Which do you prefer?
By Jeff Owens
Alone among Fender electric instruments, the Stratocaster has two different headstocks. Same shape, basically, but two sizes—the original smaller design and a larger one, which came a decade later. Both coexist today, each with its own devotees, but why are there two to begin with?
Because of CBS, that’s why. That’s right, the Columbia Broadcasting System (as it was once called), former owner of Fender.
In its original incarnation, introduced in 1954 and largely solidified by 1957, the Stratocaster had what is referred to in the modern era as a small headstock. That design was in production through late 1965.
CBS bought Fender in a deal that took effect on January 5, 1965. To the chagrin of many longtime Fender employees, the Tiffany Network started messing with the Stratocaster almost immediately. Only a slight change at first—the guitar got a new neck plate stamped with a large stylized Fender “F.” In the words of one observer quoted in author Tom Wheeler’s The Stratocaster Chronicles, this small move by itself served as “an adequate symbol of the CBS invasion.”
But in December 1965, an even more significant—and visible—change was implemented. The Stratocaster’s headstock was enlarged and slightly re-shaped.
“The rationale was simple,” noted author Richard Smith in Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World. “The new design allowed a bigger decal.”
A bigger headstock had more room for a bigger Fender-logo decal. With hindsight, it’s seen by many as the first really notable example of troublesome CBS meddling in Fender instrument design. As Smith subsequently observed, initially “CBS’s problems and mistakes at Fender were small but nonetheless consequential. Someone decided to enlarge the headstock on the Stratocaster and unintentionally ruined its visual balance.”
And that’s how it stayed for the next 15 years. Many actually refer to the larger Strat headstock as the "'70s” or "'70s-era” headstock even though it was in production for the latter half of the 1960s, too.
It’s worth noting here that CBS standardized the headstocks of all Fender guitars except the Telecaster using the larger Strat-style design in 1966, so that the Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Mustang and Duo-Sonic guitars all had the same headstock, whereas they all had slightly different ones before 1966. Except for the Stratocaster, however, none of those guitars were ever known for or are available in the modern era with two distinctly different headstock designs.
More than one purist cried foul at a design change that had nothing to do with the guitar’s tone or performance, but the 16-year tenure of the larger headstock, from 1965 to 1981, meant that an entire generation of players grew up with it and idolized their Strats just as the previous generation did. There was no vintage market in the 1970s and no internet to foster global discussion and debate about the minutia of Stratocaster design. The large Strat headstock was the only one they knew.
Indeed, just as many players came of age with the large headstock in the latter ’60s and '70s as had come of age with the small headstock from 1954 to late 1965. Many players formed preferences for one or the other; still others didn’t really care that much. Both headstock sizes came to coexist, both had their adherents, and all was fine. Plenty of players have liked the small Stratocaster headstock all along. And plenty of other players have liked the large Stratocaster headstock all along.
Two interesting footnotes here are that, one, all Telecaster Deluxe guitars have the large Stratocaster headstock, from the model’s introduction in 1973 right up to the present, and two, that the 25th Anniversary Strat model of summer 1979 did return to a four-bolt neck plate but did not return to a small headstock as might be expected.
In the waning years of CBS rule, Fender tried to return to the small headstock for the 1980 odd-duck model dubbed “The Strat,” but reverting back to an authentically small Stratocaster headstock proved more difficult than might be expected. Something wasn’t quite right.
As documented in Wheeler's book, “Although indeed smaller than the recent CBS-era headstock, it didn’t look like the original (some observers wondered why Fender would go so far as to recreate the old shape, but not far enough to do it right).”
Dan Smith’s arrival at Fender in 1981 signaled the start of his two decades as Fender’s chief guitar designer, and he knew right away that the Strat’s small headstock was off the mark. In an interview mentioned in The Stratocaster Chronicles, he called it “that misguided smaller headstock.”
“I don’t know where they got that shape,” he said.
Smith re-designed the basic Stratocaster in late 1981. Even then, he still didn’t have the resources at his disposal to get the original small headstock design exactly right, but he got closer than any previous effort. With Fender in the midst of a substantial reorganization, Smith’s redesign was a transitional guitar that was in fact the first version of the modern-era Standard series Stratocaster, including the Walnut and Gold models of summer 1981. Few were made, and the model lasted only a year, through 1982.
Also during this period, the fancy Walnut Strat and Gold Stratocaster models of summer 1981 both had the “incorrect” small headstock of The Strat.
Real progress came in early 1982, after Fender had reorganized itself and acknowledged the growing vintage market. That year, the '57 American-made maple-neck and '62 rosewood-fingerboard Stratocaster reissues became the first modern-era models to have smaller headstocks that approached suitably vintage correctness. According to Wheeler, these guitars were “crucial steps toward the authenticity of later reissues.”
The American Stratocaster, introduced in early 1987, was the first modern production models to have an authentically “pre-CBS”-style small headstock. A great many others have followed since, and today, the Stratocaster family remains a large and thriving one. The wealth of small- and large-headstock models can appeal to every kind of Strat player.