Fender Colour Mysteries: Fiesta Red and Salmon/Coral Pink

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 19 August 2014 |

Fender’s original 1950s and 1960s custom colour finishes have, over the decades, created a great deal of intrigue among guitarists – none more so, in the UK at least, than the notorious Fiesta Red. Fiesta Red is a bright, vibrant and extremely impactive solid red finish. It’s quite a light shade, but it’s vivid and it’s definitely red – not pink.

But Fiesta Red’s inextricable link with another widely mentioned colour – Salmon Pink – has not only confused many guitarists; it’s also retained elements of mystery which remain unresolved even to this day. At the forefront of the mystery is the man who sparked the UK craze and demand for red/pink Strats back at the end of the 1950s: Hank B Marvin. The story is now entrenched in music legend…


Above: This is probably pretty much what Hank Marvin saw when he received his first Stratocaster directly from Fender in 1959. A "Flamingo Pink" (to use Hank's term) classic 1950s maple-necked Strat with gold-plated parts. Hank said they just stared at the guitar at first, too mesmerised by its beauty even to touch it.

In the late ‘50s, a group called The Drifters (subsequently renamed The Shadows) were backing Cliff Richard, and their guitarist Hank Marvin was using a £35 Antoria with a bent neck and no vibrato system. Then, when the band recorded Living Doll and the rest of the tracks for the Serious Charge soundtrack/EP in spring 1959, Hank borrowed a Japanese copy of a Gretsch White Falcon, which did have a vibrato (so contrary to popular belief – there’s no Strat on Living Doll).

Amid the band’s increasing prominence, their change of name, and the huge success of Living Doll, Cliff Richard honoured a previous promise to buy Hank a great guitar, and ordered a Fender Stratocaster – directly from the USA, as Fender guitars had no UK distribution and were not available through any English retail establishment. The band even had to write to Fender to get the catalogue! Hank’s selection of a Strat was based on his appreciation of Buddy Holly, his newfound interest in the vibrato function, and an erroneous assumption that James Burton (reported to be using a Fender) must also be using a Stratocaster.

So that’s the legendary story; now for the confusion… The Strat, delivered in 1959 directly to Bruce Welch and Hank’s London flat (100 Marylebone High Street) - and said to have been the first Fender Stratocaster in the UK - was one of the last maple necked models before the switch to a rosewood fingerboard. It was a classic ‘50s Strat with single-ply, eight-screw scratchplate, but it also had luxury appointments like gold-plated hardware, birds-eye figuring on the neck, and what Hank has repeatedly cited as a pinkish-red custom colour finish. Unfortunately, the guitar was long ago refinished, and the only evidence of its original colour today is what remains in old photographs.

WHAT COLOUR WAS HANK MARVIN'S ORIGINAL STRAT?

So what actual colour was this Strat? Well, first of all, Fender didn’t list any specific custom colours before 1960 and there was no selection chart. So on paper, the nearest likely match, Fiesta Red, didn’t exist. Customers would simply ask for a colour and Fender would interpret the request. The company was using a range of DuPont colours, one of which subsequently was listed as Fiesta Red from 1960, but neither Hank nor Cliff Richard would have requested this colour by name, because in 1959 there was no publicly catalogued reference for the colours apart from pictures of the actual guitars. Indeed, an old Cliff Richard biography reproduces a letter written by Cliff, confirming that the Strat was ordered as red, and not pink. The letter said: "... we've decided to have the Stratocaster; please send us the red one with the gold-plated parts." Bruce Welch has indicated that the guitar was ordered based on a picture in the Fender catalogue, rather than from a product listing.

But on numerous occasions going right back through the decades, Hank has rejected suggestions that his mid ‘59 Strat was originally red. He’s always maintained that it was pink, and used the term “Flamingo Pink” in a range of interviews. Interestingly, Bruce Welch has also said that when the band first saw the guitar depicted in the catalogue, it appeared "Flamingo Pink". He's also categorically concurred with Hank, saying: "... It was definitely that colour [Flamingo Pink] in the brochure that we had and when the guitar arrived it was pink, not the more orangey colour of the fiesta red guitars that we got later." (source: Guitarist interview - July 1996). The plot thickens...

In very old colour photographic matter, the guitar does look red, but colour photographic film has never reproduced pink shades accurately, and certainly the kind of film which was being used five and a half decades ago was notoriously prone to significantly shifting various hues and introducing distorting casts. Add to that the printing variations and the degradation which takes place over the years in old film, and there’s no way you can trust an old image to accurately, or even in some cases approximately, represent a colour.

The situation is confused further by the fact that Hank was then given another Fender Strat – this time by Fender themselves when the company equipped the whole band, gratis. This second Strat definitely was Fiesta Red. It was distinct from the original in that it had an early rosewood slab fingerboard. Hank has said that he didn’t find his original mid ’59 Strat too easily playable, recalling that it was supplied with extremely thick strings including a wound third. The setup was also apparently poor, with the guitar having fret-buzz. Hank has even used the word "disappointed" in relation to the guitar's playability. Perhaps this was why he was quick to adopt his second Strat on stage and when posing for photos? Whatever the reason(s), Hank's second Strat will have been the instrument many fans were looking at when the real UK craze for Fiesta Red Stratocasters built up in earnest.


