Today, Fender Stratocasters made in the 1970s are generally regarded with affection, and have become sought after by many guitarists for their historical interest and vintage kudos. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in 1980, the Stratocaster was suffering the backlash from a long period of 'consensus blindness' on the part of CBS Fender.
The period between 1966 and 1980 – and in particular the 1970s – had turned a dream electric guitar into a product which discerning players found much harder to eulogise. The Stratocaster of the late 1970s was still, in the grand scheme of electric guitar building, a good and usable product, but it didn’t have the appeal of the pre-1966 model. The late '70s Strat had also to an extent become a victim of its own success, exhibiting an increase in production flaws as pressure to produce more units saw workers cutting corners. This was not just heresay. It was illustrated to Fender in some pretty dire dealer feedback, which eventually became a catalyst, or at least part of a catalyst, for change.
Another major part of that catalyst was the way in which Fender's lack of remedial action had handed Japanese copyists a lucrative opportunity to muscle in on company profits.
Unauthorised and increasingly accurate Japanese Strat copies were exploiting Fender’s apparent oblivion to its own product’s shortcomings - perceived or actual. And by the end of the '70s, Fender also had to take seriously the threat from the higher echelons of the copy market, which was taking shape as custom parts manufacturers such as Schecter began offering finished instruments. These were extremely good guitars, and whilst a little more expensive than the Fender equivalent in the UK (not to mention limited in availability), they did show that Fender could be attacked from above as well as below. Fender could not afford to come second to anyone. Suddenly, there were grave doubts as to whether Fender Strats were the best Strats, and the blame for that situation lay in the Stratocaster's progress through the 1970s...
WHAT WAS WRONG WITH 1970s STRATS?
So what was actually wrong with ‘70s Strats? Well, in technical terms, they still basically did what a Strat was supposed to do, and indeed some 1970s updates to the technical spec were highly beneficial, better matching the Stratocaster to the era. The dropping of the 3-way pickup selector switch and its replacement with a 5-way in 1977, for example, was long overdue and probably helped the Strat gain popularity. It’s something we overlook today, but even as late as the punk rock era, Fender Strats still came with primitive 3-way selectors.
Likewise, although the implementation could have been better, the much greater access to neck integrity management which Fender gave users from 1971 (with the notorious ‘bullet and tilt’ adjustment system), was technically a very user-friendly update.
However, there was a long list of perceived negatives, which compounded the bugbears of latter 1960s Strat history. After a range of perceived downgrades between '65 and '69, the 1970s saw the Stratocaster additionally falling victim to…
- Progressively heavier weight.
- Progressively reduced comfort contouring on the body.
- Scantily-wound pickups which, in conjunction with the move from alder bodies towards ash, resulted in a thin sound.
- A reduction in the number of available colours, and by 1973, a total wipeout of the remaining beautiful custom shades of the early 1960s - including Candy Apple Red and Lake Placid Blue. In fact, by the middle of the decade, the only available colours for a Stratocaster were Sunburst, Blonde, Black, White and Natural. More finishes were added in the late ’70s, but with the debatable exception of Antigua, nothing particularly inspiring in my opinion.
- A three-bolt (as opposed to four-bolt) neck fixing.
- A shift away from traditional features, which severed the Strat from what people saw as its ‘classic’ guise. This included 1971's production streamlining on the vibrato system (whose main block shifted from two-piece to one-piece construction), 1974's replacement of the classic staggered-pole pickups with a flat-profiled alternative, and a progressive switch to black plastic parts, initiated in the middle of the decade. The polepiece change was technically a sound decision, and the colour of the plastic parts was only a matter of personal taste, but if you’re modifying a guitar whose image and sound has already been deemed ideal, you’re always going to be on shaky ground.
- Evolution of the neck profile to something which, by the late '70s, was not really conducive to modern rock styles.
- A skinflint approach to implementing change. For instance, when moving from white to black plastic adornments, Fender felt it more important to use up their residual stock of white pickup covers and knobs (as illustrated in the pic heading the post) than to ship Strats with matching plasticware.
- Particularly late in the decade, manufacturing and quality control failures, resulting in an inconsistent product.
The first 1970s Stratocasters retained late 1960s appointments, including four-bolt necks, staggered pickups, and in some cases, attractive 'sixties custom colour finishes such as Firemist Gold, Sonic Blue, Candy Apple Red, Ocean Turquoise or Lake Placid Blue. These custom coloured guitars from the dawn of the '70s would be highly desirable today.
WHY DID IT ALL GO WRONG?
It should be noted that the majority of the changes the Fender Stratocaster underwent during the 1970s were intended to make the guitar more desirable.
There was undeniably a trend for natural wood guitars in the early to mid ’70s, and in all honesty, by refocusing the Strat’s range of finishes to accommodate this trend, Fender probably saved a fair few pre-CBS beauties from the doom of a date with the sanding block. And you can only sell what people will buy, so if no one’s interested in Candy Apple Red Strats, there’s really not much point in producing them.
Equally, the ’70s Strat’s weight problem was in large part due to the use of grain-rich ash bodies - an attempt to upgrade the guitar’s cosmetic value in keeping with trends.
And the three-bolt neck, for obvious reasons considered less stable a join than a four-bolt, was a side effect of the major upgrade in neck management accessibility. So Fender were reading the script. They just weren’t really paying attention to the subtext.
