Sunday, 20 November 2011

1985 Fender MIJ '62 Custom Tele Reissue

Some memories just don’t seem to be greatly affected by the passage of time. Summer 1985 was one of the most carefree times of my life. I was in a band I believed in and loved being part of, the weather was great, and that completely worry-free teenage feeling (where you can’t envisage getting any older, or ever having any responsibilities) dominated everything I did. Adding to the general excitement, I’d got a cash windfall heading my way. It wasn’t due until the October, but as you might imagine, as a teenager I’d planned exactly how I was going to blow every last penny in about five minutes flat, before anyone had even authorised the cheque – let alone written it. But despite my obsession with music, I’d actually been eyeing up a telescope – a massive one, priced at £360. I’d already got a perfectly good electric guitar (a Tokai Strat), and I didn’t see any need for another. So at no stage did I ever doubt that I was going to spend £360 on this ridiculously powerful telescope … Until, that is, I was hauled into the guitar shop by a band mate, and saw this…

It wasn’t lying flat out on a white sheet, though, obviously. It was on a guitar stand, high up on a ledge where the shop used to display the stuff they didn’t want us kids tampering with. It was a brand new replica of the 1962 Fender Custom Telecaster, with the loveliest candy apple red finish, cream-coloured edge-binding on the body, a very dark (almost black) fingerboard, and even the old-style Fender ‘spaghetti’ logo. The lighting emphasised the metallic finish, and as someone who’d always loved Telecasters, I thought it was one of the most attractive guitars I’d ever seen. Even though I knew the likelihood was that it would be Japanese made, it just looked too expensive to be one of the regular models, and I hardly dared ask the price. When I was told it cost £355, I was amazed. It looked like a range-topper, but it was priced within my £360 telescope budget.

ORIGINS

This particular model of Telecaster was introduced to the UK in early 1985, at the time of a massive revamp in the Fender range. It was listed in the 1985 Fender catalogue in just three colours: 3-Tone Sunburst, Candy Apple Red, and Black. Throughout the '80s and early '90s, I never saw a black one in the UK - either in person, during many, many shop visits, or listed in any dealer ad. So it looks very much like it was CAR and Sunburst only in England, and Candy Apple Red was more commonly seen than Sunburst in my experience. I'm sure I'm right in saying that during the '80s, the very large Birmingham dealer - Musical Exchanges - only ever stocked these Teles new in Candy Apple Red.

The Fender USA Teles had ceased to be available after the American Fullerton factory closed in 1984, so from 1985, Fender Japan had to fill that void whilst the new Fender Corona plant steadily set itself in motion over the next couple of years. Until the Fullerton plant shut down, all Fender Japan Teles imported into the UK had Squier branding so as not to impact on USA Fender sales. But with the USA gear out of the picture, Fender Japan replaced their high quality Squier (JV Series) export guitars with a premium quality range of Fender branded instruments. The edgebound '62 Custom Tele - one such premium quality guitar - was completely new in the Fender MIJ line in 1985, and roughly took the place of the Squier JV Series '52 reissue in the market. Even though the '62 Custom was a lot more expensive than, and obviously very different from the Squier '52, the build standards and desirability were the same. During the revamp, the Squier Tele was downgraded to a cut-cost spec, and no longer had the status of the JV '52 reissue. The new-for-'85 Squier Tele was clearly inferior to the Fender MIJ '62 Custom reissue.

The original Fender Custom Telecaster is not to be confused with the later Telecaster Custom. The Custom Telecaster was just like a regular Telecaster, but the body had bound edges. The 'Custom' element was purely cosmetic. On the Telecaster Custom, however, the body was unbound, and the traditional neck pickup was replaced with a humbucker. I've never had any great interest in that model. There were some inaccuracies with the MIJ Custom Tele replica. Most obviously, the model was designated "Telecaster" on the headstock, and not "Custom Telecaster" as was the case with the originals. Also, the bridge pickup on the reissue had flush pole-pieces, and didn't feature two raised poles like the one on a real '62 Tele.

