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The Stratocaster in the 1970s, Part II

 

"It's a business machine": 1977 Fender ad showing a natural-finish, black-pickguard Stratocaster typical of that era.
“It’s a business machine”: 1977 Fender ad showing a natural-finish, black-pickguard Stratocaster typical of that era.

By the mid 1970s, the Stratocaster was everywhere. The early years of that decade saw a phenomenal rise in the guitar’s popularity, with some of rock’s greatest guitarists becoming ardent Strat players—names including David Gilmour, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Robin Trower, Ritchie Blackmore, Rory Gallagher, and many others. Even Jimmy Page was known to have a Strat or two.

And to think, the future of the Stratocaster appeared none too certain not too many years earlier. Clapton remarked in a 2000s-era interview that by the time he bought his first Strat, in 1967—and secondhand at that—they were remarkably inexpensive because “Nobody wanted (them) anymore.” “They were archaic” and “They were going for a song.”

Jimi Hendrix seemed to singlehandedly reverse the Stratocaster’s fortunes, however. Even if he himself was destined to forever remain a part of the 1960s, one of the enduring effects of his towering influence was that the guitar model he most preferred arrived at the beginning of the 1970s as a must-have instrument. The first half of the decade thus saw a marked proliferation of truly phenomenal rock music built on the sound of the Stratocaster in the hands of some of the greatest musicians ever to play it—including Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Derek and the Dominos, 1970), All Things Must Pass (George Harrison, 1970), Machine Head (Deep Purple, 1972), The Dark Side of the Moon (Pink Floyd, 1973), Irish Tour ’74 (Rory Gallagher, 1974), Bridge of Sighs (Robin Trower, 1974), Blow by Blow (Jeff Beck, 1975) and a great deal more.

Certainly the newfound ubiquity of the Stratocaster by the mid ’70s was good news for Fender. By that time, however, it was also becoming evident that something was amiss.

Most of the greats who’d embraced the Stratocaster circa 1970-74 were playing older models predating Fender’s sale to CBS in 1965. A vintage electric guitar market hadn’t yet coalesced by that period, but word-of-mouth was already circulating among pros that the quality of “pre-CBS” Fender instruments and amps was superior—far superior, even—to what the company was producing in ever-greater numbers in the 1970s.

Indeed, some Fender insiders saw CBS as meddlesome from the very start, and quality control was seen to have dwindled noticeably by the late 1960s. Sales-wise, Fender was riding high in the first half of the 1970s and selling more instruments than ever, with a massive expansion of the Fullerton, Calif., factory completed in 1974.

Among players, though, as noted by author Tony Bacon in The Stratocaster Guitar Book, “A feeling was beginning to set in that Fenders were not made like they used to be.”

There was substance to this feeling, and among all the models in Fender’s mid-’70s lineup, Stratocasters in particular were perhaps suffering a little more. CBS had implemented a litany of cost-cutting, corner-cutting design changes to the Stratocaster that went well beyond cosmetic revisions such as the larger headstock and redesigned logo. CBS-era Strat pickups squealed more because changes to the process of applying lacquer and wax to their windings made them microphonic. Further, Strat pickups had always had staggered-height polepieces to balance the output across the strings, but Fender simplified its mass manufacturing by adopting “flush” polepieces of uniform height in late 1974. The sturdy steel tremolo construction of 1954-70, in which the base plate and inertia block were two pieces fused together, was changed circa 1971 to a one-piece die-cast design using an inexpensive but structurally inferior “pot metal” alloy. Bridge saddles were also fashioned from a cheaper alloy in place of the original pressed steel, lessening sustain and thinning the tone.

Three black-pickguard Stratocaster guitars as pictured in the 1976 Fender catalog.
Three black-pickguard Stratocaster guitars as pictured in the 1976 Fender catalog.

Two particular points of contention concerned the Stratocaster’s three-bolt neck attachment design and its finish. Leo Fender himself redesigned the Stratocaster’s four-screw neck attachment method as a three-screw design with a built-in neck-tilt adjustment mechanism. The concept itself was sound, but poorly implemented when it was introduced in 1971. Misaligned neck attachment hardware meant that workers would enlarge the neck pockets—often hastily and sloppily—in order to mount the necks, which would consequently pull out of alignment to one side or the other.

