CBS Fender Instruments: A Turning Point in Quality and Value?

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January 3, 1965 is an important date for Fender instrument collectors because it’s when Leo Fender and Don Randall sold their company to CBS Broadcasting for $13 million. Leo remained working in R&D and Randall became General Manager, but their company was never the same again.

Over the next few years, CBS’s mass production manufacturing processes resulted in adverse changes that affect desirability and value of instruments and amplifiers today. Some of the changes were based off good intentions, but they are undesirable none the less.

Some of the changes to instruments include:

1. Pre CBS pick guards were made from nitrocellulose material that discolored from white to mint green, or white to beige. They were changed to a material that remains stark white. Nitro was also prone to spontaneous combustion. Collectors enjoy the charm of a aged looking pick guard, and stark white pick guards are a turn off to most people in pursuit of a truly vintage look.

2. Around 1968, Fender stopped using Nitrocellulose lacquer finishes because it also discolored and was prone to chipping and cracking. They started spraying polyester, which is thick and feels more synthetic in comparison to nitro. Again, collectors love nitro finish because of its inconsistency. Candy Apple Red often turns orange; Olympic White typically turns blonde, etc. This makes every nitro guitar finish unique.

3. Logos and headstock shapes changed on many instruments. These changes are tolerated by most and hated by some. Interest in large headstock instruments is largely fueled by interested in the artists that used them (Jimmy Hendrix).

4. Smaller changes included differences in body contour, clay fret markers being replaced by pearloid, Kluson tuners being replaced by cheaper F-Tuners, nickel hardware being replaced with plated hardware, shift from 4-bolt to 3-bolt necks, and Indian rosewood replacing Brazilian rosewood on fret boards. There were also notable changes in the quality of tone in pickups, but these changes started in the late 1950’s, way before CBS.

One guitar in my collection is an original, 1966 Fender Stratocaster. It retains many desirable qualities coveted in early Fenders, like nickel double-line Kluson tuners and a wonderful, original nitro finish. This sunburst finish shows normal wear from use, giving the instrument personality and soul. Had this instrument been refinished, it would have seriously affected its value. A vintage guitar with only remnants of original finish will always be more desirable than a nicely refinished example of the same year and model.

The wiring on this guitar is cloth covered, which is another desirable feature for collectors. The pick guard is post nitro and will never turn mint green, but I can live with that because original nitro green guards are worth a fortune by themselves in today’s market.

This guitar has a large headstock and transition logo, which I personally prefer. At the time I purchased this strat, I felt that 1965-66 was an ideal year because I still got my Klusons and nitro finish, but I didn’t have shell out the premium required for a pre CBS Fender.

In today’s market, vintage instrument and amplifier prices have gone through the roof. Even 1970’s and some 1980’s Fenders are worth so much money that I try to use Fender reissue instruments when I play out or tour. Original vintage gear is too much of an invitation for theft and sadly, I am not at the point in my career where I can hire a person at the venues to guard my vintage gear like Bruce Springsteen does with his exceptional Telecasters and amps.