The 1980s DiMarzio DIY Strat

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 10 May 2020 |

DiMarzio DIY Strat in neon pink cellophane finish
Neon Pink Cellophane was one of the standard finishes for DiMarzio Strat bodies and necks in 1987. The Shock Wave pickup set and active jack socket power module was designed to produce single coil sounds but with a huge signal boost and a chunk of lower midrange gain. The pickups were stacked humbuckers which could also be used in passive mode.

I wrote in the past week about the guitar customisation market of the 1970s, and how it transformed into a template for off-the-peg instruments in the following decade. As someone who’s always been fascinated by the transition from modded maverick to stock offering, I thought a post about DiMarzio’s DIY Strats of the 1980s would make an interesting follow-up.

If you’re over 50 and were heavily disposed in your youth to grabbing any free catalogue you could get your grubby hands on, you may remember that whilst 1980s DiMarzio brochures were primarily about selling an enticing array of pickups, they also advertised at least one complete guitar. A Strat. Although not branded ‘Strat’, because ‘Strat’, as the brochure made clear, was a trademark of Fender Musical Instrument Corp. In fact, the instrument headstocks didn’t feature any branding or model name at all. And although the guitars were shown as fully assembled products, there was no catalogue listing for the guitars themselves – only their individual parts.

This was a DIY project. You ordered the components, and you built the Strat yourself. You picked a finished body, a finished neck, selected your hardware, and put together your ultimate tone machine. Even in the format of a 3xS/C vintage replica, you could vary the tone markedly with your choice of pickups. And post Spinal Tap, you could even have knobs that went up to 11.

Actually, there were routes for those who didn’t want to build the guitar themselves. Enthusiastic retailer/repairers such as Chandler in South East England would doubtless have professionally assembled you an ‘eighties DiMarzio Strat, and most cities had shops that could order the parts and then refer you to someone who would do the work to a good standard, at a reasonable rate. It’s obviously not hard to bolt a neck and body together and screw a bridge into place. The challenges would come in areas like the wiring, nut-fitting and setup, which in the hands of a novice could have the potential to turn a very fine set of parts into a pretty grim playing experience.

The combined price of the DiMarzio parts was roughly comparable with the retail value of a new standard USA Fender Stratocaster – perhaps just undercutting Fender a little with the most basic parts, depending on the retailer. David Lawrenson got hold of a special, manufacturer-assembled DiMarzio ‘Strat’ demonstrator for his 1982 Complete Guitar Guide, quoting the price at £350, and giving the guitar a very good review. The DiMarzio’s star ratings comfortably beat those awarded to the Fender Gold Stratocaster, and Fender’s ’82 Gold Strat was a creature of some beauty.

Back in the early 'eighties, DiMarzio wasn’t the only custom parts vendor offering the means to build an entire Strat, and in the early ‘eighties, neither was it the best known DIY Strat supplier. In ’82, Schecter’s DIY instruments had some famous endorsees, including Mark Knopfler, whose Strat was assembled by Schecter themselves. But one can only wonder whether DiMarzio’s DIY Strats might have gained a bigger presence in music folklore had their headstocks actually been brand-adorned, as Schecter’s were.

THE PICKUPS


In the thick of the ‘eighties, DiMarzio were not doing ‘rail’ design side-by-side humbuckers in a single coil size. The options were:

  • VS-1 – Based on the vintage Stratocaster pickup, with staggered alnico poles.
  • FS-1 – A ‘fat Strat’ unit. Historically interesting as it was the first bridge-calibrated Strat pickup designed to eliminate “weak back pickup syndrome” without any need to widen the cavity.
  • SDS-1 – A hot single coil with a lot more output and a rounder top end, vaguely in P90 territory.
  • HS-1 – A stacked humbucker designed to produce a regular Strat sound but without any background noise.
  • HS-2 – A thicker-sounding version of the HS-1 stack design, linked at the time with many high profile users including Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, Leslie West and Steve Vai.
  • HS-3 – The balls-out, metal-compatible member of the HS series, developed in collaboration with, and at the time heavily used by, a certain Mr Malmsteen.
  • The aforementioned Shock Wave set was also an option, and the active Shock Wave jack socket module was available separately, for use with any of the other Strat pickups. However, the Shock Wave or HS stacked humbuckers were advised, as the regular single coils’ background noise would be boosted along with the signal, which wouldn't be much fun.

Since the bodies could also be purchased with a humbucker cavity, it was possible to select from the range of classic twin coils too. Super Distortion / Dual Sound, variants on the PAF, Super 2, Megadrive, Double Whammy, or the signature models including Rick Derringer, Al Di Meola and Steve Morse.

