A Brief Guide To 1950s Stratocasters

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 20 March 2015 |

The Fender Stratocaster is the world’s most popular guitar design, but how did it all begin? This piece looks, in a broad sense, at the Stratocaster of the 1950s. It’s not meant to document every minute detail. Rather, it’s an overview for anyone unfamiliar with this early period in the Strat’s life.


Above: This type of black, maple-necked Stratocaster is now perhaps best associated with Eric Clapton, whose (former) predominantly 1950s partscaster ‘Blackie’ is additionally cool because it has an early custom colour body. But Gene Vincent’s band used factory original Strats in non-standard colours during the 1950s, including an even earlier black model than Clapton’s.

The vintage design Fender Stratocaster has one of the best recognised basic feature sets in guitar history, so I’m not going to be covering obvious ground explaining the rudiments. The pictures show what the instrument looks like, and I’m sure you’ll in any case know what a Stratocaster is and does. My aim is, in general, to express what sets apart the 1950s Stratocaster from later models, but I’ve added some other historical detail along the way. Here’s a set of notable ‘50s Strat characteristics to set the ball rolling. A 1950s Strat will have…

  • A very heavily contoured ash (until 1956, then alder) body with maximum amounts of wood removed in the chest and forearm areas. Countours would steadily get shallower through the years, until the late 1970s, afterwhich Fender's Standard Strats moved back towards deeper curves again (although not as deep as in the ‘50s).
  • A single-ply white plastic scratchplate with eight fitting screws.
  • Erratically-wound pickups with compressed fibre top and bottom plates, staggered-height alnico magnets, and coils subject to ‘human error’. It’s impossible to specify an exact coil resistance because the winding process was so hit and miss. The classic Strat pickup resistance is around 6K ohms, and some ‘50s pickups do conform to that. But some have less resistance, and are thus weaker and brighter, whilst others have higher resistance, making them hotter and tonally fatter. It’s just the luck of the draw, and naturally the resistances can vary within one guitar, as well as from one guitar to the next. 1950s coils vary in thickness and shape, and the windings are not uniformly wrapped. The rough, hand-guided pickup winding is acknowledged by many to add character to the sound.
  • Three-way pickup selector switch, with settings for each pickup alone, but no stop-notches for the in-between combination selections.
  • Nickel-plated Kluson tuners. Single round string tree until 1956, then a single rectangular ‘butterfly’ tree.
I’ll look at the other key details separately.

1953

A lot of guitarists know the Stratocaster was introduced in 1954, but the specifics regarding the pre-launch and launch period are less widely circulated. In fact, development work started in earnest in the spring of 1953 with the body contouring and shape being interactively determined. The body shape and size apparently started out similar to that of a Telecaster, but changed progressively as the development team sought to maintain balance in the face of the contours’ impact on weight distribution.


Above: An impression of how the first 1953 Strat prototype might have looked, with a bare wood body, a roller bridge and separate vibrato tailpiece. The white scratchplate and plastic knob sets were a late refinement, so the black plate and metal Telecaster knobs would be accurate. In order to highlight some of the issues the team would have been considering at the outset of the guitar’s development, I’ve given this example two, rather than three pickups, and a Telecaster-style headstock. And I’ve highlighted another important element of Strat design by omitting the recessed jack socket from the front face of the body. It should be noted that due to the lack of images and concrete documentation, there's a lot of speculation surrounding early Strat prototypes and their exact spec. The above image should be considered highly speculative.

Prototypes were already being handed to local musicians by summer 1953. But developing the Strat to a market-ready state (in terms of both spec and promotional groundwork) took about a year and a half, so whilst the Strat was officially introduced to the public in April ’54, it was autumn ’54 before the first real user batch of non-promotional guitars was shipped. The final months of this drawn-out period were probably a nod to Fender’s financial situation at the time, which did not allow for lavish and risky introductions. Building masses of Strats and chucking them onto the market before the then highly futuristic concept was known to be meeting with musicians' general desires, would not have been an option.

