The Late 1960s Fender Stratocaster

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 8 August 2012 |

Finding a late ‘60s Fender Stratocaster which managed to chalk up more than six months of service in recognisable shape is quite difficult. Any examples not burned to a crisp by Hendrix were either repeatedly thrown around a stage until the neck fell off, or repeatedly thrown around a stage until the neck fell off, and then burned to a crisp, or used as a handy hotel smasher-upper, or sacrificed to the Devil (in plainer language, that just means thrown on a bonfire by someone in a drug-fuelled stupor). They all went up in flames or got trashed, basically. Well, most of them did. The odd one or two did survive. But are those fortunate survivors worthy of attention as vintage guitars in this crazy world of five digit sums? Let’s find out…

The 1967 Fender Stratocaster had appointments such as the large headstock (with 'transition' logo branding), reduced-depth body contouring, scantily-wound pickups with no wax-potting, and a white plastic (as opposed to greenish nitrate) scratchplate. Combined, these features and spec attributes made the '67 Strat much less desirable than a pre-CBS model. However, going into 1967, Fender were still finishing their guitars in nitro-cellulose, so the familiar lacquer cracking and top-coat yellowing of a vintage guitar would normally be a characteristic.

In slightly more seriousness… By 1967, Fender Stratocasters were certainly not the world’s most popular guitars. There were three main reasons for this: 1) trends in guitar playing were becoming more focused around fatter, bolder tones, 2) Fender themselves had for years championed the Jaguar and Jazzmaster as superiors to the Stratocaster, and 3) it was considered by musicians that the CBS takeover of Fender at the beginning of 1965 had lowered the quality and desirability of the Strat. Due to the guitar’s lull in popularity, it’s acknowledged by vintage experts that going into ’67, production had been scaled back, and relatively speaking, 1967 Strats were not produced in great quantity. Accordingly, you’re much more likely to find a ’65 than a ’67 – and that has nothing to do with '60s rock stars’ trash and burn proclivities.

But late ‘60s playing trends, and Fender’s pedestal for the Jaguar and Jazzmaster, can be set aside when assessing early post-CBS Strats today. The only thing that matters now is: were Strats made after the CBS takeover a lot worse than the pre-CBS models, and if so, was the decline serious enough to render them poor guitars? Well, let’s look first at what the changes were…
  • A perceived (but not universally demonstrated) decline in build quality, attributed to the massive increase in production across the whole range of Fender guitars forward from 1965. Issues regarding quality were raised within Fender as well as by outsiders, so this point does have substance.
  • A reduction in the depth of the body contouring.
  • Replacement of the classic original Stratocaster headstock with a rather disproportionate looking enlarged version, like the one in use on the Fender Jaguar.
  • Cessation of wax-potting on pickups, making the units more prone to microphonic squeal.
  • A marked reduction to the number of windings on the pickups, making for a thinner sound.
  • Swapping of the nitrate scratchplate (prone to turning progressively greener on non-tortoise guards) for a less flammable plastic job, on which a white surface remained white. Typical! Just as guitarists start wanting their guitars to go up in smoke, Fender makes the Strat less flammable!
  • The dropping of Kluson Deluxe machineheads in favour of ‘F’ stamped Fender tuners, which looked less pretty, but were (based on my own experience) smoother in use.
  • And finally, by 1968, substitution of poly finishing processes for the earlier nitro-cellulose.
So whilst not every change was conclusively for the worse, the overall picture is fairly obviously one of decline, and of the 1964 Strat being a much more desirable instrument than, say, a 1968. One dude did, however, rate the early post-CBS Strats pretty highly, and he just so happened to be on course to become the most influential guitarist who ever lived. Jimi Hendrix’s adoption of late ’60s CBS Fender Strats as his guitars of choice not only turned around the instrument’s fortune – it also, eventually, helped give those ’66, ’67, ’68 and ’69 Stratocasters some kudos as vintage guitars. That kudos would, however, be a long time coming…

1960s Fender 'F'-branded tuners
The late 1960s Stratocaster's 'F'-branded Fender tuners and large headstock design.


The saddest thing of all about trying to get hold of a 1967 Stratocaster these days is not the ‘fetch me a chair’ prices themselves, but what those prices have done to the task of finding a genuine, original example.

