The Confusing History of Fender's Olympic White Finish

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 26 May 2020 |



If there's one element of the Fender company's history that can be described as romantic, it must surely be the brand's variety of solid colour finishes, which peaked as a concept in the 1960s.

Since nearly all early guitars from the Telecaster family were translucent Blonde, and nearly all early Stratocasters were Sunburst, it's easy to make the mistake of thinking Gibson pre-empted Fender in the opaque colours timeline with their 1952 Les Paul Gold Top. Or that Gretsch pipped Fender to the post on the solid white finish with their 1954 White Falcon. After all, if you trace back the history of Fender's Olympic White you'll discover that it wasn't nominated as a finish option until March 1958.

However, if you head back further still to the very start of Fender's electric Spanish guitar range, you find the 1949 prototype was solid opaque white, and the very first Fender Esquire to be built was solid black. Fender clearly saw the potential in opaque colour finishes from the start. But to get bogged down in whose opaque colours pre-empted whose, is to miss the real crux of Fender's colour revolution. Namely, the idea of making one model of guitar available in a range of solid colours, so the musician could choose which option they wanted. That was the brainchild of Fender's George Fullerton - the man who designed the Telecaster body shape.

Although Fender had already been producing guitars for celebrities in special solid colour finishes, in 1957 George Fullerton took the first steps towards developing a range of advertised, publicly available "Custom Colours", which any customer could have applied to the guitar they were ordering, subject to a 5% surcharge. Fullerton recalled going to the local paint supplier with a goal of creating something really novel...

"I had the man mix [the paint] up right there on the spot. Put a little of this, now add some of that... We came up with what we later called Fiesta Red. I came back with this paint and had it put on a Jazzmaster. Everyone over at the sales office got a really big laugh out of it, but it turned out to be a very good thing. Very popular."

So Fiesta Red was arguably the first finalised hue in Fender's custom colour range, although to reach that conclusion you'd have to exclude black, which had already seen consistent use - albeit not on random customers' guitars. But of the original 1950s Fender custom colours, only two would make it to the 1980s in uninterrupted use: Black, and Olympic White.

WHAT EXACT COLOUR IS TRUE OLYMPIC WHITE?



On the left, original 1965 Olympic white Fender guitars whose finishes have heavily yellowed. Jazzmaster top, and Mustang below. The Fender Mustang is almost identical to Fender Japan's later reissue, which was released in "Yellow White". Fender Japan's Jazzmaster, however, came in MIJ "Vintage White", which was a very different colour - much, much whiter. On the right I've shown an original '60s Olympic White finish alongside a brand new pack of anti-bac wipes, for colour comparison. The anti-bac packet is pure white, but look how close in colour the Olympic White finish is where the yellowed top coats have worn away. The more beigey colour beneath the Olympic White is the base coat.

Since the clear lacquer top coats on original Olympic White vintage Fenders normally yellow to some extent, and many Fender and replica guitars sought to duplicate that effect, the Olympic White shade is often thought to be a creamy and slightly yellowy off-white.

But as originally applied, true Olympic White is not at all yellowy. You could say it's slightly off-white, because it wouldn't reproduce at 255, 255, 255 on a computer, and there is a very slight hint of creaminess there. But looking at it as new in a guitar shop you probably wouldn't describe it as anything other than white. I doubt you'd say cream.


Stratocasters in variations on the Olympic White theme. 1) Aged 1967 Olympic White finish. The top coats often wear away on the forearm contour and show something close to the original colour without the yellowing. 2) Aged 1980s MIJ "Hendrix" model, which was offered in "Vintage White". 3) 1980s USA "Malmsteen" signature model, which was offered from new in a severely aged "Vintage White" heavily pre-yellowed. 4) 1980s MIJ '57 Reissue, which came in "Vintage White". 5) 1980s Squier MIJ Standard, in "Olympic White", which wasn't the same as original Olympic White. 6) 1980s MIJ '62 Reissue showing a pretty true representation of the original Olympic White colour without any noticeable ageing (but officially, Fender Japan called this finish "Vintage White"). I'll talk through the Vintage White / Olympic White confusion shortly.

ASSOCIATED INFO


It has for long been a noted irony among guitar experts, that the very lacquer coats meant to protect a white finish - the clear top coats - are the overwhelming cause of its discoloration. Guitars without top coats tend not to yellow anything like as much as those with. And indeed, Fender's 1949 Tele-shaped solidbody barely discoloured at all through the decades.

So if the top coats on an original Olympic White Fender wear away, the typical effect is that the true Olympic White colour (or close to it) shows as a bright white patch on an otherwise yellowy guitar body. When you see a guitar like this close up, the idea that the original Olympic White was some kind of cream or yellowy shade can instantly be dismissed.

Olympic White was the Fender colour that, through the 'surf' era, was most commonly garnished with both a tortoiseshell scratchplate and a white headstock face that matched the guitar body. Black and Sunburst guitars (especially offset contour models) also commonly shipped with tortoise plates in the '60s, but not matching headstocks. And other 'surf' colours frequently got matching headstocks, but not so commonly a shell plate.

