When you think about it, it’s quite remarkable how few guitar archetypes there really are. By “archetypes” we’re referring to aesthetic design, or shapes.
If you pull back and squint, there are basically only about half a dozen categories. The most basic is the Spanish guitar, that lovely, feminine figure-eight from antiquity. A Ramirez classical, a Martin dreadnought, a D’Angelico archtop, a Les Paul solidbody, arguably even the humble Telecaster and double-cut SG are all variations on this ancient archetype.
At the other extreme is a kind of catch-all category we might call “exotica.” These include all those weird shapes that push the form. Explorers, Flying Vs, a Mockingbird, a Bunker, a Gittler, a Steinberger; all quite delightful, yet certainly eccentric interpretations of the form.
In between fall designs such as the once-mighty Jazzmaster and one of the most remarkable and enduring creations of the 20th century, the offset double-cutaway Stratocaster invented in 1954 by Leo Fender, with help from Freddy Tavares.
Even though it took a relatively long time for the Strat to exert itself as a dominant form, in retrospect, by any measure, Fender’s Stratocaster has been a phenomenal success. While slow to catch on, the Stratocaster has been in constant production for 48 years – virtually unchanged except for the pickup selector and the occasional detail or electronics permutation – and we can safely assert that no other guitar has influenced electric guitar design as much as the Strat.
Bill Carson’s Dream
From an organological perspective, the Strat was an attempt to build the ideal guitar as described by Bill Carson, the guitarist who served as Fender’s chief “consultant” in the early ’50s. He wanted a guitar that was balanced, contoured, with a Bigsby-style headstock, four pickups, and a vibrato that could raise or lower the strings a half step without going out of tune. So, he didn’t get one pickup!
The offset double cutaways and the body contours were quite radical developments in 1954, and having three pickups was pure excess. The story of the Strat itself has been exhaustively documented, so there’s no need to dig deeper into that side of the story. This is more about the evolution of the form.
An Elegant Solution
From a manufacturing perspective, of course, the Strat, like its older sibling the Tele, were quite elegant. The Strat body required a bit more handwork to round the horns and create the contours, but both were essentially modular for streamlined construction. Unlike a Les Paul, there was no neck gluing, and no sandwich bodies, top carving, or elaborate binding. On maple necks, there wasn’t even a fingerboard to worry about! Just screw on the neck, hardware, and pickguard assembly. Admittedly, the vibrato, a piece of sheer engineering genius, did require a bit more work, but all-in-all, Fender’s guitars were remarkably designed for efficient manufacture.
On ’50s Design
Considered from a design point of view, the Strat is amazingly idiomatic of contemporary ’50s tastes. Coming in 1954, the Strat was right on the cusp of significant consumer design changes. The ’50s saw great strides in design changes. Americans, freed from the deprivations of World War II, were busy propagating and populating the newly-built suburbs with the post-war baby boom. Times were relatively good and there was pent up demand for goods of all kinds, necessary and leisurely. Household goods, for example, began to emerge from the quasi-utilitarianism of the Depression to incorporate design ideas intended to encourage consumption.
The ’50s exhibited an uneasy truce between the geometric and the organic, between decoration and functionality. Curve-fitting sheath dresses were in for the ladies. Rockets were the sign of the times. Cars were on the verge of breaking away from the curvaceous bubbles of the ’40s. In ’48, the Cadillac acquired the first aeronautical fins, but by ’53 it was still sporting ample curves and lots of chrome, including a pair of bombs (or Dagmars) on the front bumper.
However, in counterpoint (and also in ’53) there appeared the more elegant Eurostyle lines of the classic Studebakers designed by Raymond Loewy.
Two of the most popular shapes of ’50s design were the boomerang and what Tom Hines, in his book on design, Populuxe, calls “the blob.”
The popularity of the boomerang reflected the tension between geometry and organic. There, literally, was a great fad for boomerangs at the time! In ’55, Chrysler adopted a new logo that consisted of juxtaposed boomerang shapes. One of the most popular chairs of the era was the Hardog, or butterfly chair consisting of several boomerang metal structures over which was hung a canvas sling, often in orange. Even the golden arches of the new McDonald’s hamburger chain growing around the landscape were modified boomerangs.
Perhaps the ultimate architectural expression of the boomerang was the spectacular TWA terminal at what was then Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York, its soaring swept wings designed by Eero Saarinen.
Also ubiquitous was the blob. Although they’d been designed before the War, Alexander Calder’s mobiles, loaded with boomerangs and blobs, saw their greatest popularity in the ’50s. Blobby pole lamps were all the rage. Blobby coffee tables graced living rooms. Blobs were on wallpaper, curtains and counter tops. If you want to see a living treasure trove of ’50s boomerangs and blobs (plus lots of great neon), pay a visit to Wildwood, New Jersey.
For guitar lovers, the Gibson Flying V, Explorer, and mysterious Moderne were expressions of boomerangs and blobs.
Sign o’ The Times
In any case, the ’54 Strat fell right in with these design notions. Its curves were organic, like the ’53 Caddy, but the dynamic thrust of the cutaways and angled lines of the lower bout moved it in more of a Loewy direction. If you just look at the cutaway horns, you have a classic boomerang. Look at the pickguard and you have a ’50s blob… with three pickups, like a three-hole Buick. Even the spaghetti logo is blobby.
Despite its debt to Bigsby (and Stauffer, by the way; Leo Fender had visited Martin prior to designing the Strat, where he was shown an early Martin with the Austrian-style six-in-line headstock), the Strat’s head was clearly a fin, anticipating what was to come.
In ’55, Virgil Exner designed Chrysler’s “Forward Look,” full of swept-wing fins. Indeed, you could easily see the Strat headstock shape as chrome trim on the side of a mid-’50s Buick Century, Ford Fairlane, or Plymouth Belvedere.
Even the Strat’s colors reflected the times. Both kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures were fashionable in color. One ad for refrigerators lists color options as Bermuda Pink, Dawn Grey, Buttercup Yellow, Sand Beige, Fern Green, and Lagoon Blue. Compare those with the Strat’s custom color options – Shell Pink, Inca Silver, Shoreline Gold, Foam Green, and Lake Placid Blue.
What’s truly amazing about all this is, of course, that Dagmars (on cars) and boomerangs are now little more than curious artifacts (except in Wildwood), but the Fender Stratocaster has survived the vicissitudes of time and continues to thrive, more or less unchanged by the winds of fashion.
A Slow Start
As related by Fender’s chief salesman, Don Randall, dealers were at first reluctant about stocking the new Stratocaster. Its styling was too radical, and what was with that “tremolo” thing (one more time, these units are vibratos, not tremolos)?
As we’ve discussed previously, the prevailing influence on the electric guitar in the ’50s was the Gibson Les Paul. Everything from Harmony Stratotones and the first Kays to Gretsch Round Ups and National/Supros, even early Japanese solidbodies – with only a few exceptions – were made in the Les Paul image. Since Les had been voted America’s most popular guitarist in ’53, this is no wonder.
In an attempt to compete with the more upscale Les Paul, Fender introduced the more deluxe-appointed Jazzmaster in ’58. While the Jazzmaster never did set the guitar-playing world on fire, it did set guitarmakers everywhere on a track of imitating the blobby shape of this venerable Fender. Through much of the ’60s, the Jazzmaster would be a dominant factor in guitar design, especially among European and Japanese makers of budget guitars. Don’t forget, the classic single-cutaway Les Paul was replaced by the double-cutaway SG shape in ’61 (still called a Les Paul). While the SG has its advocates, this hapless guitar inspired very few imitations during its run.
