The Strat with the Big Head! A short history

Seventies Big Headed Strats! Are they good or do they suck? It is simple. Big heads are better than small heads. Why? Do you like Big beers or small beers, Big cars or small cars, and so on and on… For sure, Some of the 70’s strats are back breaking pieces of poop. But many of them are true gems, comparable with or even better than many (often overrated) 60’s strats and more lively than what had been produced in the later years. Jimi Hendrix and Ritchie Blackmore knew their stuff, didn’t they? Seek and thou will find! Big Heads ruled the world from 1965 until 1981!

1972 stratocaster neck1973 ruined strat neck

Fender created the stratocaster in 1954. The company was bought by Columbia Broadcasting Systems Inc. (CBS) on January 5, 1965. The Fender heritage is often divided in the pre-CBS and CBS and after periods, where pre-CBS stands for better quality. Prices for especially pre-CBS guitars grew sky high due to (perceived) high quality and scarcity.

The CBS “invasion” in 1965 is often symbolized by the backward “F” logo on the neck plates (so pre-CBS strats have no “F” on the plates). The actual marker of a new guitar era is of course the enlarged headstock! The large headstock first appeared in December 1965. So actually the birth of the real stratocaster wasn’t 1954 but 1965!

FEE0282hsft-31966 Stratocaster with large headstock

Why they changed to a large headstock? “The rationale was simple. The new design allowed a bigger decal. That’s it. A bigger headstock had the room for the bigger Fender-logo decal. 

As mentioned, the CBS take-over is often considered as a negative turning point in the history of Fender, which is nonsense of course! The success of the company created such an enormous growth in demand that the owners Don Randall and Leo Fender, who suffered from health problems, could no longer managerial handle the consequences of the fast growth of the company.

It is often said that the CBS management did not adequately look after the quality of the guitars. It might as well actually be the other way round. Leo Fender and Don Randall and their operational teams were no longer equipped to produce the large number of guitars they did. Leo Fenders decision to sell the company was a managerial top decision that showed self-reflection. CBS can be considered as the true saviour of the most legendary guitar ever made! Of course the company suffered from growing pains, but didn’t we all! Grow big or stay small!

It is also true that CBS, enlarging production enormously, did not look after quality control as much as the previous owners did. This resulted in a larger quantity, both relatively as absolutely, guitars that were (and still are) not so good as they could be.

DSC_71681974 Large headstock with bullet truss rod and two string-trees

With CBS as an owner a new FENDER era erased, which would (probably) not have been possible without (CBS). It was the starting point of the New Stratocaster, the strats with the big heads! A year after the CBS take-over in 1965 Big Head addict Jimi Hendrix almost solely saved the brand!

7 major Big Head Strat Eras can be distinghuised:

   1. Transition period: CBS Early Years December 1965 – Summer 1971
   2. 1971-1972 CBS with a Tilt neck and one String tree; The Rebirth of the Stratocaster
   3. 1972-1974 A second string tree
   4. 1975-1976 Flush Pole Pick ups – white plastics
   5. 1976 Transition period – black guard / white knobs
   6. 1977-1979 black plastics and 11 layers of polyester
   7. 1979 Anniversary Model 4-Bolt

1. Transition period: CBS Early Years December 65 – Mid 71

Stratocaster connaisseur A.R. Duchossoir characterised the Dec 1965 – Summer 1971 period as the “CBS Early Years”. This was a good observation. Although not every Strat-addict will approve it is clear that CBS used this period to enhance the strat to its next maturity level and to create the Stratocaster that we know as the seventies Strat! The basic characteristics of the 65-71 strat can be summarized as follows:


  • The Large headstock was introduced in 1965 and stayed until 1981
  • 4-bolt neck mounting was used (until mid-71)
  • Neck Plate with reversed Fender F and serial number
  • Truss rod adjustment at the body end of the neck (until mid-71)
  • One string-tree (until end-72)
  • Triple ply white pickguard with 11 mounting screws
  • 3 single coil pickups with staggered pole pieces
  • Alder (and some ash) bodies

From 1954 until 1967, the stratocaster sported nickel-plated (or optional gold-plated) Kluson tuners with an oval metal button and a split shaft. Cosmetically 3 slightly different types of back covers were used over the period:

  • 1954/57 – the cover did not feature any brand stamp
  • 1957/64 – the words “Kluson Deluxe” were stamped in a single line across the cover
  • 1964/67 – the same words were stamped twice in 2 lines across the cover

The tuning keys used between 1965-1967 were nickel plated Klusons. In 1967 Fender chrome-plated tuning keys with “F” stamped on back cover (1967-1981) came in place. These were made by Schaller. in 1975 the closed back covers replaced the open ones of the early seventies.