There are thought to have been a couple of fully built prototypes for interactive test purposes in summer 1953, which were described by key ideas man Bill Carson as “breadboard models”. The visual and aesthetic refinements to the instrument were not implemented until the end of 1953, with the catastrophic performance of the original vibrato system having delayed progress by literally months.

The mid ‘53 testbed Strats are acknowledged to have had black scratchplates made of compressed fibre, plus metal volume/tone knobs, and a completely different design of trem system. It’s known that the original prototype arrangement had the bridge saddle adjustment screws mounted the opposite way around so they were accessed from the scratchplate side of the bridge, and the saddles carried the strings on rollers so as to eliminate friction from the vibrato action. On the original, prototype Strat trem, the bridge unit itself was completely static – the strings were simply stretched and slackened across it, as with the Bigsby vibrato which inspired it. Fender ran with this design until the latter part of 1953, at which point it was realised that the original trem design was fundamentally flawed and a complete redesign was required. The original vibrato system was scrapped, and apparently very quickly Leo Fender came up with the concept for the Strat trem roughly as we know it today.

One of the most fascinating points regarding the early test period with the guitar as originally conceived, is that although it was never preserved in a visual sense, it was said to have been used on recording sessions of the day. I wonder if any of those recordings survived?

The period between late ’53 and spring ’54 would have seen the second version of the vibrato system and the general appointments being refined, the specifics of the finish finalised, etc. Even after the Strat began to appear publicly, small details were changing. At least one extremely early sunburst Strat has been found with white pickup covers, but metal tone and volume knobs.

COLOURS


Above: This compilation pic shows replica guitars sporting a range of finishes known to have appeared on 1950s Strats. They are, left to right, top to bottom: two-tone sunburst, Fiesta red, white (in this case with an anodised scratchplate mimicking the 0001 serial number Stratocaster owned by David Gilmour), and Shoreline gold.

This is a commonly misunderstood area of early Strat manufacture. The multi-coloured American and Japanese reissues built forward from the 1980s probably helped fuel the notion that ‘50s Strats were listed in a range of finishes. But in fact, there was only one standard finish for the 1950s Stratocaster: two-tone sunburst, black-edged, with a golden yellow centre. And in 1954 when the Strat was introduced, it wasn’t even a published fact that non-standard finishes could be obtained. Therefore, almost all mid 1950s Strats were outshopped in two-tone sunburst.

However, the kind of people buying early Stratocasters could be very ostentatious and forward-thinking artists, and a small number did request non-standard finishes regardless of what Fender documented as being available. This resulted in a very small number of mid ‘50s Strats with solid colour finishes – starting in '54. There was no real system to it. The artist simply specified a colour, Fender quoted a price, and the instrument was finished to order.


Above: The standard finish for a 1950s Strat - two-tone sunburst.

In 1956, Fender finally did publish a catalogue footnote stating that Stratocasters could be bought with custom finishes, subject to a surcharge. But there was still no listing for the actual colours. Whilst Fender did start to settle on a set range of shades through the course of the late 1950s, the only non-sunburst option ever officially referred to in promo literature before the turn of the decade, was blonde (or blond, as it was then written). The first list of named, identifiable solid finishes, was not catalogued until the beginning of the 1960s. Even though it was obvious from the images of guitars in promotional literature and elsewhere that Fender were producing solid-coloured Strats in the late ‘50s, the vast majority of customers stuck with the standard sunburst model, and therefore solid finishes were not produced in any significant quantity until the following decade.

NECK


Above: The headstock and 'spaghetti' Fender logo in the characteristic 1956 to 1959 style. Up until the second half of 1956 the string tree would have been round, and after mid 1959 the neck construction changed, losing the walnut truss channel filler 'teardrop' above the nut, and gaining a rosewood fretboard .

Another assumption often made by those new to Strat history, is that the maple/rosewood fingerboard choice always existed. But in the mid 1950s, if you wanted a guitar with a rosewood fingerboard, Fender couldn’t help you. All Strats from the year of introduction until mid 1959 came with a maple neck, whether you liked it or not. From mid ’59 the maple neck was completely dropped, and the Stratocaster’s spec was switched wholesale to a rosewood fingerboard.