When we talk about design influence during this early period, we’re not yet talking about “copies.” That would come later. Instead, companies would pay homage to the popular shapes, in order (no doubt) to capitalize on their recognition factors. No one at Harmony ever expected you to confuse a Stratotone with a Les Paul, even though, when you squint across a room, they look similar. There was a kind of unwritten rule that precluded exact copying during this era, though clearly manufacturers were not loath to borrow vibes. This would also be true when it came to making the first Strat inspirations.
One of the earliest American luthiers to employ the Strat style was the late Gilbert Lee Stiles, Florida, who in 1960 or so began to make solidbody electrics in his garage. However, Stiles was primarily a single artisan. Stiles never set up a real production line so, while you encounter his pieces occasionally, he can’t really be considered a big industry influence.
It appears that guitarmakers on both sides of the Atlantic discovered the Strat form at about the same time. In ’62, both Carvin (in the U.S.) and Hagstrom (in Sweden) introduced versions of the Strat shape. In retrospect, such a delay from ’54 is remarkable!
Carvin, which was started in California in ’46 by Lowell Kiesel and evolved into a successful direct-to-consumer manufacturer, switched to a Strat-style shape in ’62. These were slab-bodied guitars with no contours and a bolt-on neck with a Strat-style headstock and Kluson tuners. These came with two or three Carvin-made pickups, either AP-6 or AP-1. By ’63 these were offered with a Bigsby vibrato.
Crossing the Atlantic
Hagstrom, which got into the music game in ’21 and began manufacturing accordions in ’31/’32, started making its plastic-covered Les Paul-shaped hollowbodies in ’58. In ’62 it switched to a Strat-style guitar known as the “Kent.” Known by a variety of names and sometimes sold in different countries with names other than Hagstrom, these had a downsized Strat shape with rounded corners but no contours. However, the most distinctive features of these little Strats included a colorful vinyl “fabricord” covering on the back and the famous molded plastic “swimming pool” pickup assembly and unique Hagstrom vibrato on the front.
The bolt on necks (sometimes called Kord King) were ultra slim – perhaps the first super-thin necks – and had a Strat-style head. The pickup assembly, by the way, was perfectly bloboid.
Carvin was the only American manufacturer to employ the Strat shape until later in the ’60s. But the design did catch on in Europe, which is interesting because the U.S. was the primary market for European guitarmakers, whose quality level put them in competition for the entry/mid-level guitars of the time (Harmony, Kay, Valco). Either consciously or intuitively, on some level they wanted to compete with real Strats.
Both in terms of price point and the amount of work required to produce it, the Strat was perceived as being below a set-neck Gibson. By ’64, Höfner in Germany was offering its 170 series with a Strat shape and two fat single-coil pickups. The most famous of these was the 175 covered (like the Hagstrom) in a textured vinyl. By the following year, at least, Hoyer, also in Germany, was also offering models such as the 35, with a Strat shape.
The German company, Klira, also produced Strat-inspired models, as did the English company, Watkins. Almost always, these had twin pickup layouts. In the U.K., the Burns Jazz Split Sound was a pretty good version of the Strat, with three fancy split-coil pickups, introduced around ’65.
Further south, in ’65 the EKO company, in Recanati, Italy, had begun to move away from its Jazzmaster-shaped, sparkle covered models (which Karl Erik Hagstrom believes were a direct rip-off of his sparkle guitars), and introduced the Cobra, a slightly exaggerated Strat-style guitar. This was followed in ’67 by the Condor, which was even more like a Strat, including more contouring.
Although he undoubtedly didn’t play one, Bill Carson’s ideal was fulfilled with the Condor, which finally had four pickups! And a Bigsby-style vibrato. While some of these were in fairly traditional finishes, others had very contemporary schemes, such as salmon pink and black similar to colors used on cars like the Ford Fairlane. Other Italian Strat-style guitars appeared in the later ’60s, including the ca. ’68 Juliet Delux in time-appropriate avocado green finish with groovy pop art plastic pickguard.
But by then the bottom was dropping out of the market, and European costs were making selling into the American market prohibitive. Curiously, one of the major Euro guitarmakers, Framus, never really went after the Strat shape, but concentrated on the Jazzmaster style.
By the ’70s, the Europeans, mostly insignificant in the U.S. by now, returned to a Gibson model. Some manufacturers such as Hagstrom and Framus hung on in America through most of the ’70s, but this would mark the end of any serious European role in the global guitar markets.
Back Home in Kansas
While most American companies sort of observed a “gentleman’s agreement” not to copy the designs of other American companies (although the Les Paul allusions didn’t seem to have a big effect on their consciences), at least one company did emulate the Fender Strat, the Holman-Woodell company in Neodesha, Kansas.
Founded in May of ’65 by Howard E. Holman and Victor A. Woodell, its big coup was to score a contract with the Wurlitzer company to produce solidbody electric guitars. By ’65, of course, the blood lust was high for all companies to cash in on the electric guitar gravy train started by the Beatles in February of ’64. 1965 was the year CBS purchased the Fender company. This coincided with the first part of the Post-War baby boom’s achieving high adolescence, and arguably accounts for the existence of this magazine and the words you’re reading right now.
In any case, Holman-Woodell produced several models for Wurlitzer, the most conservative of which was the Cougar Model 2512, a Strat-style guitar with a pair of single-coil pickups, a la Europa, and a Wurlitzer take on a Bigsby vibrato. Unfortunately for H-W, they didn’t really know how to finish their products right, and Wurlitzer experienced so many returns due to faulty finishes that the contract was ended in early ’66. If you’ve ever had one of these Kansas beauties, you’ve probably seen peeling paint. Holman subsequently briefly marketed these Strat-style guitars as the Holman Classic, but without Wurlitzer’s distribution clout, they were doomed. The company changed hands and struggled on for another year or so before becoming a footnote in guitar history.
Crossing the Pacific
We’ve also discussed the “copy phenomenon” before and pointed out that the Japanese manufacturers began to flex their muscle as quality improved and America presented what seemed to be an unlimited goldmine by the mid ’60s. Competing mainly with the Europeans (and somewhat with American makes such as Kay and Harmony), early on the Japanese began to imitate Old World guitars vying for the lower end of the market. Many early-’60s Japanese designs were based on the Jazzmaster, but that was more likely due to the fact that the Europeans were using that form, rather than an independent focus on Fender. Burns Bisons, EKO violins, and Vox teardrops would quickly inspire Japanese versions.
The Japanese movement toward Stratdom occurred in around ’67, with several brands for American distributors. One was the Domino Olympic made for the Maurice Lipsky Music Co., Inc., in New York. The Domino line featured a number of near copies mostly made by Kawai. The Olympic was a bit thicker-waisted than a real Strat, but had slightly slanted, flat-poled single-coil pickups meant to suggest a Strat.
Simultaneously, Buegeleisen & Jacobson, Lipsky’s Cooper Union neighbor, which had been one of the early companies turning to Japan in the late ’50s, introduced its Kent Model 742/4. This Kent was clearly a variant on the Strat, even though it had significant styling differences, ranging from pointed cutaway horns to a three-and-three headstock. Also, the body of the 742 was not contoured, but featured beautiful burled maple top and back and sides bound in wide, almost Baroque black and white plastic strips.
Again, this featured four pickups (although they are some of the worst sounding pickups ever encountered). A real Bigsby was optional. Three- and two-pickup versions were also offered with the 741/3 and 740/2. Both the Domino Olympic and Kent 740s were history by ’68, as were a bunch of guitar companies (including Valco/Kay) with the big guitar washout.
