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Guitarchive: The Starcaster

Fender's 1976 "Snow White" Starcaster ad.
Fender’s 1976 “Snow White” Starcaster ad.

 

There’s a trippy old Fender “Fairytale” ad from 1976 in which the craggy old evil queen—a lefty, apparently—slings a vaguely nondescript electric guitar with Gibson-like three-on-a-side tuners and pointed Rickenbacker-like horns. Her guitar strap is a chain, and she’s sounding what must be a dissonant chord with her spindly old fingers as she poses a momentous question to the magic mirror before her.

“Mirror mirror on the wall,” the fiendish crone queries said wall hanging, “Who plays fairest of us all?”

Imagine the evil queen’s dismay on learning from the magic mirror that the hottest guitarist in the kingdom is not in fact herself. Rather, the mirror returns the beautiful image of none other than Snow White—that is, a very Brothers-Grimm-meets-young-Joan-Jett kind of Snow White—surrounded by seven small faces and wielding a Fender guitar that sure doesn’t look like any Fender guitar anyone has ever seen before, fairytale or not (but you know it is one because it clearly says “Fender” on its unusually shaped headstock).

Indeed, the mirror answers that “O’er the hills in forest green, Snow White really makes the scene, and she plays fairer yet than thee.”

Glowering and incensed at being kept “all in the dark,” the queen demands to know the secret of Snow White’s superior sound. Upon which the magic mirror dutifully complies, revealing the identity of the mysterious guitar:

“Well,” the mirror says, “Snow White lights her way with the new Fender Starcaster.”

* * * * *

The Starcaster. Note the offset semi-hollow body with f holes, large humbucking pickups, onboard controls and distinctive headstock.
The Starcaster. Note the offset semi-hollow body with f holes, large humbucking pickups, onboard controls and distinctive headstock.

 

Snow White is fictional sure enough, but the Starcaster was a very real guitar. Alas, its story was no fairytale.

Most guitarists are understandably unfamiliar with the model; the Fender Starcaster wasn’t particularly successful and hence wasn’t around long. Often considered one of the more esoteric novelties in the history of Fender electric instruments, it arrived in 1976 as the company’s first new electric guitar model in three years and was gone by the fall 1980 price list.

And that’s too bad, really, because by most accounts, the problem wasn’t that the Starcaster wasn’t a good guitar. On the contrary, those who know the Starcaster generally regard it as a good instrument that offered solid build, tone and feel. With hindsight, most seem to agree that the Starcaster never really caught on because of unfortunate timing and misguided intent.

The timing was unfortunate in the sense that the mid-to-late 1970s was a troubled period in Fender history. Truth be told, the company was selling more instruments and amps than ever as the decade wore on through its second half, but quality control problems under cost-cutting CBS rule were well evident by this time, and murmurings were starting to circulate among musicians that if you wanted a good Fender guitar or amp, you needed an older one pre-dating CBS’s 1965 purchase of the company.

As for intent, there’s no doubt that the Starcaster was Fender’s best effort yet at going after a piece of the humbucking-pickup-equipped thin semi-hollow-body market long dominated by Gibson and its ES series. Fender had tried “thinline” hollow-body guitars and basses before with its Coronado instruments of the 1960s, but these achieved little success and were discontinued by 1972. It would be a few years before Fender made a similar attempt.

Which brings us to the Starcaster itself. In the early 1970s, CBS wanted to use up old Coronado stock and enlisted Fender designer Gene Fields to do so. Fields joined Fender R&D in 1961 and had worked on instruments including the PS-210 keyless pedal steel, Mustang Bass, Musicmaster Bass, Bronco guitar and the aborted Marauder guitar.

Fields got to work, but as noted in author Tony Bacon’s 50 Years of Fender, “early prototypes were too obviously outings for scrap components from Coronados.” Noting this, CBS had Fields design an entirely new instrument, and “the result was a hollow-body electric more in keeping with Fender’s overall style, bearing an offset-waist body and a Fender-like headstock.”

Looking at the elaborate design Fields came up with, it is indeed quite remarkable how Fender-like the Starcaster is for such a non-Fender-like guitar.

"The Starmaker": Another trippy Fender Starcaster ad; this one from 1978.
“The Starmaker”: Another trippy Fender Starcaster ad; this one from 1978.

