The Truth About... 1980s Squier Strats

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 7 December 2011 |

I thought for this piece it would be worth exploring the reality of the Squier Stratocaster of the 1980s – just as a guide for anyone who’s been subjected to conflicting pitches from vendors who might be, shall we say, a little over-enthusiastic to sell their merchandise. The Squier Strat is one facet of the guitar market which comes steeped in hype, and I wanted to provide a bit of balance amid what can sometimes be wishful, hysterically over-gushing, or just plain misinformed rhetoric.

The early '80s 'JV Series' Squier Strats were undeniably amazing value for money, representing as they did the premium Fender Japan product in Europe, at a budget price. But not all JV Strats were created equal, and in my experience their appeal fluctuated quite markedly. The most serious problem, though, lies with the sellers who use the great reputation of the very best JV Squiers, to sell inferior Squiers made in the latter phase of the '80s, for totally unjustified prices. This article, along with its companion piece on the '80s Korean models, sets out to provide an impartial and realistic look at the sometimes great, and sometimes not so great, 1980s Squier Strat.
I’m not going to be including late ‘80s Korean Squiers in this piece. I've now added a full study of the first Korean Squiers, which you find in The Truth About... Early Korean Squier Strats. But suffice it to say that the ‘80s Korean Squiers were inherently and consistently inferior to their Japanese predecessors, and they had what I’d describe as ‘double-take’ retail prices. Much cheaper than the last of the Japanese Squiers, making a downgrade in quality inevitable.

If you were looking for info on the Fender-branded '62 Reissue Strats exported from Japan from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s (the FujiGen Gakki Fender MIJs), please follow this link. Equivalent '57 Reissues can be found via this link. You can also find a detailed look at the Squier Japan Silver Series Strats of the early to mid '90s via this link.

LET'S GET STARTED...

So, most guitarists know that Squier was a sub-brand of the Fender company, originally made solely in Japan, but later – forward from 1987 in fact – made in a variety of other countries. The Squier branding was originally used so that Fender could offer high quality vintage reissue guitars at price points which would compete in the highly active unauthorised copy market (which had devastated Fender’s profits), but do so without further damaging sales of its own American guitars. Subsequently, however, the Squier brand was used to allow Fender to downgrade the quality of its budget end output, without tainting the Fender brand per se. That’s the broad view. Here’s a more detailed look at the Japanese Squier Strat…

THE PREMIUM OUTPUT 

The first Strats made in Japan by Fender were vintage reissue ’57 and ’62 replicas, launched in Tokyo on Friday 7th May 1982. The new line of instruments, produced by FujiGen Gakki, featured serial numbers beginning with the letters JV, and they’re accordingly known as the JV series. From the start, there were multiple variants of the JV vintage reissues, serving different price points. Among the variables were the type of finish (either polyester or nitro-cellulose), the body woods, and the neck profiles. Initially, all carried the USA-made pickups for which these early JV series guitars have become renowned, but other parts – scratchplates for instance – could be American on the most expensive variant, but Japanese on the cheapest.

The first wave of JV series Strats intended for the Japanese market carried full Fender branding. That is, a Fender ‘spaghetti’ logo on the headstock and no reference to the Squier marque at all. The left hand image below shows how these initial Fender reissue headstocks looked. Very similar to an American vintage reissue but with ‘Made in Japan’ beneath the Fender logo, next to a slightly chunkier version of the ‘With Synchronized Tremolo’ lettering. On the early JV Strats, the ‘spaghetti’ logo was also a little fatter than on the later export MIJs. The right hand image below shows a later Fender MIJ vintage reissue headstock. The differences are subtle, but unmistakable.