The Copy Era
Almost quite literally 1968 marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. With the demise of Valco/Kay and a lot of Japanese manufacturers, the old model was realigned. The manufacturers who survived were put on a new road that lead to the “copy era,” and the beginnings of an entirely new relationship among international guitarmakers.
Accounts of how copies began differ, but it’s probably safe to believe Shiro Arai of Arai and Co., makers of Aria and Diamond guitars (plus many others). Arai recalls visiting the 1968 NAMM show where Gibson reintroduced the Les Paul Custom, the Black Beauty. Arai mentioned to the Gibson people that he thought they no longer made that guitar and was told that it was a copy of the old model. The light went on and Arai returned to Japan to build a bolt-neck “copy” of the Les Paul Custom. By the following year Japanese “copies” of Les Pauls began coming into the U.S. It didn’t take long for the phenomenon to spread to other “copies” of popular American guitars.
The first copy era Japanese Strat copies – although, like their Les Paul counterparts, not yet truly “copies” – appeared in 1970, from at least three different sources. One was a Strat-style guitar, the No. 1802, offered by none other than Gibson itself carrying the Epiphone brand name. This featured an Epi-style three-and-three headstock and a pair of black-and-white pickups that were common on Aria guitars of the time. Indeed, this was virtually identical to a contemporary Aria No. 1802. Both were probably made by Matsumoku. A year later, this guitar was changed to a Model ET270 designation, but was otherwise unchanged until around ’75.
Another early Strat-style line came from W.M.I. carrying the Teisco del Rey moniker, the ET-440 and ET-220 Deluxe guitars (there was a similar EB-120 Deluxe Bass). Teisco had gotten closer to a Strat style with the WG series of a few years earlier, but their tubby profiles certainly lacked the Strat’s elegance. Both the ET-440 and ET-220 were “mini-Strats” with Spectrum Sound pickups, Framus-style plywood necks and wood-grained Strat-style heads. The ET-440 had four pickups, the ET-220 had two.
These were offered for several years as W.M.I. made the transition from using the Teisco del Rey name to the Kay brand, which it had bought at auction in ’69. By ’73, the Kay name had prevailed and the line shifted toward more conventional copies, including Strats. Strat-style guitars would be a major part of the Kay line going forward, even as production shifted from Japan to Korea, and then parts beyond.
The third early Strat-style copy came from Hoshino Gen Gakki as the Ibanez No. 2020 Electric Guitar. This was basically a wide-bodied, contoured Strat with a pair of chrome-covered single-coil pickups and a vibrato. Most had Strat-style heads, but a few have been seen with Teisco “checkmark” headstocks. The No. 2020 was joined in ’71 by the Model No. 2375 Strato. This initially had three Tele-style pickups and a stop tailpiece but quickly changed to be a more traditional vibrato-equipped Strat copy. These were made through the copy era until around ’78.
By late ’72, St. Louis Music, which would be another big player in the copy game, had introduced its Avenger Series of Electra guitars. These were full-blown Strat copies with maple fingerboards in black, sunburst, and cream finishes.
It was also in ’72 that Kasuga began advertising its copy guitars in The Music Trades magazine – and the copy era began to really kick in. While the primary focus of the copy era was on Gibson style guitars – being more expensive, they offered more margin to undercut – but Strats came in for their share of copying. Even Guild purchased some of the Kasugas, including Strats, and marketed them as Madeira guitars beginning in ’73. Strats were copied by companies as various as Aria (Aria Pro II after ’75) and Hondo throughout the main part of the ’70s, virtually all of them manufactured in Japan.
While all this copying was going on, so was a fair amount playing with the form, either in terms of decoration or innovative electronics.
Among the more interesting decorative variations was the use of carving to enhance the body. In ’74, fairly early in the game, Ibanez introduced a trio of Strat copies with bodies carved in Taiwan. These included the Models No. 2508-1 Artwood Orient, No. 2508-2 Artwood Nouveau and No. 2408-3 Artwood Eagle. The Orient featured an elaborate dragon design, the Nouveau a bunch of leaves and fruit in a botanical theme, and the Eagle with an obvious motif.
The Ibanez carved Strats lasted only about a year, but were imitated in around 1977 by some more dragon-carved Strat copies including the Aria Pro II PE-160 Dragon and another identical guitar sold by Merson-Unicord carrying the Univox brand. These were, I believe, equally short-lived.
Another curious innovation was the early addition of onboard electronic effects. Effects had originated mainly in the ’60s and took off in the early ’70s. They ranged from little square boxes by Dan Armstrong (e.g., the Orange Juicer) that plugged into the jack in front of the cord to various foot pedals that did everything from create distortion or phasing to wah and volume.
In ’77, the Japanese company, Fresher, introduced the Straighter FSC100 that had onboard distortion, wah, and phaser, with an individual speed control knob for each. The effects were put on several guitar designs and remain quite amusing if you can find one. This notion would be picked up a few years later, quite independently, on the Effector guitar by Cort, the Korean partnership between Jack Westheimer and Yung H. Park. These effects, a little more complex than those of the Fresher, were mainly mounted on Explorer copies, but a very few ended up on Strat copies.
One footnote to this Strat-with-novel-electronics theme was picked up again in ca. ’84 in a short-lived but remarkable Strat-style guitar called the Player, no relation to J.B. These were upscale guitars with one-piece mahogany body and a swell ebony fingerboard. These were the product of a company in Scarsdale, New York, headed by N.S. “Buck” Brundage (please contact me if you know more about Buck or this company).
Besides being very fine guitars, Players had the novel feature of pickups mounted in plastic modules that let you change them at will by simply pushing them through the back and shoving in the new unit. Despite some positive press, these apparently lasted only about a year, but are one of the cooler electronic interpretations of the Strat form.
The copy era ended abruptly in ’77, when Norlin (parent of Gibson) filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in Philadelphia against the Elger Company, the American subsidiary of Hoshino, manufacturers of Ibanez guitars. The suit was settled out of court, and copying of Gibson products by all manufacturers ceased pretty much immediately.
Since Fender was not party to the suit, Fender copies straggled on briefly, with Ibanez still selling Challenger Series Strats into ’78. In ’79, Ibanez introduced the Roadster Series, which still consisted of a Strat-style body and three pickups in a Strat-style configuration. However, in addition to a new blade-style headstock, the pickups were larger and mounted to the top on surrounds as opposed to a pickguard. These had heavy cast tailpieces instead of a vibrato, but still created cool, beefy Stratish sounds. The better Roadsters even had flamed maple tops and backs visible through a translucent butterscotch finish.
In 1980, the Ibanez Roadster Strats were replaced by the Blazer series, initially very similar to the Roadsters, with either three single-coil pickups or two humbuckers. In ’82 the Ibanez Blazers transmogrified into the popular Roadstar II line. These added more distinctive styling touches to the basic Strat shape, with squarer, slightly hooked cutaway horns. They continued to rely on either the three single-coil or two-humbucker pickup layouts. The Roadstar IIs and their progeny, the RS and RG guitars, all come straight out of the lineage of the Fender Stratocaster, although they quickly became part of the associated SuperStrat story, which we’ll discuss in a subsequent essay.
Similarly, companies such as Aria also continued to imply the Strat concept in modified form through the ’80s. After its initial run of Rev Sound RS guitars in the late ’70s, their version of the Ibanez Musician series, Aria Pro II switched to a svelte, slightly streamlined Strat shape, many with the typical three-pickup layout, although the active electronics gave them a distinctive sound. These quickly evolved into the passive Warrior series that dominated the ’80s. Some of these featured a Strat configuration, although, again, these Arias will be discussed in the SuperStrat story.