The mid 1970s also saw the adoption of the so-called “thick-skin” finish, which consisted of as much as a dozen polyester undercoats that stifled body resonance and imparted a harder, more plastic look (sprayed body color coats and topcoats were still nitro lacquer). As quoted in author Tom Wheeler’s The Stratocaster Chronicles, Custom Shop master builder Mark Kendrick noted, “They just blew a tsunami of polyester on there,” and “Encapsulating the guitar in a cocoon of plastic like that is going to dampen the sound.” As described by Richard Smith in Fender: The Sound Heard ‘Round the World, these heavy finishes were “durable but unmusical, almost sticky.” Concurrently, many headstocks faces were seen to age differently than the necks they were part of, because while necks were finished in polyester, which resists aging well, the headstock faces were finished in lacquer, which ages noticeably, over the decal, because polyester and the decals reacted adversely.

The many great custom color finishes of the 1960s had dwindled to only half a dozen earthy tones by late 1974—sunburst, natural, blonde, black, white and walnut. The natural-finish models had heavy ash bodies. Stratocaster bodies also became chunkier; less sleekly sculpted. Noted collector and retailer George Gruhn, as quoted in The Stratocaster Chronicles, summed it up succinctly: “Some of those guitars weighed like boat anchors and didn’t sound as good.”

It was strange. By the start of 1975, the Stratocaster was at its most popular—more and more artists were playing them and more people than ever were buying them, yet the new ones weren’t nearly as good as the older ones. Plenty were decent enough instruments, but few were great instruments. Fender couldn’t make Stratocasters fast enough in the mid ’70s, and that was undoubtedly the problem, because in the rush to produce more and more of them under the corporate bureaucracy of CBS, corners were cut and ill-advised design decisions were made.

The periodic cosmetic changes commonplace in Stratocaster history continued in 1975, when previously white pickguards, control knobs and tremolo arm tips were changed to black. This imparted a darkly different look for the Stratocaster, which by this time was available in tremolo and hard-tail versions, all with three-screw bullet-truss-rod necks, Micro-Tilt and skunk stripes.

1975 Tommy Bolin solo debut Teaser, released around the same time he replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple.
1975 Tommy Bolin solo debut Teaser, released around the same time he replaced Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple.

Meanwhile, the guitar continued to show up in the hands of more and more greats in the middle of the decade. U.S. guitarist Tommy Bolin turned in phenomenal Strat work with the James Gang, Billy Cobham and his own solo work, to say nothing of the fact that he rose with masterful aplomb to the daunting task of replacing Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple in 1975. One can only speculate on what other heights Bolin might have scaled had he not died at age 25 in December 1976. The Band’s Robbie Robertson was mainly known as a Telecaster player before he embraced the Stratocaster in the mid ’70s, typified by the superb Thanksgiving Day 1976 performance in San Francisco immortalized in acclaimed concert film The Last Waltz.

Neil Young sideman and Grin leader Nils Lofgren’s first solo album in 1975 made it clear that he was a superior Stratocaster stylist; many critics hailed his eponymously titled record as one of 1975’s best albums. Electric blues great Michael Bloomfield switched to a Stratocaster almost exclusively after the mid 1970s. Little Feat guitarist Lowell George turned in some of the finest Stratocaster phrasing of the 1970s; like Bolin, he died young, at age 34 in 1979. George was an early member of seminal U.S. experimental rock institution the Mothers of Invention, whose leader, Frank Zappa, also came to the Stratocaster in the mid 1970s and produced beautifully chaotic work with it. Curtis Mayfield, though known mainly as a singer/songwriter, continued to turn in impeccable soul, funk and R&B Stratocaster work. Slide guitar master Ry Cooder spent the decade parlaying his acclaim as an in-demand session veteran into a prolific solo career brimming with artful Stratocaster work. Always-superb U.K. guitarist Richard Thompson became an acknowledged Strat master by mid decade.

As author Tony Bacon notes in The Fender Electric Guitar Book, “Throughout the 1970s there was hardly a leading guitarist who did not at some time play a Fender.”

