How to determine the production year of a vintage fender stratocaster
Determining the Production Year of a Vintage Stratocaster
by DAN YABLONKA
This article begins a discussion on how to approach determining the production year of a vintage Fender Stratocaster.
Determining the production year of a potentially vintage instrument requires more than basing your opinion on just one piece of information. In the case of the Fender Strat, what can make determining the guitar's probable year of manufacture difficult is simply the fact that the instrument bolts together, so that over the years, the original body, neck, pickguard assembly, and pickups could have been replaced or be missing.
I'm going to start the discussion of the identification process by briefly breaking down production eras by neck and fingerboard information.
In 1954, the introductory year of the Stratocaster, the instrument featured a one piece maple neck that included the fretboard, and it would retain that design until early 1959 when rosewood was afixed to a maple neck for the fretboard. The maple board years from 1954 to 1959, which I call Phase 1, saw the use of different neck profiles. 1954-55 had a very large, bordering on huge, round "cup" ("C") shaped profile. From 1956 through 1957, you will find what is called a "V" neck because of the ridge up the back of the neck literally giving it a V shaped feel. 1958-59 maple necks reverted back to the "C" profile but with considerably less bulk than the original "C", and are arguably the least favorite among die hard 50's Strat fans.
In 1959, Fender introduced Phase 2, a maple neck with a slab rosewood fretboard featuring "clay dot markers". The board was made with a very thick piece of rosewood, now nicknamed a "slab board", a feature that remained through most of 1962. It can be identified by the straight, even, lamination at the body end of the neck where the rosewood is thicker in the middle, and also by the convex end of the fingerboard at the headstock, as opposed to the concave appearance of the subsequent Phase 3 non-slab boards that appeared in 1962. The Phase 3, non-slab rosewood board is also identifiable by its thinner curved meeting with the underlying maple neck, again seen at the body end of the neck. There is a difference in the sound of slab board versus the later non-slab board. Slabs tend to be a little darker and harsher in tone, whereas the non-slab's tone has a little more clarity, or "politeness".
Phase 3 of the early Fender necks, the non-slab, clay dot, rosewood boards, ran from mid/late 1962 through mid/late 1964.
The final fingerboard/ neck configuration that I will discuss today is the last of the pre-CBS (or small headstocks) era, Phase 4. It varied only slightly from Phase 3 in that the clay dot markers were replaced by pearloid markers that have a shiny, reflective look. These were introduced in late 1964 and continued through the summer and early fall of 1965, at which time the CBS era truly kicked in and many design changes took place, such as the larger headstock, which will be covered in a future discussion.
Phase 1: One piece maple necks/fretboards, 1954 - 1959.
Phase2: Maple neck with slab rosewood fretboard and clay dot markers, 1959 - 1962.
Phase 3: Maple neck with non-slab rosewood fretboard with clay dot markers, 1962 - 1964.
Phase 4: Maple neck with non-slab rosewood fretboard and pearloid dot markers replacing the clay dots, 1964 - 1965 when CBS design changes took effect.
Note that the above discussion about necks does not take into account logo decals, string trees, or tuners, which will be covered in future discussions.
Until then, having said this much, "I Think I Better Wait Til' Tomorrow." (James Marshall Hendrix).
In Part One, I discussed the changes in Fender Stratocaster necks and fingerboards from 1954 to 1965, and how those changes can help determine the production year of a Strat. I left off at the end of the "Leo" era transition into CBS Musical Instruments.
The ability to determine the production year of a Strat becomes a little more difficult by fingerboard alone after the buyout of Fender by CBS because at that time, based on the growing popularity of the earlier models, the new "regime" reintroduced the maple fingerboard. Buyers of new Strats now had a choice as opposed to past eras where it was either a maple or rosewood fretboard. Not long after the CBS era began in 1965, the Strat received a new large headstock seen all the way through the beginning of the 80's, at which time Smith Strats and vintage reissues were marketed with the traditional old style smaller headstock. Having said that, logos and date stamps become more important.
The decal logos started with the well known "spaghetti logo" in gold at the introduction in 1954 and remained until the "transitional logo" which started in late 1964 and went through early 1968. Some will say 1967 but I have definitely seen many 1968 Strats with the transition logo, which is also gold script but with larger bolder letters and a black border. By late 1968 -- early 1969, the logo's colors reversed and featured bold black letters with gold trim.
Following this era you'll find a slight change in the mid 1970's when the "Synchronized Tremolo" wording was dropped until the beginning of the 80's. At that point so many reissues and special models were introduced that the decal stops being a way of identifying the guitar accurately.
Lets take a brief look at the topic of serial numbers. Again, back to the beginning in 1954, we have a number structure starting with 0001 and going through late 1962 to the upper 5 digit numbers. For example, 0214 would be a 1954, and 73444 would be a mid to late 1962. At this time, 1963, the "L series" kicks in. These are also under 6 digits but prefaced with the capital letter "L" (e.g., L48767). By the CBS change in 1965, you'll see a third system which drops the "L" and marks the back plate with a large reversed Fender "F" in the middle. This serialization system extended through late 1975 -- early 1976 (yes even on 3 bolt Strats) with the serial numbers now being found on a decal on the front of the headstock. For the most part at this point, Fender made dating an easier concept by using a system that started with a letter identifying the decade, followed by the first number signifying the actual year. An example would be S 84763, being 1970 (S) and more precisely 1978 when read in full. S 8.....! There was a little waffling with this system in the early decal serial numbers, but this is the rule of thumb.
In the next article I'll talk about the penciling and stamping of dates on the body end of the neck; stock and standard colors; changes in the sunburst; and, laminated necks.