My 1985 Fender Japan '62 Tele Reissue, serial number A038675, when it was new.
To try and sum up how impressive this first wave of Fender MIJ reissues were when they arrived is very difficult indeed. Today there are masses of gorgeous brand new Fender guitars to choose from, and it’s been like that for decades. But in 1985, even the previously available American Teles had most often been plain or even tacky-looking instruments with little if any visual impact. I remember getting the ’62 Tele reissue home and plugging it in to play, but just staring down at the side of the guitar’s body as I held it on my lap. I was almost mesmerised by the quality of the high-gloss finish, the sparkle of the metallic red paint and the perfectly executed binding. I wanted to play it, but at the same time I didn’t want to touch it. When I actually did play it, though, the sound was fantastic.

The setup wasn’t great, and I didn’t initially find the Tele as easy to play as my Tokai Strat. The action was set too low and the strings choked off if I ever attempted a bend above the twelfth fret – which admittedly I didn’t often do in 1985. I also found the bridge uncomfortable when I rested my palm across it to damp the strings. The ’62-type Tele bridge saddles were definitely not the greatest flash of genius the Fender company ever had. But raising the action did make a big difference, in terms of comfort, functionality, and tone. It was with this guitar that I first started to learn about the impact of different action heights and string gauges on the tone of an instrument.

WARNING! WARNING!

Absolutely LOADS of these guitars are mis-sold as 1985 or 1986 models, when in actual fact they were made later - maybe as late as the mid '90s. Why? Well, primarily because there's a major guitar dating website which will date any serial number from these Teles between 1985 and the mid 1990s as coming from a 1985 or 1986 guitar. The serial numbers are on the bridge plates, which I believe were pre-stamped in extremely high volume, and then randomly fitted to any given Tele with that design of bridge plate. It should follow that lower numbers will appear on earlier guitars, but it doesn't. For example, the serial number on my original '85, bought in the October of that year, began A038xxx. However, the serial number on a fully neck-dated '89 model begins A033xxx. Four years later, and yet a lower number. So you can't tell from the serial numbers when these guitars were made.

This example has a December 1991 neck date and a serial
number starting A048xxx - a much lower number than
some examples I've seen being sold as '85s
Making things worse, whilst Fender Japan did strive to give their vintage reissues neck dates, a large number of them slipped through without being dated. If the guitar has no neck date, you need to start looking at other features to determine whether the '85/'86 categorisation is genuine...

Firstly, in my experience (and I did look at a hell of a lot of these in the '80s), the early models all had slot-head (screwdriver) height-adjustment screws in the bridge saddles. I can confirm that as late as the second half of 1988, there were new '62 Tele reissues on sale in the UK with the slot-head bridge saddle screws. Subsequently, the slot-head screws were replaced with allen key screws. The first models I've been able to confirm were sold new with the allen key screws come from 1989. There could also be some allen screw models from 1988 - I don't know the exact start of the transition - but I'd say it's almost certain that no '85 or '86 examples were shipped with allen screw bridge saddles. If the "1985 or 1986" example you've found has the allen saddles, I believe it's a fairly safe assumption that it's not really an '85 or an '86 (or at least isn't all original), and you need to investigate further.* Please see the update below.

Secondly, in 1985, these guitars definitely came with open (vintage style) DM-30 selector switches, and thick, substantial wiring. I believe this also remained the case through 1986. Subsequently, the switches were changed to the enclosed plastic YM-30 type, and the wiring became much thinner. I strongly suspect these changes took place during the 1987 revamp of the MIJ range, so if the Tele you're looking at has an enclosed plastic switch and thin, flimsy wiring, again, it's unlikely to be an all original '85 or '86 model. Obviously, it's possible for someone to change the switch and the wiring, but the wiring in particular would be very hard to completely redo without leaving evidence.

UPDATE: I was kindly given a piece of information which suggests that the allen key saddle screws and enclosed switches may appear on some earlier models than I suspected. I'm looking into the issue further, but the information applies to an example with a July '86 neck date, which has both allen screw saddles and an enclosed switch. A dated neck would not necessarily have left the factory immediately, and the owner reports having bought secondhand in 1989 so the original purchase date is unknown. But there could be some pre-1987 guitars around with allen screw saddles, and the YM-30 switches could have arrived in '86 rather than '87. 

