My Strat’s 50th Birthday

For reasons not clear, this journal has taken a decidedly personal, musical turn for the summer. After my last post, I realized that my Stratocaster is celebrating its 50th birthday. My first guitar is now fifty years old. Wow.

(Warning! Total guitar geekolgy follows…)

Actually, it’s my second guitar. My mom bought me my first instrument in 1964. Of course it was her fault for buying an 8-year-old a copy of Meet the Beatles. After about the first, oh, 100 listens, I knew that I, too, wanted to play the guitar like John and George.

My first guitar was something out of Japan, which in those days was not a good thing. It played, but that’s about all. The action was impossibly high, the intonation poor, and the electronics barely usable. The perfect guitar to learn on!

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I’m “half-handed” (throw left, write right, bowl left, tennis right, etc..) – I played guitar left-handed for the first two years, until my first guitar teacher at Garden Grove Music told me I couldn’t do that. So I switched to right-handed playing. Two more years passed and I was getting tired of playing on a Japanese log. I asked my parents for a real guitar.

The year was 1968 and Jimi Hendrix (who, of course, played left-handed) was now the main spin on my turntable. Jimi played a Fender Stratocaster. Dad – I want a Strat. With a custom color and a maple neck. Just like Jimi’s.

We were an average lower-middle-class Garden Grove family. Just down the street, we rode our bikes in the orange grove which became the Anaheim Convention Center. When my dad saw the price tag of a new custom-color, maple-neck Strat, he said, “no way.” They were nearly $400. Keep in mind, the average Garden Grove tract house at this time probably sold for about $16,000.

Garden Grove Music store was just off West Street. I would ride my bike there and look at all the guitars. All the time. One day, a used 1958 Strat appeared on the rack. It had a custom color, maple neck, and gold plating! It was beautiful. And it was $250 with case.

That night, I had a long talk with my dad and he agreed to buy the guitar for me.

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Since that day in 1968, the Strat has had three fret jobs, three body finishes, and various tweaks to the electronics. Collectors like old Strats to be 100% original and untouched. Players like old Strats that sound great and play great. This relic plays great and sounds great, but it’s not 100% original.

This instrument has serial number 024234 stamped on the back plate, and the date “3/58″ penciled on the neck butt. Often, Fender would put a finished neck aside for some months until they could mate it with a suitable body.

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A pair of numbers are stamped into the neck flat (21452 and 4632). In the mid-80’s, I wrote Fender a letter of inquiry about my guitar in general, and these numbers specifically. Fender replied by letter and told me that a certain neck builder from that era would sometimes stamp numbers on his necks, but that such instruments were not common. Fender even included the name of that builder, but I have lost the letter.

I inquired with Fender last year with the same question, but apparently nobody remains with any tribal knowledge of the woodworker who stamped extra numbers into his necks. Pity.

(UPDATE 9/2: A Fender rare guitar expert contacted me with better information on the extra neck numbers. From his amazing website, “Another Fender misconception is the “big number stamp” seen on many custom color instruments. These large, 1/2″ letters/numbers are under the pickguard (on a body), and also usually on the heel of a neck (between the 4 bolt holes), stamped deeply in the wood. I’ve seen this on instruments as early as 1959, and as late as 1966. These large, stamped numbers sometimes denote a guitar as having some factory repair work, usually refinishing. The reason Fender used this stamp was very simple. Due to the large number of bodies and necks being painted at any one time, they had no way of keeping track of a particular guitar unless they marked it. If it was back for a refinish (a service Fender offered till the late 1960’s), they would serialize the body and/or neck with this large, deep stamp. This allowed the guitar to be stripped and sanded without losing it’s ownership. Then it could be put into the paint production system to be painted as if it was a new guitar. After the paint process was done, the large deeply stamped numbers would allow Fender to “find” the refinished parts and re-assemble them, and ultimately return them to their owners.”)

According to a guitar technician I met in Orange County in the 70’s (he kept a personal notebook of Fender serial numbers and guitar types), my guitar serial number fit into a run of custom-color Strats from 1958. The tech guesses that the original color was cream because all the metal parts were gold-plated.

(UPDATE 9/2: Another Strat expert informs me that the truss rod end on original gold-plated, cream finished “Mary Kay” Strats would be gold plated, as well. This neck’s truss rod is not gold plated, so apparently the gold plating was added during the mid-60’s Fender refinish.)

Cream, gold-plated Strats were apparently a popular Fender custom-shop order from the later 50’s. When my dad bought the guitar, it had been refinished in a charcoal gray with a subtle metal flake. Not sure if Fender did the re-finish. As I recall, the paint job was OK, but not factory quality. (UPDATE: The numbers stamped on the neck are a pretty good indication that Fender indeed did the mid-60’s refinish job.)

The guitar also included something called a “Bodyguard” which I believe was made by 3M – a clear plastic shell that glove-fitted over the back of the Strat to protect the paint. The thing was always annoying to me, so I took it off and lost it a long time ago.

