A Build Diary: Custom USA Fender Vintage 60’s Stratocaster.

*** Full Build Spec Sheet at bottom of post

As a studio, it’s no secret that I focus on mixing. That being said, being a performance musician I do produce, add/enhance parts, and occasionally have artists track.

The tone selection for the music can be as important as the music itself, different guitars do sound different, and are tone shaping tools. Most studios try to have variety their bases covered in regards to what would be considered “the staples” of tone. I am no exception, and have the bases covered.

It’s no secret that in the guitar world, the two most influential electric guitars in modern music history are the Gibson Les Paul, and the Fender Stratocaster. In today’s world you can break down that even further to guitars that were made in a specific time period, the late 50’s and 60’s. What makes guitars from this period unique, was their construction techniques and the materials that they were made from. Original guitars from that time period, fetch insane prices rivaling real estate and exotic cars – . They are that desirable.

What makes the Les Paul and Stratocaster the two? Well, it’s the design. On one hand, in the Les Paul, you have a heavy mahogany body, set mahogany neck, shorter scale length, and humbucker pickups. It creates a warmer, thicker sound. For the Fender Stratocaster, arguably the most popular guitar and design of all time, it’s about both the clean sounds and overdriven sounds; all with clarity and warmth. The construction of three single coil pickups, the scale length, and materials give it the “Strat” sound – there is nothing else like it; clear and warm that saturates beautiful when the sound is overdriven – an iconic sound. In the early 60’s

At the upper end level of today’s sound production, it’s not enough to merely provide the bases. You need something of high quality that provides that magic foundation of tone; something special. In that, is the crux of this build.

When I started down this path, I had a rough idea of what I wanted to build for the studio. I wanted a vintage inspired guitar that could cover everything from the most luscious glassy bell like cleans of David Gilmour to the controlled destruction of Hendrix, and everything in between. I wanted to build something period correct with a vintage vibe; I wanted to build a no compromises recreation, with the ultimate playability and tone. I wanted to create an ultimate example of a 60’s Fender Stratocaster, with all the reliability of a new guitar and without the $40k+ price tag of an original 60’s Strat.

In today’s world, there are a few options. Go through Fender Custom Shop, Fender’s Mod-Shop, have a boutique builder build a clone, or source all of the parts, and do it yourself. With my experience, there was one option that seemed to make the most sense, I HAD to roll my own and build a Fender Custom Shop, no compromise, vintage 60’s Strat equivalent. Let’s get into it!

To anchor this build, I wanted that iconic Strat sound from the golden era of rock, that could also takes pedals well. I need to be able to use this guitar to get a bunch of different tone, and today’s amp in a box pedals are a staple. After a lot of research the pickup selection was Fender Custom Shop ’69 pickups. As Fender puts it, these pickups are “the sound of Woodstock”. I could describe them in detail, but the copy from Fender’s website does it well.

“Fender Custom Shop ’69 Stratocaster pickups produce one of the most revered guitar sounds in popular music history-the full, punchy late-’60s blues rock tone that ruled the era from Monterey on the West Coast to Woodstock on the East Coast. Because of the clarity and transparency created by the unique coil wind and magnet structure, the ’69 pickup design works especially well with pedals allowing the low end to thump and the high end to soar.” – Fender.com

In addition, to the most important part, the tone, these pickups are also built old school down to the vintage cloth insulated lead wires made by a company called Gavitt…they checked every box for me. So, the choice was obvious at this point, the Fender Custom Shop ’69 pickups would be the core.

With the pickup selection secured, everything else would fall into place, and be guided by the overall goal of creating a new vintage 60’s inspired Strat. The decision was made, that no corners would be cut. While global manufacturing is now common, and not necessarily inferior to US made components, there is still something to be said in the guitar world for not using “overseas” components, particularly when it comes to valuation. With that being said, I made the decision that all components would be made domestically, and when original spec’d components of the 60’s could be sourced, I would.

There is a lot of truth in the cliche, “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” Due to manufacturing cost cutting, even USA made Fenders (all manufacturers), will use different components than those available yesteryear, in an effort to increase profitability. Many Gibson Les Pauls now use drop in PCBs, reducing the wiring needed. Speaking of wiring, one specific item in this build that I can point out regarding detail, was the decision to use Gavitt cloth insulated wire.

I’m not going to go down the rabbit hole of talking about tonal differences of wire. But, I do believe that like a great meal, the key to amazing is the sum of specifically sourced ingredients. For this particular build all original Fender USA made components were selected, even down to the screws. Aesthetically speaking, I wanted to create a “vintage”, recreation. Fender USA recognized the appeal to this market, and created a “road worn”, series of USA components and were used to create the build aesthetic.

Let’s build a guitar 60’s Fender! In order to build a period correct guitar, we need to take a look at history. In the 60’s there were a few options available in regards to color (I’ve included a color chart that was originally published by Vintage Guitar Magazine below.

Color Chart credit Vintage Guitar Magazine
Pre-Finished Body

But, bye and far, the most popular(and iconic) color would be the “Sunburst” option not listed above, as it wasn’t a paint color per se, but a combination of dyes and lacquer creating the finish. I decided to make this Sunburst finish the choice of this build. Fender makes replacement bodies available, that are pre-finished. I picked one up, and got to work shielding shielding the cavities.

