Hello again. I’m completing this on day seven of the insane Russian invasion of Ukraine, which gives some salutary perspective on how fortunate we are to be able to dwell on such pleasant and peaceful matters here.
Although my collection leans heavily towards Gibson, in truth I’m more a Fender player.
This has its roots in my early heroes, mostly British blues boom Les Paul players with Marshall amps. It’s kind of amusing that for electric guitarists, Gibsons were the sound of blues, dark guitars overdriving bright Marshall amps with characteristic high-mid bump, while Fender started as bright guitars mainly driving then-darker tweed amps.
I still prefer the sheer playability of Gibson necks, especially older ones with more meat, but the increased string tension and snap of Fender’s longer scale and the clarity of single coil pickups frankly suit my playing style better.
The guitar I take out to gig most regularly is an unprepossessing ‘73 blonde Tele with rosewood fingerboard and a few vintage-sympathetic mods over time. Nothing special in collecting terms but a great-playing and completely reliable instrument.
But in this piece, I’m going to focus on my Stratocaster, which I’ve had since 1974.
My first ‘proper’ guitar was a ’72 Gibson SG Deluxe, so I thought I had the humbucker things covered. How little I knew then.
The lead players in most of my favourite bands toggled between a Gibson and a Fender, usually a Les Paul and a Strat, so when I got a job and an income, I naturally went looking for one.
A glossy new Strat was something over £300 back then in ’74 and the new guitars just weren’t that appealing. Pre-owned ones were also cheaper, nudging £250.
The best place to find such instruments cheap were the classified ad pages of the music press, notably industry favourite The Melody Maker, which was then a mandatory weekly purchase for news, reviews, listings, and gear.
The market was pretty lively, but one caught my eye, not least for its price. I had to cadge a lift across London from Northwest where I lived to Southeast where it was, over an hour even back then.
It wasn’t well looked after, pretty dirty and I thought quite ‘worn’ but by then I knew how to clean a guitar up and adjust it. And it sounded pretty good, not that I knew quite how good at the time.
I didn’t really think about the colour. Custom colours weren’t much of a thing in UK back then, I just wanted a Strat. I agreed a price of £170, which was a lot of money to my 19-year-old self. The same guy also had a cherry burst ’60 Les Paul for £300, but I could sooner have flown home on my own wings as bought that too. Nor did I yet know how much I’d want one.
So, home came the Strat in its cheap, nasty non-original flat case. The back of neck really was well-worn and encrusted at the ‘cowboy chord’ end. It must have once belonged to a jobbing rhythm player in a dance band, pumping out the chord vamps.
I had to use some pretty extreme measures, but it cleaned up and the feel of the neck? Heaven. It didn’t take long for us to bond as it made me play completely differently to the Gibson.
At that point, the body had begun to check but the top coat was only slightly yellowed. Shoreline Gold out of the factory is a sort of rich cappuccino color. It was sprayed over white primer whereas I think the later Firemist Gold finish had a red undercoat, making it richer and stronger.
That yellowing has deepened steadily over the decades, so the guitar is now a similarly deep hue to the ’54 wraparound Goldtop which I’ve yet to feature.
The body is November ’61, the neck February ’62 and the pots are of the same period. The Fender headstock decal was damaged and remains so to this day. Everything except the trem arm is original.
Sometime in the eighties, the bridge pickup went open circuit. On the recommendation of a luthier friend, it went to an obscure Eastern European gentleman called Barat somewhere in northern England whose work was spoken of in hushed tones. Perhaps a reader knows more about him, in which case I’d love to know?
The rewind was inexpensive but very good. The sound matches the other two original pickups perfectly and is just hot enough.
At the same time, I swapped the original three-way selector switch (still in the case) for a five-way as I use the in-between tones quite a bit.
While we’re on this: a word of caution about ‘original solder joints’, much revered by collectors and touted by dealers. Contrary to the myths they perpetrate, it is possible to age solder and its immediate surroundings imperceptibly. Just ask an artisan who works with stained glass…
All luthiers and dealers, especially the vultures who plunder lesser guitars like ES175s for parts for more expensive ones like Les Pauls, know but don’t admit to this. So when someone starts banging on about original solder joints, it’s time for a pinch of salt. ‘Beautiful plumage’ etc for fans of Monty Python…
I also had the heavily-corroded bridge saddles cleaned up and replated at the same time.
I’m light on my guitars but eventually the frets wore down so I had it refretted around 2005 by Bill Puplett, surely one of the best luthiers in the world and certainly the best this side of the pond.