(UPDATE 9/5: I’m informed that the “Bodyguard” was made by a company called Parker and that I was a total idiot for discarding it)

A few years later in high school (guessing 1971), I stripped the charcoal finish down to bare wood. The bare wood finish would stay with this instrument until 2006. What’s very odd is that, while the guitar is clearly of 1958 vintage, the neck sported a 65-era headstock decal, likely changed when the guitar was refinished. For better or worse (don’t shoot me), an aftermarket 58 decal was added during the guitar’s last fret job, but the original “contour body” decal was untouched.

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Keep in mind, in the 60’s, older 50’s Strats were not considered collectable and most considered them less desirable than new units. They were not being collected like today. Stripping an old Strat was not considered the heresy as it would be today. With that in mind, I did something that I regret even more than stripping the finish. Around 1972, I removed the middle pickup and replaced it with a Guild humbucker.

This pickup modification required that I router the body and cut a hole in the pickguard – a total abortion of a relic Strat by today’s standards. I gave the pickup away to my drummer’s little brother, Craig, who installed it into his Fender Mustang guitar. I contacted Craig a while ago to see if he might still have that pickup. No luck. Long gone.

Luckily, the bridge and neck pickups remain stock original, as does the jack plate, bridge and bridge parts, pots, wiring, and most other gold plated hardware. I think one of the knobs may have been replaced, but not certain. The 1/4″ phone jack itself has probably been replaced 3 or 4 times.

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One foggy night in the 70’s, running late for a gig, I had left my Strat in its case leaning against the back of my Ford Pinto station wagon. As I was backing up, I could see the case go vertical in my side mirror as I felt the rear end of my car lifted up onto the Strat.

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The original Fender Koylon case had been crushed. When I opened the case, I saw that the tire had run over the body, not the neck! The only damage was to the 3-position CRL pickup selection switch. The switch shaft had been crushed, leaving a welt in the plastic switch cap and the switch permanently locked on the neck pickup.

That week, I installed a replacement pickup switch (5 position) and re-attached the original nylon cap. Someday, I would like to replace that switch back to an original 50’s era CRL 3-way.

Sometime later, the low-E tuning peg quit working. The knob turned, but the peg didn’t. I replaced it with a silver plate Kluson peg from that era, but it isn’t gold plated. Looks a bit odd, but works. I’ve kept the broken peg safely put away. Maybe someone knows how to repair old Klusons?

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From the early 80’s onward, I’ve not played professionally. The Strat gets played, but not like it used to. A couple years ago, I decided to restore it to factory-stock condition, or as close as possible. I’ll never be able to reverse the routed cavity for the middle-pickup. And the 3-position switch is long gone.

With the help of guru guitar builder Jonathan Wilson/GVCG, the body has been refinished with an authentic Fender translucent cream nitrocellulose laquer. JW made the finish look 50 years old and did a great job, in my opinion. I also play one of JW’s “55 Flatpole” Telecasters – one of the most amazing instruments ever. But that’s for another post.

As for that missing middle pickup, I happened to meet pickup expert Jim Rolph through my friend Cliff Cultreri. Jim has been designing and winding guitar pickups since 1959 and plays a 1958 Strat. We hit it off right away. I asked Jim to build me a complete set of 1958 Strat pickups – his specialty!

I put the original remaining (2) original pickups in storage, along with their green-graying p/u covers. In their place, I installed Jim’s three “58 relic” pickups, and they sound remarkably close to the originals. I installed after-market pickup covers over the Rolphs and am now looking for an original 1958 middle pickup and cover if anyone just happens to have a few in their kitchen junk drawer.

The original pickguard (cut for the dual coil p/u) is long gone, but I found a late 50’s era Strat slab on ebay which now sits majestically on its new home. Amazing what one has to pay for vintage Strat parts these days..

So there it is. The history of a guitar, born in Santa Ana 50 years ago, owned for 41 years by a guy who was born in Santa Ana 52 years ago!

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5 thoughts on “My Strat’s 50th Birthday

  1. What a great read this is, John. It is so cool that you still have this guitar. I really liked your story about Doc Kaufmann, too. Isn’t it amazing how even our memories increase in value as time goes by? I no longer have my earliest instruments, sadly. Like many musicians, I typically found it necessary to sell the old instruments in order to acquire the new ones. Something I now surely regret, of course (especially that early ’70’s ES-335TD…what was I thinking!?!?). I have told my son, an aspiring keyboardist/songwriter, to keep everything that he can…and to talk to me before he sells any of his gear. You just never know…

    Personally, I love the fact that your guitar is a “player’s instrument”, too. A guitar like that is a personal treasure, an heirloom, and an old friend worthy of deep respect.

  2. Sorry about that middle pick up John. If I had known you would call me and ask for it back, I would have hung on to that Fender Mustang. 🙂

    Regards…

    -Craig

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