Sadly, neck dates aside, I don't know of anything much more reliable than that as a guide to what was made when. If you're buying, you should ask to see the neck date, and if there isn't one, unless you're confident assessing the wiring as being all original and of the earlier thick type, I'd advise not paying any mid '80s price premium. If you are getting a genuine 1985 model in all original condition, I'd say a price premium would be justified because the quality was tangibly better on the '85s in general than on the post '87s. But do verify things carefully before parting with any cash, and don't place any significance on the serial number.

A STUPID MOVE, RESCUED

In 1986, my role in bands had changed from singer/guitarist to keyboardist, and my desperation for the synth of the time – a Yamaha DX7 – prompted me to trade in the ’85 edgebound Tele. But by the latter part of 1987 I was back doing the singer/guitarist thing once again, and deeply regretting the loss of the Tele. It was some time before I could afford to replace it like for like, but a couple of years on I found myself scouring the shops for a new ’62 reissue, identical to my 1985 example. There was no problem finding the model – all the shops had them. What was difficult was getting the exact same quality, sound and feel. At the time of my search in ’89, the finishes on the Candy Apple red version were noticeably inferior (various degrees of patchiness) to the perfect and spectacular job which had adorned my ’85, and the odd couple of Teles I got as far as plugging in sounded thinner than the one I’d formerly owned. Over the course of a few weeks, I casually dropped into various shops on the lookout, and additionally checked out a couple of secondhand examples, but I couldn’t get one the same as the '85. Towards the end of the year, however, I eventually ran into this guitar, in a small shop in north Birmingham…


Admittedly it was a sunburst, and not the candy apple red I’d set out to get, but there was no doubt about it – this Tele was an absolute killer. Build and finish quality definitely equal to my original ’85, with a slightly lighter weight (which I loved), and a sensational sound – really full and fat, but totally Telecaster in character.


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The stream above demonstrates the sound of my sunburst '62 Reissue Custom Tele. It's a single guitar track, with a footstomp and a lead vocal. No other backing. The guitar is set to the bridge pickup with the tone backed off slightly (about a quarter turn of the knob). The guitar runs through a Boss ME-8 for a bit of compression and overdrive, and then into a Fender Vibroverb amp on the Bright channel, Input 1. Click the orange button to play the stream and hear what a fantastic sound this MIJ beauty has.

This is one of the few MIJ reissues upon which I’ve never been tempted to change the pickups. From new, the sound was right, and as you’d expect, it’s improved over the years. The difficulty I had trying to replace the vibe of that ’85 job speaks volumes about how good Fender’s MIJ output was in the mid ‘eighties, as well as showing that even the most stringent production standards can’t ensure every guitar is as good as the last.

These Fender MIJ reissues always had vintage type routing beneath the scratchplate. You wouldn't find any humbucker slots or 'swimming pools'. The bridge saddles on this guitar have the later type of height-adjustment screw, with allen key holes. Earlier models had plain slot-head screws. The slot head bridge saddles were definitely still around on brand new '62 Custom Teles in 1988, so I'm assuming the transition took place either in '88 or '89.  The pickups here are the original alnico Vs with vulcanised fibre construction and convincing vintage spec (if you overlook the flat-profile poles in the bridge pickup).
So, well over two decades on, I still have my ultimate Telecaster – a late ‘80s MIJ ’62 Custom reissue in sunburst. Do I wish I’d kept the candy apple red one from 1985? Of course I do, and I curse Yamaha for inventing the synth which prompted me to part with it. But that’s life. Sometimes we make mistakes. However, had I not traded in the ’85, I don’t imagine I’d have got my hands on the sunburst, which is a truly superb Telecaster. So I suppose whichever way things had gone I was destined to miss out one way or the other. But if anyone happens to be in possession of candy apple ’62 Tele reissue serial number A038675 (that's my ’85 original - the red one in the photos), and it’s been sitting in a case unplayed for the past quarter of a century, let’s talk deals…

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Posted by: Bob Leggitt