By Paul Riario | Photo by Massimo Gammacurta
It’s been 60 years since Leo Fender introduced the Stratocaster. With its original contoured body, synchronized tremolo, and three single-coil pickups, the Stratocaster was an elegant, futuristic alternative to the muscular simplicity of the well-established Telecaster model. Its precise functionality was conceived solely to serve the needs of guitarists that played country-and-western swing music of the day, and not much has changed in its overall design since then.
However, while some country players adopted this revolutionary guitar, the Stratocaster eventually proved appealing to rock and blues players, thus demonstrating the versatility of Fender’s design. This Fender Custom Shop 60th Anniversary 1954 Heavy Relic Stratocaster celebrates the original with a weathered look and modern refinements that reinforce its reputation as both a trailblazing instrument for any genre of music and, quite possibly, the most influential electric guitar in the world.
The Custom Shop 60th Anniversary 1954 Heavy Relic Stratocaster is based upon a prime example of a vintage 1954, but it’s by no means a faithful reproduction of Fender’s first version of the Strat. It’s crafted to look and feel like a guitar that has seen years of wear and tear, and Fender’s Custom Shop does a convincing job of distressing this model with its most extreme heavy reliquing treatment. It’s beautifully battered, with a thin coating of nitrocellulose lacquer finish that reveals the lightweight, one-piece ash body underneath its two-color sunburst. When the guitar is strummed acoustically, notes tend to spring forth, making this a genuine find—one-piece slabs of ash aren’t always perfectly resonant.
The one-piece quartersawn maple neck features a tinted lacquer finish that complements the vintage-looking body. The 25 1/2–inch-scale neck and 9 1/2–inch radius maple fretboard are vintage spec, but most modern-minded guitarists will be pleased to find that this Strat has 6105 narrow jumbo frets that facilitate easy, wide bends without choking the note.
The U-shaped neck profile is also standard for a 1954-style neck. If you’re more familiar with Fender’s traditional 1957 soft-V profile, you’ll find the U shape has more chunk to fill your hands. Regardless, it’s a comfortable neck, especially if you place your thumb over the top edge of the fretboard while fretting chords.
The Fender Custom Shop is equally adept at voicing pickups to match a model year’s tone, so this model features three custom-designed “1954 Single-Coil Strat” pickups. An original 1954 model came with a three-position switch, but this guitar adds modern five-way switching to fully exploit the pickups’ tonal palette. Other original-era touches include a synchronized vintage-style tremolo bridge with patent-pending stamps on its six steel saddles, a serial number-stamped trem plate, a single-ply white pickguard, “mini-skirt” control knobs (period-correct fanatics should note that the pickguard and knobs aren’t made of ABS plastic or Bakelite), vintage-style tuners, and nickel-chrome hardware. The guitar comes in a tweed “center-pocket” case with 60th Anniversary embroidery and a commemorative book for true collectors.
The Stratocaster’s true beauty is the wealth of usable tones in its three-pickup design, which allows fast and seamless transitions from bright, twangy tones to more complex, flute-like, and throaty sounds. Using a Fender Deluxe Reverb and Pro Reverb, I was able to execute those tones flawlessly when switching between the rhythm and treble pickups on this model. In fact, this Custom Shop model delivered more brilliance and clarity in its upper-midrange frequencies than a Fender American Vintage Series 1954 Stratocaster that I compared it to. As long I didn’t dive bomb, the vintage-style tremolo kept the guitar in tune, thanks to a perfect setup.
To this day, the Stratocaster’s unlimited versatility makes it one of the most prominent engineering marvels in 20th century musical instrument design. While Fender makes more than 100 versions of this guitar, the Fender Custom Shop 60th Anniversary Heavy Relic Stratocaster is an inspired blend of modern and classic features in a commemorative package that players and collectors will want to revisit again and again.
LIST PRICE $4,720
Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, fender.com
Mike Lewis, vice president of Product Development for the Fender Custom Shop, reveals what makes this introductory model year Strat so unique.
What surprises did you find after taking apart a vintage 1954 model to design this one?
The biggest difference between the ’54 we picked and all subsequent model years was the way the body and neck were sanded, especially the neck and headstock. Everything was very round and smooth. In later years, things are bit sharper.
Fifties-era Stratocasters all have slightly different design changes. What separates the 1954 from other model years?
Other than the “extra” sanding, the pickup covers and knobs are very different. Pickup magnets are alnico 3 and slightly larger. They remained this way through 1956.
Are the 1954 single-coil pickups revoiced, or did you use an existing Custom Shop pickup set?
These are based on a particular ’54 set that we like.
What makes the 1954 model so appealing to certain players?
It’s a romantic thing. It represents the first model year of the Stratocaster. A few key design elements are also only found in that first year. Just think of how the Strat changed the world—all the music that has been written for it, and how it inspired players to create entirely new musical styles. It makes me wonder where would we be without it.