ’61, which when he bought it was stripped to natural wood, but he had it refinished in red, probably by London repairman Sam Li. “The whole thing about a red Fender Strat is that it’s kind of a joke,” Knopfler said later. “It’s such a ridiculous object, looked at in a certain way. It’s the sort of thing that if you were a rock’n’roll star, and really into being a rock’n’roll star, that’s the kind of thing you would play. And it was the sort of thing that me and my mates used to dream about, like the ultimate California hotrod machine. It didn’t look hardly like a musical instrument at all.”
By 1979, the Fender pricelist showed a basic Strat at $640 (rosewood board) or $680 (maple), with seven colour options: regular Sunburst, White, Black, Natural, Antigua, Wine, or Tobacco Sunburst. The Strats sat among seven other electric models: Bronco, Jazzmaster, Lead, Musicmaster, Mustang, Starcaster, and Telecaster. Fender decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Stratocaster in 1979 with … [continues]