August 12, 2004
by Hunter H and Tom Watson
images by Hunter H
Stratocaster tradition: a blessing and a curse
There is a very close connection between the stories of rock ‘n’ roll and the Fender Stratocaster. It’s hard to imagine one without the other. But in the case of the Fender Stratocaster, history and reputation have often proved to be both a blessing and a curse.
Over the course of its fifty year history, the Stratocaster has faced a repeated challenge – how to retain the classic features that form the basis of its widespread appeal while incorporating evolving technologies and reflecting changes in musical tastes. While the history of the Fender Stratocaster chronicles many such attempts by its manufacturer, one of the more interesting was the 1980-83 model known simply by the Stratocaster’s famous nickname, the STRAT.
A nod to the past
The “STRAT”, a customized and souped-up variation of the Stratocaster, was introduced by Fender at the 1980 NAMM Show. Designed by Gregg Wilson, then chief of guitar R&D; at Fender, with the help of Dan Armstrong serving as a consultant, the STRAT tried to blend classic features with modern electronics to rejuvenate the Stratocaster concept. With the STRAT model, Fender gave a nod to the past by reinstating the smaller 1954-1965 pre-CBS headstock design (however, since the original worn-out tooling was used, the STRAT headstock, though smaller than the CBS era design, was not an entirely accurate re-creation of the pre-CBS model); and, like the 1979 25th Stratocaster Anniversary models, the STRAT was fitted with the popular pre-CBS style truss-rod adjustment and four-bolt neck plate, replacing the CBS Bullet truss rod adjustment and three-bolt neck plate.
An eye toward the future
Looking forward, in addition to offering a matching headstock (the headstock painted to match the guitar’s body color), the STRAT incorporated several noteworthy features:
* a hotter lead pickup (branded the X-1) with a much stronger output than the standard Stratocaster pickup (various X-1 pickups tested were between 6.0 and 8.5 ohms).
*a new wiring circuitry delivering 9 different basic tones:
a twin mode rotary selector switch replaced the bottom tone control which when used with the five-way pickup selector switch allowed not only for your standard 5 Stratocaster positions(tones) but also 4 “new” tones never before or since available on a Fender Stratocaster :
neck and middle pickups in series – humbucking
middle and bridge pickups in series – humbucking
neck and bridge pickups in parallel
neck and bridge pickups in parellel, with the middle pickup in series
Thus, the STRAT delivered nine (5+ 4) different basic pickup tones by combining the 5-position switch with the twin rotary selector tone knob. Otherwise the STRAT was fitted with the standard 250k ohm audio taper pots and the “master” tone control carried a regular .05 MFD capacitor. This unique wiring design delivers many tones not usually associated with a Fender Stratocaster and makes the STRAT one of, if not the most, versatile of any era Stratocaster produced by Fender prior to the recently introduced S-1 switching system.
*22 carat gold electroplated brass hardware including a re-designed extra massive(sustain) bridge and vibrato block, tuners, and volume/tone knobs that were officially dubbed the “Brassmaster Series”. According to Fender, the hardware was actually plated with a 100 micron gold coat (the same as fine jewlery) and for that reason it’s rumored that the company lost money on every unit sold. Some very early models are missing the gold tuners (same tuners but in chrome) and the gold plated pickup selector tip because of a delay in parts delivery.
The STRAT could be ordered with either a one-piece maple neck or a maple neck with rosewood fretboard. Three uniquely different neck shapes were available for the STRAT:
1. U shape – a very thick early 50s style “U” shaped neck.
2. D shape – a classic oval “D” shaped neck.
3. C shape- a classic “C” wide flat shaped neck with a flat radius typically only found on 1958 to early 1959 Stratocasters.
The availability of several width/thickness/radius variations indicate that there was no standard neck for the STRAT model.
According to Fender pricelists, the STRAT listed for $995 in 1980 ($250 more than a Stratocaster), was raised to $1,095 in 1981 and was priced at $1,150 in 1982 at which it remained until discontinued in early 1983.
A prototype of the STRAT (pictured on the right) is in a private collection, with the following features that vary somewhat from the production model:
Tuners: An early version of the tuners later found on the “Elite” Stratocaster instead of the typical STRAT gold plated (or chrome on some of the early models) tuners.
Knobs: “Dome” gold plated Telecaster style knobs instead of the skirted gold plated “F” style knobs used on the production STRAT.
Electronics: The pickups feature three early prototype versions of the very under-rated X-1 pickup that was used in the bridge position of the production STRAT. Produces a very “woody” bell-like tone.
Bridge: Gold plated brass Stratocaster standard style bridge instead of the heavier production line STRAT “Brassmaster” bridge.
Finish: Olympic White, as opposed to Arctic White offered by Fender after the models introduction in either Candy Apple Red or Lake Placid Blue.
Pickguard: Fender was not using tortoise shell pickguards at the time, but the prototype has a very rare pickguard material imported from Italy that was used on limited production and top of the line guitars such as the LTD and Montego, referred to by some as “flamed” or Italian tortoise shell.
Weight: 7.3 pounds (most likely a swamp ash body).
Pedigree: Hand made one-off formerly owned by Bill Carson with a letter of authenticity from Carson.
Why the STRAT? A brief look at Fender in the early 80s
Freddie Tavares, long time Fender employee who retired in 1986, had this to say about the state of the Fender company from the late 60s through the 70s: “We had turned into a big fancy corporation all of a sudden, where all the different departments had got their say in everything and then there were budgets, quotas and so on. They would try to put out stuff as fast as they could! When they [CBS] bought the Fender company they found out how profitable the operation was and they wanted the profits held right there. Like so many other American companies, it was to make sure the stockholders got plenty of dividends. So, what could the people at the plant do?”
