How Well Have 1980s Stratocasters Matured?

Bob Leggitt | Sunday 25 April 2021
Vintage Reissue Stratocasters

Well, we're here. This is it.

This is the distant future that the 1980s guitar magazines talked about. The point at which the guitars we were buying brand new back then, would have fully matured. In the thick of the Thatcher/Reagan era, everyone with a role in keeping guitar retail buoyant wanted us to believe that a vintage replica Strat - be it a Fender, a Squier, a Tokai or a Fernandes - would one day hit parity with a pre-CBS Fender original, as it was back then.

It was an attractive thought. But has the promise held up? Are '80s Strats as good today as 1950s or 1960s Strats were in the days when FM synthesis ruled the keyboard world? Or did the guitar sales machine of the 'eighties only sell us a vessel of empty propaganda?...

On paper, there were few reasons why a decent vintage replica Strat built in the 1980s, or in more recent years for that matter, should not mature with the majesty of a genuine '54 to '64 model. Same woods, same metals, same dimensions, same guitar, right? One might think so. But in practice, seemingly minor differences such as the more modern production and finishing methods could have a huge impact on the ageing potential of a Strat, and any other guitar.

This was recognised at the time. The guitar magazines of the '80s were honest in telling us that a polyester or polyurethane finish was not the same as a 1950s multi-coating of nitro-cellulose lacquer. But not all '80s vintage Strat replicas were poly-finished. At the high end of the respective vintage replica ranges, manufacturers even duplicated the more expensive cellulose spray job. If you paid enough, you had a right to expect a vintage Strat replica to age in exactly the same way as a vintage original. Or did you?

Quality of wood and intensity of use aside, the finish is the single most important factor in how a guitar matures. And it's less an issue of composition; more an issue of thickness. Yes, if you're talking finishes, less is definitely more.

The thickness of the finish was a key maturity-related difference between two extremely popular vintage Strat replicas of 1984: the Tokai TST-60 and the Squier JV SST-45. Both guitars had poly finishes, but the Tokai's was very thin, whereas the Squier's was a markedly thicker skin. Technically, the SST-45's finish was more durable, more stable, and it took a more aggressive prod with a screwdriver to dink. The TST-60's finish was more sensitive to sudden temperature change, could crack more easily, and could sink in sympathy with the wood grain - even early on in life.

Whilst cracking and sinking are not good in a showroom scenario, such properties did render the Tokai finish more reminiscent of a pre-CBS Fender cellulose paint job than the body-dressing of its rival the Squier. My '84 TST-60's finish had cracked by 1988, and in those four years the guitar's tone had gained a noticeably deeper bottom end. Whether or not you're impressed by cracks, sinking and/or de-glossing in a finish, a fuller tone is definitely an improvement.

So what about the nitro-cellulose finishes on the Fender USA Vintage Reissues? In my experience they're a lot slower to start throwing wobblies than those super-thin Tokai poly jobs. That's most likely down to the way the Fender bodies were prepped. The nitro finish on my Fender USA '57 reissue is suitably thin, but it took a couple of decades to show its first signs of cracking, and today, at the age of 27 (the age of a real '57 Strat in 1984), it still doesn't look as reminiscent of a pre-CBS Fender finish as my Tokai TST-60's did at the age of four.

Finish properties

Above, I've compiled some finish properties. Top left, a very heavily crazed genuine 1960s cellulose lacquer job, for reference. Top right, cracks subtly appearing in the nitro-cellulose on a 27-year-old USA '57 Strat Vintage Reissue. You can see from the bridge reflection that the finish still has high gloss. Bottom left, a thin poly finish on a Tokai TST-50, clearly sunken in sympathy with the wood grain and de-glossed, but not noticeably cracked. This kind of effect is probably down to a lack of wood preparation and priming, but to me it looks more “vintage” than the USA '57 Reissue, which actually has a nitro finish. And bottom right, a Squier MIJ Strat body still gleaming away as it did decades ago. No evidence of cracking, sinking or de-glossing.

And soundwise? Well, the USA '57 Reissue's tone never showed the quick burst of sonic evolution as exhibited by the Tokai TST-60, but the USA Strat sounded better straight out of the shop, so the likelihood is that its wood was more thoroughly dried out before manufacture. The USA Reissue has slowly rounded and deepened further in tone over the long term, as has the Tokai. They're both fantastic guitars today.