HARDWARE


The rest of the hardware was pretty standard. Kluson-style machine heads, vintage type trem system, generic-looking 5-way switch, etc. There was, however, no trad Fender nickel finish advertised for the metalwork. You could get it in chrome, gold or black.

The pickup covers came in white, black, red, pink or cream – “creme”, as DiMarzio termed it. There was notably no vintage yellowy brown option.

The scratchplates were available in white, black or tortoise, and there were both single-ply 8-screw, and three-ply 11-screw options.

BODY AND NECK


The bodies were made of alder, which I’ve always thought was the right wood for a Strat, despite ash being the original default upon introduction in 1954. The DiMarzio bodies were supplied fully finished, and there were two translucent body finishes that were available with matching necks: Neon Pink Cellophane and Red Cellophane. Other body finishes included a 1950s-style two-tone sunburst, looking very much like the burst on my gorgeous old Fender AVRI ’57. Plus black or creamy white.

Aside from the two body-matching translucents, the necks came in vintage honey. They were advertised with 21 or 22 frets, and as well as the predictable one-piece maple or rosewood board options, there was an ebony board version. As catalogued, the frets were standard sized on the 21-fret necks, and jumbo on the 22s, but it was possible to get 21-fret DiMarzio necks with jumbo frets. Whether you had to ask for “Dave” and perform a special handshake I don’t know.

ADVANTAGES


There was an obvious advantage when buying an original US Fender, that the secondhand value was likely to hold up much better than that of a copy. However, there were also advantages to buying a high quality DIY copy like the DiMarzio. For example…

You could tailor the spec much more precisely than with a Fender Strat.

You could choose who assembled and set up your guitar. Essentially, hand-pick your quality control.

If you opted to assemble the guitar yourself, you’d gain an extra sense of satisfaction which would be there every time you picked up the instrument.

Vendors of parts had to deliver perfection per part. These companies knew that third parties would be scrutinising each and every component they supplied to a higher degree than would be the case when everything was done in an assembly plant. They couldn’t hide flimsy stuff under the scratchplate like Fender Japan were doing by 1987. They couldn’t downgrade the spec of an individual part, or change the body wood, and get away with it because the spec was undeclared or variable. The spec of everything was documented, because that’s how the parts business works. Even the smallest items had to withstand a high degree of scrutiny. Assembly plants would tell you they were strict on quality. But they were not as strict as a third party hand-assembler who is micro-inspecting everything down to the very last screw.

There was no pressure to resist modifying the guitar. With an original USA Fender, many owners would be reluctant to modify anything in case they ever wanted to sell the guitar as all original. But with a guitar that has no premium for “all original condition”, you’re free to experiment to your heart’s content.

You’d be less susceptible to the kind of impulsiveness that results in a bad purchase. So many of us have done it. See a selection of guitars in a shop, fall instantly and deeply in love with the ‘looker’, slap down the money, take home your pretty prize, and realise that actually, your Young Chang Tele kicks its sorry posterior. At least when you’re buying from a list of components, you’re thinking straight, and selecting purely on merit, and not being rushed by the fear of someone else beating you to the purchase, and as a result, almost inevitably making sounder long-term decisions.

SUMMING UP


The DIY Strats of the 1980s were an option most guitarists overlooked. But they did make a lot of sense – financially as well as musically. DiMarzio’s DIY Strats were normally compared with the prices of Fender’s standard USA Strats. But that’s not what you got with a DiMarzio DIY. This was anything but a standard Strat. It was far more akin to a Custom Shop Strat in its flexibility, and a signature Strat in its component personality. And you weren’t gonna be getting much if any change from a grand for a Fender Custom Shop or signature Strat in the 1980s. That was the DiMarzio’s true ballpark for comparison, even if you did have to build it yourself.

As the 1980s progressed, the market for high quality Strats became extremely competitive. Brands such as Levinson/Blade, who offered off-the-peg Strats with spectacular quality and pickup innovation, became one of the biggest reasons not to go down the DIY road. Made in Japan, some of those beauties really did rival DiMarzio for price. But even with a Blade, you couldn’t mix and match. You got what the manufacturer gave you, and you wouldn’t get an endorsed Yngwie Malmsteen sound in the bridge pickup, Eddie Martinez / Steve Morse in the middle, and Eric Johnson in the neck. That Strat was the preserve of DiMarzio, and DiMarzio only.

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