Fender Stratocaster: qualities and characteristics through the years
The Fender Stratocaster is the most popular guitar in the world. In fact, it is the most copied guitar and the most inspiring model for other manufacturers such as Ibanez and Jackson. Its body is basically perfect, ergonomic with a belly and and forearm cuts. The asymmetrical double horn gives you perfect access to the high frets, while also providing a perfect fit and balance for standing guitar playing. Its three-pickup configuration provides great audio versatility. In addition, it has a tremolo bridge that allows to achieve unique tones.
One of the most incredible things is that Leo Fender was not an experienced guitarist. But through close collaboration with professional musicians such as Bill Carson, Rex Gallion, and Freddie Tavares, he developed the industry’s “model” instrument. Thus, the Telecaster was the guitar that started it all, the Stratocaster was the electric guitar that revolutionized the history of music. Since the mid-50’s, the essential bases of the electric guitar have remained unchanged. So much so, that the Telecaster and Stratocaster, unlike the Gibson Les Paul, have been made uninterruptedly since their launch. All this without important changes, although there are variations.
In short, the Stratocaster is guitar perfection, a masterpiece and cornerstone of the modern electric guitar. It was a quantum leap in the development of the most popular instrument in the world.
“Pre CBS” Era (1954-1964): The Golden Age of Fender
In this period are the instruments most sought after by collectors of vintage guitars. If you want to buy the best Fender Stratocaster, and you have no budget limit, these are the years to consider. Depending on the tone or musical style that you like, you will have a different period. Options are Maple and Ash (Period 1954-1956), Maple and Alder (Period 1957-1958), and Rosewood and Alder (Period 1959-1964). The values of these instruments usually exceed $ 20,000, and depending on their condition and their year they can reach $ 125,000 like a 1954 Fender Stratocaster in Carter Vintage Guitars.
Period 1954-1956: The Maple and Ash Stratocaster
The Fender Stratocaster was released in 1954 as the evolution of the 1950 Telecaster. Early Stratocasters are characterized by an ash body, a chunky single-piece maple neck and a Two-Tone Sunburst finish. Other features are the single-ply white pickguard and round string-tree. As of mid-1956, the bodies became alder, but paying an additional 5%, you could order it from ash in transparent Blonde that reveals the grain of the wood.
The maple fingerboard has a bright tone with a sparkling attack, perfect for those looking for a well-defined tone. The ash body is characterized by having a “scooped” audio, that is to say, good highs and lows, at the same time of smooth mid frequencies. This combination of tonewoods provides a well-defined and dynamic tone ideal for clean or low gain tones.
These are the most appreciated guitars if you are looking for Strat to play with clean tones. They are highly prized and expensive.
Period 1956-1958: The Maple and Alder Strat
In mid-1956, the body tonewood changed from ash to alder due to cost. Alder is a more abundant wood, easier to work with and also absorbs less paint. This tonewood is warmer than ash, as it features a focused frequency curve in the mids. The alder is great for those looking for a versatile Stratocaster that sounds good with clean and saturated audios.
In 1957, the V-neck profile began to be used and the plastic parts were changed from polystyrene to ABS plastic. Starting in 1958, the Three-Tone Sunburst was implemented, but since red sometimes faded -just as it did in the Sunburst of the Les Pauls of the 50’s- many Three-Tone Sunburst finishes are confused with Two-Tone Sunburst. There were other colors, called Custom, but these were made to order, the first example of a Custom guitar was the famous Mary Kaye Strat.
Throughout the 50’s and much of the 60’s there are many versions of neck profiles. This is due not only to design changes, but also to the fact that the guitars were made by hand. Thus, in these years there are no two identical necks, no two identical guitars. That is why it was so common in those years for a musician to try so many guitars until they found one that was comfortable for them, as well as that they liked its tone. An example of this is Eric Clapton’s Blackie, which comprises a 1956 Fender Stratocaster body and a 1957 neck.
This is the best time for those looking for a warm tone with the bright and sparkling attack of the maple fingerboard.
Period 1959-1964: The Alder and Rosewood Strat
The most important change in these years is the implementation of the rosewood slab -flat base- fretboards in 1959. Because the maple of the fingerboard was stained once the lacquer was removed because of playing, the rosewood is implemented. The rosewood, already used by Gibson, in brown color does not stain, keeping the aesthetics unaltered. The rosewood fingerboard has a rounder and warmer tone than the maple fingerboard. This is because it is a wood with a lot of presence of mids frequencies and not as many highs as maple.
