The Fender American Standard Stratocaster: An Excerpt from The Stratocaster Chronicles by Tom Wheeler
by TOM WHEELER
[Excerpt from The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat, by Tom Wheeler, copyright 2004 Tom Wheeler/Hal Leonard. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission and may not be further reprinted without written permission from Hal Leonard.]
The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat
Reinventing a Classic: The American Standard
You don’t mess with an icon. On the other hand, you can’t afford to stagnate. (As William Schultz has said, “If you don’t grow, you die.”) So how would the new Fender company accommodate changing styles and tastes, and adapt its venerable Stratocaster guitar to the needs of the present? During the CBS era, clear answers had often eluded the suits who ran the company. One exec opined in private, “What are we supposed to do — build in the same old mistakes, just to keep the purists happy?”
At the dawn of the Schultz era, things began to come back into focus, and in 1985, with Schultz and his investors now owning the company, Fender faced one of its most daunting design challenges yet: Build a better Stratocaster. Not a reissue, not a cost cutter, not a “Cadillac,” not an import — just a basic U.S. Strat. It took courage and confidence for Dan Smith and George Blanda to think they could improve upon Leo Fender’s classic design, but then again they knew that Leo himself never rested on his laurels. The idea of leaving technical problems unaddressed would have been as foreign to Leo Fender as goth metal.
A new Strat was developed in 1986, unveiled to key dealers, and introduced to critical raves at the January 1987 NAMM trade show. Details included typical features (three-layer pickguard, one-piece maple neck, etc.), plus a small headstock, 4-bolt neck, a 9 1/2” radius fingerboard with jumbo frets, a TBX tone circuit, a redesigned tremolo with two bearing points instead of six screws, flat-polepiece pickups, a hum-reducing, reverse-polarity pickup in the middle position, a silver transition logo, and a urethane finish. The other key detail: It would be made in the U.S.A. To make sure no one missed the point, the new guitar would be called “American Standard.” Conspicuous designation of the U.S. origin of certain models or whole series would be a regular fixture of Fender strategies from now on. (American Standards built in 1994 bear a red, white, and blue medallion on the headstock, commemorating the instrument’s 40th anniversary.)
J.W. Black was a leading guitar repairman in New York City at the time. He recalled: “In the early ’80s, Fender was pretty much off the radar as far as my clients and players were concerned, at least in New York. The reissues of ’82 were okay, but many players had the real thing and they were still affordable. The buzz was Kramer and Jackson in that mid-’80s era. But when George Blanda and Dan Smith came up with the American Standard, it seemed to be the right thing at the right time. I wonder if Fender would be where it is now, if not for that event from Dan and George.”
George Blanda: “Bill Schultz had heard a consistent message from international dealers — the Japanese are targeting the music industry. The fear was, there goes the guitar market, like cameras or electronics. There had been a defeatist attitude, people thinking American guitars could disappear. So first we looked into countering the imports with low-cost guitars, and then it grew into the more expensive professional guitars as well.”
Dan Smith: “Little by little we started to rebuild the company. In October 1985 we opened up manufacturing out in Corona in a 14,000 square foot facility. Within 18 months, we went from building seven guitars a day to 150 a day.”
How did you get started on the American Standard?
Dan Smith: “I had experience from the Standards and Elites. I knew what we could get away with and what we couldn’t, how far we could push the envelope and still keep everybody happy. Back in the early ’80s, we had tried to make an affordable, made in the U.S.A., top quality, modern Stratocaster. By ’85 we had learned a lot, and we knew what to do.”
Did you ever stop and say, holy cow, I’m about to take Leo Fender’s venerated masterpiece and rethink it from top to bottom?
Dan Smith: “No. The respect for him is always there, but I’d had so many years repairing and refretting guitars and flattening out the fretboards, putting different keys on and throwing humbuckers in there and everything else — I’d worked on a lot of Stratocasters. I love Fenders, but as I progressed as a player there were things that were more difficult on a Fender. The idea with the American Standard was to make a guitar that would still appeal to the Fender guy but be easier to play. It represented everything I had learned about Fender up to that point.”
How did you and George Blanda divide up the labor?