However, on guitars exported to Europe, the ‘Original Contour Body’ text near the top of the headstock was replaced with a black ‘Squier series’ logo – larger than the ‘Original Contour Body’ text, but smaller than the main Fender ‘spaghetti’ logo, which remained in situ. These export-only models, also shipped with American pickups and authentic vintage cloth connection wire, were the first Strats to feature the Squier branding. All either ’57 or ’62 reissues, they were exported from spring 1982 for a couple of months or so – notably, however, not to the USA. The export models featuring ‘Squier series’ augmentation on the headstock were said to have numbered not many more than 3,000 instruments. That’s everything, by the way – not just the Strats. So the number of remaining JV Squier Strats with a Fender ‘spaghetti’ logo and ‘Squier series’ denotation on the headstock is bound to be pretty small – minimally so if you’re looking for one in good condition. That’s why they’re the most collectable of all Squier Stratocasters. Below you can see how these first export-only Squier Strats looked, with Fender 'spaghetti' branding, and the addition of a small Squier logo.


By summer 1982, the Squier headstock markings had been completely revised, with the main branding now reading 'Squier' in gold 'transition' lettering, then the word ‘Stratocaster’ scripted in the large-print 1970s style, and a very small ‘by Fender’ logo underneath (see the next illustration). Despite the mix and match logo arrangement, the guitars still otherwise followed the ’57 and ’62 vintage reissue templates, and since only the branding was changed at this point, there’s no inherent difference in quality between these guitars and the initial run of export models with Fender ‘spaghetti’ logos and ‘Squier series’ augmentation. The only reason collectors want the ‘spaghetti’ logo Squiers is that there were far, far fewer of them.

In October ’82, Fender launched a range of Squier-branded Strats for the Japanese market. This is where things started to get complicated. The Japanese domestic Squier reissues (still part of the JV series) did not have American pickups like the exports, and were vastly cheaper than the most expensive of the Japanese domestic Fender branded JVs. The range-topping ST’57-115 1957 reissue, for instance, cost Y115,000 in Japan, whereas the SST-45 1957 reissue cost only Y45,000. One ’57 reissue sold at more than two and a half times the price of the other, and there were other ’57 reissues in between too! For this reason, it obviously can’t be said that all JVs were of a particular standard, and no blanket statements on quality can be made about them. Some were better than others, because they comprised a higher grade of materials, and they were literally much more expensive guitars – listed separately, with separate product codes.

The export models (thus those coming into the UK) had high, but not range-topping spec, and from memory, prices would normally be somewhere between £195 and £220 in England, depending on the exact guitar and of course the retailer. In terms of what went into the guitars, there has probably never been a better deal in the history of Fender. However, the way the guitars actually played and sounded was another matter. The consensus in the ‘80s was that early Squiers were erratic. Some were excellent. Others were quite poor, and were made to look firmly inferior by copies from rivals Tokai. In the early ‘80s, Tokai’s TST-60 Strat copy was seen as the equivalent in spec to the Squier export models. The TST-60 was, however, slightly cheaper in my neck of the woods, and in my experience much more predictable in terms of build and tone. In 1984 when buying my first Strat I had a straight choice between Tokai and Squier. I bought a Tokai. So yes, today the early Squiers look like they were worldbeating value, but in their day they still lost a hell of a lot of battles to rivals.

The classic JV Series export branding on a '57 reissue Strat. A 'transition'-style, large Squier logo is accompanied by a 1970s-script 'Stratocaster' designation, and a very small 'by Fender' footnote. There's also a tiny 'Made in Japan' beneath the 'Squier'. These markings were applied to Squier vintage reissue Strats imported into Europe from 1982 to 1984. The headstock markings were the only glaring inaccuracy on these otherwise faithful vintage replicas.
As time progressed, indeed, some distinct undesirables filtered into the early Squier range. For example, the SST-30 Strat model (1983) featured cheap pickups with non-magnetic poles and a ceramic bar glued to the bottom. This type of quality is something normally associated with later Squiers and it’s not something the average guitarist would expect from an ‘83. It’s true that the SST-30s were built for sale in Japan and not for export, but it’s a small world and products do get around. The message is: don’t assume that a JV series Squier Strat will by default be a great guitar.

