The Stratocaster is the best-selling guitar of all time, and its manufacturer, Fender, is probably the best-known guitar company in the world.
Fender is a giant in the musical instrument industry, and it is known for its high-quality, trend-setting guitars that have shaped the musical landscape for decades.
But Fender and the Stratocaster haven’t always been on top, and the company has been through its fair share of ups and downs over the years. This has resulted in an uneven output of products, meaning Stratocasters produced in certain years are more desirable than others.
But why is that the case? And which years are the ‘golden years?’ And, is there a ‘dark age’ or certain years of Stratocasters that you should avoid?
The simple answer is yes, there most definitely are years where the Fender Stratocaster was being produced to higher standards than others.
1954 – 1965 are recognized as Fender’s first ‘golden age,’ starting with the release of the first edition Stratocaster in 1954 and ending with Fender’s acquisition by CBS in 1965. The definitive ‘best year’ for a Stratocaster is 1962. The rosewood fretboard and alder body of this year’s model proved to be the best iteration of the Strat so far.
Table of Contents
- The Fender Stratocaster’s First Golden Age – 1954 – 1965
- Fender’s First Dark Age – The CBS Era – 1966 – 1985
- The Strat’s Comeback Years – 1981 – 1984
- Fender’s Second Stratocaster Dark Age – The FMIC ERA – 1985 – 1997
- Fender’s Second Golden Age – 1998 – Present Day
The Fender Stratocaster’s First Golden Age – 1954 – 1965
The first ever Stratocaster was designed and built by company founder Leo Fender in 1954. It was groundbreaking for the time, featuring three pickups, a tremolo arm, and its distinctive cutaway body shape.
It took the musical world by storm and was famously played by Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and John Lennon of The Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, to name just a few.
The reasons for its success are mainly due to its design and materials. In 1962, Brazilian rosewood, maple, and alder were all used in the production of this classic guitar.
The thin layer of rosewood on the neck gave the guitar a lighter tone, and the alder body was tough and durable without being too heavy.
However, this was all about to change…
Fender’s First Dark Age – The CBS Era – 1966 – 1985
In 1965, Leo Fender agreed to sell his company to a subsidiary of CBS (Columbia Broadcasting Systems) called Columbia Records Distribution Corp., but the period is known as the ‘CBS era.’ This proved to be a fatal mistake in terms of the quality of the Stratocasters produced by Fender.
Over the next few years, CBS made changes to the production process. Less time was spent on each individual guitar in an attempt to boost sales, without much thought given to the reduction in quality this would cause. Here are a few of the changes that CBS made during that period:
The increase in the size of the headstock was a controversial decision made by CBS.
While it didn’t have many negative effects on the overall sound of the Stratocaster, many fans thought it was an unnecessary change to a classic design that needed no improvement. It was considered an ugly design choice, too.
Replaced the Nitrocellulose Finish with Polyurethane
The old nitrocellulose finish that Fender had been applying to all its models, not just the Stratocaster, did have a few issues. Mainly, as it aged and became worn, it would develop a yellowish tint that may have been considered unaesthetic at the time.
Although many musicians and fans alike consider the worn, ‘beaten-up’ look these guitars have to be a unique selling point.
The main issue with the polyurethane finish CBS implemented was that it left a thicker layer on the body of the guitar, meaning a loss of resonance within the wood. This dulled the sound of the CBS Stratocasters, and they sounded less vibrant – less like a true Fender Stratocaster.
Switched From Using Alder to Ash for the Guitar Body
Fender had been using both Alder and Ash for its Stratocasters before, but CBS decided to switch to a cheaper Northern Ash, as opposed to the Southern Swamp Ash Fender had used in earlier models. The result was a heavy body that was lacking in resonance and trebles.
Inconsistencies in Body Shape
Another problem caused by the switch to cheap wood was the difficulty in properly shaping the signature ‘contour body’ of the Stratocaster. Coupled with the increased demand for production, this led to a lot of low-quality and inconsistently shaped guitars being put on sale.
Introduced the 3-Bolt Neck
One of the biggest gripes from the musical community was the introduction of the 3-bolt neck on Stratocasters made in the CBS era.
Complaints of loose, wobbly necks, poorly attached to ill-fitting bodies of guitars that would often go out of tune, are common among discussions of Stratocasters from this era.
