Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bowling Ball Fender Guitars

It was probably Eddie Van Halen’s fault that Fender Stratocasters started beating out the Les Paul in popularity during the early 1980’s. Van Halen was playing a chopped Kramer Strat-style guitar, that he had morphed together using parts from other instruments. Rockers and want to-be's went in search of similar instruments.

Guitars that looked like Strats, which more often than not were imported, started cutting into Fender’s market stronghold. An American made Fender Stratocaster sold for approximately $900 during those days. Asian made instruments were plentiful and had a lower price.

These were the CBS days. Fender management was under pressure to create a lower cost model and make changes in production to regain the company market share. The change to production strategy was to move manufacturing to Japan.

This resulted in a new Stratocaster design involved an updated tremolo system, which required no routing to the back of the body. Instead, the three springs were directly below the tremolo block where the string ends were held. A snap-in arm replaced the screw in arm. The microtilt mechanism was utilized; however, the company went back to using four bolts.

Fender eliminated the angled cord jack. This eliminated further body routing. The cord jack was now on the pickguard replacing the middle pickup tone control. The pickguard was supported by 12 screws around the perimeter, which aided for support of the top mounted jack.

The neck was available in maple or rosewood and had 21 frets. The headstock remained the same and bore Fender tuners and twin string trees.

To further their attempt to regain sales, Fender decided to take on a new approach. Van Halen's Kramer Strat was different. The company wanted something different.

A sample of a new guitar finish made its way to Fender headquarters. Its finish resembled tie-dyed clothing. However, something was different since this finish really stood out. It almost looked like sculptured marble. Fender was impressed and decided to do a limited run of 225 Stratocasters and 75 Telecasters.

The artist that was responsible for the swirling design on these guitars is Darren Johansen.

He originally developed this finish for a drum set and then did a mock-up of a guitar. He sent a picture of the guitar to the folks at Fender and was surprised to get a response and an invitation to that years NAMM show.

Fender’s management was so impressed that they took him aside and asked that he not show his guitar to any other people at the show. On the spot, they agreed to finish 300 instruments with Johansen’s finish.

Fender gave all of these Strat bodies were given a coat of primer and then sent to Johansen for finishing. Fender decided to have three-color groups of 75 guitars produced using differing color patterns.

One group used blue as the dominant color with black and yellow streaks. Another group utilized red as the dominant color with black and white streaks. Finally, the last group used yellow as the primary color with white and silver streaks. The painted bodies were sent back to Fender where they were sealed with polyurethane. Fender named this line Marble Strats, since the finished product were now reminiscent of the designs of little round glass marbles.

By now Fender had lowered the price of their Standard/Japanese-made Stratocaster with a traditional finish to around $600. A decision was made to tack on an additional $100 for what the company referred to as the Marble Stratocaster. The Marble strat was offered to dealers in 1984.

To promote the Marble Strat and Tele, Fender produced posters, baseball style caps, and T-shirts. Dealers commented they liked the guitar, but it looked more like a bowling ball than a marble. Hence, the term Bowling Ball Stratocaster is the name by which they came to be known. Unfortunately, this guitar was not a success. No additional Bowling Ball Strats manufactured after 1985.

In 1985, a group of its managers including Bill Schultz and Dan Smith purchased Fender.

In 1987 an attempt was made to resurrect the Bowling Ball Strat, however Fender dealers were under whelmed and the project did not go forward. There were approximately 20 bodies produced as prototypes. Fender sold these to their employees.

Like all collectibles, limited production items command a higher price. Fifteen or twenty years after production of the bowling ball Stratocaster that sold with a list price of $999 and a street price of around $700 is now commanding a price of $2,000.

The unique factor of Bowling Ball Strats is that no two finishes are the same. Some Bowling Ball Strats have rather plain mixed color patterns and some are stunning. However, most vintage guitar dealers agree that the Bowling Ball Strat is not a classic vintage guitar but a modern era collectible.

Nevertheless, the story does not end with the final Fender Bowling Ball Stratocaster.

Since Fender discontinued the line of Marble/Bowling Ball guitars in 1985, Darren Johansen was out of the custom guitar business. His contract with Fender had ended. A year later Johansen approached Steve Vai and Ibanez guitars. Vai sent him a few Jem bodies to finish and he was pleased with the results.

In 1990, Ibanez contracted with Johansen to finish prototype guitars. What was not a hit for Fender was a success with Ibanez due to Vai’s use on his personal instruments. The Ibanez instruments had a finish that had evolved from the Fender guitars due to improvements in Johansson’s process.