A HINT OF DIVERSITY

Starting with the Squier Current/Popular Stratocaster around the beginning of 1983 (model CST-50: a ‘70s type bullet-truss Strat with flush-poled pickups), the Squier Strat began to diversify away from the strict ’57 and ’62 reissue format. Despite its title, the Current Stratocaster was effectively a mid ‘70s reissue. It was accordingly included in the JV serial number series for the Japanese market, but exported under a new series of serial numbers, beginning with SQ. Outside Japan, then, this guitar kicked off the SQ series. The CST-50 was another example of a JV series model whose desirability was debatable. The detailing mimicked that of an unpopular period in Strat manufacture. Three-screw tilt neck, heavier body, etc.

But this is all part of the jumble with early Squiers. You really have to go through every minute detail to determine if: a) it was a ‘premium’ model in the first place, b) it wasn’t a ‘Friday afternoon special’ – i.e. thrown together with an excess of haste, and c) it hasn’t been plundered for parts. My own JV ’57 Strat reissue wasn’t that good a guitar (uncomfortable neck profile and rather hard-sounding body wood), but some of the parts were nice. I can see how people could have been tempted, when secondhand JV Squiers were still very cheap, to buy one, whip out the USA pickups and electrics, put them in a ‘90s Fender MIJ Strat, and then flog the Squier with the cheaper ‘90s parts in it. There was a time when no one paid much attention to the appointments on a Squier. They were all cheap, they got bought, they got sold. It wouldn’t have been hard to plunder one for parts and then sell it on without anyone noticing.

For the record, my ’57 JV Squier didn’t have a model number sticker when I bought it secondhand in 1993, but the features seemed in keeping with an ST’57-85, which is a cellulose-finished ’57 reissue with an alder body and US pickups – in this case, the more unusual flush-poled alnico variety. Those pickups were inaccurate for a ’57 Strat, and you did wonder why Fender would go to the trouble of reproducing a two-tone sunburst in cellulose, then bang in a set of what were essentially mongrel (albeit good) pickups – part mid ‘70s, part mid ‘60s. Anyway, apart from my not liking the tone or the neck, the scratchplate was mounted such that the bridge pickup was actually touching the bridge side of the pickup cavity – to the extent that the pickup was permanently skewed and wouldn’t sit straight in its slot. A perfect example of a model which was great on paper, but was pretty grim in reality. I sold it in 1994 and I’ve never missed it.


THE SECOND WAVE 

Towards the end of 1983, the diversity hinted at by the CST-50 was capitalised upon by a wide range of new models, known collectively as the Contemporary Series. Through the early 1980s, one of the major buzzes in the world of rock guitar had centered around customising Strats. Many rock players not only wanted Strats with humbucking pickups – they’d also latched onto the replacement locking trem systems made by the likes of Floyd Rose and Kahler. With this in mind, Fender Japan pitched itself headlong into the world of ‘Superstrats’ on the doorstep of 1984, offering an array of different configurations, from basic styling with classic type vibrato and perhaps the simple addition of a humbucker, to fully humbucking metal machines with locking trem systems. For the first time, the company chose to offer both Squier-branded and fully Fender-branded models on the export market. The Contemporary Series guitars were thus the first to arrive in the UK as true Fender MIJs, without any hint of the word ‘Squier’ on them.

There was a very significant divide in price between the MIJ Fender Contemporaries and the Squier Contemporaries. In the UK, you’d expect the Fender version to sell for around 50% more than the equivalent Squier, and with ‘higher end’ hardware, this would see the MIJ Fenders selling for more than the regular early ‘80s USA models, which were on their last legs as the first Contemporaries came in. Some of the price difference between Fender MIJ and Squier was down to brand power, so to speak. All of these guitars had poly finishes of high quality, solid wood construction, and a standard of build which was normally very good, regardless of branding. I actually thought the Squier versions of these Strats were a lot more predictable in terms of their build than the JV series stuff. However, standard single coil pickups on the Squier Contemporaries were of the inferior ceramic-bar-and-non-magnetised-poles type, whereas the Fender MIJ equivalents had alnico Vs. It should be noted that Squier Contemporaries, although a significant saving on the Fenders, were not necessarily cheap. The ‘custom’ hardware could bump up the prices to some order.