Another change in 1959 is that of the pickguards. Because the single-ply pickguards warped over time, these were replaced by the three-layer capable celluloid pickguard. Celluloid turns a greenish color known as “Mint Green.”
Finally, in 1960, a red, fade-resistant lacquer was used, which allows the Three-Tone Sunburst to remain unaltered over time. Also in 1960 more color options appeared with the “Fender Custom Colors” catalog. This catalog was based on the nitrocellulose lacquers of the manufacturer Dupont Ducco, which were the same ones used by the automotive industry.
CBS Era (1965-1988)
This is a very frowned upon time, Fender is bought by the CBS corporation that changes the manufacturing methods from artisan style, to an industrial one of mass production. However, the changes are gradual, and in the early years of the CBS Era (1965-1966) you can find very good Fender Stratocasters that many collectors are looking to buy. Also, in the later years from 1967-1971, you can still find guitars that are worth buying, as the quality is still good. Then come Fender’s darkest years from 1972-1980, where quality drops to extremely low levels. Finally, the last few years have witnessed a recovery of the quality and prestige of Fender with the Dan Smith Era between mid-1981 and 1983.
Thus, through the years of CBS, you can find great Fender Stratocasters (1965-1966) as the Pre-CBS era ones; also the worst Fender years which are the ones between 1972 and 1980, and points in between such as the periods 1967-1971 and 1981 onwards.
Period 1965-1966: Fender Transition Years
In late 1964, Leo Fender sold the company to the CBS corporation for $ 12.5 million. With the new owner, the world’s largest guitar manufacturer begins a shift towards mass production.
These years are a transition period from a more artisan style of production to an industrial and massive one. Guitars from this period can be identified by their serial number beginning with L.
One of the first changes in the CBS Era is the replacement of clay dots with pearloid inlays beginning in late 1964. One notable change is the larger headstock in late 1965. In a marketing move, CBS enlarges the headstock to accommodate a larger, more legible decal.
Also in 1965, Fender returned to offering the maple fingerboards. Unlike in the Pre-CBS era where the necks were single-piece maple, the new necks were two-piece. In this way, the construction process was the same for necks with rosewood and maple fingerboards.
Finally, in 1965 the celluloid pickguard was also replaced to ABS or vinyl pickguard. But perhaps the most important change initiated in these years, are the less rounded contours of the body. With a focus on mass production and low cost, the contours of Fender Stratocaster guitars become noticeably less rounded. This is accentuated throughout the years of the CBS Era.
Despite all these changes, these were generally gradual. Thus, these years are considered of high quality, and after the Pre-CBS Era this is the time most sought after by buyers of Fender Stratocaster guitars. The prices of the Stratocasters from the years 1965 and 1966 are around $ 10,000 – $ 20,000.
1967-1971 Period: The “Good” CBS Years
Only in late 1966 and early 1967 is the beginning of the pure CBS era considered. This is where you start to see how the gradual changes become consistent. These changes generally go in the direction of lower costs and quality. Also, you have to understand the context, at the end of the 70s there was strong competition from Japanese guitars, good quality instruments but with much lower prices. In search of achieving cost reduction to adapt to the new Japanese competition, it is that the loss of quality of the Fender Stratocaster guitars is seen.
In 1968, nitrocellulose was replaced by polyurethane as the primary finish on Fender guitars. Although polyurethane lacquer had already been used in previous years, as the CBS era developed, polyurethane finishes became more common, until it became the main finish in 1968. Polyurethane finishes are thicker than nitrocellulose ones, and affect the resonance of the instrument. In addition, polyurethane lacquer has a more “plastic” shine, which also affects aesthetics.
Another change is the replacement of the neckplate. Thus, the four-hole neckplate is replaced by the three-hole one in 1971. Simultaneously with this change is included an adjustment system called Tilt Neck, designed by Leo Fender himself years before. This system allows modifying the angle of the neck without having to take it out. This really was a great improvement.
Most of the changes were aimed at saving costs. As such, they also changed bridges and saddles for cheaper design and materials. In addition, the Bullet Truss-rod is introduced.
The third most important period
According to vintage guitar collectors, great guitars can still be found in this period. Thus, this period is considered the third most appreciated years to buy Fender Stratocaster guitars. The value of the guitars of these years are significantly lower than the Pre-CBS with prices around $ 7,000 – $ 13,000.
Period 1972-1981: The “Dark” Years of the CBS Era
In this period, the increase in production affects the quality of the instruments. Quality controls become more lax. This results in heavy guitars over 12 lbs / 5 kg and necks that were loose.