Passing the Torch
While shipping copies into America stopped, there was a concomitant burst of demand for them in Japan beginning ca. ’78. Companies such as Hoshino, which had become so heavily vested in the U.S. market, gave up the copy business. Aria continued a little while, but other companies in Japan picked up the torch. Even companies such as Yamaha, which had hitherto only made original designs, began to build copies for the Japanese market.
Other companies that began making copies at roughly around this time were Tokai and Fernandes. As you might expect, these are of superb quality. One very amusing feature of these is the model names, especially on Yamahas. Using logo typeface that looked identical to the American original, the Les Paul was called the Love Rock, and the Strat – complete with spaghetti letters – was called the SuperRivroller!
By the early ’80s, Tokai had perfected the art of copying to the point where it was making versions of vintage Strats. Play an ’82 Tokai AST ’56 Vintage Series with your eyes closed, and you have a ’56 Strat in your hands… at a fraction of the price.
Some of the Fernandes and Tokai copy guitars began to make their way back into the U.S. market as the ’80s dawned. In ’81, alarmed at yet another prospect of market share erosion (at a time when the bloom had well worn off Fender’s rose for CBS), Fender had a container of Fernandes Strats held at port until a shipment of replacement necks could be provided, necks with a different headstock design. Thereafter, most Strat copies sent into the U.S. had modified headstock designs.
Indeed, it was around this time that Fender initiated a joint venture with one of the Japanese manufacturers to begin Fender Japan, initially intended to make Fender’s Squier line. Both because the product quality was so good and costs became too high, Fender stopped importing Japanese guitars into the U.S. in the mid ’80s.
(Leo) Fender Redux
While the Japanese were paying all this attention to the venerable Strat, the form was also getting renewed attention from another, more intimate, corner. Indeed, from its creator himself – Leo Fender.
Fender, who had been ill when he sold his company to CBS in ’65, had recovered and was anxious to return to the guitarmaking business. To that end, in ’72 Fender hooked up with former Fender Musical Instruments executives Forrest White and Tom Walker, and founded Music Man.
Pursuing earlier interests, Fender first turned his attention to building guitar and bass amplifiers based on his previous designs. When he returned to guitars in ’76, it was to his stalwart Stratocaster that he turned. The first Music Man guitars were the Sting Ray I and II and the Sabre I and II (the I and II signifying different fingerboard radii). Both had contoured offset double-cutaway bodies similar to a Strat, with two new pickups of Fender’s design and an optional onboard preamp. Alas, as good as these guitars were, they were never quite as successful as Music Man amplifiers or basses.
Not ready to give up, Leo left Music Man, and in 1980 teamed with another Fender veteran, George Fullerton, to form G&L (George and Leo). G&L’s first guitar was the F-100, essentially a reworked twin-humbucker Music Man with the famous Strat shape and two humbucking pickups. Another Strat-inspired guitar, the S-500, debuted in ’82, with three single-coil pickups and vibrato designed by Leo. G&L guitars didn’t really take off (if that’s the proper description) until ’85, with the introduction of the Broadcaster, a Tele copy. Its name, by the way, was quickly changed (déjà vu!) to the ASAT in ’86, and it would continue to be G&L’s most successful model.
Hard Times and Parts
The actual Fender Stratocaster had fallen on hard times in the ’70s. Following the CBS takeover, production began to change in attempts to make the company more efficient and therefore profitable. The most famous change was from a four-bolt to a three-bolt neck joint, which had player’s swearing that the new design was less stable and didn’t sound as good. Although you rarely hear this complaint today, this was the source of early vintage collector snobbery concerning pre-CBS and post-CBS Strats.
As the ’70s dawned, the old, smaller headstock was redesigned to a larger shape, (no doubt following the old pre-gas-crisis American design axiom that bigger was better). This further annoyed Strat purists, and Fender returned to the smaller shape in the early ’80s. In any case, Fender, like Gibson, continued to suffer quality control problems throughout the ’70s, allowing other companies to make significant inroads on its market share.
In part because of this deterioration of the Strat’s reputation, the late ’70s saw the emergence of a vibrant parts culture, with companies manufacturing Strat bodies and necks out of premium timbers and selling these parts to guitarists who would then assemble kit Strats. Three of the most successful were Mighty Mite, Schecter Guitar Research, and Charvel Manufacturing. Indeed, for a time, Schecter and Charvel were actually partners. All sold custom bodies, necks, and special pickups and wiring harnesses for the do-it-yourselfer.
Any of these custom Strats may still be encountered and represent an interesting chapter in guitar history, although since many of the components were unbranded, identifying them might present a problem.
Charvel Manufacturing, in particular, was the creation of Wayne Charvel, who operated a respected repair shop and built a reputation for custom-made Strat-style guitar bodies and necks. Charvel began working with another luthier, Grover Jackson, ca. ’77, and in ’78 Jackson purchased the rights to Charvel Manfacturing Company. In ’79, Jackson began to offer bolt-neck Strats carrying the Charvel brand name. Ca. ’81 he started selling neck-through guitars under the Jackson brand name.
The success of Jackson and Charvel Strat-style guitars turned the Strat into the dominant form of the ’80s, with the guitar press touting the new phenomenon called “Stratmania.” Coincidental with the success of Jackson/Charvel were significant developments by other established companies like Dean and Kramer. Together, these combined to create the ultimate shredding machine, the SuperStrat, a development that would immortalize the Strat form (which we’ll discuss later).
Before we leave this tribute, it’s interesting to note that there have been some fascinating variations on the Strat form over the years, ranging from “anti-Strats” to obvious inspirations, to entertaining exaggerations.
The first “anti-Strat” we’re aware of came in the early ’60s with the invention of Semi Moseley’s Mosrite solidbodies, which by mid-decade had become associated with the Ventures. Indeed, Moseley has described how he arrived at his “reverse Strat” design: he simply got a Strat and flipped it over to trace the outline, which he tweaked to become the Mosrite!
Guitars that were clearly inspired by the Strat are probably legion, some better known than others. As we’ve seen, there were not too many of these until the 1970s when the Strat began to emerge from the shadow of the more popular Gibson Les Paul.
One less well-known guitar was the Travis Bean TB-500, a more-or-less Strat-shaped version of Bean’s more familiar Gibson-style aluminum-necked wonder. When Martin decided to try it’s hand at solidbody electrics in ’78 with the E-18 and EM-18 (joined by the E-28 in ’80), the body shapes were decidedly Stratoid. Another highly significant guitar from ’78 was the Peavey T-60, the world’s first to be carved by numerically controlled carving machines (today a common practice). It combined a rounded, Gibson-style lower bout with the offset double cutaways of a Strat. Even though it had two humbuckers, the T-60 had a novel wiring scheme that gave a Stratish single-coil combination when the tone control was at 10 (it switched to humbucker at about 8).
Identifying exaggerations of the Strat might be a little more subjective, but if you open your mind, they’re all around. It’s arguable, for example, that the famous pointed Burns Bison is little more than an exaggerated Strat form. A favorite take on this is the Japanese Avalon Shaggs model from the late ’60s. Even the wonderful tulip-shaped EKOs of the early ’60s are, if you will, Strats with the horns pulled outward.
Indeed, Bernie Rico followed this notion when he came up with the B.C. Rich Eagle in ’75. Technically speaking, what became the Eagle was a redesign of his Seagull as a bass for Olivia Newton John’s bassist, Bill Bodine, re-dubbed the Eagle a year or so later. Despite it’s floral flair, if you squint, you can still detect some of the spirit of the Strat. In the ’80s, Rico introduced the ST series that was his version of the Strat/SuperStrat.