And that is the instrument you see here. It’s got a very big neck for a Strat which suits my hands, and in my opinion, contributes significantly to its strong tone too.
I believe a lot of a guitar’s tone lives in its neck. There are no better examples of this than early 50s Fenders which all seem to sound incredible and whose old maple necks feel almost like stone.
It gets a lot of use. Most Strat players tell me it’s the best they played. I’m not sure about that as I’ve played some great ones, but it is certainly among the best.
It was my first, and for many years, my only Strat. Much later, I thought I’d seek a ’57, another favoured year for collectors. I played a number and they all sounded great clean but horrible when driven, too shrill.
I solved that need in a practical way by finding a pre-owned Eric Johnson series one model. Word at the time was they were the best Fenders for years and modelled on EJs ’57.
It is indeed a very good guitar. Once I’d had the lacquer goop stripped from the v-profile neck, the frets replaced with slightly larger ones and, surprisingly, the pickups changed.
I’d expected signature pickups from EJ of all people to be great but they suffered from the same problems I’d encountered with real ‘57s. Thankfully, a set of Lollars made it great.
The only other Strat I have is a Mexican one which accompanies my Roland GR-55 guitar synth. A perfectly good player but no character whatsoever.
The Stratocaster was introduced on the back of the successful Telecaster in 1954, designed to take advantage of the fifties craze for space and sci-fi, as did contemporary automobile design too.
It was unlike anything before, and it was apparently widely ridiculed at the year’s NAMM trade show, as would Gibson’s Flying V and Explorer a few years later.
Early bodies were usually made of ash, though Leo Fender was a practical and cost-conscious man as well as an industrial genius, so some examples in other woods exist.
The body material changed to alder after a few years, probably because it was easier to source or work, and this remained standard for many years, persisting as Fender was absorbed into the CBS Corporation in ’65.
The belly rout on the guitar’s back also became deeper over time.
Necks were originally maple and acquired a rosewood cap in 1959, though a maple cap remained an option. The rosewood cap was thick with a flat base until 1963, when it became a thinner veneer of consistent depth moulded over a curved neck.
This would have added to production costs, but the word is that too many slab boards aged differently to the maple necks they were attached to and distorted them, whereas the veneers didn’t.
Not mine, which also has a beautiful skunk stripe along its length.
Strats came in two- and then three-tone sunburst as standard. Custom colours were offered and numerous examples of survive, including sparkle finishes, whose popularity was stoked by the Gretsch company which offered some now rare instruments covered in its sparkle drum finishes.
In 1960, the custom colour offer was formalized. 14 colours each a renamed popular auto colour, one of which was Shoreline Gold, introduced on 1959-60 General Motors Pontiac models.
The brighter of the three red options, Fiesta, was popularized when UK pop star Cliff Richard imported the first Strat into the UK for his guitarist, Hank Marvin.
This led to a craze for red Strats in the UK, though most were brought over as sunbursts and oversprayed a slightly inaccurate colour by importers Selmer.
The rarest colour is reputed to be Inca Silver. Fender gave The Beatles matching Sonic blue ones.
True vintage custom colour guitars, especially solid colours, are extremely difficult to validate. Any transparent or semi-transparent finish will reveal the fingerprint of the wood beneath.
This applies mainly to Fenders and from ’63, Gibson’s response, the Firebird, though it also applies to any custom colour instrument. Both companies were known to offer special order colours at a premium, but production and shipping logs often don’t necessarily record the detail.
As we’ve seen from the huge demand for relic’d finishes at every price point, solid colours are easy to apply and age to look credible.
For example, there are reputed to be six original factory black special order Gibson Les Paul double cutaway Juniors in existence. I’ve played the two that live in Austin while working there on Eric Clapton’s Crossroads 2019 project and unsurprisingly they’re as nice as any ’58-60 doublecut.
But I wouldn’t dream of buying one as their scarcity makes them very expensive while the finish is too easy to fake. I’d never be sure of what I was buying.
You might say the same could hold true for this guitar, and you’d be right but for the fact that it has been in my sole, uninterrupted possession since there was little interest in vintage and even less in refinishing for profit.
In truth, the only people who know everything there is to know are those who have handled a lot of instruments over a long time. Long-standing dealers and luthiers.
In this condition and playability, mine’s a pretty valuable guitar these days. I’m honoured for it to have been a big part of my life for so long. And, all being well, a long while yet.
Until next time.