Candy Apple Red: A History of Fender's Queen of Custom Colours

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 1 April 2021 |

Candy Apple Red Fender Stratocaster with matching headstock
Is there a warmer finish anywhere on Earth? Candy Apple Red in all its glory on a Stratocaster, complete with the 1960s fashion statement of a matching headstock.

Many a 1950s Stratocaster or Telecaster replica has glammed up a guitar store rack in the famous Candy Apple Red metallic finish - one of the best loved aesthetics for Fender-style guitars. But not a single one of those replicas - even Fender's own - could be considered authentic. Nope, you would not have found a Candy Apple Red Fender guitar in the 1950s, because the unusual but deceptively conventional-looking finish didn't enter Fender's custom colour listings until 1963...

BACKGROUND


In the '50s, all Fender electric guitars had a preset standard finish. For the Strat and Jazzmaster it was Sunburst; for the Tele it was Blond. Only a small minority of instruments were produced in solid colours, nearly always at the request of the purchaser, nearly always at a price premium, and there was no selection chart of options. The references for colours at the time were photos of guitars in catalogues, samples at shows, instruments celebrity guitarists were already playing, or simply the imagination of the person placing the order.

But at the dawn of the '60s, Fender introduced a chart of fourteen solid colours, finally setting into stone the available options. Even though the list was standardised, the finishes were still described as “custom colors”, because they were only applied by Fender on request. Even in the 1960s, if you were ordering a Strat from Fender you'd automatically get Sunburst unless you specifically expressed otherwise and paid a surcharge.

However, once the custom colours were properly listed, dealers began to pre-order finishes they believed would sell, without necessarily having a customer waiting. Therefore, one could walk into a guitar shop and buy a custom-coloured Fender without making a special order. But the extra cost would still be paid by the dealer, and would inevitably be passed on to the customer.

The surcharge, cited by Fender as a 5% flat rate, would technically amount to around $15 in the early 1960s. But by the time the guitars had gone through dealers (especially after export), highly desirable finishes could add up to 10% to the cost in the real world. In 1962, when the UK was desperate for Hank Marvin-style Fiesta Red Strats, a sunburst retailed at £160, while the red retailed at £173. The source for that little nugget was Guitarist magazine, May 2000, and they noted that the £13 difference - over 8% - amounted to a fortnight's typical wages at the time. Translated back into US currency it would have been about $23.50, on top of the US Sunburst retail price of $289.

The surcharge was quite an irony, since Fender could get away with shipping less attractive wood under a solid colour, and could have used custom colours as a way to save money on materials. But demand creates its own pricing dynamics.

Candy Apple Red was not present on the first Fender custom colour charts. It made its entrance in '63 as a replacement for Shell Pink, which had been roundly snubbed by guitarists, and which actually achieved infamy as the first custom colour to be dropped from the Fender chart.

Shell Pink Fender Stratocaster
Shell Pink. If this were a geniune 1962 Strat I could probably buy a pub with the proceeds.

Shell Pink approximated the hue of an old-style sticking plaster, although I'm sure not on purpose. It wasn't particularly rousing on a new guitar, although it does look suitably vintage with aged plastic parts - the guise in which it finally reappeared in the second half of the 1990s, courtesy of the Crafted in Japan '62 Strat reissue. Because virtually no one ordered in Shell Pink, genuine pre-CBS Fender guitars in the colour are spectacularly rare. If you see one randomly go up for sale, the overwhelming likelihood is that it's a refinish or a full-on fake.

Conversely, by 1963, five existing metallic Fender finishes had made quite a name for themselves. They were doubly appealing, since they not only looked flash - they were also associated with glamorous motor vehicles of the day. Fender's original metallics - Lake Placid Blue, Burgundy Mist, Sherwood Green, Shoreline Gold and Inca Silver - came “off the peg” from motor trade supplier Du Pont. All were Lucite (acrylic lacquer) paints except for Sherwood Green, which was a Duco (enamel lacquer) paint. All of these metallics contained a so-called bronzing powder within the colour itself, so the application of the actual aesthetic was a one-stage process. Three-stage including undercoat and clear lacquer.

The metallics were very popular. Shoreline Gold - a colour that pre-dated the chart - was pretty much the top-selling Fender custom colour of the late 1950s. But the existing metallics did have one problem. They weren't mutable. If Fender wanted the same metallic effect, but in a more “guitarry” shade, that “off the peg” system just wasn't going to deliver. Fender knew that a vibrant, rich red could grab the attention of guitarists, and that the metallic effect would really push its appeal into overdrive...