One of the more bizarre Strat inspirations was the Peavey Vandenberg introduced in ’88, with a distorted profile and various quasi-fiddle notches cut out, designed for the Dutch guitar ace Adrian Vandenberg. Very out there.
Leo Fender, the Strat’s inventor, died in ’91, but lived long enough to see his creation become ubiquitous. It is impossible for us to document the legions of Strat-inspired guitars that have appeared since the Stratmania of the early ’80s. Everyone from Martin (with its Stinger line) to Harmony to Peavey to Robin, and a host in-between, produced both similar and overt tributes to the Strat form. Today you can get a Johnson Strat made in Indonesia or China for a $150, or a high-end interpretation by Levinson for considerably more. Not to mention dozens of variations now offered by Fender itself. It has gotten so crazy that Fender has, over the last decade, begun to make replicas of its older Strats, first with the Relic series and now with its Closet Classics series. Both aim to copy the specs of certain year Strats and then employ sophisticated finishing techniques to make them seem, in the case of the Relics, as if they’d been played for decades in a beer bar (with fake fingerboard wear and dings, etc.), or, in the case of the Closet Classics, as if they’d just aged naturally under somebody’s bed, with just slight wear and finish crazing.
A pretty impressive achievement for an elegant combination of boomerangs, blobs, and fin-like angles first carved out of maple in 1954.
Stratospheric Variations, Part II
Aclose first cousin to the phenomenally successful Stratocaster, the “Superstrat” was
at one time the heir apparent to the throne of guitardom, and represents an interesting subtheme in the exploration of guitar archetypes or designs. From an aesthetic design perspective, the Superstrat is really a Stratocaster – pure and simple – and belongs with that discussion. However, since it was once a powerful expression of the electric guitar genre, it merits its own story.
What is a Superstrat? There’s probably no universal agreement on a definition, and it may have drifted over time. Basically, the Superstrat is a hybrid form, a kind of “muscle guitar,” if you will, with three main characteristics. The first is the overall shape that derives directly from the Strat, with offset double cutaways and (usually) a six-in-line headstock of one shape or another (often pointed and derided as “pointy headed” guitars by vintage purists at the time).
The second feature/hybrid element – one might argue the “compromise” element – comes from a fusion of the electronics of a Stratocaster and a Gibson Les Paul. For reasons we’ll touch on later, in the early ’80s, players wanted to be able to get the shimmering sonorities and flexibility of the Strat’s five single-coil positions, but also wanted to shift into the fat, crunching Les Paul humbucker mode for soloing. The solution (which first appeared on production guitars in about ’83) was to replace the bridge single-coil with a humbucker, leaving the middle and neck single-coils. A less common variation on this, which we’ll also look at, was to keep two humbuckers and put a single-coil in between.
Third – the “muscle” part – the true Superstrat features a heavy duty double-locking vibrato system.
The shape. We’ve recently discussed the Fender Stratocaster as an archetypal design shape surviving remarkably intact from the ’50s. And Strats continued to be a mainstay of the guitar scene throughout the ’70s, but they were somewhat in the shadow of the Gibson Les Paul, which was well-adapted to arena rock. Because it was a more expensive guitar, the Les Paul also offered more room for profit for companies making copies, helping to make the form almost ubiquitous.
In addition, the ’70s were a difficult time for the Strat. CBS’ commitment was wavering, and quality control suffered. Although you wouldn’t believe from today’s prices, there was a time when you could hardly give away a ’70s Strat.
In any case, by the ’80s, guitarists had begun to rediscover the Strat. Collecting interest began to focus on Strats and performers began to use them in greater numbers. The Strat fit much better into the anti-solo New Wave music that emerged at the end of the ’70s. The Strat caught on sufficiently that ca. ’82, Guitar Player magazine recognized the phenomenon with a cover story on “Strat-mania.” This proved prophetic and, formally speaking, the ’80s would belong to the Strat.
The ’70s copy companies also made Strat copies, of course, but they weren’t the primary focus, and not a big influence. The renewed interest in the Strat form appears around ’77 with the emergence of parts guitars. The main pioneers of the parts guitar business were Charvel Manufacturing, and Schecter Guitar Research. At least they were among the first to actively promote the notion.
Wayne Charvel opened a guitar repair shop in Azusa, California, in ’74. David Schecter similarly opened a repair shop in Van Nuys, California, in ’75 or ’76 (and there was a very brief period when Charvel and Schecter were in business together). Charvel began advertising parts in GP in late ’76, with Schecter’s ads appearing the following year. These purveyors were soon joined by Mighty Mite and Boogie. All produced custom necks and bodies, and sometimes electronics, so you could make your own guitar… presumably better than Fender because of its reputation/situation and because its instruments employed a bolt-neck technology, Strats were the primary guitars pushed by these firms.
From a manufacturing point of view, it was probably Kramer that started to steer designs toward the Strat. Early Kramer is best known for its wishbone aluminum necks, although it would become perhaps the driving force behind the Superstrat concept. Kramer’s first guitar, the 450G (from ’76), was one of the first new guitars to use something of a Strat shape, with offset double cutaways, not as pronounced as a Strat, although with more of a Gibsonish rounded lower bout and twin humbuckers. Subsequent Kramer models would vacillate between Kalamazoo and California. Still, it was a tentative step in a Strat direction.
The first manufacturer to embrace the Strat more directly was Hoshino, with its Ibanez brand, introducing the Roadster in ’79. These had Strat bodies and a new blade headstock style, with either three large single-coils or twin ‘buckers and a heavy-duty cast fixed bridge. These lasted only a year and were supplanted by the Blazer series of Strat-style guitars with slightly squared off cutaway horns, more pickup switching options, and vibratos, beginning a decades-long Ibanez affection for Strat-style guitars. In ’82, the Ibanez Roadstar II line replaced the Blazers, and these would eventually become the Ibanez entry into the Superstrat game.
It’s also about this time that another key player, Grover Jackson, entered the scene. Jackson is often credited with inventing the Superstrat, but it’s probably more accurate to say that his guitars were a major force in popularizing and legitimizing the form. As an up-and-coming luthier, Jackson began working with Wayne Charvel. Charvel Manufacturing ran into financial trouble and in ’78 Jackson bought the business, including rights to the Charvel name. Jackson continued to make replacement parts, including Strat bodies.
EVH and RR
Enter two more key players in the story. In ’78, a new band with a super-hot young guitarist debuted – Van Halen. Shown on the cover of their LP was young Eddie with his white guitar decorated with crisscrossing black stripes. The guitar was a Charvel neck and body, and other parts. More on him later.
In ’79/’80 (depending on which account you believe) Charvel guitars debuted, designed and produced under the direction of Grover Jackson. These were basically Strat copies, most with a single Seymour Duncan humbucker at the bridge, and a volume control.
In ’80, Jackson undertook a project to design a guitar for another young hotshot named Randy Rhoads, who had just signed with ex-Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. This resulted in the twin-humbucker Randy Rhoads V-style guitar that debuted in ’81 and carried the Jackson brand name. It was a neck-through guitar. Neck-through Strat-style Jackson guitars quickly followed, and thenceforth, at least while Grover Jackson was in charge, Charvel was the brand used on bolt-neck guitars and Jackson on neck-throughs. Both Charvel and Jackson guitars would soon become highly influential ’80s brands, though by our definition they were not yet Superstrats.