The 65-71 stratocaster had a 2-piece neck with 21-fret rosewood board glued over maple.

mid-1967 – The nowadays sought after Maple Cap neck (favored by Jimi himself) was introduced as an option next to the standard 2-piece rosewood neck. This 2-piece neck with a maple neck board was produced until 1970. Strats with a maple-cap from that period are very valuable.

In 1970 the 1-piece maple neck (with skunk stripe on the back and known from the 1954-1959 days) was reintroduced.

Another rarely seen option was the bound rosewood neck that was used on the stratocaster during 1965-1968 period. This was really a CBS thing.

eff3cf8d231bf2ab3ad8aa647cfe8e57                                                                   1966 Strat with ”bound” neck (photo:

Between 1965-mid 1968 the Gold Fender “Transition” logo was used. The “Transition” Logo followed the thinner Fender Spaghetti logo in October 1964. The “transition” logo was already developed and used by the pre-CBS management. During June 1968-1971 the black logo was used on the headstock. This was the first CBS-Logo.

7d2f0acf189c7efc7986aa60710f1344                                                                       Spaghetti logo on a 1963 Strat (Photo:

270828d998db6796b3cf928d63e76130                                                                       Transition logo on 1964 pre-CBS Stratocaster (photo:

67c1bffddd6798a7d7763ca0b82a002c                                                                      1966 Strat with Gold “Transition” Logo used between 1965 and 1968 (Photo:

d4c462f4c90e7dc32b12dc579beb90c4                                                                 1969 Strat with decal incl. large “with synchronized tremolo” (added in 1968 – discontinued in 1970) 

Up to 1960, the main decal mentioned “Fender Stratocaster with synchronized tremolo” or simply “Fender Stratocaster” on non-tremelo models. After 1960, various patent numbers were added. These numbers are a safe criterion to assess the originality of the headstock. The 1965-1976  shows the following patent changes (NB the years mentioned have some overlaps, so 1969 can be seen in early 1970):

  • 1965      – 5 patent numbers 2,573,254 / 2,741,146 / 2,960,900 / 3,143,028 / 2,817,261
  • 1966/67 – 3 patent numbers 2,741,146 / 3,143,028 DES 196,062
  • 1968/69 – 2 patent numbers 2,741,146 / 3,143,028 (these appeared with CBS black logo)
  • 1970/71 – 1 patent number 2,741,146
  • 1972/76 – 1 patent number 3,143,028 (in 1976 the patent numbers disappeared when serial numbers first were diplayed on the headstock)

IMG_2732On the head stocks on 1971 4-bolt strat the patent numbers 2,741,146 is visible

IMG_27411972 one string-tree Stratocaster PAT 3,143,028

Tremelo bridge
From 1954 until late 1971 the Stratocaster was equipped with the original tremolo-bridge assembly consisting of a separate inertia bar, made of steel and painted light grey, fixed onto a chrome plated bridge plate with 3 short, flat headed Philps screws. 6 saddles made of nickel-plated, pressed steel and stamped with the words “FENDER-PAT.PEND” were attached.

A major change during this period was the switch from nitro cellulose lacquer finish to polyester finish in 1968. The true strat aficionado hates polyester and adores nitro cellulose. Fender experimented in the late 60’s with using a thin coat of polyester on top of the nitro cellulose.

Interesting is the fact that the fronts of the necks were finished with polyester but the headstocks were not. Nitro cellulose was used for the headstocks because the decals reacted badly on the polyester. This explains the difference in aging between the necks and headstocks.  

costliest-guitar-jimi-hendrix-stratocaster-1968                                                                              Jimi Hendrix on his 1968 Olympic White Stratocaster with maple cap neck 

The Stratocaster was not a popular instrument in the mid 60’s. Rock bands preferred Gibsons. It was not until late 66 / beginning 67 that Jimi Hendrix boosted the popularity of the strat. Would this ever have happened without the enlargement of the head? Would Jimi ever have picked up a Stratocaster if the head was not enlarged? Although these mysterious questions shall probably never be answered, one might suspect that big men need big headstocks. 

