It would be an understatement to say that Leo Fender, with the help of George Fullerton, was prolific in the years after he sold Fender Electric Instruments. The tag team designed an astounding number of guitars and basses at G&L; Fender developed new pickups, circuits and hardware, while Fullerton designed a guitar or bass for them, and Dale Hyatt, Vice President of Sales, chose designs for market.
At first glance, there’s little evidence of the duo’s abundant efforts in 1980-’81 because only two basses (the L-1000 and L-2000) and one guitar (F-100) were available. Yet, behind the scenes, much was going on, as evidenced by drawings of guitar and bass models recently discovered by G&L. Many concept instruments were prototyped, and often used as guides for final designs put into the catalog. Others were made in very small numbers, but died on the vine.
The S-500 guitar is a good example of how Fender and Fullerton cranked out designs that, with guidance from Hyatt, converged to become a final model. Introduced in March of ’82, it was Leo Fender’s first attempt at refining his three-pickup S-type design and represented G&L’s top-of-the-line model.
Initially, Fender had no intention of revisiting the Stratocaster or Telecaster designs. Rather, he was focused on pressing forward with what he felt were new – and superior – instruments. In ’81, he and Fullerton were putting together numerous test-mule instruments, working in a vacuum and essentially ignoring market feedback provided by Hyatt. Sifting through the prototypes, however, Hyatt saw redundant instruments that had Strat-like features; there were no fewer than eight variations that used the same double-cutaway body as the F-100, along with three single-coil pickups. The eight were differentiated by variations in pickup design, bridge design, pickguards, and control plates.
The S-500 had its roots in two of these near-production models – the F-150 and T-400. The F-150 dates to drawings from April and August of ’81; its body is the same as the F-100 and it was fitted with three early Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickups designed by Leo in 1979 (and granted a U.S. patent in 1980). These were high-output and had strong response in the upper frequency range. The pickups had rectangular bobbins and a ferrous metal keep plate that were similar to the metal-claw surrounds Fender had used years before on the Jaguar and Bass VI pickups. These provided some shielding from electromagnetic interference as well as directing magnetic flux to the pole pieces.
Several sets of these were made, but never put into production. They were the basis for the S-500 single-coil MFDs with rectangular bobbins, but were larger, which meant more copper wire could be wound on the bobbin with a corresponding increase in DC resistance. Thus, the F-150 MFDs had a higher output compared to the early S-500 MFDs. They went through several iterations until they evolved into the rectangular-bobbin units on the S-500.
A test mule F-150 was assembled using a mahogany F-100 body blank. Its controls were mounted to the two-ply pickguard with a circuit that would also be used in the S-500. The specs, derived from an original Fullerton drawing, called for a 24-fret, 251/2″-scale neck, but the test mule was fitted with a standard F-100 Series II neck with ebony fingerboard. Such a neck would require not only a different neck blank, but a different neck pocket to retain proper bridge-to-neck relationship. It’s not known if a proper 24-fret neck and matching body was ever produced.
The T-400 followed on the heels of the F-150, with drawings dated October, 1981. The T-400 was the first model to have the final version of the S-500 pickups, but had a simple Volume/Tone control layout, G&L Locktight fixed bridge, and a different pickguard and control-plate shape.
After heated discussions between the three men, along with test-player feedback, an agreement was reached on prototype features to be used for the new S-type; the F-150 body, circuit, and Dual Fulcrum vibrato tailpiece were mated with the T-400 pickups and neck. The new model was initially dubbed the F-300, but Dale wanted to distance this instrument as far as possible from the similarly named F-100. In keeping with the alphanumeric numbering scheme of the early G&L era, he selected S for obvious reasons and 500 to indicate the five-way selector switch.
The S-500 was officially introduced in ’82, appearing on the January 1 price list with a retail price of $995, including case. The perimeter of its body was identical to that of the F-100 and 150, with aggressive cutaways, 3/8″ radii on the top and bottom edges, deep front and back contouring, and a 1.625″ thickness. The only bridge option was the Dual Fulcrum vibrato Leo devised for the F-100. The bridge was balanced using a trio of springs – two heavy-duty on the outside and a special lower-pull-rate spring in the center. It was a true floating design that allowed pitch decreases and increases with minimal friction afforded by the two height-adjustable, knife-edged contact points. The vibrato-arm socket was a beefy affair with a built-in clutch that allowed the player to easily adjust the tension of the arm’s rotation.
