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Pre-CBS Fender Stratocasters

Updated on April 15, 2019
An original 1958 Stratocaster in case, taken at the SXSW Music Conference and Festival.
An original 1958 Stratocaster in case, taken at the SXSW Music Conference and Festival. | Source

Guitar Gold - The Pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster

Born in 1954, the brainchild of Leo Fender, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares, the Fender Stratocaster is arguably the most important and iconic electric guitar ever. When it first arrived on the scene, its looks and styling were futuristic and without precedent. The guitar was contoured to fit the body and built with a new aesthetic that made it unique in the marketplace.

Initially there was a lot of sneering at the Stratocaster from other guitars manufacturers such as Gibson. One of the Stratocaster's innovations, its two piece design did little to stop other manufactures dismissing it as not as good as a one piece guitar. The idea of the bolt-on neck served a specific purpose though. When players wore out the frets of their Strat, they just put a new neck on their guitar, rather than lose the whole instrument.

Other innovations such as the floating tremolo system, colour options and sleekly contoured body helped propel the guitar out of the factory and into the hands of some of the world's greatest and most iconic musicians. It was championed by a range of rock and roll performers in the 50s, most notably Buddy Holly. Its striking paint jobs and motor car like finish also made it a firm favourite with the likes of the surf and hot-rod rockers, most notably Dick Dale. Its future would be assured thanks to Jimi Hendrix, but his story is covered elsewhere, and happens after what is commonly referred to as the Pre-CBS era.

The early Fender Stratocasters have become very collectable, with prices exceeding $175,000 for top notch early models. If you're new to the history of modern music's most popular guitar, then it will be of interest to learn what differentiates these early guitars for musicians and collectors alike. To many they are guitar gold, the ultimate guitar to own, and given their growing scarcity, their values are ever increasing.

The CBS Buy-Out

From its earliest production in 1954 through to 1965, the Stratocaster was a finely honed musical instrument, made to a high quality by the team at Fender guitars. It was designed to be easily and quickly constructed, in many ways echoing the production lines of big American car manufacturers. With the success of the Stratocaster and its earlier sibling, the Telecaster, Fender became an even more successful business than it already was, and as a result became the ideal candidate for a corporate take over.

This happened in the middle of 1965, when Leo Fender sold his various musical companies to Columbia Broadcasting System, or CBS as they are better known, for $13 million. At the time it was thought to be a good thing, as CBS would be able to push money into the company and get put personnel into the factory to get the guitars out to expectant buyers. However, as is often the case when a big faceless organisation takes over a small characterful business, the corporate line soon won out and cost cutting became a powerful factor in the production of the guitars.

Not long after CBS took over Fender, there were some cosmetic changes to the Stratocaster, including a change in logo and a larger headstock. As time progressed more cost cutting manoeuvres were made, such as the move to a neck screwed to the body with 3 screws instead of 4, and a cut in the number of tone knobs. The musicians of the day weren't happy and suddenly, from a futuristic guitar with an aura of craftmanship, the Strat went to being a bit of a pariah and fell out of favour.

In fact things got so bad, Fender under CBS came close to discontinuing the Stratocaster all together. Had it not been for Hendrix's guitar pyrotechnics, the Stratocaster could have been consigned to the past, but as soon as Jimi made them sing, the guitar's future was assured. Hendrix generally played the post-CBS models of guitars, partially because they were cheap due to their lack of favour, and he could get away with setting them on fire. Thanks to his stewardship though, players looked back into the Stratocaster, and that cemented the appeal of the pre-CBS models, to their almost cult like status today.

The Cult Of The Pre-CBS Guitar

With the Pre-CBS guitars It begs the question if they are really worth the hype? To some degrees, yes, just for sheer collectability. The electronic circuits of the pre-CBS era helped create the guitar's legendary tone which many consider the ultimate expression of the earliest Strats.The earlier models also had slightly different body shapes and construction to the later guitars, which also adds to their tonal appeal.

That said, it's a bit of a pre-conceived idea that Pre-CBS Strats were lovingly built by craftsman. From its inception the guitar was designed for mass-production, and literally thrown together by unskilled Mexican labour in Fender's Californian factory. Whilst the construction today may be more mechanised, it harks back to Fender's knock 'em up, push 'em out product which is a big part of how the guitar was able to become so widespreadly known and owned.

There's certainly a limited supply of Pre-CBS Strats in existence, that in turn adds to the rarity and desirability of these earliest guitars. Prices will continue to raise, but if you're like me and one of these guitars is very much out of your budgetary range, then looking to a reissue or a CBS era guitar might be the answer. That said, if there's a kind person out there that has a mint 1954 Strat they no longer have a use for, and want to send it to a good home for a couple of hundred, feel free to drop us a line. I'd love to see how one sounds alongside my other guitars, and become a part of the cult.

Early Strat History - Strat Serial #0001

Another 1954 Strat In Action


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