Most unusual for a semi-hollow guitar, the Starcaster had an offset waist—a classic Fender design element made famous by much earlier solid-body models, most notably the Jazzmaster guitar (1958) and Jazz Bass (1960). This offset double-cutaway body featured front and back binding and a solid maple center block that provided sturdiness and sustain not found in the Coronado models a generation earlier. The Starcaster had an arched laminated maple top with dual f holes, with a maple back and sides. It came in several “thick-skin” high-gloss finishes including Blonde, White, Black, Natural, Walnut, Antigua, Wine and Tobacco Sunburst.

The Starcaster’s bolt-on neck was another Fender hallmark. It was made of hard-rock maple, with a “bullet” truss rod adjustment, Micro-Tilt neck adjustment and an unusual six-on-a-side headstock design with a dark-painted curve opposite the tuners and below the logo (Fields originally came up with this headstock design for the ill-fated 1966 Marauder guitar). Its 10”-radius maple fingerboard had 22 nickel-silver medium jumbo frets and black-dot inlays.

Fender had been experimenting with humbucking pickups for several years by the mid 1970s, and the Starcaster featured two Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups with chrome covers and individually adjustable pole pieces. The control setup was fairly elaborate for a Fender guitar, with a three-way toggle pickup switch on lower horn and five silver-skirted black control knobs: neck pickup volume, neck pickup tone, bridge pickup volume, bridge pickup tone and—unusual for a Fender guitar—a master volume.

Other features included a three-ply black-white-black pickguard, a six-saddle adjustable bridge, Grover Rotomatic tuners, stainless steel flatwound strings and a hard-shell case. A handful of prototype Starcaster basses were also made, but these never entered production and never appeared in any Fender catalogs or price lists.

Guitarists seemed indifferent. Though well made (and not inexpensive), the Starcaster just didn’t take off. “It was a much better instrument than some of the previous (Fender) hollow-body models, but still failed to excite players,” Bacon notes in 50 Years of Fender. “Despite the inherent quality of the $850 Starcaster, its timing was wrong, and most potential customers still opted for Gibson hollow-body models.”

Perhaps it had something to do with the widely held perception that Fender built solid-body instruments and others built hollow-body instruments, and never the two would meet. Whatever the reasons, the Starcaster fell short of the stars it was aimed at, and it was discontinued in 1980.

* * * * *

 

Today, original Starcasters are neither commonplace nor rare. You can usually find a few on eBay, but they’re not cheap—it’s not uncommon to see them going for a few thousand dollars or more.

Some confusion may arise because Fender dusted off the Starcaster name in the early 2000s for an entire line of value-priced entry-level instruments and instrument packs. These “Starcaster by Fender” guitars and drums, however, had nothing to do with the original Starcaster guitar.

Original ’70s Starcasters have now undergone something of a rehabilitation. It’s a hip guitar now among those who eschew the mainstream and prize the more esoteric instruments of the 1960s and ’70s.

Whereas you’d have been hard pressed to find Starcasters in many high-profile hands during its original 1970s era, you needn’t look very hard today to see them put to prominent stage and studio use by several noted guitarists.

Radiohead resident guitar genius Jonny Greenwood, for example, played his Starcaster on acclaimed albums OK Computer (1997), Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001). He has used it extensively onstage for songs including “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “The Tourist,” “Optimistic,” “In Limbo,” “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box,” “Pyramid Song” (played using a cello bow), “I Might Be Wrong,” “Knives Out,” “You and Whose Army?” “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” Give Up the Ghost” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out).”

Killers guitarist Dave Keuning is another fan. Hit 2006 album Sam’s Town is a good example of his Starcaster work, and he has also used it in videos (“Human,” “For Reasons Unknown”). Keuning too uses his Starcaster extensively onstage—footage of the Killers at the 2007 Glastonbury Festival provides plenty of good examples (“When You Were Young,” “Uncle Jonny,” “Read My Mind,” “On Top,” “Mr. Brightside,” “For Reasons Unknown”).

Morrissey guitarist Jesse Tobias is an avowed Starcaster player; he can be seen playing his in the video for 2006 single “You Have Killed Me.” Other noted Starcaster players include Arctic Monkeys guitarist Jamie Cook (see the video for 2009 single “Crying Lightning”), Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla (i.e., “Cath …,” “Crooked Teeth”), Mooney Suzuki guitarist/vocalist Sammy James Jr. (i.e., “99%,” “Alive and Amplified”), and Our Lady Peace guitarist Steve Mazur (i.e., “Where Are You”).

 

Yet another imaginitive Starcaster ad, from 1977.
“Astrogator Fender”: Yet another imaginative Starcaster ad, from 1977.

 

 

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