With that said, there are loads of Olympic White Fenders from the early 'sixties with celluloid-nitrate "green guards" and standard maple headstocks. Olympic White was just more likely than any other colour to get the shell + matching headstock combo.


The classic mid 1960s look of modestly yellowed Olympic White on a Fender Jaguar. This is the effect I believe Fender Japan's 1980s "Olympic White" sought to duplicate, although puzzlingly, they focused it on contemporary guitars, and not the vintage range.

CONFUSION CENTRAL

Olympic White was dropped from the Fender colour range in 1981, and replaced by Arctic White - initially one of the International Colours.

Olympic White then essentially returned in 1982 with the birth of the Vintage Reissue range. However, as applied to Vintage Reissues the colour was billed as Vintage White by Fender USA and given a different ID number from the original Olympic White.

The whole scenario then became massively confusing, as there were soon three basic variants on the Olympic White theme, and Fender Japan sometimes used different terms from the US to describe the same colour - or at least the same intended colour. Brace yourself...

The three colours - and I'm using Fender Japan's terminology here because they were less confusing than Fender USA - were Vintage White, Olympic White, and Yellow White.

To my eye... "Vintage White" was an attempt at simulating the original Olympic White as it would have looked when it was new. The colour called "Olympic White" was a mild concession to popular opinion, and presented a mildly aged Olympic White which, by the 1980s, had become more synonymous with Olympic White than actual Olympic White. "Yellow White" was a heavily yellowed (or aged) take on an old Olympic White finish with dramatically yellowed top coats.

Adding to the confusion, Fender USA guitars sporting what Fender Japan described as "Yellow White", could also appear under the "Vintage White" heading. The Malmsteen signature Strat for example. Fender Japan did not produce a guitar with the Malmsteen signature, but they did make a version of the model, with 1970s spec and DiMarzio HS pickups. That guitar's white-derived finish was catalogued as "Yellow White". The US Malmsteen came in basically the same colour, but billed as "Vintage White". So aside from the lack of consistency between Fender US and Fender Japan, there was more than one version of "Vintage White" coming out of Fender USA.


The "Vintage White" finish used by Fender Japan on its early '60s Jazz Bass reissue was as close to the original, "as new" Olympic White as you could get.

And pushing the confusion into the realm of chaos, any of the 1980s finishes could still turn quite dramatically yellow over time, so today it can be difficult to tell which 1980s Fenders simulated the true Olympic White finish, which ones simulated mildly aged Olympic White, and which ones simulated the mega-yellowed Olympic White.

But broadly, pretty much anything white coming out of Fender Japan that wasn't a Vintage Reissue wore the finish called "Olympic White", which in my opinion was a mildly aged, creamy take on the colour. That included the Standard, Contemporary and (non-vintage-reissue) Squier stuff.

The MIJ Vintage Reissues, i.e. '57 Strat and '62 Strat, '68 Hendrix Strat, Jazzmaster, Jaguar, etc, wore the finish called "Vintage White", which in my view was as close as damn-it to Olympic White as new.

Exceptions included the Mustang reissue and the Malmsteen-ised '70s Strat, both of which were Yellow White, simulating heavily aged Olympic White.

American Strats followed more or less the same principle, except the colours were less consistently labelled, and the Standard Strats, Strat Plus models, etc, were Arctic White, not Olympic White. Bizarrely, Fender USA's Arctic White was more in keeping with the original Olympic White than the colour Fender Japan were calling Olympic White. Told you it was massively confusing.


A heavily, but not untypically, yellowed matching headstock on an original custom colour Olympic White '65 Jazzmaster.

TASTES AND TRENDS


Original Olympic White - Fender Colour ID number 505 - survived the significant changes CBS made to the finish range when they took over Fender in 1965. But alongside Black, it also survived the dramatically changing aesthetic tastes of the 1970s, which saw all other remnant 1950s and 1960s colours bar the standard Sunburst and Blonde dropped in favour of the then intensely popular natural wood.

Olympic White's brief interruption in availability finally came with the arrival of the badly-received International Colours in 1981. That was the list that resulted in Capri Orange, Sahara Taupe and Maui Blue instruments lingering on dealer's racks for months on end (and eventually succumbing to huge price cuts) because no one liked the tacky shades. In '83 you could get a "new" (i.e. '81 or '82 but still unsold because Capri Orange) USA Tele for twenty quid more than a Squier. Thankfully, the International colours did include Arctic White, which was not really different enough from original Olympic White to convince most guitarists that there had been a change. The replacement of Olympic White at that point was almost certainly more about wanting to groove in with the international theme than wanting rid of original Olympic White the actual colour.

And given that "Vintage White" (i.e. original Olympic White in its "as new" guise) was in stock on vintage reissues before the last of the early 'eighties Olympic White standard Strats sold out, it's fair to say that Olympic White never really went away. Black has by far the most illustrious history of all the Fender colours, running from 1950 until the present day - even though it was only available by special celeb request until '57. Longer than Sunburst. Longer than Blonde. And rigidly stable in hue through the years. But that would have been a tweet - not a blog article. So Olympic White it was.

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