Dan Smith: “George did all the engineering. He took my concept and turned it into something that worked. He is probably the finest and purest engineering talent in the guitar business. There were some things we’d already done that we wanted to keep, like the 2-way adjustable Biflex rod. It had been well received, and we knew that was a solid piece.”
The neck radius had gone from 7 1/4” on the 1950s Strats all the way to 12” on the 2-knob Standard and the Elites. You changed it again on the American Standard.
Dan Smith: “We wanted a neck that was a little easier to play. The flat, 12” radius was fine for Gibson players, but Fender players hated it. So the American Standard’s 9 1/2” was a good compromise. We use it for just about everything now, except the reissues. I had James Burton and Steve Cropper try it, and when neither one of those guys said anything I knew it was fine.”
The original tremolo was Leo Fender’s pride and joy, but the modifications in the ’80s turned it into something of a disaster.
Dan Smith: “Yeah, I had learned a lot about tremolo bridges by ’85, ’86. We thought, okay, we’ve got to make a bridge that works correctly, we gotta make it simple, something that sounds good, works for production, doesn’t cost too much, and still delivers everything Strat players want.”
George Blanda: “A fixture of the mid-’80s was the Floyd Rose and similar vibratos, which were well suited to the extreme dive-bomb techniques of the day. Despite those units’ popularity, Fender perceived a possible backlash against their complexity, the necessity of tuning it at the bridge, having to use wrenches to adjust it, and its effects on tone. We decided to take a different direction, and go with a unit that was fairly similar to the vintage design but would stay in tune better. It has two pivot points instead of the six screws.”
What about the metal used for the bridge components?
Dan Smith: “On the earliest Fenders, they used bent steel pieces. First they’d stamp it with Fender Pat Pend or whatever they had to stamp, and then the flat piece went into the forming die that did the bending, like for the little hook in the back for the saddle-adjustment screws; we actually had to make that tool again for the reissues, so the bridges would be authentic.
“Then during CBS there were a lot of die-cast pot-metal parts, and we got rid of them. For the American Standard we used what’s called powdered stainless. Instead of a liquid, there’s a powdered metal that’s forced into a mold and formed under high pressure. It’s solid, stronger than the die-cast, and sounds better. In fact, I like the American Standard saddles, because the powdered stainless takes a little bit of the harshness or brightness out of the Strat. We still use it on the American Series, too.”
George Blanda: “The 2-point tremolo design is simple and straight ahead. It’s a good sounding, better working system, and it’s reasonably cost effective. We wanted a bridge that didn’t have to go through the bending process but still sounded good. We eliminated casting, and we didn’t want brass. We found out about the powdered-metal process. The tremolo block [which Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares had called the inertia bar] is low-carbon steel, like the vintage, but made using the powdered-metal process. The first year or two they were nickel plated, then painted, and from the mid ’90s on, powder coated. The base plate is cold-rolled steel that’s punched out of a flat sheet.”
Since 1956, most Strats had been made of alder, except for the ash-body transparent finishes.
Dan Smith: “For a while, the environmentalists didn’t want us cutting alder. There was an endangered species controversy, with some logging restrictions up in Oregon, so we had to use poplar. Leo had used it on many guitars — Musicmasters and others — and we later used it for the Bullet guitars. It’s a good wood. We used it on some American Standards in the early ’90s. From the beginning, poplar was spec’d to be used on the American Standard as a substitute.”
George Blanda: “All the Strat bodies were alder up until about 1990. When it got so hard to get alder, we were faced with either using poplar or not making guitars. There’s a misconception that poplar is not a good tone wood. Actually, it’s fine. James Burton actually specified it for his signature Tele in the late ’80s, after trying a lot of different bodies. We never regarded poplar as a second-rate wood, but a lot of people preferred alder so when the restrictions eased, we were able to go back to alder in ’93 or ’94.”
Under the pickguard, the American Standard had a big rectangular hole, so you could fit any sort of pickup combination in there.
