Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Original 1954 Fender Stratocaster - A Most Versatile and Unique Guitar

George Fullerton - Leo Fender - Freddie Travares - Bill Carson
In 1954 Leo Fender, Bill Carson, George Fullerton, and Freddie Tavares collectively designed and built one the greatest electric guitar ever made; The Fender Stratocaster.

Don Randall

It was Fender's head of sales, Don Randall came up with the name; Stratocaster.

1950 Fender Broadcaster

Leo Fender had designed and produced the Fender Telecaster four years earlier. This was a “Spanish guitar” adaptation of the lap steel guitars that he and Doc Kauffman had developed as early as 1944.  The original Telecaster/Broadcaster had a similar 3 section adjustable bridge saddle which were similar to some of the units used on Fender/K&F lap steel guitars.

1954 Sratocaster

The Stratocaster was a whole different guitar than the Telecaster. Perhaps the biggest difference is the two offset horns. Besides just looking plain cool, those horns actually gave the guitar some balance, and provided a great position for the strap button, not to mention easy access to the upper register.

1953 Stratocaster Prototype

The original 1953 design for the Stratocaster was quite different than the final product. Some say it looked more like a Telecaster.  You can see it has metal knobs.

1953 Strat Prototype

The earliest prototype I can find is from 1953. It looks like the 1954 model, but has a much smaller route in the back to hold 3 tremolo springs, and the inertia block.

The designers wanted to create a more versatile instrument that had a different sound than the Telecaster. Instead of two pickups, this guitar would have to have three. And those pickups need to be different than the Telecaster pickups. And the body needed to be different.

Note also the center routing. This would later be changed to a slightly narrower channel between the pickups for placement of the wiring.

George Fullerton and Freddie Travares

Freddie Travares was the one that sketched out a new body design.

Rex Gallion with a '54 Stratocaster
Guitarist Rex Gallion is credited with convincing Leo Fender to create a more curved body that did not need to have squared off edges. Gallion asked why does the guitar need to be digging into the players ribs, and why not have a more comfortable position for the players forearm?

1954 Pre-production Stratocaster

These sculptured curves known as the contoured body are perhaps my favourite part of the Stratocaster. In his later years, George Fullerton shows off his pre-production model.

Fullerton's Pre-production Stratocaster

The lower portion of the bout has a definitive bevel that makes for very comfortable arm placement. To do this in 1954, the wood was rift sawn. The blue lines in the photo indicate the saw markings.

1954 Fender Stratocaster

This beveled section of the guitars top section gives the Stratocaster a slight offset, since it effects its symmetrical shape.

1954 Stratocaster Back Side with cover
The center of guitars upper backside has another deep, contoured bevel that keeps the guitar from digging in the players ribs. This was a major improvement over the slab-like body of the Fender Telecaster. Those curves are one of the aspects that makes this guitar incredibly unique.

1954 Fender Stratocaster
Another unique feature of the Stratocaster are the three Fender designed single coil pickups. This provided the guitar with three distinctive sounds, including a biting treble sound for lead work. The neck, and middle pickups both came with a tone control, so the player could roll off the highs to get more of a dark jazz style sound.

1954 Pick Guard and Pickups

The creators of the guitar saw no need for a tone potentiometer for the bridge pickup. I suppose they figured players wanted to maintain the high end sound for lead work. The instrument had only a single volume control for all the pickups.

That volume knob is well placed for guitarists that use it for “swell” sounds, that can imitate a steel guitar or a trumpet.

1954 Strat close-up
It wasn’t too long before players discovered that by placing the three-way pickup selector switch between the neck and center pickup, the guitar would yield a much different sound. With two pickups engaged, there is a slight decline in volume, but the tone is very sweet, and since the pickups are each wound in reverse from each other, this actually puts the guitar in a humbucking mode, and reduces the 60 cycle hum that is generated by just a single pickup.

1954 Strat Pick Guard
The other trick that players discovered was to place the selector switch between the middle, and bridge pickups. This gave the Stratocaster a distinctive “quack” sound. Mark Knopfler, and Rory Gallagher are famous for this tone.

Because the first Stratocasters came with the 3-way switch, some guitarist would jam a piece of a matchstick in the selector to prevent the switch from springing back to the single coil mode. It would not be until 1977 when Fender adopted the 5-way switch as standard equipment.

The plastic switch tip on the '54 model was slightly longer than on models from 1956 and later.

1954 Strat Pick Guard back side

Expediency in manufacturing was a key feature of the Fender pickguard, pickups, and electronics. The first pick guards were made of a single piece of .060" thick ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) vinyl. Some sources say this was made of Bakelite.

The 1954 pickguard, pickup covers, switch tips, and knobs have a tendency to crack over time. The knobs on the 1954 model were slightly shorter.