CANDY APPLE RED HITS THE SCENE


Fender guitars in Candy Apple Red

They were in luck. A high-end automobile customiser and hot-rodder by the name of Joe Bailon had already come up with a process that sidestepped the stock limitations of the one-stage aesthetic. Using Bailon's Candy Apple Red method, it was possible to apply a lustrous metallic red finish as a multi-stage process, with the colour and the glitz on separate layers.

The idea was based around a two-stage aesthetic process - four-stage with undercoat and clear lacquer. It worked like this...

Apply the primer. Then put down a neutral-shade metallic coat - i.e silver. Next, apply a multi-coat, transparent dye-style colour layer over the silver, similar to the kind of paint used in a sunburst. Finally, seal it all under clear nitro-cellulose, fine-sand it flat, cut-polish it to a high gloss, and you have a truly gorgeous metallic red with an extra dimension of lustre. The metallic complexion of the silver shines through the translucent red, and beneath the clear lacquer it looks like a rich, unified, metallic red.

That's the exact process Fender used. Metallic silver, red see-through dye-paint, then clear lacquer. To begin with, at least.

Forward from 1965, when a major shake-up hit the Fender finish range, the manufacturer switched the silver base for a gold base. The CBS version of Candy Apple Red was thus translucent red over gold, as opposed to the pre-CBS translucent red over silver. I can never see much difference, but some argue that the CBS version looks a little more browny, and it's widely accepted that the pre-CBS (silver) version is more desirable. On old guitars it's fairly academic anyway, because the top coats yellow at different rates, so with ageing, a pre-CBS could end up with a more golden-brown look than a post-CBS.

One interesting question I was asked recently, is: did Fender give Shell Pink the boot so they could accommodate Candy Apple Red, or did they scramble Candy Apple Red onto the menu so they could dismiss the unpopular Shell Pink?

There's evidence for both. Keeping fourteen colours on the original Fender custom chart made sense - not least because of the symmetrical, digestible presentation format of the chart itself. Throughout the 1960s, all changes to the chart were switches. Nothing was removed without a replacement taking its spot, and nothing was added without a deletion to make way. The chart still had fourteen selections in 1969, although only seven of the originals remained by then.

Shell Pink was pretty grim as a hue, and guitarists clearly didn't like it. In fact, from at least as early as 1962 Fender could be found using their Shell Pink stocks as undercoat, so there's no question that there would at least have been some attention paid to the idea of binning it.

But equally, there was a buzz surrounding Candy Apple Red in '63, fuelled in the grass roots of motor-mania, but no doubt driven harder by the success of Emil “Little E” O'Connor's rock 'n' roll / surf hybrid song Candy Apple Red Impala, the previous year. So the switch of Shell Pink for Candy Apple Red made sense from all angles. Fender specifically wanted Shell Pink out, and specifically wanted Candy Apple Red in.

Fender Telecaster Thinline Candy Apple Red
One of the joys of Candy Apple Red is its reaction to different lighting angles. It can look deep maroon at one angle, and bright red at another.

OUT OF THE PICTURE


Candy Apple Red was de-listed by Fender forward from 1974, due to a crash in demand for glitzy and in-ya-face finishes, and a huge boom in demand for natural woods. All other CBS metallics except Lake Placid Blue had been dropped between 1969 and 1972. Namely, Firemist Gold, Firemist Silver, Charcoal Frost, Ocean Turquoise, Teal Green and Ice Blue. Lake Placid Blue was dropped alongside Candy Apple Red. It's most ironic that the demise of metallic finishes should have continued through the ascent and heyday of glam rock. But there was an underlying quest to leave behind the trappings of the '60s, and in the early '70s there was nothing that screamed “SIXTIES!” like a 'loud' guitar finish.

BACK IN THE PICTURE


In 1980, Fender revived Candy Apple Red, alongside Lake Placid Blue, on Gregg Wilson and Dan Armstrong's special Stratocaster update “The Strat”. The classic finish then appeared as one of just five non-sunburst colours for Fender USA's '57 and '62 Stratocaster reissues in 1982.

CAR was not initially available in the Fender Japan export range of '82, '83 and '84. But post 1984 it was rolled out across MIJ exports including the '57 Strat, the '62 Strat, the Jazzmaster, the Jaguar and the Custom Telecaster. From 1990 it also appeared on the copiously-exported MIJ '50s Telecaster. These vintage reissues observed the correct pre-CBS version of the Candy Apple finish, with a silver metallic base. But they weren't authentic because the model years pre-dated the introduction of Candy Apple Red.