Part 3 - Custom Colors
In Parts One and Two, I discussed the differences in eras by neck shapes, fingerboards, serial numbers and logos, and while the title of the article is about determining the year of your Strat, the topic "du jour" is a little less about dating and a little more about "custom" features such as Custom Colors, so highly revered by collectors, gold-plated parts, and custom neck widths.
Having said that, there are a few hints at dating and history that can be determined by Custom Colors. For example, while Custom Colors were made available in the sixties pre-CBS catalogs, they were not offered publicly until 1956 when advertising literature referred to them as a "player's choice" option with a 5 percent surcharge. Custom Color Strats from the fifties were usually the result of a direct contact with the factory - guitars of factory employees or friends thereof who were privy to such benefits, or the occasional walk-in customer with a fist full of cash.
Early Custom Colors
A prime example of a relatively early Custom Color Strat is Bill Carson's '57 Cimarron Red Stratocaster. Carson, as mentioned in my earlier articles, was a man who had a hand in inventing and developing the Strat: he was Leo Fender's in-house musician, and played with famed swing band Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
There are other examples from the fifties. Norman Harris's book ["Norman's Rare Guitars: 30 Years of Buying, Selling & Collecting", by Norman Harris with David Swartz] depicts an original black '56 and a "Desert Sand" one-of-a-kind with an all-rosewood neck, and many other Custom Color specimens from the fifties. And then there's an original '59 in Fiesta Red (the first Custom Color officially available to the public) with matching headstock (a rare feature before 1963), gold parts, and an "A" width or skinny neck, that was found in Orange County, California, and identified by none other than Bill Carson as Fender's '59 NAMM Show guitar.
The early sixties
In the sixties, right around the time surf music was growing in popularity (1960-1 or so), you start to see a host of gorgeous colors like Candy Apple Red, Lake Placid Blue, Sonic Blue, Daphne Blue, Dakota Red, Shoreline Gold, Burgundy Metallalic, Sherwood Green (one of my favorites), Shell Pink, Inca Silver, Sea Foam Green, Surf Green, Teal Green... the list goes on and on. Later, in the mid-sixties, you'll find additional Custom Colors such as Ocean Turquoise Metallic, Charcoal Frost and many others. Separate color charts were included with the catalogs of this period that the public could take home and drool over (and from which they could order, probably accounting for the upswing in Custom Color popularity in the early sixties).
The importance of Custom Colors to the collector? The right Custom Color on the right Strat can double and in some cases even triple the price of the exact same year instrument in a standard Sunburst finish.
Custom Color "refins"
Another interesting aspect of vintage Custom Colors is the "Fender factory refin", a refinishing performed in the same era so the color is correct although it's the second finish on the guitar. At one time, collectors sneered at these compared to the completely original Custom Color examples, but, as time passes and there are fewer and fewer guitars available and higher and higher prices being paid for them, the factory refin has become the next best thing to the original.
The way to know if you have a refin that was done at the Fender factory is to look at the disassembled guitar. You'll more than likely see a stamped abbreviation in the new finish under the pickguard that will read something like C.A.R. for Candy Apple Red, or B.Mist for Burgundy Mist.
Additionally, it was not altogether uncommon for the Fender factory to refinish, of its own accord, a guitar that had been sent back for other repairs (non-finish related) in the original finish. The finish lacquer used during the pre-CBS period was so thin that belt-buckle rash would often begin to show immediately and, due to Fender's pride of workmanship, factory-repaired guitars often received a refin to put the guitar closer to its original condition. Look in the neck pocket, as the factory would mark both the back of the heel of the neck and the body pocket with a four digit ID number so the original owner would receive the same neck and body that was sent to the factory.
Not all Candy Apple Reds were created equally
It's important to mention a few details about the different hues and shades in the same Custom Color from one year to the next, and how to identify the originality of the finish. One may notice that a color like Dakota Red, for example, will look very different from one era to another, and sometimes from one guitar to another from the same era. An early Dakota Red Strat has a "tomato soup" look (as it's sometimes referred to by collectors) while a slightly later Dakota Red may look more like Fire Engine Red.
The reasons a Custom Color may vary from one Strat to another within the same year is guesswork, but the most common theory is that the paint was kept in very large containers, would settle and get remixed inconsistently from time to time, and this resulted in hue and shade variation among instruments with the same Custom Color. Another factor to consider was the use of different undercoatings as discussed below.
It's not a simple matter to identify these variant finishes as original. Experts who deal in Custom Color Strats can often tell just by looking at the color itself. But of course, this ability is the result of having seriously studied, in person, hundreds of examples.
Don't forget your undercoat
For the less experienced, an approach to understanding these variant Custom Colors can be formed by examining the instrument's undercoating. The Fender factory, depending on the color and era, would use a white, silver, gold, or, less frequently, light sand-brown undercoat, and the use of a different undercoat color seems to cause hue variations among instruments with the same finish. I've seen, for example, some vintage Candy Apple Red Strats that looked warmer than others. Turns out that some had a gold undercoat and some had silver, and the difference in the undercoat seemed to account for the difference in the hue of the finish.
In learning to identify these undercoats you begin to see how many Strats were refinished, and how large of a percentage were not done by at the Fender factory, but instead by the nearest guitar or auto body shop, as such shops also had access to the Du Pont paints originally used by Fender.
It is very important to mention that, unlike an original Custom Color that will largely increase the value of the guitar, a non-factory refinish will cut the market price to half of that of a regular standard Sunburst finish of the same era - which means a substantially larger drop in value compared to an original Custom Color Stratocaster.
Looks like gold parts and custom order neck widths will have to wait for Part Four. At least now you have a little information about that old pink electric guitar in Uncle Joe's closet.