The Original Fender Jeff Beck Signature Stratocaster

Bob Leggitt | Saturday 10 September 2022

1991 Fender Jeff Beck Signature Strat in Surf Green

The definitive 1991 production model of the Jeff Beck Signature Strat sitting pretty in Surf Green... Nice.

If ever an early 'nineties dream could end with the phrase "...and then I saw the price", the original Fender Jeff Beck Signature Strat would surely have been the prime subject.

If you don't recall the guitar pricing climate of the early 1990s, I can assure you that two hundred quid north of a grand for a brand new Strat was a pretty eyewatering sum to be slapping down onto the counter.

For comparison, as the £1,203 Jeff Beck Strat underwent its UK launch in 1991, an American Standard Strat would set you back £489 from a London mail order house, and an authentic USA Vintage Reissue with nitro-cellulose finish would cost £699. Just three years earlier you could even have bought a pre-CBS vintage original Strat for £1,200. So it was safe to assume, on price alone, that the polyurethane-finished Jeff Beck Signature Strat was one for the man's diehard fans. But if you ask someone with Jeff Beck's impeccable taste to map out your guitar spec, it can also be assumed the result will be a damn fine instrument.

Made in the good ol' US of A, the alder-bodied JB Strat started its journey in the late 1980s, when the Fender Custom Shop's Jay Black crafted a visually-striking, Surf Green, Lace Sensor-clad workhorse for Jeff. The original was delivered to the one-time Yardbird during the recording of his 1989 Guitar Shop album. Nearly all of the Strat sounds on that album come from a vintage 'partscaster', put together by Seymour Duncan and centred around a real 1959 Strat body and a real 1960 Strat neck. But the Surf Green Custom Shop newbie made a last minute entrance, arriving in time to stamp its authority onto the second half of Where Were You.

That was the prototype's only contribution to the record, but the new guitar was vital for at least part of that track. Jeff told Guitar Player magazine that he could not in fact have completed the recording without the new Fender's Wilkinson roller nut...

"I waited until Fender came across with this metal nut before I finished the song. We couldn't get it finished, because that last harmonic is open, and the [vintage] nut was just killing it; halfway through the upstroke, it died."

Jeff had actually tried a Jackson guitar with locking trem for the sequence in question, but it hadn't worked out. Apparently, only a real Strat with the Wilkinson nut would do.

The green Custom Shop prototype instantly became JB's main instrument, appearing extensively in stage performances. Its most notable early public duty was the Fire Meets Fury tour - an autumn 1989 series of American live dates featuring Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan. This first version of the Beck Strat was not identical to the final Signature release, but it was synonymous enough to build a recognisable association.

The next step in the story was the development of a standardised spec for a publicly-available version, followed by display at the 1990 trade shows. At that stage, the colour had been switched to Canary Yellow, and the JB was only being mooted as a Custom Shop special. But reaction at the shows was so positive that Fender decided to set up for full production. After a few handshakes and a "Let's dump the yellow" from Beck, the die was cast. The original production Fender Jeff Beck Signature Stratocaster was born: initially available in either Surf Green, Midnight Purple, Vintage White, or Black.

Whilst the pickup arrangement and subtle push switch were a talking point, the real hullabaloo related to the guitar's "baseball bat" neck. In a Guitarist magazine review from the April '92 Nigel Tufnel issue, Eddie Allen said...

"I've never played a Strat with a neck as thick as this. Come to think of it, I've never played any guitar with a neck as thick as this!"

It's worth noting that the deep neck profile was actually considered by Fender to provide better tone as well as giving the feel that JB sought.

And the neck profile? Well, Beck guided the specification himself, but The Guitar Magazine's Dave Burrluck spoke to Fender about the guitar when preparing a review for the January '92 issue, and quoted its original craftsman Jay Black on the finer detail...

"We ended up taking the largest template from '54 with the least amount of taper. Then we added a little more shoulder on the bass side; on the treble side we put just the slightest amount of 'V'."

So there you go. From the original luthier's mouth. Despite all the drama of "OMG it's a baseball bat!", the neck actually only measures 0.8mm deeper at the 12th fret than the USA standard equivalent of the day, with widths almost equal. And although Eddie Allen described the neck as thick, he liberally praised its comfort. Dave Burrluck also made the comment that the fingerboard edge on the JB was generously radiused, which added comfort as compared with the sharper fingerboard edge of the USA Standard. A good point. It's not always about the size.

The neck was honey-tinted for a vintage-reminiscent look. But interestingly, whilst the early Custom Shop samples emerged with a vintage spaghetti Fender logo on the headstock, the production models carried the standard silver Fender logo of the late '80s / early '90s, with an N1 serial number underneath. There was no serial number on the spag-logo'd Custom Shop headstocks. As well as gracing the 1990 NAMM show, at least one of the Custom Shop jobs was used as an early review model, and a picture of it turned up in The Guitar Magazine's initial assessment. By this time - late 1991 - it had been refinished from its original yellow into Jeff's preferred Surf Green.

Neck aside, the JB Signature could be considered close sistren of the 1990 USA Strat Ultra - introduced a little earlier, but very much the topline production Strat as the JB was making its way to market. Shared appointments included the standard fulcrum vibrato, TBX tone controls, Wilkinson roller nut, Sperzel locking tuners, satin neck finish, and a four-pickup electrics arsenal. The prices weren't that different either. The majestic Ultra cost £1,163, but featured highly-figured wood.

However, whilst the pickup arrangements looked similar at a glance, they were not the same. The Ultra had two red Lace Sensors at the bridge, a gold in the middle and a blue at the neck. Meanwhile, the JB Strat's Sensors were all gold - a duo at the bridge, essentially performing as a humbucker, splittable for a classic Strat bridge sound via the small push-button on the scratchplate. The colours of the Fender Lace Sensor were hard to identify from distance, since all Sensors had white covers, and only the colour of the subtle branding imprint varied.

The Beck's all-gold version is more to my personal taste. Gold Sensors rendered classic Strat output and tonality, whereas the other colours were hotter and fatter, incrementing in stages, with red as the hottest and fattest. In sonic character, the Strat Ultra was an upgrade on the '80s 'Contemporary' models. The Beck was a more authentic sounding Stratocaster, with what amounted to an on-demand regular-output humbucker tone at the bridge. Near perfect for a Strat fan.

So, you've run into an original, early '90s Jeff Beck Signature Strat on the secondhand market, and some mad fool will let you have it on the cheap. What's the right way to use this beast of an instrument?...

Well, to use it as Jeff Beck used his Surf Green sidekick just over three decades ago you first need to learn to attack the strings with your bare fingers. You'd use a pick for some elements, but to get the range of tonalities, there has to be some direct fingerwork. And you need to 'give it some', so to speak. Interviewed alongside SRV for Guitar Player during the Fire Meets Fury tour, JB said...

"For the snap, I'm hooking under the strings to the point where it's so violent that the springs are making the bridge vibrate."

Don't hold back!

Equipment-wise you want a Fender Twin amp, and a Rat pedal. The Rat produces high saturation, but also covers all the territory on the way up. In the same interview, JB reported...

"I use the Rat all the time, because it's infinitely variable from clean to full distortion."

Finally, you'll be wanting the correct string gauges. JB used .009 to .046 at the time.

So now you just need to find the mad fool wth the cheap Fender USA Stratocaster model code 010-9600. Unfortunately, I can't help with that bit.