Where Have All the REAL Vintage Strats Gone?

Bob Leggitt | Monday 3 September 2012
I’ve just been reading through some interesting old articles, dating back through the years as far as 1982, and looking at the vintage guitar market. It’s been fascinating to whip back three decades to a time long before the Internet existed (the first IBM PCs had only recently been introduced), and during which we might perhaps feel from today’s perspective, that things were a lot more straightforward. No online dealers offering up re-logo’d and relic-processed Tokai Strats as ’64 Fenders or trying to sell a two-week-old neckplate as original 1950s stock… Surely, 1982 was a time when you could go out and buy a vintage guitar, secure in the knowledge that it was a bona-fide original piece…

Er, no. And this is what I found so sobering about my excursion back through the decades. Even as long ago as 1982 there were grave concerns about fakery on vintage guitars, with one dealer even discussing what the industry in general had felt able to “get away with” when re-selling an instrument. Pickup rewinds were incredibly common, and in the ‘70s would be done for tonal and output reasons (before the pickup replacement business really hit big), as well as to remedy damage. This made me wonder how many pre-CBS Fender Stratocasters were left with three original coils by 1980, let alone 2012.

Vintage Strat in superb condition
We almost expect 1960s Strats to look this clean these days.

By the mid 1990s, warnings regarding the vintage market were even more severe. A survey revealed that ex-Fender Vice President Forrest White’s assertion about the proportion of pre-1963 Strats shipped with sunburst finishes as opposed to custom colours, had been turned on its head. Forrest White stated that at least 75% of Strats made between 1954 and the start of 1963 were sunbursts. However, the result of the survey was that the majority of supposedly all-original pieces in circulation by 1996, were custom coloured examples.

My reading also unearthed an allusion to a mid ‘70s trend which saw many old Strat bodies stripped down to the then desirable natural wood look. Not to mention of course the tendency for owners to gouge wood out of the bodies to accommodate humbuckers. All those stripped and chiselled Strats now seem extremely difficult to find, whilst the ‘perfect, unmodified originals’ look to be relatively plentiful. It’s almost as if the ‘70s never happened.

So I’ve found myself contemplating what proportion of all original vintage Strats, really are all original. And I don’t think it’s very high. If people had bought Strats as financial investments in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, then I’d have no problem believing that all those beautifully preserved survivors were genuine. But people didn’t buy Strats as financial investments in the decade from 1954 to 1964. They bought them to play. In the pre-CBS years, a Strat wasn’t something a guitarist would buy and put under the bed. It was an expensive purchase, which, broadly, only a professional or a serious amateur would entertain.

So, we know old Strats got heavily used. We know many got stripped, customised and butchered in the ‘70s. We know Seymour Duncan and Larry DiMarzio alone rewound more old Strat pickups than the Queen’s had cheese sandwiches, and there were plenty of others doing the same. Where are all these modified Strats? I don’t know. I can’t find any. All I keep seeing are all-original beauties with barely a mark on them, and more often than not, rare custom colour finishes.

I think it’s easy sometimes to get caught up in the vintage market as it exists today, and forget the reality of what most genuine vintage Strats will have been through. It’s just not realistic for any more than the odd few examples to have survived all those decades in near mint condition. Therefore, controversial as this may sound, I believe the odds of any pre-CBS Stratocaster in spectacularly good condition being genuinely all original are extremely remote. Some of the pieces I’ve seen for sale or on show over the past few months haven’t even looked five years old, and in every case I’ve asked myself why on earth someone in the 1960s (or in two instances the 1950s) would spend a vast chunk of their salary on a musical instrument, then lock it away. It just doesn’t wash. What I’ve read today has heightened than notion.

Crazed finish
A stunningly fine 64 finish. 64 minutes of relic-processing that is, obviously.

The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. Many of those 1950s and 1960s Strats we’re seeing today, were probably made in the 1980s, and not necessarily by Fender. The real vintage Strats are still around of course, but an unscrupulous seller will almost certainly get more for a near-mint rip-off than a trashed original with a humbucker cavity, a replacement scratchplate and a neck repair. Which of the two is he gonna sell? The market doesn’t want reality – it wants fantasy, with an assurance the the fantasy is real. And that, in my view, is to a considerable extent exactly what it’s got.

There's more on this interesting subject in my Late '60s Stratocaster article, and in Vintage Guitars: Prices Set To Crash?

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