His­toric Hard­ware: Fender’s blonde Fin­ish

Fender’s now-iconic blonde fin­ish has been through many evo­lu­tions, in­flu­enced by the trends and econ­omy since its post-war launch. Hard-wear­ing, depend­able and look­ing great on TV, this orig­i­nal gui­tar also lifted the spir­its…

Guitarist - - Contents - Words Rod Brakes Pho­tog­ra­phy Olly Cur­tis

When Fender launched the first ever mass-pro­duced elec­tric solid­body gui­tars in 1950 – the blonde Esquire and Broad­caster – the in­stru­ments be­came the de facto lead­ers of a brand-new niche in the mu­sic in­dus­try, as well as pro­gress­ing the art of gui­tar-build­ing as a large-scale in­dus­trial process. Com­pany founder Leo Fender’s aim was to eco­nom­i­cally and con­sis­tently man­u­fac­ture a hard-wear­ing prod­uct that im­proved per­for­mance in ar­eas such as feed­back, in­to­na­tion and ac­tion and was also rel­a­tively easy to main­tain and re­pair.

Be­cause the com­pany’s man­u­fac­tur­ing prac­tices have evolved over time, it can be dif­fi­cult to trace how, ex­actly, things used to be done at Fender. As a re­sult, a mythol­ogy has arisen within gui­tar cul­ture con­cern­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of how these old in­stru­ments were put to­gether – from the ob­scure ori­gin of ‘clay’ fret­board dots to the dark art of gui­tar fin­ish­ing. But care­ful re­search into golden-era gui­tars yields up in­sights that re­veal a clearer pic­ture of Leo’s meth­ods.

It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that good, old­fash­ioned sim­plic­ity was key to Fender’s ini­tial suc­cess dur­ing the 50s and early 60s. Un­der Leo’s watch­ful eye and driven by his en­gi­neer’s in­stinct, the com­pany’s gui­tar­build­ing tech­niques were be­ing con­stantly re­fined and stream­lined as a means to en­hance qual­ity as well as profit.

“Leo never changed any­thing un­less he felt like it made it bet­ter,” be­gins Mike Lewis, Vice Pres­i­dent of Prod­uct Devel­op­ment at Fender’s Cus­tom Shop, with ref­er­ence to pre-CBS de­sign al­ter­ations such as mul­ti­ple-ply pick­guards, ex­tra screws and rose­wood fin­ger­boards. He con­tin­ues: “Mak­ing it bet­ter in­cluded last­ing longer. It was change for im­prove­ment only and part of that im­prove­ment was to make it re­main in ser­vice for longer pe­ri­ods of time and re­quire less re­pair – just hap­pier cus­tomers!”

De­spite big ad­vance sin mass man­u­fac­tur­ing tech since Leo’s hey­day, gui­tar builders at Fender and else­where have been re­vis­it­ing old tech­niques and de­signs in or­der to recre­ate some of that vin­tage magic. “Each gui­tar is a jour­ney,” Mike re­minds us. And in the case of blonde Fender gui­tars, it’s a pil­grim­age that stretches way back into the com­pany’s past, to a time when peo­ple were only just be­gin­ning to take note of solid­bod­ies (and were still re­fer­ring to gui­tars equipped with pick­ups as ‘elec­tric Span­ish’ in­stru­ments).

Tele’s He­roes

As the post-war eco­nomic boom was hap­pen­ing, and as tele­vi­sion be­came an ever more dom­i­nant part of pop­u­lar cul­ture, Leo Fender em­braced the medium by re­brand­ing his new in­ven­tion the Tele­caster in 1951. Its light-coloured fin­ish pos­i­tively glowed from the screen. “The black­guard Tele showed up per­fectly on black and white TV,” Mike says. “It’s hard to know if that’s why they did it – if they had that kind of fore­thought,” he muses, “but, nev­er­the­less, it turned out it looked re­ally great. When you watch some of those old shows, if you see guys with sun­burst or black gui­tars, or any other colour, it just kind of looks like a ‘thing’, but the blonde, black­guard Te­les al­ways popped out. I don’t know if it was in­ten­tional or ac­ci­den­tal, but it seemed like ev­ery­body picked up on it, and once TV started hap­pen­ing you started see­ing a lot of blonde gui­tars.”

By virtue of its name, aes­thet­ics and sound, the blonde Tele­caster seemed to em­body the post-war era per­fectly. Along with tele­vi­sion, white goods, colour­ful cars and a gen­er­ally brighter out­look on life, light-coloured fur­ni­ture was all the rage. There­fore, Leo’s choice of blonde fin­ish was for­tu­itous in terms of the Tele­caster’s abil­ity to hog the tele­vi­sual lime­light – which was not lost on Gib­son, who later re­leased the sim­i­larly hued ‘limed ma­hogany’ black ’guard Les Paul TV in 1954. As Mike points out: “When the [blonde] black­guard Tele first came out, no­body else was do­ing solid­bod­ies.”

