Carson Creation

One Very Personal Stratocaster
Carson Creation

An itinerant Western-music guitarist who befriended Leo Fender and other employees at his up-and-coming company in the early ’50s, Bill Carson was the “test pilot” for the Fender Stratocaster prototype, and his input regarding body contours, pickups, and control placement differentiated it from the slab-bodied Telecaster.

Prior to the company being bought by CBS in 1965, Carson was appointed Supervisor for Guitar Production, and later spent several decades working for Fender Sales before retiring in the first years of the 21st century. Throughout his time, Carson stayed in touch, monitoring innovations on the Strat and continuing to lend ideas.

One day in 1977, Carson got a call from Charlie Davis, a longtime associate at Fender who told him about a figured one-piece maple Strat neck that for nearly a decade had been stashed in the company’s Service Center (a precursor to the Custom Shop), which set aside certain parts for special projects and artist-relations instruments. It had the larger/CBS-era headstock and four-bolt attachment, both of which Carson preferred. So he bought it with the intent of using it on a personal guitar he was building with a prototype ash body that had been carved for upcoming models like the Elite Stratocaster and The Strat.

Tommy Allsup, Craig Chambers, and Bobby Koefer. In front is producer Tommy Morrell.

One of Carson’s co-marketing efforts at the time was gold-plated aftermarket brass partsfor Fender’s frontline models. One kit for Strats included a vibrato bridge, nut, knobs, strap buttons, and a tip for the vibrato handle. The bridge, made by Gary Kahler, was Carson’s design (he held the patent). Fender offered brass parts for about three years, and they were used on a handful of Strat variants, and Carson used most of them on the personal guitar he was creating, along with some new-old-stock gold tuners stamped with the Fender F logo. A 1969 neck plate was gold-plated for the effort. Davis supplied older pickups, potentiometers, and a wiring harness.

Bill Carson’s Strat with one of his Fender #351 picks. The neck has gorgeous flame.

Carson originally used a three-ply (white/black/white) pickguard on his guitar, and standard knobs rather than the gold-plated aftermarket type.

“He wanted to keep the weight down, and keep the look simple, but elegant, without being too heavily laden with gold,” said Carson’s wife, Susan.

Finished in Candy Apple Red, the instrument was “…more admired than played, because it was such a beauty,” she recalled.

In 1987, Fender introduced Lace Sensors, and Carson was smitten.

“Bill was crazy about them,” Susan recounted. “He wanted them in a guitar, and in 1988, he sent the red guitar to John English at Fender’s Custom Shop. The neck had always been a bit chunky for his liking, so he had John re-shape it, give it a lacquer finish, and install larger frets, and Lace Sensors, the first of which had Lace’s Gold tonality, which came to be Bill’s favorite; he really liked the smooth, quiet tone.”

After English’s touch-up, the neck had a B width with what Susan describes as “a very comfortable, classic oval contour.” English signed and dated it on July 17, 1988. The instrument weighs 8.75 pounds, and Susan recalled Bill saying, “I’ve never heard a Fender guitar ring, sustain, and resonate like this one does.”

Carson put his signature on the back of the headstock and on masking tape in the body cavity. He made additional notes on the inside of the back plate (over the vibrato springs): “Customized by me, for me – ’69 Strat, Bill Carson” and used the guitar exclusively until ’93, when the Custom Shop built a run of limited-edition Carson signature Strats. From that run of 101 instruments, number 77 became one of his favorites.

Carson was living in Nashville at the time of his passing in February of 2007, at age 80.

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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