$_85                                  1971 4-bolt strat with one string tree

2. 1971-1972 CBS with a Tilt neck and one String tree; The Rebirth of the Stratocaster

After the 65-71 CBS transition period the rebirth of the Stratocaster took place midst ’71. Although the new ’71 strat did not differ much on first sight from its predecessors, some major changes were made. The era of the 3 bolt stratocaster with the bullet in the head started! Some loved it, some hated it! 

DSC_9457The Bullet in the head Stratocaster on a 1978 Stratocaster

Leo Fender was neither a great manager nor a guitar player. He, however, was a great inventor. There is no product available on this planet earth that is produced over 60 years in more or less the same design. In 1971 the 3-bolt neck mounting with built-in Tilt Neck adjustment technique replaced the 4-bolt neck mounting. This was an example of the genius of Leo Fender.

The truss rod could from now on be adjusted at the “bullet” above the nut. It was no longer necessary to remove/damage the guard or remove the neck to adjust the neck. Correct neck pitch could be achieved by “a tiltable neck incorporating thrust absorbing pivot and locking element” instead of inserting little shims in the neck pocket. Sounds a lot easier, doesn’t it?

This 3-bolt device was first fitted to the Stratocaster after mid-1971. The 3-bolt 71-72 stratocaster offered the following characteristics

Besides the new 3-bolt neck mounting and the bullet truss rod adjustment system a third change was the new tremelo bridge assembly. The original assembly was replaced by a one-pice die cast tail block made of chromed Maza with 6 solid saddles also made of of die-cast chromed Mazac.

The 3-bolt mounting system was in the basis a good idea. As such, however, not every guitar player accepted it as an improvement. This was due to the fact that the neck pockets in the guitar bodies did not always fully fit the necks due to a lack of quality control and due to the fact that extra space was needed for the multi-layered polyester finish in the late ’70’s.

In 1954 the stratocaster was produced with an ash body. In 1956 Fender switched to alder and ash was only used for guitars with a blond finish and sometimes custom colors. The introduction of the ”natural finish” in early 1972 brought back ash-bodied guitars. For a period of time both ash and alder were used. However, later on during the seventies most of the guitars were made of ash. After 1980 the emphasis changed to alder again, partly due to the excessive weight of the ash bodies in the late seventies.

3. 1972-1974 A second string tree

A second string-tree was added at the end of 1972 (not ’71 as Duchossoir stated, as there are ’73 strats on the market with 1 string-tree). Although this was only a minor change, one string-tree 3-bolt strats are more sought after (= valuable) than the two string-tree guitars. The 3-bolt stratocasters with one string-tree have only been made for approximately 1 year (mid 1971 – end 1972).

The “Mocha Brown” color is introduced on the Fender Stratocaster (perhaps Fender’s most aesthetically challenged custom color!) A factory black pick guard (with white knobs and pick up covers) was used for the first time on a Strat in 1973, but only on this color.

IMG_24011976 stratocaster in first black/white outfit as appeared in 1973

DSC_9149 1973 hardtail (no tremelo) Stratocaster with 2 string-trees

DSC_63991974 strats with staggered pole pick ups


4. 1975-1976 Flush Pole Pick ups – white plastics

At the end of 1974 the staggered poles of the pick ups were replaced by flush (flat) poles.

DSC_6845Staggered pole pick ups on a 1974 strat

Until 1976 strats were (mostly) equipped with white plastics (guard, knobs, pu covers). In 1975 also a 3-ply all black pick guard was made available, while the guitars still retained white knobs and pick up covers (in 1973 there were already a mocha coloured model available with a black guard).

The 1975 tuners differed from the early 70 tuners. With the early (Schaller) tuners the screws were visible. In 1975 these tuners were replaced by tuners with closed-cover units. It is a good help to see whether the tuners of early 70 strats have been replaced by new vintage style tuners (closed-cover units).

IMG_27421967-1974 tuners

Unknown                                                                                                  1975-1981 tuners with closed covers


5. 1976 Transition period – black guard / white knobs

1976 the serial number moved from the neck plate to the headstock. The 1976 transition model had the new neck adjustment, a black guard / white knobs configuration and had still the serial number on the neck plate.