The fingerboard radius was a prominently curved seven inches.

The first neck profile was bulky and rounded, but this evolved, around 1955, to the rather ‘Marmite-esque’ V-shaped profile which some really love, and others totally hate. From 1957, the V-neck evolved towards a rounder and shallower profile, getting progressively shallower through to the end of the decade.

Truss rod adjustments were always made from the body end of the neck.

With regard to the neck, and some other details, it would be worth reading the Fender Japan '57 Reissue article.

OTHER MAIN POINTS IN BRIEF

1954: The Stratocaster gets its preliminary launch in early spring after a long period of tinkering with the design. A trickle of supply, mainly for promotional purposes, is shipped from the second half of May until mid autumn, when full scale production and shipping commence. The body wood is ash, and the finish is nitro-cellulose lacquered.

The original Strat has an eight-screw, single-ply scratchplate – nearly always made of white plastic, but an exceptionally small number of very early models have either gold or silver-grey metal plates or, according to Andre Duchossoir (author of The Fender Stratocaster - the original 'Bible' on this stuff), see-through lucite plates with gold coloured backs. Small detail changes during 1954 include the repositioning of the serial number from the rear vibrato cover plate to the neck plate, and the almost immediate cessation of white bakelite pickup covers and Tone/Volume knob sets.

Finally, the 1954 Strat is not sold with a bridge cover, and perhaps most fascinatingly of all, it’s more expensive than a Gibson Les Paul Gold Top!


Above: The obsession with vintage Strats went crazy in the ‘eighties, and as the battle between Fender and its copyists intensified, 1950s replicas appeared in a staggeringly wide array of colours. This gave quite a false impression of the proportion of real ‘50s Strats produced in solid colours, and indeed some of the finishes in which the replicas appeared were never used on real 1950s Strats at all.

1955: The impractically small round string access holes in rear vibrato cover plate are elongated so as to facilitate easier restringing without removing the plate. A detachable metal ‘ash tray’ top plate is supplied to cover the bridge saddles. V-profiled necks begin to appear, although nothing is really set in stone, and the V-shaping is more of a trend than an exact spec.

1956: The default body wood switches from ash to alder, and the circular string tree is replaced with the rectangular ‘butterfly’ version.

1957: A more aesthetically lavish model, which became popular in professional circles the previous year, is publicised as a generally available option. The instrument has a semi-translucent blonde finish and gold-plated hardware, and it retains the ash body, which has been discontinued on the standard Stratocaster. Today, this model is known as the Mary Kaye Strat, after its synonymous high profile user of the day. The V-neck trend shifts towards a shallower, less bulky and rounder profile.

1958: The standard two-tone sunburst finish is replaced with a three-tone sunburst, featuring a red band between the black and yellow. Two-tone sunbursts have, however, been found on later Strats, even overlapping into the 1960s - although it's known that Fender had teething troubles with their red dye, and it's considered by some that all post-'58 pre-CBS Strats with two-tone sunbursts are actually three-tones with 'permanence failure' in the red dye. This is not a universal view though. If the red faded out in daylight as Fender stated, it should still show some evidence under the scratchplate. My mid '60s Fender Jaguar has a red dye failure, and despite being finished in three-tone sunburst it looks like it has a two-tone finish. Remove the scratchplate, however, and the red areas shielded from daylight are still vivid.

1959: The maple neck bites the dust (for the foreseeable future) and the rosewood fretboard design becomes the new staple spec. The scratchplate evolves over a very short period from single-ply white plastic with 8 mounting screws, to 3-ply off-white/greenish celluloid with 11 mounting screws (other permutations existed in the transition). Even though it’s still, just about, the 1950s, the Strat has evolved into its classic early ‘60s appearance.

Whilst all of the text and images in this post are the original intellectual property of Planet Botch, information source acknowledgements are made to A.R. Duchossoir, Tony Bacon, Paul Day and Tom Wheeler for their excellent publications relating to the Stratocaster and other Fender guitars.

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