So Strats can mature visually and tonally at wildly different rates. I can also vouch for a number of Squier and Fender MIJ reissue bodies having aged tonally through the decades. Visually, these poly-finished instruments still look more or less as they did when they left the shop. Some people may like that; others may want a finish that evolves over time.

I do, however, have one Fender MIJ Telecaster with a sunburst poly finish now developing small cracks. I've noticed them for the first time this year with the well-cared-for but well-used beauty approaching its 32nd birthday. But the guitar has long since reached the magical age of tonal maturity. If anyone ever doubts that '80s Fenders can attain true vintage tone I will forever present that totally stock Tele as Exhibit A. The richness of the sound is seductive beyond words.

Another traditional factor in guitar ageing has been the weakening of the magnets in the pickups, which helps to subtract the brittle quality so synonymous with a traditional Fender Strat. This factor, however, is hackable, thanks to the pickup aftermarket. We can get pickups with pre-aged magnets to “de-glassify” a new Strat. And gladly, we can also get pickups with acceptably strong magnets to restore the bite in really old guitars whose original slugs have over-weakened.

Although pickups play a huge part in the sonic personality of a guitar, for the above reason they're not as critical as the ageing potential of the body.

I'll wrap up with a list-form summary of the main differences between the way '50s and early '60s Strats age, and the way '80s Strats age.

  • All good quality wooden-bodied Strats will mature in tone. I've never had one whose sound hasn't improved over the years. If a brand new Stratocaster sounds good in the shop today, just remember that unless you break it or leave it in a swamp, this is almost certainly the worst tone it will ever have.
  • In my experience, heavily using a Strat will mature its tone more quickly. Some guitar gurus have put this down to vibration within the wood accelerating the evolution.

  • Thin finishes are more conducive to the ageing process than thick finishes. It's probably no coincidence that some of the best sounding vintage Strats of all time have been the ones with little or no paint left on them. And less preparation of the wood will mean that some types of thin poly finish sink down and lose their glossy sheen. Some early Squier JV series Strats have finishes that sink and de-gloss in this way. It depends on the exact model designation and the type of finish used.
  • Rapid temperature change encourages cracking in finishes, and whilst it's less likely, poly finishes can crack as well as nitro-cellulose. Poly finishes can also discolour, with clear top coats yellowing in sunlight, in a similar way to nitro-cellulose. However, some (and I do stress some) poly finishes, bizarrely, yellow more under the pickguard than they do in the light.
  • '80s maple necks will wear through on the fingerboard pretty much like the originals if you play them enough. In my experience, the rosewood fingerboard variants don't exhibit anything like the same yellowing of the dot markers as a real 1960s example. That goes for both the 'clay' and 'pearl' dots. 'Clay' would apply to the Fender and Squier '62 reissues. 'Pearl' would apply to the Tokai '64 replicas.
  • Fender MIJ and Squier export Strats had their Fender logos sealed under the headstock lacquer, whereas the Fender USA Reissues had the logo placed on top of the lacquer like the pre-CBS Fender guitars. Although most people would not want to lose any part of the Fender logo, many vintage originals did sustain logo damage during restringing, and that's an effect a Squier or MIJ replica will not easily duplicate.
  • As regards the actual potential of the tone, the main difference between a real 1950s or early 1960s Strat and an '80s replica is the likely quality of the body wood. One would expect the alder used on a genuine 1957 Stratocaster to be of a higher grade than the alder used on, say, a 1987 Fender MIJ or USA '57 Vintage Reissue. But that doesn't mean an original will always sound better after three decades of use.
So to address the opening question: are vintage replica Strats built in the 1980s as good today as genuine 1950s or 1960s Strats were when those '80s Strats were built?... There's no definitive answer. Can they be as good? Tonally, most definitely. But visually, the '80s replicas often need a fair bit of help to emulate a pre-CBS beauty. The plastics of the '80s were different from those of the '50s and early '60s, as were the finishing processes and the pickup-winding regime. But the sound of the guitars evolves in the same way. Broadly speaking, take the paint off, and with the help of aftermarket parts the difference in ageing potential will be negligible.

But don't take the paint off. I've never done that without later regretting it.