In the 1980s, Candy Apple Red was not listed as an option for any Fender USA Stratocaster other than "The Strat" and the Vintage Reissues, and it was not listed for any 1980s Fender USA Telecaster at all. This would perhaps seem quite odd, given that Fender rivals such as Levinson were milking the colour at warp factor. But Candy Apple Red was not the easiest finish to apply, and the decision not to list it for USA Standard Strats and Teles (significantly less expensive than the USA reissues and the Levinson Blades) may have been down to the balance of budget against quality. As their budgeting became more strained, some MIJ reissues exposed the patchiness that could occur with a Candy Apple Red finish when the budget didn't afford enough time to apply it properly.

WHY ARE CANDY APPLE RED FENDERS NOT IN MORE PLENTIFUL SUPPLY TODAY?


Fender Japan flew the Candy Apple Red flag at full mast through to the late 1990s, but after the demise of Fender Japan on the global market, the prevalence of CAR Fenders plummeted. In more recent times, there have been prohibitive strands to the production of Candy Apple Red Fenders. Overwhelmingly the biggest issue at the high end of the range has been the combination of these factors...

  • As a vintage colour, Candy Apple Red has most appeal to vintage fans.
  • Vintage fans have a preference for 1950s and early 1960s models.
  • Candy Apple Red was not used on Fenders made prior to 1963.
  • Vintage fans demand accuracy and authenticity.

Fender Japan '50s Telecaster in Candy Apple Red

At the lower end, the core issue is economics. If a three-stage metallic sells as well as a four-stage metallic, there's no point in going through the extra stage. Ultimately, Candy Apple Red was a lavish process designed by a man who aesthetically garnished some of the world's most lavish motor vehicles. It was not meant for budget musical instruments, and there's always going to be an economic bugbear in applying it where budget is an issue.

So why did Fender Japan export it in such volume, and why did they use it on models it had never originally adorned?

Well they didn't in the first instance. In the early phase when the MIJ export reissues were budget guitars, the red option was Fiesta Red - which was an older custom colour than Candy Apple Red, and thus authentic for the '62 Strat (though debatable for the '57).

But forward from 1985, with a massive price hike and headroom in the budget, Fender Japan followed the lead of the Fender USA '57 and '62 Strat reissues, and ushered in Candy Apple Red. Then Japan took it up a few steps, expanding the legendary finish to other models in the range. None of the Japanese CAR models I listed earlier were ever shipped in the colour as vintage originals, and that applied to the two Candy Apple USA Strat reissues too. So why use that finish?

Fender evidently saw Candy Apple Red as a very special aesthetic at the time. They'd offered it as one of just two initial select finishes on their upmarket behemoth "The Strat", which was not a vintage reissue, but was the first Stratocaster since 1967 to turn the tide back towards the vintage aura of the small headstock. Coupling this with a newly restored white (as opposed to late '70s black) scratchplate, "The Strat" turned the tide and was the forerunner of the Vintage Reissue range. Porting this queen of metallic finishes over to the actual Vintage Reissues made sense as a seduction tactic.

The market was not as knowledgeable or as obsessive about finish authenticity as it became later. And copyists like Tokai and Fernandes were seducing hard with beautiful metallic finishes, generally unconcerned about precise period compatibility. It was a commercial war. And Fender needed to prize the buyers' eyes off those copies and onto the Fender display. If any finish could do that, it was Candy Apple Red.

It worked. And after the Fender Japan rollout, the colour's popularity with dealers created a pressure to maintain supply - even as budgets got tighter again. There were some dealers who only ordered certain MIJ Fenders in Candy Apple Red, despite other shades being available. Whatever the initial reasons for putting CAR back onto the menu, that pretty much locked Fender Japan into retaining it.

It's still possible to get Candy Apple Red Fenders, but the days of walking into the local guitar store and routinely being greeted by a whole line of matching CAR vintage replicas are over. And sadly, they're probably not coming back.
Bob 'Interesting' Leggitt is a print-published writer, multi-instrumentalist and twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, Google-certified digital marketer, image manipulation expert, virtual musical instrument builder, "Twitter detective", and author of successful blogs such as Planet Botch, Twirpz and Tape Tardis. | [Twitter] | [Contact Details]