The MFD single-coil pickups used traditional vulcanized-fiber flatwork, with specially knurled and internally threaded high-permeability steel-alloy pole pieces fitted with adjustable inserts. On the bottom of the coil form was a Grade 5 ceramic bar magnet. Fender carefully engineered the size of this magnet because he was targeting a specific gauss level at the top of the poles. Like most pre-BBE G&L pickups, he specified #42-gauge plain-enamel magnet wire. The turn counts were actually low compared to a traditional Fender pickup because the efficient magnetic field produced more than enough signal without requiring the extra copper. Less copper resulted in less resistance and capacitance per foot. Beneath the magnet was a brass-plated, mild-steel keeper plate incorporated to the circuit and serving two purposes: first, it was designed to alter the magnetic field and resonant peak of the pickup where Leo wanted it; second, it provided some measure of shielding to the pickups.
Fender elected to couple the pickups directly to the body using brass inserts, machine screws, and elevator springs. Pickup covers were injection-molded nylon, designed to be as thin as possible yet resistant to wear from picking. Routs for the early S-500 pickups were not in the same location as those of a vintage Stratocaster. Part of this had to do with the 22-fret fingerboard (versus the traditional 21 frets) as well as Leo’s preference in tone. He also included an extra-aggressive angle for the bridge pickup, and the poles of the bridge pickup are spaced wider to match string spacing (wider spacing allowed more wire to be wound on the bobbin, resulting in higher output – a desirable quality for bridge pickups).
The S-500 was equipped with a .0625″ 6061-T6 aluminum pickguard with a separate aluminum control plate. Fender had used aluminum pickguards in the ’50s, but he abandoned them because the anodized finish did not wear well. By ’82, finishes were electrostatically sprayed and thermally cured, and were durable, attractive, and relatively inexpensive to apply. Initially, the S-500 pickguard and control plate had a matte-black finish, but it readily showed dust flecks and finger prints, so within a few months it was changed to a light wrinkle-texture finish that remained through the duration of the pre-BBE era at G&L.
The aluminum parts served as a ground plane, so they not only looked great and felt unique under the player’s fingers, but provided shielding to the pickups. There was also a less-obvious impact of the aluminum being in close proximity to the pickups; while aluminum is not a ferrous metal, it interacts with a magnetic field (see Lenz’s Law) by diminishing the resonant peak of the pickups slightly and attenuating high frequencies. Additional shielding was achieved by using coax wire for the hot leads on the neck and middle pickups.
Compared to a typical vintage ’50s Stratocaster, the MFD’s resistance is much lower, inductance is higher, resonant peak is lower, and the output is higher, with comparable Gauss levels (see sidebar for specs). The S-500 is a sonically different animal; their frequency response is stronger at nearly ever frequency and much less narrow at the peak. Technically, a vintage Strat is brighter-sounding because it has a higher resonant peak; however, it’s also thinner-sounding because it does not have the low- or medium-range frequency output of the MFD nor the same resonant peak width in the lower treble range. Ironically, the MFD’s do sound quite bright plugged into the same amp settings one would use for the Strat, due to more signal content across the spectrum coming through the amp.
With the enhanced frequency response of the MFD, using the F-150’s passive tone stack in the control circuit allows subtraction of treble and bass frequencies. In G&L literature, this would later be referred to as the Passive Treble and Bass (PTB) circuit. The standard S-500 circuit consisted of a 250K-ohm Volume pot, one meg-ohm Treble pot, and one meg-ohm reverse-taper Bass pot. The Volume pot had a ceramic 100-pf-bleed cap, the Treble pot had a .047-mfd bleed cap, and the Bass pot a .022-mf-bleed cap. Some S-500s were made with non-standard circuits that had a Treble pot with a value of 500 or 250K ohm. These are usually found on ’83 and later examples. These varying pot values played a large role in the tonal differences between S-500s.
Neck construction for all ’82 G&Ls consisted of a one-piece hard rock maple blank fitted with a rear mounted compression-style curved truss rod retained by a walnut insert (a.k.a. skunk stripe). The fingerboard could be either hard maple or a thin, double-radii ebony veneer. Truss rod adjustment was made at the headstock, with the adjuster nut residing in an ABS plastic sleeve to keep it from seizing in the wooden bore. Tuning machines were German-made Schaller M-6 mini-tuners with G&L logos. In ’82, the only neck available for the S-500 had a 7.5″ radius with 1.625″ nut width (the “#2 neck” in G&L nomenclature). Other necks were available later, but S-500s with anything other than a #2 are very rare. Fretwire would be classified as jumbo in terms of width, but not particularly tall.