DSC_72961976 transition strat; serial number on back plate, black and white plastics, ‘new’ neck adjustment.

DSC_6931new neck 1976 transition model

DSC_6663 “old” 1974 neck

DSC_94201978 neck

At the end of 1976 the serial numbers moved from the neck plate to the headstock.

DSC_9457S 8 serial number, which stand for the eight year of the seventies (1978)

In 1976 all strats were fitted with an all black trim, which was believed to be the real rock star colour! 

DSC_94891978 and 1979 Black beauties

6. 1977-1979 Black plastics and 11 layers of polyester

In 1977 the 5-way pick up switch became the standard. Until then the guitars were fitted with a 3-way switch. After-market 5-way switches were available to replace the 3-way switched and to add sound flexibility. It is very strange that Fender waited to change from a 3- to 5-switch until the late seventies, while already in the 60’s players (Eric Clapton) experimented with tooth-picks and matches to put and hold the pick-ups in the in-between positions.

DSC_82561978 Antigua strat

As mentioned, during the 3-bolt period not everyone appreciated the 3-bolt construction. The problem was not the 3-bolt construction itself but the fact that the neck pocket in the rout in the body was often cut too large to accommodate the neck. Since the finish in the late seventies was so thick it needed a lot more room to settle and to avoid unsightly cracks appearing around the pocket once a neck was installed. So, adding extra room to the neck pocket was Fenders biggest downfall because the neck had room to move, knocking all strings out of tune.

The ‘77 and ‘79 strats (particularly the 1979 ones) suffered from inconsistent quality. The guitar bodies were merely made of ash. Ash is a inconstant timber in terms of density and its weight can vary to a large extent. The demand for Stratocasters was so high that also these heavy ones were used for production. Although there are light-weighted strats available in a large extent, there are also back-breaking evil ones on the market that will damage your spine forever. May people believe that heavy strats offer more tone and sustain. This is untrue and only a bad excuses for owning a bad heavy-weighted seventies Stratocaster.

DSC_9789Modified (By RebelRelic) 1978 Stratocaster

During 1976 Fender came up with its “Thick-skin” high gloss finish. From now on it became practically impossible to damage your Stratocaster. Besides that it was very hard to see what material your guitar was made of. The guitars were sprayed with 10 to 15 layers of thick polyester finish. This finish became forbidden at the end of the seventies because of its environmental damaging effects.

In 1979 Fender experimented with water-based paint. These experiments were not very successful due to the fact that the paint literally cracked and fell of.

Steve Vai Stratocaster 1978                                                                            Steve Vai started on a Stratocaster 1978 (slightly modified) 

During the 1974-1977 Fender used only 6 colours (including sunburst). After that Fender started in 1979 with the “International colours” chart. These colours were not really appreciated (were damn ugly) by the market and were dropped in 1981.

DSC_67181979 International Colors strat seriously sprayed with polyester

The International Colors strats offered white pick guard and black knobs and pick up covers. It is said that Fender used “old stock” plastics to clean up what was left in stock.

The 1976-1979 strats with serial numbers on the headstock also had a sticker on the back of the pick guard with the matching serial number. This sticker made it easier to see whether guard and neck were originally matching. The absence of the sticker does not mean the guard is not original. The stickers were easy to remove and got lost during to reparation, moist, etc.

DSC_9401Matching sticker on pick guard 1978 strat

Some strats had a 4 digit number staped in the body of the neck. The 3rd digit shows the year

DSC_86511979 stratocaster

In the late seventies the control cavity on the stratocaster showed a small extra recess on the upper edge, where the earth wire was connected.

DSC_7090Control cavity shows excess recess on upper edge for earth wire on this particular molested body

7. 1979 Anniversary Model 4-Bolt

In June 1979 the 25th Anniversary model was revealed. It offered a 4 bolt neck and deluxe Sperzel tuners. The Anniversary had a 6-digit serial number, starting with 25, on the neck plate. As seen on the following photo the Fender decal slightly changed, the black thinned a little and the gold line enlarged.

DSC_66091979 Anniversary 4-bolt / no bullet truss rod

The first Anniversaries were sprayed with near-white pearloid finish. Like most water based finishes this paint cracked and this paint was dropped after an initial batch of 500 guitars.

DSC_66121979 Anniversary – 6 digit serial number on neck plate starting with 25…….