The Stratocaster was everywhere, and all over the charts, as the mid 1970s unfolded. It was heard on seemingly countless hits by acts including Aerosmith (“Walk This Way,” 1975), Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Sweet Home Alabama,” 1974), Bachman-Turner Overdrive (“You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” 1974), the Steve Miller Band (“Fly Like an Eagle” and “Take the Money and Run,” 1976), Heart (“Magic Man,” 1975, and “Barracuda,” 1977), Kansas (“Carry On Wayward Son,” 1976) and a great many others.

Eclectic guitar master Ry Cooder and Strat on the cover of 1979's Bop Till You Drop.
Eclectic guitar master Ry Cooder and Strat on the cover of 1979′s Bop Till You Drop.

The greats who’d embraced the Stratocaster earlier in the decade continued to produce remarkable work with it as well, resulting in albums such as Wired (Jeff Beck, 1976), Calling Card (Rory Gallagher, 1976), Animals (Pink Floyd, 1977), Slowhand (Eric Clapton, 1977) and Caravan to Midnight (Robin Trower, 1978). Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page used a Stratocaster for tracks Presence on (1976) and In Through the Out Door (1979). Ronnie Wood reinvigorated the Rolling Stones when he formally joined in 1975, bringing Strat chops as an ideal complement to Keith Richards’ swaggering Telecaster work; 1978 Stones album Some Girls hit number one, became the band’s top-selling U.S. album and was lauded by critics as a brilliant return to form.

Punk had developed during this period on both sides of the Atlantic. While its musically explosive first era flamed out almost as soon as it had started—it was pretty much over by early 1977—the Stratocaster figured in it almost not at all, it being the sort of mainstream instrument eschewed according to the movement’s ethos.

The effects of original-era punk were lasting and far-reaching, though, and rock music found itself splintering afterward into more and more subgenres, some more traditional sounding and others not. The Stratocaster easily found a home among these “new” musical avenues as yet more generations of talented and inventive players appeared in the late 1970s.

For example, Talking Heads leader David Byrne and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd both emerged from late-’70s New York playing Stratocasters with an angularly cerebral approach outwardly owing little if anything to original-era punk. But if lumping them in with the Sex Pistols/Clash set clearly didn’t ring true, neither did lumping them in with the blues-based guitarists who ruled the ’70s before punk reared its snarling head. If labels were to be applied—an oft-contentious prospect—players such as Byrne and Lloyd belonged instead to a late-’70s post-punk musicality that would eventually work its way into mainstream rock music and infuse it with renewed energy and creativity.

Apart from rock and its fast-mutating subgenres, the Stratocaster found another natural home in the other big musical phenomenon of the late 1970s, disco. A popular extension of funk, soul, Latin, Motown and R&B, disco was much maligned by many rock musicians and fans during its 1977-79 heyday, but nonetheless boasted some fine electric guitar and bass work. Disco guitar had deep roots that encompassed fine players such as Jimmy Nolan (James Brown), Ernie Isley (Isley Brothers), Freddie Stone (Sly & the Family Stone), the aforementioned Curtis Mayfield, Tony Maiden (Rufus), Eddie Hazel (Parliament-Funkadelic), Leo Nocentelli (the Meters) and others, some of whom were known for playing Stratocasters. The premier late-’70s disco guitarist was New York musician, composer and producer Nile Rodgers, who co-founded Chic with bassist Bernard Edwards in 1977. Rodgers most often brought his impeccable rhythmic and compositional instincts to life on a 1960 Stratocaster (with a 1959 neck) that was nicknamed the “Hitmaker,” and his chart-topping disco work with Chic led to an even more varied and acclaimed career in the 1980s and beyond.

1978 debut album Dire Straits, on which the world first heard Mark Knopfler.
1978 debut album Dire Straits, on which the world first heard Mark Knopfler.

The biggest new Stratocaster talent of the late ’70s, however, was undoubtedly Dire Straits leader Mark Knopler. He too was an artist who owed nothing to punk—Knopfler was already a virtuoso guitarist and solid songwriter by the time his band hit big in 1979 with its eponymous 1978 debut album—and punk was nothing if not anti-virtuoso. But he clearly didn’t sound like he owed anything to Jeff Beck or Ritchie Blackmore or even just rock ‘n’ roll in general, either. His band originally had a roots-y pub-rock sound, and its good fortune was to emerge into a mainstream musical climate more open to new sounds, even if some of those new sounds were in fact much like older sounds.