Above: A variety of Fiesta Red / Salmon Pink Fender guitars. Top left, a Telecaster. Top right, a Vintage '62 reissue Stratocaster. Bottom left, a Strat Plus. And bottom right, a Squier JV '62 reissue. The Strat top right represents what I'd cite as a fairly generic Salmon Pink. Very noticeably different from Fiesta Red, but it's not hard to see how fading of the original red finish could produce this colour.

Other nations, incidentally, didn’t take to Fiesta Red the way the United Kingdom did. So whilst early ‘60s Fiesta Red Strats appeared in Britain in comparatively heavy quantity, elsewhere there was much less demand and they didn’t make up much of the market. At one point, Fender’s UK distributors, Jennings, were apparently getting newly imported sunburst models refinished to match Hank Marvin’s Strats themselves – over the top of the original ‘burst. If that’s true, where they got the paint from and how accurate a representation of the official Fender USA shade it was, provokes some thought.

COULD HANK’S ORIGINAL STRAT HAVE BEEN SALMON PINK?

Unlike Fiesta Red, the colour Salmon Pink was never listed in any pre-CBS Fender paint chart, and there have been categorical assertions from prominent Fender figures of the day that there was never any such colour – either officially or unofficially.

Salmon Pink is therefore most often deemed to be a retrospective, made up term used by musicians and/or dealers. It’s widely acknowledged to refer to Fiesta Red which has faded through time, lost its depth and richness, and become more washed out and pink. In the pre-CBS Fender era, finishes were accomplished with nitro-cellulose, which is notoriously prone to fading and changing in colour with age. Salmon Pink finishes have also, however, been deliberately and specifically applied to guitars by refinishers attempting to simulate an aged Fiesta Red, and by manufacturers of vintage Strat replicas. Fernandes, for example, made a very pink Salmon Pink Strat, which was only ever marketed as Salmon Pink and never as Fiesta Red.

But there are also claims that the term Salmon Pink goes right back to the early 1960s and was being used in the UK, in relation to brand new Fender Strats in British shops. Some even attribute the origin of the phrase to Jennings, the UK Fender distributor of the time. Others think it was a colloquial term which just spread through the dealer network by word of mouth. Wherever it came from, though, it wasn’t Fender.

OR CORAL PINK?…

Coral Pink is not a UK term. It’s used in the United States, but it has a similar status to Salmon Pink. Many consider it simply to be the American phrase for Salmon Pink. Once again, there was never any such colour in a pre-CBS Fender catalogue, and members of the original Fender hierarchy have categorically said that it didn’t exist. There have been supposed ‘findings’ of actual Coral Pink guitars, marked or designated as such, but the claim I saw online had a suspicious ring to it, and I repeat, Fender managers of the day never acknowledged these guitars. Even when directly asked in interviews, they’d flat-out reject that there was ever a Coral or Salmon Pink shade shipped in any quantity whatsoever.

But that, of course, isn’t to say that original paint finish hues couldn’t vary, and it seems almost certain, given the way the factory operated in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, that they would have done to an extent. If one pickup can have 500 more windings than the next and a body contour can vary markedly from one guitar to another when accurately measured, then a custom paint finish can surely be expected to fluctuate somewhat too. Fender may have been calling it all Fiesta Red, but what customers were seeing at the end of the chain could have been a different matter.

SO WHAT COLOUR ACTUALLY IS SALMON/CORAL PINK?

Because these colours have never appeared on any Fender paint charts, and the generally accepted notion is that they’re merely distortions of official colours (usually Fiesta Red, but sometimes Shell Pink), Salmon Pink and Coral Pink have no frame of reference. Naturally, the very nature of ageing means that Salmon Pink is impossible to define. Its exact shade depends not only on how much the Fiesta Red base coat has faded, but also on how much the clear laquer top coats have yellowed. If the red has lightened a little but not significantly washed out to pink, and the clear lacquer has yellowed heavily, then Salmon Pink can be virtually orange. On the other hand, some Fiesta Red guitars’ top coats didn’t yellow much at all (and some didn’t even get top coats). Those instruments are either going to stay red or fade to a pronounced pink. It could go anywhere. Some ‘Salmon Pinks’ are even quite ‘browny’ looking.

Individual interpretation of colour is also highly subjective and in the eye of the beholder. A guitarist in a band I've worked with many times has a great 1980s Tokai Goldstar Sound (Strat copy) in what I'd call Fiesta Red. He refers to it as Salmon Pink. The drummer in the band calls it "the orange one". Same guitar; three different perceptions.

MYSTERY SOLVED?

Some of the mystery attached to the Fiesta Red / Salmon/Coral Pink debate will never be completely eliminated. What an exciting prospect it would be to zoom back through time to summer 1959 and inspect Hank Marvin’s first Stratocaster in person. I get the sense that it wasn’t exactly the colour we all think of today when someone mentions Fiesta Red, but it would be a fascinating experience to go back and see.

The mystery, however, is ours – not Fender’s. As far as they were concerned there was never a mystery in the first place. They chose their custom colours, designated them with names, listed them on a sample chart, and made sure they let the public know that these colours were “subject to change without notice” – which pretty much covered anything. After that, it was down to the effects of time and ageing. As someone who bought a blue Jazz Bass, and now, over two decades later and without ever touching the finish, has a green Jazz Bass, I know how dramatic the effects of time can be. Everyone loves a mystery though.

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