An Avalanche of Strats
In ’78, following the out-of-court settlement with Gibson, Ibanez introduced several new lines of guitars, including the upscale Musician series, which featured neck-through construction and advanced active electronics, highly inspired by Alembic and B.C. Rich, both popular at the time. Ever competitive, Aria Pro II followed suit with its own version, the new Rev-Sound series in 1979. Featuring neck-through construction and similar active electronics, the Rev-Sounds took on much more of a Strat-style shape, with a modified Strat-ish kind of head. Not yet a Superstrat, but one step closer.
These early Rev-Sounds were replaced by a svelter series of bolt-neck Revs in ’82 or ’83, most still with interesting pickup ideas. The Esprit, for example, was active with three single-coils, but the middle pickup was a dummy, allowing a range of out-of-phase sounds. The Classic also looked like three single-coils, but the middle was actually a double-coil pickup. These second-generation Rev-Sounds would later become the Cat series and represent Aria in the Superstrat sweeps.
In ’78, Carvin, which had been mainly in a Gibson mode for most of the ’70s, began making its own bodies and necks again, and gluing them together. In ’79, Mark Kiesel designed Carvin’s first Strat-style guitar with offset pointy cutaways. This guitar debuted in ’80 and would anchor the Carvin line for most of the decade. Another brick in the wall.
Kramer, known for its aluminum-necked guitars, added wooden necks to its repertoire in ’81 when it introduced the Pioneer and Pacer guitars, both basically Strat-style guitars with one or two humbuckers or three single-coils. The Pacer would go on play a big role in our story.
By ’82, as the world was poised for the debut of the Superstrat, practically every manufacturer except Gibson offered Strat-style guitars. The Strat form had triumphantly reestablished itself.
A Sound Compromise: The hybrid Pickup Layout
Until the ’70s, guitars fell into two categories based on their pickups; they either had single-coil or dual-coil pickups. You could have any number of pickups (usually from one to four), but they were either single-coil or humbucker, and usually went straight out.
Yamaha was one of the first to approach mixing the two types in ’66, when it introduced its innovative SG-5 and SG-7 guitars. While these still employed single-coil pickups, they had one neck pickup and two bridge pickups contained in a single housing. A three-way toggle selected the neck or bridge assembly, or both. However, the bridge pickups featured a “blender” knob that let you fade between them, in the middle getting both coils. This was still not a hybrid design, but it was way ahead of its time.
Interest in pickups increased as the ’70s progressed. Early in the decade, Larry DiMarzio began to make a name for himself as a maker of high-output replacement humbucking pickups. A great deal of experimentation went on as the ’70s progressed. Bill Lawrence may have been one of the first to break the humbucker/single-coil dichotomy with his groundbreaking work for Gibson in the ’70s. Among his guitars were the L6-S (epoxy-potted Super Humbuckers), S-1 (three single-coils wired together as one large pickup), and Marauder. The ’75 Marauder sported a neck humbucker (for warm, fat jazz tones) and a bridge single-coil (for biting leads). The first Marauders had three-way selects, but quickly changed to a blender knob (a la Yamaha) that let you sweep through the pickups on a continuum.
Probably the first to re-think this notion of the bridge single-coil/neck humbucker was Randy Curlee, who began S.D. Curlee guitars in 1975. Curlee was one of the early manufacturers to put DiMarzio pickups on his guitars. Among a number of other innovations, Curlee reversed the order, putting a single-coil at the neck and a high-output DiMarzio at the bridge. Between Lawrence and Curlee, the old conventions had been overturned, although it would be exaggeration to suggest that either solution took the guitar world by storm.
In Search of First Place
As far as can be determined at this time, the first mass-production guitar to employ the classic Superstrat pickup layout was the Peavey T-27, which was introduced in 1982 as part of a remake of the T-Series by Peavey designer Chip Todd. The original Peavey T-60 was a highly significant guitar designed by Hartley Peavey and Todd introduced in ’78. The T-60 was the first guitar produced using numerically controlled carving machines, an idea borrowed from rifle gunstocks. Today, virtually every production guitar is made using this technology. Although it did feature slightly offset double cutaways and a six-in-line headstock, in terms of inspiration the T-60 was probably still closer to Gibson than Fender. It did, by the way, feature a radical element in that the tone control also served as a coil tap, yielding a single-coil sound at 10 and a humbucker when rolled back a bit. The ’82 makeover changed the body styling a bit and changed pickups to a new blade-style Super Ferrite design. Several pickup layouts were employed, but the now familiar h/s/s pattern was first put on the T-27.
Back to ’78 again, and Edward Van Halen mugging for the camera on the cover of Van Halen’s first LP. Although it may not have been immediately recognized, this record essentially set the mark for the following decade. Certainly, guitar players recognized that something new had been unleashed on the world, and it’s impossible to overemphasize the impact young Eddie had on guitar technique. Among other things, Eddie employed a two-handed tapping technique where he would tap notes with his left hand while slamming his right hand fingers onto the fingerboard higher up. Of course, this was nothing new. Classical guitarists had done similar things for centuries. In the modern era, Toledo’s Harry DeArmond (of pickup fame) is acknowledged for discovering the technique and applying it to jazz in the ’30s, though he rarely receives credit; that usually does go to his protegé, Jimmy Webster, who appropriated the technique from DeArmond and went on to be a major force for Gretsch. In any case, it’s unlikely Eddie was familiar with either, and certainly his playing came as revelation to kids in ’78.
EVH and RR… Again
However that may be, there on the album, in Eddie’s hands, was his custom guitar made up of Charvel parts and routed for a typical Strat pickup layout. But instead of three single-coil pickups, Van Halen simply had a single humbucker slapped in at the bridge. Before you knew it, there was a legion of young players trying to tap their way to fame on ripped up guitars with a single pickup.
The success of Van Halen raised the bar for guitar players and established an underground taste for guitar-driven heavy rock, even at a time when punk and new wave, not to mention disco and synth music, were undermining it. One new guitarist who did measure up to the new standard was Randy Rhoads, whose soloing for Ozzy was equally stunning, who, as we said, was beginning to work with Grover Jackson in ’80/’81. Unfortunately, Rhoads’ promising career would be cut short when he perished in a light airplane crash (as it buzzed the band’s tour bus) in early ’82.
The influence of the likes of Van Halen and Rhoads would erupt on the popular music scene in the early ’80s, with the semi-reactionary movement known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). While music critics and record buyers had proclaimed the death of heavy metal in the late ’70s, this new movement began to well up in provincial England ca. ’79. Not to suggest that Van Halen spawned the NWOBHM, but there was something in the air, and VH is often accused of causing the American hair-band movement.
In any case, NWOBHM bands wore spandex and big hairdos, sang about deep things like druids and doom, and played loud, fast, solo-laden guitar music through towers of Marshall amps, the more lead guitars the better. By the early ’80s, this music was beginning to reach the U.S. and change musical tastes back toward guitar music.
Comparably styled music began to emerge in L.A., though for Druids and Doom you have to substitute Girls, Girls, Girls. Judas Priest and Ratt reflected the intercontinental poles. I remember moving to Philly in ’83 and strafing my Center City neighborhood magazine store every few weeks for the latest issue of Kerrang!, one of the leading fanzines covering the NWOBHM.
Anyhow, the guitars of choice for these new metalists were generally high-output, humbucker-driven Les Pauls or a variety of pointy guitars emerging at the time. B.C. Rich guitars were very popular among the new metallists. In any case, it was the rise of this loud, heavy music that would collide with the growing desire for Strat-style guitars and set the stage for the appearance of the Superstrat.