The Strat’s Comeback Years – 1981 – 1984
By the mid-1970s, CBS knew that they had almost ruined the Fender company. Sales were falling, product quality was at an all-time low, and Fender’s reputation was in the mud.
So, they took the chance of hiring three members of Yamaha’s American division to attempt to resuscitate what was quickly becoming a dying company.
The new hires, Dan Smith, Bill Shultz, and John McLaren, would help to bring Fender back into the hearts of music lovers all over the world.
Dan Smith was chosen to head up the guitar production lines, and straightaway, he began implementing changes that would go on to save both the Stratocaster and Fender as a company.
Here’s what Dan Smith did to give the Fender Stratocaster its well-deserved comeback:
Scrapped Unreasonable Production Targets
During the CBS years, the Fender production factory was targeted to produce 300 guitars a day, with only 3 quality inspection officers for the whole process.
Dan Smith famously inspected over 800 guitars in the warehouse and found that only 15 of them passed the inspection criteria. So the production targets were written off, and the inspection criteria were rewritten.
Modernized Production Equipment
For a while after Smith’s involvement, the factory in Fullerton, California, was shut down so these changes could be implemented. New machinery was installed, and a new production line was set up to streamline the process and make it easier to make high-quality Stratocasters.
Reinstated 4-Bolt Necks and Small Headstocks
The most hated features of the CBS dark ages were scrapped, with great relief for customers. The oversized headstocks and wobbly 3-bolt necks were to be replaced with regular headstocks and sturdy 4-bolt necks.
Reissued Classic Vintage Models
To announce Fender’s return to greatness, Smith decided that the company should reissue some of its most-loved and best-selling models, the ‘57 and ‘62 Stratocaster.
These reissues were met with great feedback, and many thought this would be the beginning of a new golden age for Fender and the Stratocaster.
Fender’s Second Stratocaster Dark Age – The FMIC ERA – 1985 – 1997
In 1985, William Schultz and his management group purchased Fender from CBS for $12.5 million, and Fender became the ‘Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.’ However, the sale did not include the Fullerton factory and some of the patents and names.
This meant that for a while, production was moved to Japan, and for a short period, in 1985, no Fender Stratocasters were made in America.
A factory was opened in Ensenada, Mexico, with the aim of cheaper production costs. And in Corona, California, Shultz set up Fender’s first custom shop.
The ‘American Standard’ series Stratocaster was put into production, but the materials were cheap. Alder veneers were used, and the body was made of poplar, light and flimsy wood that caused the sound of Stratocaster produced in this period to lack depth and presence.
While it’s not fair to write off all Stratocasters from this period, it’s tough to find any that still hold their original value.
Of course, there are some high-quality models that were produced during this time, but with vast quantities of Stratocasters being made in Japan at low production costs to compete with the Asian market, quality was generally lower.
Fender’s Second Golden Age – 1998 – Present Day
With Fender’s factories in California, Mexico, and Japan all running at full pelt, production was at an all-time high in the mid-90s. The company was making money again and could afford to pump funds back into the production process.
A return to the use of vintage specifications and high-quality materials has led to the resurgence of a second golden age for the Fender Stratocaster.
Most models from the late ‘90s are considered to be high-quality, and everything that Fender has produced from 2012 onwards is thought to be as good as the golden age of the early ‘60s.
Coupling classic designs with modern technology has brought Fender and the Stratocaster back to the forefront of modern electric guitar prestige.
If you don’t care too much about snagging one of the vintage Strats for bragging rights, I would personally recommend you buy a modern-day Stratocaster (2012 & later).
You’ll not only get the classic Strat tone alongside all the modern features but also a much better value for your money.
As you can see, there are definite periods where Fender’s production was more about saving money than it was about making high-quality Stratocasters.
To snag a classic vintage ‘60s Strat, you will end up paying a lot more than if you settle for one of the dark-age models.
If you’re a beginner, you may want to invest in a Fender Squier, a cheaper Stratocaster model designed for learners and those who don’t want to put too much money into their hobby. For a bit more money, you can also consider a Fender Player Series Stratocaster (made in Mexico). But if you’re a pro or a collector, you know where to look for a piece of Fender history: 1962!