By the late 1970s, cumulative changes in the details of the various classic guitar models on the market – Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster, and Gibson’s Les Paul – were so numerous that the instruments barely resembled their original versions. Serious electric guitar players and collectors clamored for reissues of the original instruments. But both manufacturers, at the time mere cogs in large corporate wheels, all but ignored them.
Since being purchased by CBS in 1965, Fender had radically modified the Stratocaster and Telecaster models on which its existence was essentially based. The Strat’s larger headstock, its “television-friendly logo” in large block letters, and especially the three-bolt “micro-tilt” neck, didn’t sit well with fans. The basic Fender Telecaster wasn’t altered as radically, but was given the new headstock logo. Numerous spin-off models of the Tele were created, though, some of which had the infamous three-bolt neck attachment.
Meanwhile, guitarists who read interviews with their favorite musicians observed that in the vast majority of cases, their primary stage and recording instruments weren’t the latest and greatest designs, but vintage instruments of the 1950s through the early ’60s. Jimmy Page toured worldwide with a 1959 Les Paul, and switched to a Lake Placid Blue ’65 Stratocaster for numbers requiring a vibrato. Eric Clapton toured with Blackie, a mongrel built from a variety of Fender Strats. Roy Buchanan played a well-worn blond ’53 Telecaster. And pioneering Motown bassist James Jamerson continued to work in L.A. recording sessions armed with little more than his ’62 Fender Precision Bass.
By the mid ’70s, the Japanese responded to the vacuum by producing a series of increasingly accurate copies of vintage instruments. Tokai, in particular, produced extremely handsome clones. And Yamaha designed its hybrid of the Gibson SG and Les Paul, dubbed the SG-2000. Carlos Santana was regularly seen playing his Yamaha in concert and at high-profile gigs such as his 1978 appearance on “Saturday Night Live.”
But American manufacturers were slow to respond. In the late 1970s, Gibson geared up to produce its Heritage 80 line of reissue Les Pauls (VG, February ’04). While far from perfect copies of the great sunburst Pauls of the late 1950s, they at least replaced the then-standard three-piece tops of the newer Les Pauls with two-piece tops, with often stunning looking curly or flamed maple.
Fender Goes Back To The Future
Turning the CBS-controlled Fender around was a bit more problematic. It began in 1981, when two of Fender’s executives – president Bill Schultz and V.P. Roger Balmer – decided that they’d had enough of hearing of the glory days of the pre-CBS era. Their first step was to bring in Dan Smith from Yamaha and make him head of Fender’s guitar division. Smith knew of the high regard players had of the pre-CBS Fenders, and their even lower regard for the ’70s equivalents. Smith, Schultz, and Balmer consulted with some of the key employees of the pre-CBS Fender era, including designer Freddie Tavares, pickup winder Gail Paz, and final assembly inspector Gloria Fuentes, each of whom had over 20 years experience at Fender. And John Page was also brought in; he would later lead Fender’s renowned Custom Shop.
The initial goal wasn’t so much to make an obvious reissue line, but to make Strats and Teles that were closer to their original specs.
“One of the first changes Dan Smith made was to revise the overall specs of the Strat,” said Tony Bacon, the author of 50 Years of Fender (Backbeat Books). “And Bill Schultz recommended a program of investment, primarily to modernize the factory. This meant production was virtually stopped while new machinery was installed and staff re-trained.”
Simultaneously, Schultz suggested making Fenders in Japan.
“Fender’s sales were being hammered by oriental copies,” Bacon added. “And Schultz figured that as the copyists made their biggest profits at home in Japan, that was the best place to hit back by making and selling Fenders there.
“The new management team planned for Fender, in effect, to copy itself by re-creating the ’50s and ’60s guitars that were responsible for what remained of Fender’s reputation,” said Bacon. “That’s where the Vintage Reissue series came in.”
The most well-known reissues were the ’52 Telecasters and ’57 Stratocasters, each of which had one-ply pickguards and maple necks. The complete Fender reissue line also included a 1962 version of the Strat, with a rosewood fretboard and three-ply pickguard, a maple-necked ’57 Precision Bass, a ’62 P-Bass with a rosewood fretboard, and a ’62 Jazz Bass.
Steve Cropper Tests a ‘52 Reissue
In its July ’82 issue, Musician magazine quoted the great Steve Cropper, who in the 1960s played in the Stax Records Studio house band, and at the time had just toured with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd’s Blues Brothers group. Cropper put Fender’s resissue of their 1952 Telecaster through its paces and concluded, “It’s fantastic; it’s a really good guitar… It just feels great. I play real hard, and I’ve had trouble with a lot of Teles because the neck’ll move around on me. This new one doesn’t bend nearly as much; I can play it hard and it’ll stand up.”
Cropper had played on numerous hit records with a ’50s Esquire given to him by fellow Stax session man and Blues Brother Donald “Duck” Dunn. “That’s a great guitar, but the new one sounds as good to me. That Esquire isn’t retired yet, but it’s been left in its case for awhile since I got this new one.”