In the second half of the 1980s when I was first in a position to start buying guitars, Strats made between 1966 and 1969 were affordable. This was when the earlier, pre-CBS models were just starting to head out of the serious amateur’s budget range. You might be able to talk a private seller down below a grand, but dealers were typically pricing up early ‘60s Strats somewhere between £1,100 and £1,800, depending on condition and exact year. At the £1,100 end of the spectrum you’d probably either get a total wreck, or a refinished piece with perhaps a replacement pickup or two. But the pre-CBS vs post-CBS division was still very strong, and there wasn’t enough of a hankering for late ‘60s Fender gear to force up the prices. So you’d see the odd Strat from the latter 1960s priced up in the region of £600. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But the thing was you didn’t want them. Very few people did. That’s why they were only marginally more expensive at the time than a new Strat Plus.

One of the things I believe helped set the original late ’60s Strats on the road to overly inflated prices was Fender Japan’s ’68 ‘Hendrix’ reissue. Any reissue is a homage bound to lend a new credibility to an original model, but this one also helped to cement the association between Hendrix and those large headstock ‘60s Strats. Once the high profile reissue had whipped up a buzz for those Hendrix era Strats, the vintage originals seemed to become a lot more hotly sought after, and prices hit an upward spiral.

What you absolutely knew about late ‘60s Strats before that price spiral was set in motion, was that if someone advertised one for sale, it was pretty sure to be exactly what the seller claimed. Around 1987 there just wasn’t enough money in late '60s Strats for anyone to get into pretences or fakery. But in the course of the interim, that’s changed. Now that fully original Stratocasters from the Hendrix era are able to command five figure sums, you have to expect the market to be steeped in bull. Long gone are the simple ads like: “Late ‘60s Strat, refinished body, some replacement parts; £525”. These days, things look a bit more like this…

“This is a thoroughly SPECTACULAR (note the capitals) late 1960s Fender Stratocaster, with ALL ORIGINAL PARTS AND FINSH! The reason there’s about four years’ difference in the dates of the parts is that Hendrix’s road manager reserved the guitar before it was fully built. To clear an inventory at the factory, the neck was then shipped without the rest of the guitar – erroneously to a chimney sweep who wishes his name to be kept out of this. The chimney sweep used the neck to clean several chimneys, hence it being so noticeably soiled. When the mistake in shipping was dicovered, Fender recalled the neck, and assembled the complete guitar, as planned. Seeing that the neck was battered to crap, Hendrix’s road manager then cancelled the order. The complete guitar, with its parts from four different years, trashed neck, and brand spanking new body with FACTORY ORIGINAL FINISH, was then shipped to a store, who locked the instrument in a vault.

In 1978, Leo Fender himself was shown the guitar. It is not clear why Leo would have asked to see a guitar whose neck had been used to sweep a chimney, but we have verified this story with several top secret but reliable sources, and the fact is that he did. Upon plugging in the guitar, Leo did not find the sound to meet with his usual standards of perfection, so he personally rewound the pickups on the spot. This explains why the pickups are wound with late ‘70s coil wire.

You can be assured that this guitar is an ALL ORIGINAL late ‘60s Fender Stratocaster, except for the pickup rewind, which was done by Leo Fender himself, and accordingly adds another five grand to the price. We will accept £30,000 for this sensational, all original Stratocaster. Direct bank transfer or cash only, no returns.”

Again, in a little more seriousness, it really is exceptionally difficult to verify what you’re buying now that there’s so much impetus for sellers to cheat, and now that cheating is an industry in itself. If the real vintage Strat feel interests you as a player, it makes far more sense, I think, to buy one of Fender’s Custom Shop Relics. You get a vintage feel, you know exactly what you’re buying, you’ll get better quality control, and you won’t be paying £thousands in dead money which is doing nothing more than outbidding collectors who are only interested in making an investment.

Genuine piece or total fake?... The only real certainty on today's market is that there's a hell of a lot more beautifully preserved pre-1970 Strats around now than there were thirty years ago.

There’s no denying that a good 1966-1969 Stratocaster is going to be a very, very prestigious possession indeed. Will it be the best Strat ever made? No. What it will do, is cost a shocking amount of money for what was a basic, mass produced guitar. And will you ever really know that you haven't been stitched up with a clever piece of relicking and/or a tale which is more of a movie outline than a sales pitch?... Well, take a look at the '67 Strat I photographed for this article. Is it genuine? Is it a fake? Am I myself even sure?... I'll leave you to guess. Not easy, is it?...

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