Almost from the beginning of electric Spanish guitars, guitarists have wanted mechanical devices to allow them to detune the strings. Thus the emergence of the vibrato or whammy bar in modern parlance. And yes, the misnomered tremolo. Once more for the record: vibrato is pitch variation, which a whammy does (detune the strings by loosening them). Tremolo is volume variation, which you can achieve by fiddling with your volume knob or, if you’re lucky, working the spring-loaded Orgeltone “spigot” on your Framus.
Without belaboring this subject here, basically three designs dominated whammydom for the first 30 years: the Bigsby – top-mounted, a simple bar with the strings wrapped around sitting on a big spring under a handle; the Fender Stratocaster vibrato, an adjustable bridge assembly with a big chunk of metal descending into a cavity attached to some long tension springs at the end; and the Jazzmaster, kind of an inversion of a Bigsby with the spring inside a shallower cavity.
All work pretty well if you’re content to limit the effect to little flourishes or even a little more ambitious wanking. But if you want to get more aggressive with one of these traditional whammies, you’d better like playing out of tune because once you back off the spring, the strings are likely to be stretched and/or the device won’t be in precisely the same place where you started.
This brings us back to the wunderkind of ’78, Edward Van Halen. Not only did Eddie introduce rock guitarists to the idea of two-handed tapping, he was a vicious vibrato player, loving to divebomb his strings dead before bringing them back up to pitch. A Bigsby just won’t cut it with this kind of technique!
A Better Way
Enter a designer by the name of Floyd Rose, who began working on new ideas for the vibrato in the mid ’70s, and in the late ’70s hooked up with Van Halen to refine them.
In a nutshell, the Rose solution was to take an in-body Strat-style vibrato and clamp the strings into it. Then he placed some clamps at the nut to lock the strings down. Add a necessary fine-tuning thumbwheel mechanism, and you have a revolutionary new vibrato that lets you divebomb to your heart’s content without putting the guitar out of tune.
In ’82, he received a patent for his new double-locking design and also hooked up with Dennis Berardi, the main man at Kramer. Berardi and Rose came to an agreement that Kramer guitars would produce and distribute the Floyd Rose vibrato system, Eddie Van Halen endorsed Kramer guitars, and the Kramer juggernaut of the ’80s was truly launched.
The Floyd Rose was not the only contestant in the race for the new vibrato. Ca. ’81, a German firm came up with the Rockinger double-locking vibrato, and in fact, Van Halen was briefly associated with this unit. These appeared on Kramer guitars as an option in ’82, after which the Rose became standard.
Likewise, the Kahler company devised a number of double-locking designs around this same time, including several top-mounted units and an in-body similar to the Floyd Rose. Many other companies got into the game. Fender even came up with its own novel nightmare in the Elite. Ibanez created a number of interesting Power Rocker and Hard Rocker innovations. Aria had its versions. In Japan, ESP came up with the Flicker, which was employed on several production guitars, including Deans.
All of these were viable options until after ’86 or ’87, when Floyd Rose successfully defended his patent claims, requiring all double-locking vibratos to pay him a license fee, ending any incentive to come up with new designs. We’ll return to this fascinating subject in another essay, but suffice it to say, by ’82 a revolution in guitar vibrato technology had occurred.
Superstrat at Last
In ’83, all of these influences came together to create the Superstrat, as we’ve defined it. We have guitarists wanting to play Strat-style guitars, cranking out crunching leads with fat, juicy humbuckers, and wanting to decorate their sound with divebombing vibrato pyrotechnics.
It appears from this point in time that the classic Superstrat was developed coincidentally at the same time by Dean and Kramer.
Dean, the brainchild of Chicago-area guitarmaker Dean Zelinsky, had spearheaded the movement, along with neighboring Hamer guitars, toward making upscale versions of Gibson guitars beginning in the late ’70s. Dean’s flame-topped, winged-headed, DiMarzio-humbucker-equipped versions of the Flying V, Explorer, and Les Paul quickly became popular among rock’s elite. These were soon followed by similar downscale Dean Babies. But by the early ’80s, the pressure was on to create a Strat-style guitar.
According to Zelinsky, the inspiration for his first Strat-style guitar came to him in the middle of one night in late ’82 or early ’83. The next day, he sketched out a radical Strat-style shape that would become the Bel Aire; it would have an exaggerated, Strat-shaped body and a bolt-on neck with “shrimp fork” three-and-three headstock made by ESP in Japan. It was equipped with an ESP Flicker locking vibrato, a lead humbucker, and two single-coils operated by a five-way select. A Superstrat. It was introduced in ’83.
According to Dean literature, this would become the first production guitar to employ what we have defined as the quintessential Superstrat features… Or was it?
Kramer, which had begun in New Jersey around the same time, had built a good business selling guitars based on an aluminum-neck concept (also sporting DiMarzios). Kramer began to introduce wooden necks as an option in ’81, at the same time it introduced its first Strat-style guitar, the Pacer.
In ’83, Kramer re-styled the Pacer and introduced the Pacer Deluxe, a Strat-style guitar with a bolt-on maple neck (banana six-in-line headstock), a Floyd Rose (optional ESP Flicker), and a lead humbucker with two single-coils on a five-way. A Superstrat.
One could probably hone in closer on month of introduction or start of production to establish clear bragging rights, but the real point is that the Superstrat was an idea whose time had come in ’83. The new concept caught on like wildfire.
Unfortunately for Dean, it did not have the exclusive contract with Floyd Rose and the endorsement of Eddie Van Halen, and the Bel Aire ended up a footnote in guitar history. Kramer, on the other hand, went on to become the largest, most successful American guitar company of the ’80s, with a huge stable of pointy-headed guitars that dominated tastes until the company imploded in late ’89.
The new Superstrat formula was virtually an overnight success. By ’84, practically every major guitar manufacturer was offering a variety of Strat-style guitars, typically in three basic pickup configurations, three single-coils, two humbuckers, and the new humbucker/single/single layout. Models lower in the line would typically have a standard non-locking vibrato. The better models had a double-locking vibrato so you could Van Halen the night away.
By ’84, the neck-through Jackson Soloist came standard with the new h/s/s pickup pattern and locking vibrato. In that year, Ibanez added its evergreen RS440 to the Roadstar II line, with h/s/s pickups and locking vibrato. This would be followed by a long run of successful RS and RG Superstrats. Aria Pro II introduced a budget Diamond Jet Axe with the new Superstrat features in early ’84, but didn’t retool its ’83 RS line until later in the year. In November of ’84, Aria retooled the Rev-Sounds into the new RS Cat series (humbuckers or single-coils) and added the RS Knight Warrior, its first guitar with Hot Blades pickups in an h/s/s layout with a Kahler Flyer top-mount locking vibrato.
Likewise, Yamaha introduced its new Strat-style SE series in ’84, with twin humbucker, three single-coil and true Superstrat models (bolt-neck SE-312, SE-612, and the neck-through SE-1212).
Guild also introduced its first Superstrat – the Aviator – in ’84. While this had less of an offset feel to the body design than most other Superstrats, it nevertheless had h/s/s pickups and a locking vibrato system. Guild would continue making Superstrats, including the Detonator and elegant Liberator series in ’87, until it stopped making solids in with its bankruptcy in ’88. Even Ovation ventured briefly into the Superstrat arena in ’84/’85 with its Korean-made Celebrity solidbodies.