Fender then opted for a silver metallic finish, made by Porsche automotive paint.
Almost 10,000 of these guitars were produced. The early white guitars are more wanted and valuable.

8. 1980 The Strat

In 1980 The Fender Company seemed to have lost its mind. They built a stratocaster called “The Strat” with some kind of a new small headstock that looked really disgusting. The company tried to recreate the 1954-1965 peghead but did not use the old blue prints. This re-design looked as if they did not even look at the older Stratocasters. 


                   1980 The Strat (with the ugly Head)

During this period of insanity Fender remained building the ‘normal’ big headed strats until 1981.

9. 1981 – 1985 Small Big Headstocks by Dan Smith

In 1981 it was obvious that the Fender management had totally lost its mind by creating guitars with funny new small peg heads (“The Strat”). The act of insanity by leaving the large headstock for small headstocks is unique in history of guitar making.

Fender then in August 1981 hired Dan Smith to improve the reputation of Fender. Fender was losing money and had a bad reputation. Dan Smith would be Fender’s chief guitar designer for the next 20 years. He intensively studied vintage starts to understand how to “recreate” them.

One of the first improvements Smith made was to revise the Strat’s overall specs, introducing the Stratocaster standard as the new regular model. It reverted to body-end truss-rod adjustment, a revamped narrow headstock shape and 4-bolt neck to body fixing.                                                               

This Stratocaster standard, nicknamed “the Smith Strat”, was only made in 1982 and had the black Fender smaller headstock logo with “STRATOCASTER” in huge capital letters, F-stamped tuners, one-piece die-cast tremolo unit and flush-pole pickups. The first 4 bolt stratocaster left the Fender plant at the end of 1981.

NorthHertfordshire-20120815-00392Dan Smith 1982 Stratocaster

Fender built some nice guitars, including the first ’57 and ’62 reissues. However, in 1983-1984 Fender created the low cost 2-knob Standard Series Stratocaster. This was no great succes, although it was not a bad guitar. This guitar had a somewhat smaller logo.

CIMG1060                                Two-Knob (no Dan Smith Stratocaster) 1983-1984 Stratocaster

The Two-knob no Dan Smith stratocaster was equipped with a smaller Fender decal on the peghead.

$_85 (1)                                               1983 Two Knob Stratocaster with smaller Fender decal 

Fender stopped producing the 2-Knob Stratocaster at the end of 1984 after CBS was closing down the factory in preparation of selling the company.

$_85                                             1983 Two Knob Stratocaster

This 2-Knob Stratocaster is often wrongly referred to as the “Dan Smith Stratocaster”. This is wrong, because the Dan Smith Stratocaster is considered to be the 3-Knob 1981-1982 Stratocaster.

10. 70’s Cases

The next photo shows Fender cases from 1957 until the mid seventies.

fcaselog                                                                                     source:

The top photo shows a logo that was used on rectangle Fender tweed cases from about 1957 to early 1958. It is missing on 99% of all original tweed cases today. No case logos were used from 1958 to 1965.

The next four plastic case logos were used from 1966 to the 1970s: the 2nd case is a 1966 case with Fender logo with no tail.

The third case uses the logo that was used between 1967 to 1971 (“tail”).

DSC_8508tail logo case 1967-1971

DSC_8513tail logo case 1967-1971

The fourth logo from the top with no tail and small “R” above the big “r” was used from 1972.

The bottom most plastic logo (with “Made in U.S.A.” and the “R” symbol) was adopted in the mid to late 1970’s.

DSC_7172Fender case 1974-1977

The following photo shows the Fender case that was used in the end of the seventies. This molded cased came in several variations.

DSC_73741977-1982 Molded Fender Case


Books used

Detailed (extra) information can be found in the following books

A.R. Duchossoir – The Fender Stratocaster (This is the technical reference book!)
Tony Bacon – The Stratocaster Guitar Book
Tony Bacon – The Fender Electric Guitar Book

Sam Orr – Fender Stratocaster (very informative, not only a list with dates and data)
Shinko Music Mook – Strat. 70’s (Fantastic photos, your Japanese should be up to date)
Tom Wheeler – The Stratocaster Chronicles
Paul Day & Dave Hunter – The Complete Fender Book
Paul Balmer – The Fender Stratocaster Handbook







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