Al­though the oc­ca­sional black Esquire ap­peared early on, Fender de­cided to per­se­vere with their choice of blonde fin­ishes from the start and read­ily

ex­per­i­mented with var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques to get the win­ning for­mula. “There was a hand-ap­plied blonde very early on, be­fore they de­vel­oped the spray tech­nique,” Prin­ci­pal Mas­ter Builder at the Fender Cus­tom Shop, Ron Thorn, tells us. “They used a hand-ap­plied stain, ver­sus a spray stain and were us­ing a few dif­fer­ent brands, in­clud­ing McFad­den and Sher­winWil­liams. There were at least four dif­fer­ent brands of lac­quer, stain and seal­ers.”

Paint It Blonde

Al­though some vari­a­tion is ev­i­dent among blonde fin­ishes of the early 50s, they are of­ten char­ac­terised by a dis­tinc­tive yel­low tint that is of­ten de­scribed as ‘but­ter­scotch’. In 1954, how­ever, when Fender be­gan us­ing au­to­mo­tive-in­dus­try paint, this changed to a markedly lighter shade. “They used DuPont Duco colours – the same as was used on cars,” Mike says. This shift to a more UV light-re­sis­tant for­mula in­hib­ited the degra­da­tion of pig­ment and the dis­coloura­tion as­so­ci­ated with age­ing, with knock-on ef­fects on the gui­tar’s look.

“I be­lieve UV in­hib­iters started to get into the fin­ishes,” con­tin­ues Ron, “both in the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try [paint] and the clearcoat – any­thing that started to yel­low when it was pre­sented to sun­light. They started to put these UV in­hib­iters in the colour and the clear top-coat to pre­vent it from chang­ing, and I think that af­fected [the ap­pear­ance of ] gui­tars over the years. I sus­pect the type of clearcoat changed back and forth ev­ery cou­ple of months, de­pend­ing on what was avail­able and maybe what was the cheap­est.”

“The orig­i­nal gui­tars we call ‘but­ter­scotch’, weren’t nec­es­sar­ily that colour when they were new,” ex­plains Mike. “I think the ac­tual com­po­si­tion of the fin­ish­ing ma­te­ri­als changed and so they didn’t yel­low quite as much. I’ve seen some a lot more but­ter­scotch-coloured than oth­ers. There’re al­ways in­con­sis­ten­cies in the colours, and who’s to know for sure if they changed the for­mula, or what got changed and why? But I do know Fender lis­tened very care­fully to cus­tomers.

“As far as why it went from ‘but­ter­scotch’ to a much whiter blonde – it could have eas­ily been that peo­ple re­quested it. Or, af­ter a pe­riod of time, maybe they got too yel­low and peo­ple com­plained about it. The thing to re­mem­ber is, back in the day, when it was all new, there wasn’t all this his­tory of, ‘it’s sup­posed to be this way’. Y’know, they were in­vent­ing it as they went along. The method of man­u­fac­tur­ing these gui­tars had never ex­isted be­fore. This was part of the ge­nius of Leo Fender – not only did he in­no­vate the elec­tric gui­tar and cre­ate these solid­body de­signs, but, more im­por­tantly, he cre­ated a method of man­u­fac­ture so that it could be re­peated. He was con­stantly tweak­ing and im­prov­ing. As time went on, the de­mand was grow­ing for the gui­tars and they had to make more. They didn’t want to sac­ri­fice any qual­ity, but were con­stantly fig­ur­ing out how they were go­ing to make more, and still make them great. So, they were al­ways tweak­ing the process.”

A great deal of that process lay in the hands of Fender’s crafts­peo­ple, with each im­part­ing their own unique per­sonal touches to ev­ery gui­tar that left the fac­tory, as Fender Cus­tom Shop Painter, Jay Nel­son, points out: “There are slight vari­a­tions.” In­deed, this can be par­tic­u­larly no­tice­able when it comes to blonde fin­ishes.

“I al­ways won­dered how many pain­ters they had back then, be­cause when I look at some of those old ’bursts – the red on some of them is wider, or a lit­tle bit wider on this side than that side, and the next one you’ll see (from the same year) is nar­rower.

“This was part of the ge­nius of Leo Fender – he cre­ated a method of man­u­fac­ture so that it could be re­peated” michAel leWis, fender cus­tom shop

You think there’s got to be dif­fer­ent peo­ple do­ing this! And that ap­plies to blon­des too. Any blonde. If you’re spray­ing it, the more you ap­ply, the less trans­par­ent it is. So, one per­son might be putting on one more coat than the other per­son, and they’re still blonde and trans­par­ent, but maybe one’s slightly dif­fer­ent.”