The S-500 retained the headstock shape of the T-400, which was similar (but not identical) to the earlier G-200. Physically large and with a stylized hook, it was granted a design patent in ’83. The stamped-steel string retainer was the same as the one used on Leo’s Music Man guitars, and kept the treble strings situated with a proper break angle over the nut and allowed bending behind the nut without dislodging the strings (a common problem with previous Fender designs). Switching chores were handled by a five-way unit providing a humbucking signal in positions two and four thanks to a reverse wound, reverse polarity middle pickup. The strap buttons were another Music Man carryover, with a large flange for a secure strap connection.
Early S-500s had bodies made of ash, Honduran mahogany, soft maple, or poplar; ash was reserved for natural, clear red and clear blue finishes. Mahogany could have a natural, sunburst, or solid finish. Maple could have transparent, sunburst, or solid finishes, but was rarely used for S-500s until after ’82. Poplar guitar bodies always had solid finishes and few S-500s were made with this wood. Early S-500s were finished in nitrocellulose lacquer with thinned nitro sanding sealer. By the middle of the decade, polyurethane would be used in place of the nitro sealer, but the nitro top coat remained. The finishes listed in the ’82 price sheets are Natural Ash, Natural Mahogany, Sunburst, Black, Clear Blue, Red and White plus two metallic finishes, Candy Apple Red and Gold. The metallic finishes could be had for a $140 upcharge and examples are rare.
Body wood made a significant difference in the sound of the S-500. Mahogany has the most-subtle top-end response and the most complex midrange, which pairs nicely with the MFD pickups. Maple guitars are perhaps the most-balanced across all frequencies, but never harsh or bright. Ash tends to be the most punchy and strident, and poplar tends to bridge the territory between mahogany and maple.
The S-500 was given a variety of minor changes starting in ’83, with the relocation of the serial number from the bridge plate to the neck plate and the introduction of Bi-Cut neck construction. The Bi-Cut neck used a neck blank cut slightly lengthwise, slightly off-center with the truss-rod channel routed in the larger half. The truss rod was inserted, and the two halves were glued together. The result was a neck that was stronger than the traditional one-piece neck. By ’84, the headstock was shrunk, and in ’87, the vibrato arm diameter was increased. A matching headstock became available, as did more options in regard to neck nut width and radii. Careful observers will notice a variety of tweaks to the headstock decal. As the years passed, more finish options became available. By ’84, G&L stopped producing Honduran mahogany bodies, By ’86, any G&L guitar could be ordered with factory installed Sperzel locking tuning machines, and by late ’87, ebony was phased out as a fingerboard wood, replaced with Indian rosewood, and the Leo Fender Fine Tuner Vibrato became an option.
While the S-500 was well-received, potential buyers sometimes complained that it didn’t look or feel like a Strat; the body shape felt unfamiliar, as did the aluminum pickguard and the large headstock shape. Dealers began to demand an even more Strat-like model.
Dale Hyatt addressed the matter by creating the final version of the Leo-era S-500. He devised a body shape much closer to a traditional Strat, reduced the size of the headstock, and added a traditional one-piece multi-ply plastic pickguard. In addition, he opted for the more-traditional-looking oval-bobbin MFDs found in the Skyhawk, and hung them from the pickguard rather than mounting them to body. The S-500 version of the Skyhawk pickups had 50 to 100 additional turns of wire on the coil form. The final result was a more-familiar-looking guitar.
An mini-toggle fitted to the guitar provided two additional parallel pickup connections (neck/bridge together or all three together). Dealer response was extremely positive and demand for the new S-500 was high. Ironically, at the same time, players and dealers often told Hyatt the guitar was too Fender-like and they preferred the sound and looks of Leo’s original. Dale’s response was simple; whichever version of the S-500 you want, G&L will build it.
Introduction of the new style S-500 took place right around the time of G&L’s Signature Series offering, and it was officially added to the Signature in ’91. Employees have said the pickups on Signature Series instruments received 100 to 200 extra turns of wire on each bobbin compared to the non-Signature series instruments. However, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to this claim. In fact, resistance measurements on G&Ls are inconsistent, in general – a function of the pickups being hand-wound.
After Leo Fender passed away in March of 1991, Hyatt ran the sales and production operations of G&L. Fender’s widow, Phyllis, primary owner of the company after his passing, sold her stake to John McLaren and his BBE Corporation late that year. Hyatt, contending with his own health issues and caring for his terminally ill wife, retired in November of ’91, putting an end to what is referred to as the “pre-BBE era” of G&L.
Today, the S-500 is the longest running guitar model in the G&L catalog. And while a direct comparison of 2014 and 1982 models reveals they are very different, their heart and soul – the MFD pickups – are, Leo believed, the most evolved (and best-performing) pickups he ever devised.
Special thanks to the late Dale Hyatt. Gabe Dellevigne and Greg Gagliano are fans of all things G&L and are writing a book about the history of the company and its instruments.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s October 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.