The main reason for the great weight of the guitars of the 70s is that the natural finish became fashionable. Therefore, ash is used again, which has a showy grain. But instead of using swamp ash which is light and expensive, they used cheap and heavy ash. Thus, you can find Fender Stratocaster guitars made in the 70’s that can weigh between 12 and 13 lbs / 5.5 and 6 kgs.
One of the few remarkable things about this period is that in 1977, Fender implemented the five-position pickup selector switch. While it is noted in the 1968 Fender catalog that guitarists could “select any of the three positions or even between the natural positions for an abundance of sound”; It took 23 years for the Fender Stratocaster to have the 5-way switch instead of the original 3-way pickup selector switch.
Thus, these instruments have the worst quality that Fender has ever had. You can find good guitars to buy, but most of these years Strat’s are bad. You should never buy a Fender Stratocaster from this period if you can’t try it yourself before. This is without a doubt the darkest period in Fender history.
As you might expect, the prices of the 1972 and 1981 Fender Stratocasters are among the lowest, with average values between $ 1,500 – $ 3,000.
Period 1981-1984: The Dan Smith Era (1981-1983) and end of the CBS Era (1984)
Fender wants to reverse the decline, and decides to hire William (Bill) Schultz, John McLaren, and Dan Smith from Yamaha’s American Division, with the goal of regaining lost prestige.
Dan Smith was an engineer and takes control of the Fender plant. One of his first decisions is to reduce the number of instruments produced per day, for a greater dedication to each one. At the same time, Dan reviews the general specifications of the Fender Stratocaster and begins to listen to the opinions and complaints of the guitarrist, to understand the reason for the drop in sales.
On the other hand, Bill Schultz implements an investment program to modernize the Fender factory in Fullerton. This meant that production practically came to a halt while new machinery was installed and personnel trained with new technology during 1982.
In 1982, the Vintage Reissue Series was released, which includes two Stratocaster models, a ’57 and a ’62 Strat. Thus, the traditional specifications of the Fender Stratocaster were retaken, a version with a one-piece maple neck and another with a rosewood fingerboard, both with an alder body. These guitars are highly regarded by fans of the Stratocaster. These guitars can be found on Reverb with prices between $ 4,500 – $ 7,000.
Also in the Dan Smith Era, Fender launched the Standard Series, known as the ‘Dan Smith Strat’. These Fender Stratocasters are quite sought after and have their own following.
Dan Smith Strat with two Knobs
The Strat below has two knobs, one volume and one tone. Instead of the third knob, there is an output jack that replaces the traditional socket cup plate. The tremolo bridge is top loaded, called «Free Flyte Tremolo», simplifying the routing of the body. Finally, the forearm cut is smaller.
Thanks to these changes, added to the incorporation of Eric Clapton as endorser, the Company is able to reverse the process of decline. Thus, Fender rediscovered its way and regained prestige.
In 1984, CBS began negotiations to sell Fender.
FMIC Modern Era (1985-Present)
The Modern or FMIC Era, begins with a period of improvement of quality and innovation between the years 1985 and 1988. Modern guitars are launched, but they move away from the essence of the Fender Stratocaster. This is then followed by Fender’s second Dark Age, the Modern Dark Age which is between 1989 and 1997. Then, from 1998 onwards, a gradual improvement in quality begins and continues to the present day. The last few years are excellent years to buy a Fender Stratocaster for those who do not want to spend a fortune that comes out of a vintage Pre-CBS or early CBS guitar.
Period 1985-1988: Beginning of the FMIC Era
On March 5, 1985, CBS sold the patent rights, plans and trademarks – not all – of Fender to a group of entrepreneurs. Thus, the Fender Music Instrument Corporation (FMIC) was born. The transaction does not include the Fullerton plant, nor its machinery, which is closed and sold separately. Thus, there were no Fender Stratocasters made in America in most of 1985.
Between February and October of 1985, Fender guitars were all made in Japan. In 1986, the new plant in Corona, California, was opened, which even today is the main Fender factory. A year later, in 1987, Fender opened the Ensenada factory, in northern Mexico.
Period 1989-1997: Fender’s Second Dark Age
During the late 80’s, Fender experienced strong sales growth thanks to the recovery of prestige. However, this causes a demand in production, added to saving measures lead to quality problems.
The Fender Stratocaster American Standard began to come with poplar bodies, a cheaper wood. Alder veneers are used and in Sunburst finishes the black paint covers the belly cuts to cover the joints of the different pieces and the poplar wood. The large rectangular cavity for the pellets nicknamed the “Swimming pool” is also being used to save time and costs.
