October 27, 2003
Determining the Production Year of a Vintage Stratocaster, Part One
by DAN YABLONKA
This article begins a discussion on how to approach determining the production year of a vintage Fender Stratocaster.
Determining the production year of a potentially vintage instrument requires more than basing your opinion on just one piece of information. In the case of the Fender Strat, what can make determining the guitar's probable year of manufacture difficult is simply the fact that the instrument bolts together, so that over the years, the original body, neck, pickguard assembly, and pickups could have been replaced or be missing.
I'm going to start the discussion of the identification process by briefly breaking down production eras by neck and fingerboard information.
In 1954, the introductory year of the Stratocaster, the instrument featured a one piece maple neck that included the fretboard, and it would retain that design until early 1959 when rosewood was afixed to a maple neck for the fretboard. The maple board years from 1954 to 1959, which I call Phase 1, saw the use of different neck profiles. 1954-55 had a very large, bordering on huge, round "cup" ("C") shaped profile. From 1956 through 1957, you will find what is called a "V" neck because of the ridge up the back of the neck literally giving it a V shaped feel. 1958-59 maple necks reverted back to the "C" profile but with considerably less bulk than the original "C", and are arguably the least favorite among die hard 50's Strat fans.
In 1959, Fender introduced Phase 2, a maple neck with a slab rosewood fretboard featuring "clay dot markers". The board was made with a very thick piece of rosewood, now nicknamed a "slab board", a feature that remained through most of 1962. It can be identified by the straight, even, lamination at the body end of the neck where the rosewood is thicker in the middle, and also by the convex end of the fingerboard at the headstock, as opposed to the concave appearance of the subsequent Phase 3 non-slab boards that appeared in 1962. The Phase 3, non-slab rosewood board is also identifiable by its thinner curved meeting with the underlying maple neck, again seen at the body end of the neck. There is a difference in the sound of slab board versus the later non-slab board. Slabs tend to be a little darker and harsher in tone, whereas the non-slab's tone has a little more clarity, or "politeness".
Phase 3 of the early Fender necks, the non-slab, clay dot, rosewood boards, ran from mid/late 1962 through mid/late 1964.
The final fingerboard/ neck configuration that I will discuss today is the last of the pre-CBS (or small headstocks) era, Phase 4. It varied only slightly from Phase 3 in that the clay dot markers were replaced by pearloid markers that have a shiny, reflective look. These were introduced in late 1964 and continued through the summer and early fall of 1965, at which time the CBS era truly kicked in and many design changes took place, such as the larger headstock, which will be covered in a future discussion.
Phase 1: One piece maple necks/fretboards, 1954 - 1959.
Phase2: Maple neck with slab rosewood fretboard and clay dot markers, 1959 - 1962.
Phase 3: Maple neck with non-slab rosewood fretboard with clay dot markers, 1962 - 1964.
Phase 4: Maple neck with non-slab rosewood fretboard and pearloid dot markers replacing the clay dots, 1964 - 1965 when CBS design changes took effect.
Note that the above discussion about necks does not take into account logo decals, string trees, or tuners, which will be covered in future discussions.
Until then, having said this much, "I Think I Better Wait Til' Tomorrow." (James Marshall Hendrix).