The electronics, including all three pickups, the three-way switch, the potentiometers, the 250k ohm  capacitors, and all the wiring were  assembled by Fender workers directly on the pick guard. A small sheet of aluminum was placed below the electronics for shielding.

1954 Stratocaster routing
The body was already routed. Workers just needed to screw the pickguard in place, and thread the wires to the input and ground for final assembly. This was accomplished with eight wood screws.

Another feature that set the Stratocaster apart was its floating tremolo.

Fender Stratocaster blue print
Mr. Fender put a lot of effort and money into the Stratocaster vibrato system. Don Randall, who was head of Fender sales, insisted that the new Fender guitar be equipped with a vibrato.

He insisted that this feature was necessary to compete with guitars being manufactured by other companies.

Impression of how a 1953 Strat
may have looked with a roller bridge

The initial tremolo system used a stationary bridge with individual rollers for each string that went to a separate tailpiece. Bill Carson and Leo thought this sounded fine, but George Fullerton disagreed.

He even took the prototype and played it with his band. He said it sounded like an amplified banjo, and lacked sustain. So it was back to the drawing board.

Patent for Guitar
Vibrato Apparatus

The new tremolo unit was actually based on a gram scale that Leo had in his office. The entire bridge assembly moved. much like the plate on the scale. The strings were fed through a solid steel inertia block that attached to the bottom of the bridge plate. This steel block aided with the sustain. And each string had individual adjustable saddles, that could be moved up and down, back and forth to give them the correct height and intonation.

Patent for Guitar
Vibrato Apparatus Fig 2

The bridge unit attached at the front of the body with six screws that were countersunk on each side, thus giving it a knife-like edge, allowing the bridge to rock up and down. The rear of the bridge was not anchored to further allow the up and down movement.

Routing on '54 Strat for vibrato springs
The guitars back side was routed out to contain the vibrato springs, and attachment. Another area was routed straight through the guitars body to make room for the inertia block.

This gap was wide enough to allow the block to move forward and backward. A rectangular piece of ABS was screwed onto the back to cover the assembly.  This was held in place by six wood screws. Six holes that were placed directly under the inertia block acted as slots to thread the strings into the guitar.

Strat with five springs like the originals
Back in 1954 standard electric guitar strings were much heavier than today’s strings. To offset this, the first Stratocasters came with five springs in the rear cavity. Even with that and the bridge plate screws secured firmly in the body, the tremolo plate raised off of the guitars body, so the player could easily move the strings up and down.

Cover plate on
back of a 1954 Strat
Because of today’s lighter strings, a player would have to slightly loose the bridge screws to accomplish this up and down movement. It helps that modern Strats only come with only three springs. Many players even loosen the claw that holds the springs to ease the tension.

Then there are those players that do not use the tremolo at all; sometimes placing a piece of wood between the trem-block and the end of the cavity to prevent movement.

1954 Hard-tail Fender Stratocaster
There is even an add-on device called Trem Stop to accomplish this goal. Those that do not like the Stratocasters tremolo feel its use causes the guitar to go out of tune. Even in 1954 the Stratocaster was available with a "hardtail" option.

That guitar had a stationary bridge, anchored by six screws, with the strings fed through the body  attached to grommets in the back, just like on a Telecaster. Only a handful of these guitars were sold.

Eldon Shamblin with 1954
Stratocaster, custom gold finish

Leo Fender used to give guitars to well known players that came by the Fullerton shop, to try out, and give him feedback on what they did or didn’t like. He did this with the Stratocaster. Many of those players were from Country Western bands in the California area. One result of these encounters was the recessed input jack on the guitars face.

The Stratocaster was the only guitar to be equipped with this feature. Although it was later copied by other manufacturers. The recessed input was meant for the cables with straight plugs.

'54 Strat neck
The neck on the 1954 Fender Stratocaster was made of maple. The original radius was 7.25”, which was the same as the Telecaster of that era. However the Stratocaster neck had more of a V shape, compared to the C shape found on a 1950 Fender telecaster. The original necks came with 21 frets that were embedded into the top surface of the neck. One drawback that I encountered as a young guitarist was the fact that capos did not seem to work well on Stratocasters of that era. The neck on the '54 Strat has sort of a clubby feel. By 1956 the neck was reshaped and more comfortable.

'54 Strat neck

The position markers found on the 1954 Stratocaster were made of dark, baked clay molded into 1/4" dots.  Smaller clay dots were placed on the upper side of the neck.  On the back of the neck you find what came to be known as the "skunk stripe", which was  a strip of walnut wood, glued into the routed area covering that area of the neck where the truss rod was installed.

Bigsby and Strat headstock

The Fender six-on-a-side headstock was probably copied from Paul Bigsby's design. Bigsby and Fender knew each other. The Telecaster prototype had a three-on-a-side headstock design, while the production model did not.