It’s fair to say that by the beginning of 1980, the company’s continued failure to read or take account of the subtext had caught up with them. Gone were the days when the buyer of a Strat copy could count himself lucky if the guitar had the right number of pickups. The Stratocaster now had direct competition from exact replicas, as good as or better than Fender’s offerings of the day – but retailing at much lower prices. Even some rockbottom beginners’ copies of 1980 could provide a passable take on the Strat.
But Fender USA were slow to wake up to what was going on. The old anecdote about American Fender executives being dumbfounded by the quality of the first Fender Japan samples when they arrived, has often been used to illustrate how wonderful the original JV series Strats were. But what it also illustrates is how deeply those executives’ heads were buried in the sand. This was as late as 1982, and that high quality had already become an established property of the best Japanese copies. The execs should have been expecting it – not finding themselves shocked by it. It summed up exactly how the company had managed to lapse into such a disconnect with the customer, and it illustrated perfectly how the late 1970s Stratocaster had come to be met with sighs, rather than gasps of awe.
POST ’70s ACCEPTANCE
It should be stressed that many of the features of 1970s Stratocasters had not proved offputting across the board. There was no doubt that a lot of experienced and knowledgeable guitarists preferred pre-’66 Strats. But there was also a sense that the younger player of 1980 would buy a Japanese copy because he/she couldn’t afford a 1980 Fender – not because there was an aversion to the '70s feature set per se. In fact, an aspiring teenager might be just as inclined to buy a late ’70s Strat replica as a ’50s or early ’60s reissue – if not more so.
Plenty of top stars were playing new or newish Fender Strats at that time, and semi-pro’s had them too. So on TV and in the local bars, teenagers would be seeing large-headstock, three-bolt Stratocasters with all black trim and the black Fender logo. Given that kids want to use what they’ve seen their idols and mentors using, there was a case for continuing to offer ’70s-style Strats in the budget area of the market, even though they were clearly, for some discerning professionals, unpopular.
Indeed, there was strong evidence of this in the serious enclaves of copy manufacture in the late '70s and early ’80s. For example, the Maya 8085 – a fairly well-regarded Strat copy in the price tier just below Tokai’s Springy Sound (which became the Goldstar Sound) – had a large headstock and bullet truss adjustment. And the Maya was not alone. '70s features, or hybrids of features, were common on Strat copies from the cusp of the '70s and '80s decades.
And subsequently, the fledgeling Fender Japan began to issue ’70s Strat replicas of their own. As early as the first half of 1983, Fender Japan introduced a (Squier) take on the Stratocaster in its 1976-1980 format. Following that, multiple 1972 reissues (including Paisley and Blue Flower finish specials) were added to the Fender MIJ range of the 1980s. Squier’s ’70s replica was short-lived, but that was probably down to prohibitively high manufacturing/materials costs (for a budget instrument), rather than a lack of interest. The later Fender MIJ ’72 reissue was not seemingly produced on the scale of the ’57s and ’62s, but it did persist in the product range, so ’70s design Strats did retain a market even when their rep was at rockbottom.
Had 1970s Strats really been as awful as the music press deemed them back in the twentieth century, they would certainly not have been copied – least of all by Fender themselves. A big part of the problem with late '70s Strats was their perceived value. Quality and desirability versus cost. But produce them in Japan with more consistent quality and a lower retail price, and a lot of the headaches went away.
THE 'SEVENTIES STRAT TODAY
I can’t really look at a 1970s Strat today without thinking back to the desperate “quick sale!” ad column pleas of the 1980s. By then, in addition to a general scorn from guitar writers, fashion had rendered the whole image of the typical late ’70s Strat undesirable…
“Wine red with a black plate and three-bolt neck? Er, nah, you’re alright mate - I can get a nice Squier for that price.”
“Natural ash and almost the weight of a Les Paul? Yeah, I’ll get back to you on that one…”
But I really like some of the earlier ’70s Strats – especially the staggered-pole, metallic finish jobs made before the last of them were de-listed in 1973. Indeed, the very early part of the decade could really be considered an overhang from the 1960s – four-bolt necks and all. I think the late ’70s sunbursts look good with their black adornments too.
And in practical terms? I think some of those late '70s necks are a bit of a handful, and I don't like weighty Strats. But these guitars are American originals, and matters such as the poor initial setups, fly-by-night fret-dressing and the like are rendered inconsequential over the years as the instruments undergo tech work.
Okay, so what about the thin, trebly sound, which seemed to cause so much gnashing of teeth back in the day?... Well, that became a sought after commodity over time, and quite a number of expensive aftermarket pickup sets have set out to recreate this tone. One person’s clinical coldness is another’s stinging vitality. With a decent valve amp and forty years of ageing, the average 1970s Stratocaster is going to produce a pretty cool range of tones today. And if it’s still too bright?… Do what people did in the old days, and back the guitar’s volume off to 9. That'll mellow it down.
Whether 1970s Strats are worth the prices people ask is a debate which will never, I suspect, be resolved with universal agreement. But speaking as someone who isn’t convinced that vintage guitars as a breed are worth the money, I don’t see any need to make a special villain of the 1970s Stratocaster. As always, assess them case by case, and never accept that a guitar must be good just because it’s old - or that it must be bad because some guru doesn't like it. But also, consider that the generic term ’70s Strat is meaningless, because a Fender Stratocaster circa January 1970 is very a different proposition from a Fender Stratocaster circa December 1979.