Guitars from this period are frowned upon, guitarplayers avoid them at the time of purchase. It’s the darkest modern era for Fender under the control of FMIC. The only Fender Stratocasters that maintain prestige are the Fender Stratocaster Vintage Reissue, which maintain the traditional specifications of the model and good quality of construction and materials.
Period 1998-2011: Fender Recovery
Starting in 1998, Fender began actions to improve quality. The Fender Stratocaster American Standard has a solid alder body again. Thus, in these years, Fender recovers its prestige and quality. The instruments manufactured in these years are really good, although they still have modifications in their specifications.
Fender intelligently distributes production between its two main brands: Fender and Squier, and between its various factories according to the quality of each Fender Stratocaster model. Thus, at the Ensenada in Mexico and Japan plants, Fender carries out the construction of its mid level guitars. The low and cheap level Stratocaster to compete with Asian guitars, are manufactured in China and Indonesia mainly under the Squier brand. Although you can find Fender of Chinese origin, such as the Telecaster Thinline Modern Player.
In this way, production in the United States is almost exclusively for the medium-high, high and premium level guitars. These guitars, maintain and have even improved their quality, from the Fender Stratocaster American Standard, to the same reissues of vintage models. The same happens with the production of Mexico, which over the years has shown a great improvement based on more experience.
Period 2012-Present: Modern Golden Age
From 2012 to the present, in our opinion, a Modern Golden Age is being lived. While we don’t intend to match it up to the Pre-CBS Era, the quality of today’s Stratocasters is excellent. The specifications of the Fender Stratocasters of these years are in line with the legacy of the most popular guitar in history. Thus, you can find American Standard with bent saddles bridges and Fat ’50s pickups. The American Vintage Reissue and their successors, the American Original, are of excellent quality.
In addition, FMIC develops a vast catalog with instruments of different levels of price and quality, and specifications for each guitarplayer, so Fender manages to reach niches like never before. An example of this is Fender’s Parallel and Squier’s Paranormal series.
Buying a perfect Fender Stratocaster for you has never been easier than it is today.
What are the best years of Fender Stratocasters to Buy?
If you are considering buying a Stratocaster, the best period to buy is the years of the Pre-CBS Era, that is from 1954 to 1964. Here you will find the best Fender Stratocasters, albeit at a really high price, with prices above $ 20,000.
Second, the early years of the CBS Era are also excellent years to buy, especially the Transition Period of 1965 and 1966. Also in the years 1967 to 1971 you can find excellent Fender Stratocasters to buy. These instruments are still really expensive, with prices normally above $ 7,000.
Lastly, while there are good periods after 1971, we recommend the current Fender Stratocasters (2012-present), which have excellent quality and cheaper prices.
It is worth mentioning that also between 1972 and 1975 you can find good guitars, but during these years and after of the CBS ERa, we recommend not to buy blindly. Always try guitars from this period, in case you can’t, avoid buying them.
Summary of the best years to buy a Fender Stratocaster:
1954-1964: Fender’s Golden Age, incredible instruments, but with very high prices above $ 20,000.
1965-1966: The second period most sought after by guitar collectors; even the prices are very high, above $ 10,000.
1967-1971: The overall quality of Fender Stratocaster guitars is still very high. Prices are already starting to not be that high, with values between $ 7,000 and $ 13,000.
1972-1975: You can still find good instruments, but you have to try them, without exception. The prices of these instruments are around $ 3,000.
2012-Present: The current Fender have excellent quality at a relatively low price compared to the periods detailed above.
Vintage Reissues Series and Custom Shop Guitars
1982-Present: Vintage Reissues made from 1982 onwards generally maintain excellent quality, beyond their not-so-Vintage Correct specifications.
1987-Present: Fender Stratocaster guitars from the Custom Shop over the years have also maintained extremely high quality since their inception in 1987.
Summary of the worst years to buy a Fender Stratocaster:
1976-1980: These are the worst Fender Stratocaster years that we recommend avoiding, although you can always try an instrument and be pleasantly surprised.
1986-1989: Although the quality is good, except for the reissues, the instruments are somewhat modern and not have the essence of the Stratocaster.
1989-1997: Fender’s second Dark Age, instruments downgraded significantly and alternative materials used in some cases.
Tell us about your experience buying Fender Stratocaster guitars in the comments section.
Related article: The best Stratocaster pickups.