George Blanda: “Later on, some people said the tone suffered from the big ‘hog rout’ for the pickups [also known as the ‘swimming pool’], but when we devised the Standard, the popular thing wasn’t so much the Stevie Ray Vaughan tone or the Texas blues sound. People were looking more for the kind of sound Andy Summers was getting, and lots of Strat players were really into the funky 2 and 4 positions. Our perception was that the big rout actually enhanced that sound. We thought there was a little less midrange, and a little more highs and lows.”
Some of the guitars had a separate wood veneer on the top and back.
George Blanda: “Remember that in the ’80s, those hard, bright, shiny finishes were a big thing. For the solid colors, we went with the veneers because they held those finishes well. Our marketing people perceived this as the way to go. Dealers had been returning some of the previous guitars because mineral deposits sometimes caused the finish to sink into the grain a little bit. The veneering helped solve that problem.”
Dan Smith: “Those deposits make hard lines in the wood called aggregate rays, particularly with alder. When the wood dries, it moves around, but the hard mineral deposits don’t move, so that can make little raised lines. Dealers complained, because other guitars had thick finishes that hid everything and looked like a piece of plastic. If dealers keep sending them back, we don’t have any choice. We change it, using what least affects the sound of the instrument. At first, the American Standard finishes were all urethane — undercoats, color coats and top coats. We went to a polyester undercoat for a while to address the aggregate rays and the complaints about shrinking grain. We continued to use urethane for the top coats, and either urethane or lacquer for the color coat, depending on the color. We then went to the veneer, which we felt was less intrusive and did a better job of covering the grain-shrink problem.”
George Blanda: “We had done a veneered maple top on the Strat Ultra, so we knew how to do it. We kept the veneers after we went back to alder, for appearance’s sake, so for a while there it was alder on alder.”
Dan Smith: “When we eliminated the veneer, we went back to the same type of polyester undercoat we use on the vintage series. We also added a 22nd fret on a fretboard extension — we didn’t have to change the neck pocket or move the pickups. I’m not sure what people do up there, but for guys who wanted the extra fret, it’s on there.”
George Blanda: “That was Marketing’s wish; it just seemed what the market wanted at the time. We also put in a reverse-polarity pickup in the middle, which makes it hum-canceling in the 2 and 4 ‘in between’ positions. We still do it on the American Series, and pretty much across the board except for the vintage.”
What was the TBX tone control?
Dan Smith: “’TBX’ stood for ‘Treble Bass Xpander,’ one of those marketing names. It was a stacked control — two pots with one knob on top. One was a standard 250k pot; Leo had picked the 250’s in the first place because they sound nice. Underneath that was a pot with a circuit on it. At the midpoint — the 5 setting — it was equivalent to a normal control set all the way up, on 10. When you rolled the TBX back toward zero it worked just like a regular tone control except with a short range. When you went back up to 10, it was the equivalent of removing the control altogether from the circuit, and it let a lot more high end through.”
The American Standard became Fender’s flagship guitar for 13 years, the longest run of any basic, mainstream Stratocaster.
Dan Smith: “It was huge. We’re very proud of it. The idea was to go back to the best aspects of the pre-CBS Strats, then get rid of the not-so-good ideas that people had done later, and then improve the consistency of production, update the tremolo so it would stay in tune better, make the neck more comfortable, make the pickups less noisy, get better sounding parts and a more versatile tone control, and make the whole thing simple and affordable. Guitarists are pretty conservative. They may spike their hair and dye it blue, but when it comes to what they play they seem to like things that were designed in the ’50s, so what we do is a lot of refinement. We told ourselves, let’s build the guitar Leo would be building today if he had evolved the basic Stratocaster himself.”
|About the BookThe Stratocaster Chronicles
Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender StratBy Tom Wheeler
- Foreword by Eric Clapton
- Over 280 pages, full color on premium paper
- Over 220 photographs and images
- Full-page photos from one of the world’s most valuable collections
- Featured photography by John Peden and Robert Perine
- Comes with a CD featuring brief excerpts from the author’s interviews with Leo Fender, plus “Fifty Sounds of the Strat,” an entertaining tour of classic sounds and styles by the inimitable Greg Koch
- Published by Hal Leonard, U.S. $50, ISBN No. 0-634-05678-6
Author Tom Wheeler will be appearing at the Annual Dallas Guitar Show to sign copies of The Stratocaster Chronicles.