In fact the Stratocaster headstock looked much more like Bigsby's design. Leo's design for the neck and headstock was based on ease of manufacturing. Keep it simple. The headstocks for the necks were cut using a template for the shape. Then another cut on the band saw removed the upper half of the wood on the headstock. A bevel was then created starting at the bridge saddle area.

Straight vs Angled Headstock
Unlike most other guitars (including Bigsby's) that have a headstock that has a downward bend (in Gibson's case this is 17 degrees), Fender headstock are parallel to the rest of the neck. The headstocks are milled down, and flattened. This is the reason that Fender uses string trees. These bits of metal direct the strings to the tuning posts at the proper angle.

On guitars with the angle, the slope of the headstock aids to keep the strings aligned properly from the saddle to the post.

'54 Strat - Kluson keys

The metal tuning keys were made by Kluson and were similar to those found on the Telecaster. The 1954 model had one rounded string tree for the 1st and 2nd string.

Abigail Ybarra
Pickups were usually wound by women that worked in the hat Fender factory. In the early days, a lady named Pilar Lopez, wound many of the pickups. She trained the most famous pickup winder that Fender ever had; Abigail Ybarra.

Stratocasters, or any Fender guitar with Ybarra pickups are special. Other workers that installed the electronics signed their name or initials to indicate their job was done. Commonly on these older Fender Stratocasters you will find the name Mary (Mary Lemus) or Gloria (Gloria Fuentes).

1955 black Strat owned
 by Howard Reed
The earliest Fender Stratocasters from 1954 were usual produced in two colour sunburst. Guitarist Eldon Shamblin, who played with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, was presented with a 1954 Stratocaster that was painted gold.

It wasn't until 1956 that Fender produced Stratocaster bodies painted with colours based on Dupont automobile paint. Aside from Shamlin's gold strat, this 1955 black Stratocaster was custom built for Howard Reed, who was the guitarist for Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. The original 1954 Fender Stratocaster used Canary Yellow, and an amber paint called Dark Salem to create the two-tone sunburst finish. It was sprayed with a nitrocellulose lacquer.

1954 Stratocaster body made of ash
1954 Stratocaster bodies were made of lightweight ash wood. In 1956 Fender switched to alder wood, though any Stratocaster made from 1956 onward, that were finished in a natural finish or a light colour were probably made of ash.

Leo with Alvino Rey
Leo was all about promoting his instruments and frequently gave professional players instruments to use in shows, so the public would know that guy is playing a Fender. Such was the case with a couple of players back in 1954.

Dick Dale approached Leo Fender, and in a bold move said, “I’m Dick Dale, I’m a surfer and a guitar player, and I need a decent instrument.” Leo handed him a 1954 Stratocaster and asked him to play something. Mr. Fender had a laugh when Dale flipped it over and played the guitar. Dick was left-handed, but learned to play guitars strung for right handed players.

Dick Dale with gold Stratocaster
Leo Fender later made Dick Dale a left handed Fender Stratocaster, but had the nut cut so the low E was the first string, and the high E was the sixth string.

However the Stratocaster that Dick Dale is most associated with, is nicknamed, The Beast. It was not created until 1960, and was a gift from Leo Fender.

Dale removed the tone potentiometers from his guitars, and put metal caps in their place. He left the 250 ohm volume potentiometer and the 3-way pickup selector switch. Dale also has a mini-toggle switch that turns the middle pickup on.

The other player associated with the 1954 Stratocaster was Country and Western Swing music guitarist, Eldon Shamblin.

Eldon Shamblin, later in life,
with his original 1954 Stratocaster
Shamblin is best known for his work with Bob Wills and the Texas playboys. He is a self taught guitarist that learned by studying the style of Eddie Lang, and Freddie Green. When he joined The Texas Playboys, he was replacing Junior Barnard, and was told by Wills to imitate his style, by playing louder, and imitating Barnard’s string bending style. Shamblin also was able to arrange written music for the band.

Shamlin's guitar and
Bandmaster amp

Leo gave Eldon Shamblin one of the first Fender Stratocasters It is dated 05/04/1954. It is unique because it was the only guitar that year to have a gold finish. Shamblin also used a 1953 Fender Bandmaster with a single 15” speaker when playing with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Throughout the years the Fender Stratocaster has undergone many changes, however the original 1954 model is the archetype model that many other electric guitars are based on, including those designed by many other companies. When the Fender Stratocaster was finally offered for sale, the retail price was $249.99 for the tremolo model, and $229.99 for the hard-tail version.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Mikey, the Poodle, who was a good  yet tiny companion for the past 15 years, and always a very good boy. He left us this week. You are missed, and never forgotten.

Click on the links under the pictures for sources. Click on the links in the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only) 2018

The next two videos are from 1957, but demonstrate how Fender manufactured their guitars back in the day. 
There are also some scenes from trade shows.