Original 1964 Stratocaster – Image credit vintageandrare.com

One thing that was unique to the history of the Fender Stratocaster, was early on in 1959 Leo Fender didn’t like the way that the maple necks looked on TV. He realized that TV was changing the world and important for how his products were viewed, and that artists using his guitars would influence purchases. Leo felt that in comparison to the rosewood necked Les Paul’s, that his creations looked “cheap” on TV. To make the guitars look classier for the new all important passive advertising medium of TV performances, in 1959 he made the decision originally to move from a maple fretboard to a thick rosewood fretboard that was affixed to the maple neck and referred to as a “slab-board”. Ultimately though, it was decided that while it looked classier on TV, the thickness, also affected the iconic tone. In 1962, the “slab-board” was discontinued, and the thinner rosewood veneer fretboard was born, and is used to this day.

So why is this important? Easy, it creates a blueprint for me and set the direction to create a historically correct guitar! So now we had the two biggest components nailed, a sunburst body, and rosewood neck.

For the neck, in today’s world, there are hundreds of options. And is you know anything about Strat’s and the aftermarket, it’s like Legos. There are varying neck profile shapes, constructions, manufacturing origins, and level wood/finishing. For example, even original Fender’s changed from the 50’s to 60’s. Today it is pretty well known that the 50’s necks were a little beefier than those used in the 60’s and even at that, al of Fender’s necks are hand sanded to final dimension/contour, so there are even variances today. I let history guide my decision, I was looking for a vintage 60’s shape neck with a rosewood fretboard. Even within something most would consider specific “Vintage 60’s maple neck with rosewood fretboard”, there are the options of wood class, and manufacturing origin. I referred to my design criteria, and deviated in one area. Fender currently offers a “Figured” maple neck for a premium in their USA 60’s neck line…and I popped for it. Originally, in the 60’s there was not a figured maple option, but this is one place I went a little “Bougie”. I drove over to Sweetwater and picked up the most expensive neck that Fender produces today – It’s gorgeous, and plays like butter.

From here, I had to select the pick guard to host all of the electronics. Something as simple as a pick guard seems strait forward enough, but over the years they have changed. The early pick guard up until 1964 were single ply and made from nitro-cellulose. In 1964, they moved to the now PVC plastic. This change was done in part originally because the cellulose had a tendency to crack/break, and more importantly they could burn. The change to plastic meant that they were not as stiff, but additionally, they had more color stability. The cellulose pick guards, as we learned over the years, tend to turn a unique “green” due to UV light reaction. Aside from the pick guard itself, there was an important change to the underside that happened.

Fender single coil pickups are prone to noise or “hum”, and shielding is very important. Fender originally used a thin aluminum shield on the underside of the pick guard to control noise. Originally on this build, I selected the “Pure Vintage ’65” Fender pick guard in “Eggshell” and I used copper shielding tape on the underside, which is the new standard, not realizing that there is also a subsequent tonal affect to this.

The original copper shielding

On completion of the build, I went back to the original aluminum shielding and changed the color to “Parchment”.

An example of the final aluminum shielding. Who would think that all of the details would matter sooo much?

With the pick guard out of the way the electronics and wiring were pretty straight forward. I was going to use period correct CTS pots, and switch. Regarding the tone capacitors, this is an endless discussion amongst tone junkies. Fender themselves was changing values early on. For the first decade of production, Fender installed 0.1uF capacitors in Stratocasters. Around 1964, the cap value was changed to 0.047uF and this is significant because some treble is always lost through tone circuits – even when they’re supposedly off. There is some vintage new old stock available, but manufacturing tolerances of that time weren’t awesome by any stretch of the imagination. Remember, I said I wanted the reliability of a new guitar? This is going to be a tool for making music. With that said, I do believe in certain construction methods and quality. Balancing authentic tone and reliability drove me to decide on choosing a Mojo Tone Vitamin T .047uf Paper In Oil Capacitor for tone control. It’s a high quality vintage sounding capacitor by a current boutique company.

Wire selection was pretty straight forward. In this time period, everything was point to point and there were no PCB boards. Wire was provided by a company that still makes their “vintage” cloth insulated such back wire, Gavitt. Finding it these days is easy thanks to Amazon, and Prime got it to me in one day. All connections were made point to point, using the Gavitt wire throughout.

With the electronics selected installed, and functioning on the pick guard assembly. I turned my attention to assembly, and hardware for the rest of the guitar. This was honestly pretty easy. I used Fender USA Vintage “road worn” components, all the way down to the screws to complete the vintage vibe. Getting the period correct “Patent Pending” nickel saddles wasn’t necessarily tricky, but it was an added expense. Even in the Vintage USA Tremolo bridge assembly, these saddles aren’t included, but if I’m going this far, it needed to be correct. One other area I deviated from the “Road Worn” line, was the back neck plate. I opted for the Fender “Corona California” plate. Original Stratocasters, had plain back plates, and Fender does offer this option in their “Road Worn” series, but I like the current “Corona” version aesthetically.

Fender Patent Pending Nickel Saddles

All in all, The procurement process was relatively quick. It does help having Sweetwater 15 minutes away, and Amazon Prime to fill in the gaps. After a quick functional test, I did a thorough setup on the guitar, and there isn’t more more to say than it’s amazing; amazing in feel in the hands, playability and of course tone. It really is a no compromise pro level plus guitar. To have the Fender Custom Shop equivalent would set anybody back anywhere from $4-5k, which is top dollar for a Stratocaster. All in, I’m no where near that number. Below you will find a gallery of pictures and a detailed build/spec sheet.