After some less-than-successful promotion, the Dean Bel Aire gave way to a line of Korean-made Deans in ’85, most with the h/s/s format. St. Louis Music, which had been a big player in the ’70s with its Electra guitars, was caught in the middle of a brand transition when the Superstrat era debuted and caught the train a little late. In ’84, the Electra brand changed to Westone, without changing model designs. In ’85, SLM introduced a revised Westone Spectrum line that included the new Superstrat definitions, though still not quite as “Stratty” as the line would become a year or so later.
Even Fender and Gibson
Even the stalwart Fender and Gibson grudgingly climbed on the Superstrat bandwagon in ’85.
Fender went through a period when its factory was being redesigned and no guitars were being made in the U.S. During this time, manufacturing was done only in Japan. Among the models produced were the Contemporary Stratocasters in a variety of forms including the h/s/s layout. These were made until ’87. Once U.S. production resumed in ’86 (with help from Chip Todd, who’d worked on the first h/s/s pickup layout with the Peavey’s T-27), the Superstrat tradition was continued by Fender Japan, though not in the U.S. right away.
The Contemporary Stratocaster was supplanted by the HM Strat in ’88, which went through subsequent versions and today is known as the Fat Strat. The first U.S. Fender Superstrat was the adaptation of the Japanese HM Strat, plus the addition of the U.S. Contemporary Stratocaster, in ’89. In ’90, Fender introduced the U.S. Strat Ultra, which had a pair of single-coil pickups in a humbucker-type bridge configuration.
Gibson also entered the fray in ’85 with the advent of the Spirit II XPL, its first guitar with the h/s/s layout. This guitar was actually an equal double-cutaway model more reminiscent of a Les Paul Junior than a Strat, but the pickups and six-in-line head were right. It had a glued-in neck, by the way, and was a pretty nice little number.
Gibson yielded to the de rigeur offset double-cutaway shape in ’87 with its U-2 and US-1 models, both glued-neck guitars with droopy pointy heads and h/s/s arrangements. The U-2 featured true h/s/s pickups and a Floyd Rose locking vibrato system. The US-1 was more upscale, with a humbucker and two stacked humbuckers. The plainer version featured a Kahler locking vibrato, whereas the fancy one had a spectacular flamed maple top and a stop-tail (about the only real flaw with these is a very goofy molded plastic logo glued to the headstock). Neither was particularly well-received, though they’re satisfying as Superstrats with a decided Gibson feel.
Gibson made one other Superstrat that deserves mention, though we’ll discuss it more at length another time. That’s the famous WRC, a.k.a. the SR-71, produced in ’87. This was a rather conventional Superstrat designed for Gibson by Wayne Charvel, namesake of Charvel guitars.
This was a bolt-neck guitar with h/s/s and Floyd Rose. Initially this was called the WRC, but IMC, which owned the Charvel brand name, strenuously objected. Gibson promptly changed the name to SR-71 and published a letter from president Henry Juskewiscz pointing out that Wayne Charvel had no relationship with the Jackson/Charvel company.
These were limited-edition guitars, in any case, and supposedly only 200 were made. These came with a letter of authenticity and were supposed to be signed by Wayne. These are not Gibson’s most memorable moments, but they are rare and curious because of their litigious history, and they’re pretty inexpensive.
In ’85, the rights to the Jackson and Charvel were leased from Grover Jackson by IMC of Ft. Worth, owners and importers of the highly successful Hondo line, by this time produced primarily in Korea, we believe, by Samick. In ’86, IMC purchased the Jackson/Charvel company. With the new relationship, Jackson continued to be neck-through-body and were still produced in the U.S. Charvel guitars could now be either bolt-neck or neck-through guitars and were produced in Japan. The Japanese Charvel line followed the same pattern as other manufacturers, with either humbuckers or single-coils, plus three classic locking vibrato h/s/s Superstrats, the Model 3 (bolt-on neck, passive electronics), Model 4 (bolt-on neck, active electronics), and Model 6 (neck-through, active electronics).
Also in ’85, Kramer began to augment its highly successful wood-neck line with guitars made in both Japan (Focus series) and Korea (Striker series), like other makers available in humbucker, single-coil, or Superstrat configurations.
By ’86, everyone else was joining in. B.C. Rich introduced its ST-III in a variety of configurations, some with fancy finishes, some with bolt-on necks, and some with neck-through construction.
By ’87, the Superstrat had clearly triumphed and become the dominant form of solidbody electric guitar. The form continued to evolve, with some guitars adopting more down-sized body profiles (“dinky”) and some models being quite beautifully crafted. One popular variation also emerged, featuring a h/s/h layout. While not universally embraced, guitars with this arrangement were first championed by Westone and later anchored many Yamaha Superstrats.
Along with the success of the Superstrat, virtuoso guitar music continued to win the day. By the late ’80s, shredmeisters had become the new guitar gods, players such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson were admired, and often able to dispense with vocalists altogether!
The vintage guitar dealers who cringed at the thought of pointy guitars needn’t have been so virulent or afraid. All pop trends come to an end, and the Superstrat’s ride died with the ’80s. The rock music scene, which had been dominated by L.A., was getting stale. By the late ’80s, the metal styles that had be fairly homogenous when they began had fragmented into subcategories in which the fans hardly spoke to each other. There was speed metal, death metal, Christian metal, grunge metal…
The Seattle Challenge
Ahhh yes, grunge. As the L.A. music scene began to loose its grip on pop music, centers of alternative music began to emerge, including most significantly Seattle.
Instead of shred, with its spandex and pyrotechnical guitar solos, these musicians preferred to bang out chordal rhythms with narry a lead break in sight. Instead of sophisticated Superstrat shred machines, they preferred to play pawn shop prizes – the less popular the better. Jazzmasters were suddenly becoming cool.
Simultaneously, vintage guitars were also becoming increasingly hip, due in no little part to readers of this magazine.
Also simultaneously, the edifice that built the Superstrat was beginning to crumble. As we said, Guild, which had committed heavily to Superstrats in its later day, went out of business in ’88. While it was picked up quickly by the Faas organization, solidbodies were out of the picture.
The Dean juggernaut was winding down, as well. In ’90, Dean Zelinsky sold the business to Tropical Music, and while Superstrats continued to roll out of Korea, it wasn’t the same. Also by ’90, the amazing Kramer roller coaster ride was over. The world’s largest guitar company in ’87, by ’90 Kramer was gone in a puff of mysterious, rumor-shrouded smoke.
In September of ’91, the Seattle band Nirvana released Nevermind, and the nail was in the coffin of the Superstrat. Vintage and neo-vintage was in. Reissue Strats and Les Pauls were in. Nobody wanted (or needed) a double-locking Floyd Rose.
In a neat parallel to its oblique announcement of the Superstrat in its article on Strat-mania at the beginning of the ’80s, in ’93 Guitar Player solemnly asked, “is shred dead?”
Gone… But Not Forgotten
Well, of course, death and nails are exaggerations. Shred did not die. It just went back underground. And the Superstrat, while ceding its organological dominance to other forms, receded into a niche as an ongoing (but not ubiquitous) option in the guitar firmament.
Still, the Superstrat craze of the ’80s is a fascinating chapter in guitar history that’s still not fully appreciated, although as more and more guitar fans in their 30s come online, expect them to get more of their due as time moves on. For those older folks who first got interested in “vintage guitars” years ago, their first instruments were probably Harmonys, Kays, Danelectros, and Teiscos, and their dreams were for classic Gibsons and Fenders.
For the younger generation, it was the guitars that Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads played that fuelled visions of groupies and glory when the hormones first kicked in. Don’t be surprised to wake up before long and find a guitar with “vintage” Rockinger or Kahler fetching a premium as a prime example of the venerated pointy-headed Superstrat!
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March & July ’02 issues. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.