Top-ten Dire Straits debut hit “Sultans of Swing” captivated listeners in 1979 with its sparkling-clear guitar sound, which was basically just Knopfler fingerpicking his ’61 Stratocaster, set to the bridge/middle pickup switch position, and little if anything else. At the time, music critic Jim Kershner wrote that it “sounded like no other guitar on radio,” and yet all it consisted of was a simple, clean and unadorned Stratocaster played with breathtaking deftness.

The crystalline sound of that first Dire Straits album points up a key design change that Fender introduced on the Stratocaster in 1977—the five-way pickup selector switch. At long last, Fender had instituted a Strat design modification that players liked and had in fact wanted practically ever since the Stratocaster was introduced more than two decades earlier. By the mid ’70s, players had long known that the guitar’s three-position pickup switch could be delicately balanced in two “in between” positions that delivered combination tones unintended by the Strat’s designers. Fender finally acknowledged this practice by giving the Stratocaster a five-position selector switch in 1977. Knopfler was content to continue balancing the three-position switch on his ’61 Strat back in the late ’70s, but the five-way switch sure made getting that sound a lot easier for many other guitarists.

1979 Fender ad for the 25th Anniversary Stratocaster. Note the prominent "Anniversary" graphic on the upper horn.
1979 Fender ad for the 25th Anniversary Stratocaster. Note the prominent “Anniversary” graphic on the upper horn.

1979 marked 25 years since the introduction of the Stratocaster, and Fender observed the occasion by creating its first-ever anniversary model. Although it was a commercially successful instrument, little about the limited edition 25th Anniversary Stratocaster embodied a direct connection to its ancestor of 1954. In no way was it a reissue, although it did have a maple fingerboard and it did return to a four-screw neck attachment with the truss rod adjustment at the body end.

Otherwise it was a modern Stratocaster, with the large headstock, black plastic pickguard, black control knobs and tremolo arm tip, and a decidedly unambiguous block letter “Anniversary” logo emblazoned along the upper horn. The guitar’s finish was problematic at first; the pearly water-based finish of the first models was supposed to look silver but came out white, and it cracked and flaked off quickly and easily, which, as noted by Tom Wheeler in The Stratocaster Chronicles, “left some of the bodies with a parched, Death Valley lakebed look and CBS with yet another image problem.” Fender quickly corrected the finish formula, and all 10,000 instruments made during the model’s two-year lifespan sold.

Another important Stratocaster development of the late 1970s concerned the rise of the vintage guitar market. This was a phenomenon that had slowly but steadily gathered steam throughout the 1970s, to the point that so-called “pre-CBS” instruments and amps were no longer considered merely “used,” but rather “vintage,” with prices increasing accordingly (and exponentially). By the end of the decade, gone were the days when you could walk into a store and snap up several 1950s Strats for $100 apiece, as Clapton reportedly did back in the 1960s.

Fender was building and selling more new Stratocasters than ever by the end of the 1970s, but it was becoming ever more widely known among discerning players that Fender certainly wasn’t making them like they used to. More and more players were becoming aware of the notion that the only really good Strats were the pre-CBS ones. Indeed, in a strange twist, one of the main competitors for new Stratocasters was in fact old Stratocasters.

Things were going to have to change if the Stratocaster—and all Fender instruments and amps—were to survive into the forthcoming decade and beyond. The 1970s had been a spectacular time for the Stratocaster in many ways, with the instrument finally coming into its own and becoming a top seller, but quality had suffered and there were uncertain times ahead. The 1980s were nearly at hand, and while nobody knew what was going to happen at Fender, things were definitely going to change. The question was whether it would be for better or for worse, and no answer was clear as 1979 ticked over to 1980. All that aside, however, there were phenomenal sounds in the works for a new decade.

Below, more great Stratocaster albums from the second half of the 1970s. Clockwise from upper left: Pink Floyd’s Animals (1977), Eric Clapton’s Slowhand (1977), the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls (1978) and the Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978).

Animals1 Slowhand1
Talking-Heads1 Some-Girls1

 

 

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