An Outline of Changes to Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters.
The origin of the Telecaster has some dispute, because several models came out similar or more or less identical to the Telecaster in the earliest days of Fender. The Esquire, put on the production line in 1949, was virtually identical to the later-designed Telecaster with the important omission of the neck pickup (?!). The Broadcaster was really the first model to imitate the Telecaster entirely, but as most stories have it, the first ones had no truss rod in the neck. (!) It also had a different wiring system than the Tele eventually sprouted. Instead of a tone control it was built with a “blend” knob. This blend knob met with mixed reviews; inevitably there are some still today who complain that no newer Tele has ever really sounded as good because of the conversion of this blend knob to a more standard tone control.
There was also at this point the birth of the so-called. “No-Caster,” dubbed because it had no title at all on the headstock except the “Fender” label. These were mostly turned out in the winter of late 50′, early 51′. By the spring of 51, Fender’s flagship solidbody guitar was pretty much set: two pick-ups and a trussrod and the name “Telecaster” on the headstock.
Shortly after the Telecaster began to interest musicians, Fender introduced the Precision Bass. This instrument’s contribution to modern music cannot be exaggerated. Leo Fender is in the elite circle among the many people who contributed to the invention and development of the electric guitar. But only one man invented the electric bass guitar: Leo Fender. To many players, the terms, “Fender bass” and “bass guitar” are literally synonymous. This instrument was amazingly portable compared to a string bass, allowing bass players to be much more mobile. It put out a loud, aggressive chunky but expressive sound unlike anything ever heard before. It provided the kind of high-energy foundation to a band’s sound that inspired rock ‘n roll to develop. And it was lots of fun to play, being much easier to learn than the string bass.
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on this instrument in this article because I’m devoting it to six string guitars. Generally speaking, all of Fender’s developments that I mention regarding the Stratocaster and Telecaster apply equally to their line of bass guitars.
In 1954, Fender came out with an entirely new design, dubbed the “Stratocaster”, it sported three single coil pickups, a three position switch that sent the signal from each pickup out in each position, one master volume and two tone controls, one for the neck pickup and one for the middle pick-up. Leo Fender had completely redesigned the guitar’s bridge, adding a “Whammy bar” balanced in the back of the guitar with three springs that allowed the player to imitate pedal steel, bottleneck and lap guitar performers (remember Leo was thinking primarily of Country players at this time: Gibson Epiphone and Guild had pretty much cornered the market on Jazz. Rock n’ Roll had not been invented yet (!)).
Anyway, by the summer of 1954, the central core of Fender’s instrument catalogue (and indeed, much of the electric guitar playing world) was fixed till the present day. It is remarkable how that catalogue of guitars literally changed how the world hears and plays music.
Here are some important dates that may help identify the year of a fender guitar. Remember that everything is somewhat approximate. Until the eighties, Fender guitar company never dreamed so much importance would ever be placed on the age of their instruments:
1951 saw the Telecaster appear fully formed.
1952 saw the debut of the Precision base.
1954 saw the debut of the Stratocaster.
1959 was the last year of the original run of one piece maple necks, and the first year of the three tone sunburst finish (red added to yellow and brown). After this point necks came standard with rosewood fingerboards glued to maple. There are a few exceptions that were replacements or special orders (there was no Fender Custom Shop until the eighties).
1965 Leo Fender’s sale of his company to Columbia Broadcasting Corporation becomes final. Leo retires. He was having serious health problems which cleared up a few years later, allowing him to create first Music Man and later G&L guitar companies. These companies made some excellent guitars, basses and amps available, but somehow never quite captured the magic of Leo’s design capabilities in the forties, fifties and early sixties.
Thus began a twenty year period in which Fender was owned by CBS. Not without merit, but the value of instruments in this period has been much disputed.
1967 Fender resorted to larger headstocks.
1968 Fenders started appearing with the larger lettering on the headstocks. This decision was made because they wanted people to identify their guitars on television (more rockers were appearing on T.V. shows).
1971 was the first year of the infamous “Bullet Head” truss rod and three bolt neck. The neck plate in back at the base of the neck became somewhat triangular, supporting three bolts instead of four on a rectangular plate, as had previously been the case. These necks were said to shift at times, throwing the guitar out of tune. Some were very solid, though, and Fender even re-issued this design in the nineties (?).
1974 was the last year of the staggered pole piece pickups. Fender pickups now had even pole heights for their pickups until the reissues began in the early eighties.
1976 Fender begins a more or less logical numbering system for instrument identification that has continued, with variations, till this day. The serial number begins with a letter that denotes the decade the guitar was made: “S” for “seventies”, “E” for “eighties”, etc. After this letter, the first number of the serial number indicates the year the guitar was made. “S6” therefore, would be seventy six, etc.
1980 saw a return to the four bolt neck and rectangular neck plate, while retaining the larger headstock and lettering.
1981 was the year Fender employees found a cache of guitar parts lost since the fifties. In response to the increasing value of older guitars, the company decided to build some guitars exactly the way they had been built in previous decades and use these vintage parts. This was the beginning of an enormous trend in re-issues that continues to this day.
1983 Fender Japan opens for business, taking all of the re-issue work off the hands of American employees until the early nineties. The Japanese Fenders are good quality instruments at a somewhat lower price (usually about 3/4 the cost of their American cousins), but so far have not become real collector’s items.
1985 With earnings at an all-time low, CBS sells Fender to a group of independent investors. Because the guitar parts took so long to sell, any Fender with a serial number E 4etc, could be considered an ’84, ’85, ’86 or ’87.
By 87, with the innovation of Fender Lace Sensor pickups, the acquisition of the Spirtzel Locking Machine Head company (tuning pegs that, allegedly, stay in tune much better than the old ones). And some other modern innovation in guitar design, Fender is once again at the forefront of electric guitar technology. The “Strat Plus,” “Strat Ultra” and signature models by such guitar heroes as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughn sparks a new interest in Fenders.
Strats begin to sprout Humbucking bridge pickups Floyd Rose tremolo bridges with locking nuts and other design features that put them squarely in the Heavy Metal era. It should be remembered that Floyd Rose and all of the others who pioneered these advancements in guitar design were originally inspired by Leo Fender in the first place. He will always remain at the very pinnacle of those who seek to pioneer guitars, and inventions in general.
Guitar fashion in the 90’s saw a renewed love of older music styles and older guitar sounds. Kurt Cobain used Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars, guitars considered to be somewhat off-models. He eliminated a lot of effects and inspired a generation to use guitars in a more straightforward way.
Fender found itself in the middle of a blues revival in the nineties.