“Not only was it de­pen­dent upon the in­di­vid­ual painter, but also the in­di­vid­ual [ash] body,” adds Ron. “Es­pe­cially on the blon­des, the fin­ish can have a slightly darker perime­ter edge where it’s al­most a lit­tle ’burst lip­ping over. I think that might have been de­pen­dent on how ob­vi­ous the glue line or seam was be­tween the pieces of the body. The painter may have put a lit­tle ex­tra around the edge to mask that and make it a lit­tle less ob­vi­ous. I think that’s why you some­times see a sub­tle ’burst on the out­side edge of blon­des. The edges are typ­i­cally a lit­tle bit opa­quer.”

Blonde Fend­ers not only look unique, but they sound unique too – a fac­tor de­ter­mined in­di­rectly by the fin­ish it­self. “In 1956, the of­fi­cial body wood changed from ash to alder, but when­ever you or­dered a gui­tar in blonde you still got ash,” clar­i­fies Mike. “Blonde was a trans­par­ent colour; you can see the grain and it just looks a heck of a lot bet­ter over ash than it does on alder. If you’re sit­ting in your house play­ing at low vol­ume you might like ash bet­ter, be­cause it has more of a full-range sound. You get more lows, a softer, sweeter midrange and

the highs are kind of tin­kly. Whereas alder has a lit­tle bit more midrange. It might seem to be more one di­men­sional in that type of set­ting, but when you get on stage and the drum­mer’s play­ing you might hear the alder bet­ter – it might cut through bet­ter be­cause it has more midrange. That’s what I hear. I like them both, but it just de­pends on what you’re do­ing with it.”

Over time, the sound of a typ­i­cal blonde vin­tage Fender is also li­able to change to some ex­tent, as the nat­u­ral age­ing process of the ni­tro­cel­lu­lose fin­ish and the ash body pro­gresses. “As the ni­tro­cel­lu­lose fin­ish ‘gases off’ and the sol­vents evap­o­rate, and the fin­ish starts to sink into the wood, it al­lows for a lit­tle more cli­mate change and the rel­a­tive hu­mid­ity to af­fect the mois­ture con­tent in the wood,” ex­plains Ron. “As it dries out, the re­main­ing mois­ture in the wood can de­crease. If there was any mois­ture re­main­ing in the wood, then that would prob­a­bly have dried out a lit­tle bit more and the resins in the wood may have crys­tallised and hard­ened.”

“It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween wear­ing a rub­ber jacket and a cot­ton jacket!” says Mike, high­light­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween this sce­nario and the later poly fin­ishes em­ployed dur­ing Fender’s CBS era. “Man, we hardly ever use poly in the Cus­tom Shop,” con­firms Jay. “We use it, maybe, on some of the sparkle-fin­ish bod­ies, but other than that it’s such a rare thing to spray nowa­days.”

Blonde re­mained the stan­dard fin­ish on both Tele­cast­ers and Esquires dur­ing Leo’s en­tire ten­ure at Fender and was si­mul­ta­ne­ously of­fered as a cus­tom colour op­tion for Stra­to­cast­ers, Jazzmas­ters and Jaguars, al­though the method of paint­ing the bod­ies re­mained in­dis­tin­guish­able. “They might look dif­fer­ent with time, but as far as the way they’re fin­ished, it’s the same ex­act way – it’s the same un­der­coat and the same ma­te­ri­als,” says Jay. “Back then, who­ever was paint­ing and what­ever they got, they would just paint them. The paint goes on the same way!” As it still does in the Fender Cus­tom Shop to this day.

The sound of a blonde vin­tage Fender is also li­able to change to some ex­tent, as the nat­u­ral age­ing process of the ni­tro­cel­lu­lose fin­ish and the ash body pro­gresses”

1 This blonde Strat dates to early 1970, by which point the fin­ish was of­ten barely trans­par­ent. Such blon­des are of­ten con­fused with the (opaque) Olympic White

‘Change for im­prove­ment only’ in­cluded re­plac­ing the shrink­age-prone cel­lu­loid ’guards with a three-layer ABS vinyl type 2

The ash grain of this ’56 Tele can be seen un­der­neath the fin­ish. You can see a slightly more opaque, sun­burst-like, perime­ter where the paint was sprayed on thicker

Be­ing slightly less chunky than pre­vi­ous years and with a soft ‘v’ shape, ’56 Fender Tele necks are in de­mand for their full, yet com­fort­able pro­file

The va­ri­ety in the ap­pear­ance can be down to fin­ish­ing ma­te­ri­als, UV ex­po­sure and smoky venues…

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