I remember when I was looking to get a Contemporary Strat from late 1986 onward, the Squier System 1 model would normally be priced at approaching £300. Bearing in mind that the System 1 was Fender’s most basic locking trem, and that these guitars had cheap pickups and electrics, it’s easy to envisage that Fender were making more money on these Squiers than they had on the early JVs. I didn’t actually get a System 1 Strat until late on in ’87 when the first Korean Squier Strats had arrived and pushed down the prices of the remaining and now obsolete Japanese range, lingering on the racks. The £285 of the System 1 Strat came down to £225 or thereabouts at that time – simply because the new Korean models, at £179 or even £169, would otherwise take all the trade. This was confirmed to me by a salesman I regularly saw at the music shop. But even in ‘87, the standard of build and finish on the final Japanese Squiers was extremely good. The electrical components and quality of body wood were inferior as compared with the early JV guitars, but as I say, the Contemporaries did seem to be assembled much more consistently well.

Once the Contemporary Series was well established and proving itself more than capable of carrying the Squier range, the JV series was dropped. It was probably the case that Fender were desperate for a route out of the rockbottom-priced vintage reissue market. So as soon as Squier had proved itself as a brand and earned a good reputation, it was time to stop playing Tokai and Fernandes at their own game, and make some proper money.

The photo below shows a how a classic-styled mid 1980s Squier Strat looked after the demise of the JV series. It’s essentially still similar to a vintage ’62 reissue, and indeed the headstock markings are truer to the ‘60s style than the large-print adorned JV Squiers. However, the electrics are markedly inferior, with plastic rather than cloth wiring, and the real giveaway – ceramic pickups with non-staggered flush poles. Notice also there are two string guides on the headstock, rather than just the single one which would adorn a JV ’62 reissue. According to the August '86 edition Making Music - the free musicians' mag, Fender were still officially terming these guitars '57 and '62 reissues, regardless of the deviations. The full RRP on these 'reissues' in the UK was by this time £272.


The Contemporary Series blossomed through the mid 1980s, with baffling volumes of feature sets to suit every pocket and taste. These instruments, incidentally, were numbered into the standard Fender ‘E’ (for ‘eighties) serial number series, which actually continued into the first of the Korean guitars.

It would be impractical to detail all the ins and outs of this phase or manufacture, but there are some important generalisations to be made. Up until 1987, Squier Strats were made in Japan. No model was an accurate vintage reissue after 1984 (in spite of Fender's designations), but aside from their electrics and hi-gloss poly finishes, the '57 and '62 models were still reminiscent of the vintage design. All 1980s Japanese Squier Strats after the end of the JV series had solid wood bodies and poly finishes. Just to stress again, electric components and pickups were generally of inferior quality to the standard MIJ Fender fare of the time.

In the end, you have to be guided by your own instinct when assessing what’s on offer. All things are relative. In comparison to a plywood Korean Squier, a mid ‘80s solid Japanese Squier is very obviously superior. But in comparison to the best of the export-only Squier ’62 reissues from 1982, that same mid ‘80s model will be vastly less desirable. In all honesty, I like the early Fender branded MIJ export reissues from the mid ‘80s better than the JV Squiers. They weren't quite as accurate as Vintage Reissues, but they seemed much more consistent to me, and they felt nicer than the JV Strats I’ve played. To conclude, I'd stress that not all early Squiers are equal. You can of course analyse them until you're blue in the face, but ultimately, the impression you get is the one that really counts. Judge on merit – not on hype.



Love Strats? Don't forget that there are many highly informative Strat articles on this site - all of which can be accessed via the Making Music page. Full articles for the pics in the composite image above can be found on the following links (clockwise from top left): Fernandes RST50 'Revival', 1980s Tokai TST50 Goldstar, Original '92 Squier Silver Series Strat, and Original '87 Eric Clapton Strat. This is just a small selection from the wealth of available matter.

Posted by: Bob Leggitt
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