Due to these drastic increases in production (output by the late 70s was 500 guitars per day), workers on the assembly line could not maintain the same attention to detail and as a result, Fender received an ever increasing number of complaints from dealers regarding quality and assembly issues. Despite the sometime questionable quality of Stratocasters from the 70s, 1971-1981 marked the Stratocaster’s incredible rise to fame and it was adopted by a growing number of players. Countless artists chose the Stratocaster as their main instrument.
Popularity rises, sales decline
It was noted by Fender, however, that these famous musicians were using the older models and not the newer ones. Fender-CBS sensed that something should be done to take full advantage of the Stratocaster’s popularity. Fender’s desire to cash in on the popularity of the traditional Stratocaster through model twists that might appeal to a more modern market had much to do with why several variations of the Stratocaster model were introduced in the late 70s and early 80s – an attempt to recapture market share.
To further this goal, in the early 80s Fender-CBS hired Bill Schultz and John McLaren from Yamaha to take over at the helm of Fender musical instruments division and address some of the problems plaquing the company. Initial appraisals by this new team outlined some very troubling issues that needed immediate attention and an internal Fender memo dated May 19,1981, mentioned a sharp decline in product quality and a significant increase in international and domestic dealer complaints about defective parts and unacceptable quality. The same report also stated that the Fender company had followed a “policy of high margins and little product improvement”.
Another former Yamaha employee, Dan Smith, was then hired by Bill Schultz to help solve some of the problems at Fender. According to Smith, “Basically our goal was initially to restore the confidence of the dealers and the players in Fender. The only way we could achieve that was to raise the quality levels back up! We could not redesign the production line all at once so we started to initiate steps to get the product back to where it had to be, but while that was going on, we basically shut the plant down and retaught everybody how to make Fender guitars the way people wanted them. It probably took us 2 1/2 years to achieve that.”
The 1979 25th Silver Anniversary Stratocaster and then the 1980 STRAT model were Fender’s first attempts at blending the old and with the new. The 1979 Anniversary Stratocaster was the first new model to adopt the old style four bolt neck and truss rod. The 1980 STRAT was designed to take some of the older features, and add some modern ones.
Although 10,000 Anniversary models were sold, the STRAT models were not very profitable due to the very high cost of the parts (gold plated) and assembly time (the wiring was extremely time consuming). As a result, the STRAT was discontinued after limited numbers were manufactured between 1980 and 1983.
The STRAT was made at a very unique time in Fender history when extra attention was given to detail and materials and the resulting quality of the STRAT is second to none. However, in 1982, in an attempt to further cut costs and capitalize on the emerging “vintage market”, Fender decided to focus its energies on producing copies of hugely popular older models and in 1982 released the first of the highly successful American vintage reissues (which, ironically, are now highly prized vintage instruments themselves).
The STRAT was initially available in only two classic finishes Candy Apple Red and Lake Placid Blue, both with a matching painted headstock. In 1981, at the initiative of then chief design engineer of Fender R&D;, ChipTodd, another model was introduced, a deluxe version of the STRAT crafted entirely of American Black Walnut officially named “The Walnut Strat” (sometimes referred to as The Super Strat). This model used a one-piece walnut neck, black pickguard and pickup covers. Otherwise its basic appointments were identical to a the STRAT, which at this time was made available in its third and final official finish, Artic White.
Although officially only available in Candy Apple Red, Lake Placid Blue, and later, Artic White, several other colors (possible one-offs) and variations (hues) of the original three official colors are known to exist, including “Stratoburst”, Black (Cathay Ebony), Candy Apple Green, Gold, Natural Ash, Olympic White and Sapphire Blue (see image gallery below).
From the January 1982 Fender Catalog:
A unique new instrument that combines several of the most popular modifications of the standard Stratocaster developed by independent guitar experts, as well as some exciting developments from Fender engineering.
All the hardware on the STRAT is of the highest quality with a heavy coat of 22k gold plating- the heaviest most durable gold finish ever used on a guitar. In addition, the bridge assembly is extra-massive, to achieve maximum possible sustain. On the STRAT, one of the standard Stratocaster’s tone controls have been replaced by a pickup selector mode switch which gives an extra four pickup selections not available on a standard Stratocaster. These extra tonal options provide a “thicker” sound than a standard Stratocaster can produce, making the STRAT one of the most versatile guitars ever designed. Offered in the classic colors: Candy Apple Red, Lake Placid Blue, and Artic White.
The new Walnut Strat incorporates all the custom hardware and electronics of the STRAT in an instrument crafted entirely of selected solid Black American Walnut. The rock-hard finish and extra density of walnut give the Walnut Strat all the great playing qualities of the Fender STRAT, plus a unique custom look. Truly the connoisseur’s guitar!
Because of limited production numbers, rumors that they are “boat anchors” (although as heavy as 11 pounds, most are in the comfortable 8-9 pound range and some weigh as little as 7 pounds), and a lack of information available, the STRAT has remained somewhat obscure, under-rated, and undervalued. Although prices are starting to rise for this unique model, until recently it has been relatively ignored by collectors and most can still be had at a very affordable price.
In a fall 1980 John Lennon magazine interview (conducted shortly before his death), Lennon describes a brand new Fender Stratocaster guitar he’s using as “the cats pajama’s”, and is pictured holding a Lake Placid Blue STRAT. Rumor has it that Fender was seeking his official endorsement shortly before his tragic passing.