Delays And Bad Ads
Cropper’s ’52 reissue was either a prototype or one of the first off the assembly lines. Smith said the Stratocaster reissues weren’t produced until near the end of ’82. It’s possible that the Telecaster reissue appeared in stores before the Strat because it required less work to emulate its vintage appearance.
Advertising for the reissues began in mid 1982, but even there it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing.
“When Fender introduced the vintage series in the earliest vintage replica catalog, it was really rather hilarious,” said George Gruhn. “If you get out a magnifying glass or have good eyesight, and you look at the rear-view picture of the vintage Stratocaster reissue, you can read the brand name on the back of the tuners. It says ‘Tokai’!
“It would appear that Fender didn’t have their own thing ready, and they simply photographed a Tokai vintage replica Strat and either superimposed or stuck the Fender name on the peghead for the catalog and ran with it,” he added. “But sure enough, the tuners say Tokai on them.”
Bacon says Fender apparently wasn’t ready, because it took them several months for most reissues to begin showing up in stores.
“Production was planned to start in 1982 at the factory in Fullerton and at Fender’s newly appointed Japanese factory, Fujigen,” he said. “But the changes at the American factory meant the full range of U.S. versions didn’t appear until early 1983.”
Smith believes its likely the U.S. factory wasn’t operating as planned until the first months of 1984. And by ’85, Fender was able to jettison its CBS connection, becoming independent again after a management buyout.
Production of American-made Fender instruments ceased for much of 1985, as the newly independent company moved from Fullerton to Corona, California. Its corporate headquarters has since moved to Scottsdale, Arizona.
Up Close With The Reissues
To complete the “back to the future” feel of the instruments, the Telecaster and Stratocaster were shipped with the same handsome tweed cases as their ’50s counterparts. Reproductions of the ’50s-era owners manuals were included, along with a vintage-style 10-foot cable.
The guitars were well-playing copies of Fender’s 1950s predecessors, with nitrocellulose finishes rather than the polyurethane that was otherwise standard at the time. But the necks were far from perfect: their profile was standardized to be identical on the ’57 and ’62 reissue Strats. Fender felt that the most popular neck preference would be a very flat cross-section, while ’50s Strats had something very different.
In his highly regarded book, The Stratocaster (Hal Leonard, 1994), A.R. Duchossoir wrote that an obvious difference between the original Strats and their reissues was the positioning of the dot markers at the 12th fret.
“Fender got this detail right on their 1982 prototypes, but it couldn’t be duplicated on the production models because it would have required costly retooling,” he wrote.
Instead, the slab dots are where they were since the ’70s: moved in about an 1/8″ from their ’50s counterparts. It’s a minor detail, but definitely noticeable when compared to a ’50s Strat.
This is “probably the quickest way to spot a reissue at first sight from afar,” Duchossoir says, also noting that the 1962 reissue lacks clay fretboard dot markers, the greenish nitrate pickguard, and patent numbers on the headstock.
Parts were included to bring the instruments to modern standards, because so many Strat players love the out-of-phase sounds between the primary positions on the selector switch. Thus, the reissue Strats were shipped with a five-way selector to replace the factory-installed three-way switch. The Telecaster came with a six-saddle bridge to replace the original three-saddle bridge, for better intonation, and a wiring kit to bring the sound up to modern specs. Today, many players are happy to keep the three-saddle bridge and they’re willing to live with minor intonation issues for more authentic classic Telecaster tone and better sustain.
While the 1980s were known more as the era of the hot-rodded Eddie Van Halen-inspired Floyd Rose-equipped “superstrats,” there were a few well-known guitarists touring with vintage Fender reissues. Besides Cropper, Roy Buchanan and James Burton also endorsed the Tele reissue. Robert Quine, who was Lou Reed’s right-hand man in the early 1980s, played a ’52 reissue Tele. David Gilmour took a couple of ’57 reissue Strats on his first solo tour after Pink Floyd broke up in the mid ’80s. By the time Gilmour took the reformed Floyd (sans bassist Roger Waters) on the road in ’87, his reissue Strats sported EMG SA pickups and a wiring harness (with the SPC midrange boost and EXG expander modules) to reduce noise and provide Gilmour with a wider variety of tones.
Like their contemporary Gibson Les Paul Heritage 80 models, the Fender reissues of the early to mid 1980s were far-from-perfect copies of the treasured 1950s/early-’60s instruments that inspired them. But because of their relatively low prices ($600 or so new), they allowed far more players to own a decent copy of a classic vintage instrument.
As Steve Cropper noted in 1982, as the first reissues began to trickle off the assembly line, Fender finally was smart enough to say, “‘Look, we’re having more and more complaints about our newer guitars; it’s time to get back in touch with the musicians.’ I think they were making a real effort to go out and find out what people really thought.”
It was a long time coming, but it paid big dividends for Fender, especially after it left CBS: the instruments allowed the company to work vintage features loved and demanded by players into its standard line, and led to historic reissues being offered in both its standard line and as part of its Custom Shop.
This article originally appeared in VG November 2004 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.