So, you can't afford that '54 Strat, or that '64, or even that '74 for that matter. Your last chance to own a vintage Fender Stratocaster is with the guitars of the late 1970's. You spot a '79 in a local shop, or online, but how can you be certain it is a '79? Some dealers simply go by the serial number, which you will discover can be far from accurate. Some might go by the pot codes, but those could have been stock a year or more old by the time they were put into the newly finished guitar. Or perhaps the guitar was even assembled by various parts picked up over the years and is being passed off as "All original". My intent with this site is to educate those who are on the hunt for that last affordable vintage Fender Stratocaster. Have a read through and hopefully you will pickup a few things to better assert yourself in the late 70's Stratocasters buyer's market. Click on each thumbnail for a larger picture, too!
M = Model or Manufacturer
MMNN*WWYD Example: 0900*3893 - Found on the very end of the neck heel, if at all, in green or dark red ink. First four digits are paired up, 09 is the model number for the Stratocaster, and 00 is the neck configuration, in his case a fretted Maple neck with a Rosewood fingerboard. The last four digits are broken into three. 38 is the week, 9 stands for the year, 1979, and 3 is the day of the week, which is Wednesday. The '*' represents a middle digit that is either an 'X', a '-' or something that resembles a '1/2' or '1/4' fraction.
Neck Configuration Codes:
00 = Rosewood fingerboard
WWYD Example: 0304 - Basically the same as the date portion of the nine digit neck stamp although in black ink. They seem to be found on the bottom of the neck heel, as well as in the neck pocket of the body, or even just stamped on the front under the pickguard on Natural finished guitars. In this case it stands for the 3rd week of 1980 and was a Thursday. Ignore all the "FRR" stamps you'll find on the neck base and in the neck pocket. They are believed to just be some kind of quality check stamps.
MMMYYWW Example: 1377818 - In 1977 found on the side of the pots, moved to the bottom (and unfortunately sometimes covered with solder) in 1978. The first three digits refer to the manufacturer, CTS. The last four are broken up into pairs, where the first two, 78, stand for 1978 and the last two stand for the week, which is the 18th. Be aware of another code found on these pots, 013446. It has nothing to do with the date as I've seen the exact same code of pots ranging from 1977 - 1981 strats.
OOWWYY Example: 202378 - It is believed the first two digits are an operator designation for the person operating the pickup winder, this according to Abigail Ybarra herself. The second pair of digits are the week, but I have seen one example where the second digits were 72. The third pair of digits are definately known to refer to the year. In this example the pickups were wound by operator #20 in the 23rd week of 1978.
Not 100% sure what these mean, but I have a theory they were used to grade a body prior to recieving a finish. I have seen the letters A, C & D used. I have seen four A stamps on Natural finished bodies, and a trans-red with an A stamp. I've seen a C on a Monaco Yellow and a Sunburst. I have also seen a D, along with an A on a Sunburst body. This is just a theory, but if only A's were put on Natural finished guitars as an example, it could help determine if a guitar is refinished.
Late 70's Strats have the serial number on the headstock below 'Fender'. The number will have an 'S' prefix (possibly an 'E', read below) followed by a six digit number. The first digit is supposed to reflect the year of manufacture, but there are major overlaps in this regard, and the serial number should not be used to ID a guitar's exact year of manufacture. The last five digits are basically random. An important thing to look for are the matching serial number stickers in the neck pocket and on the pickguard.
S7 + 5 digits = 1977-1978
Body and Neck:
All bodies are Ash, and usually a heavy piece. Most Natural and Sunburts finished guitars seem to be three-piece bodies, painted ones may be more. Necks are Maple, and are constructed from one complete piece if they have a Maple fingerboard. The trussrod was inserted through the back of the neck and the channel filled with the Walnut "skunk stripe". This manufacturing process was used regardless of whether it was a Maple or Rosewood fingerboard. Rosewood fingerboards of 1970's Strats retain the "round-lam" style started in the 60's where a thin laminate is glued onto the curved Maple neck surface. It wasn't until 1982 the "slab" board came back.
In the 1970's profiles of the pickup routings became slightly wide and squared on the ends. By 1978 they became rounded again. Hardtail models also aquired a dollar sized impression just over 1/4" deep in the bridge pickup rout. Not sure of the function, it must have something to do with the machining process (a guide of some sort, perhaps). In 1979 a notch was added for a ground wire lug in the control cavity and output jack cavity and a black shielding paint was sprayed into the cavities right over the lugs and wires that were soldered to them. If a solid paint color was applied to the body it was applied right over the shielding paint which may make it hard to see. Below are details of a 1977 & 1979/80 body.
Polyester (Aliphatic Urethane Coating), or "poly" as it's most commonly knows as in the guitar industry, was applied as a sealer/basecoat. I've read three different sources regarding what the color coats and top coats were composed of, and all three were different. One says color coats and top coats were actually still nitrocellulose lacquer, another says right from 1968 when they switched to the new "thick-skin" finish color coats were nitrocellulose lacquer while the tops coats were poly, and another states the use of lacquer ceased in the late 1970's. All coats on the face of the headstock had always been nitrocellulose lacquer because the poly reacted with the decals underneath (This is why headstock faces sometimes age to a different color). The finishes on these guitars are very thick and glossy compared to the finishes on Fenders of the 60's and especially the 50's.
Standard colors with reference numbers for Fender Stratocasters in 1979.
Some colors were dropped in 1980.
A '*' indicates it was still used in 1980.
International Colors from 1981 with reference numbers (Some of these are sold as "1979" Strats).
Pickups bobbins on 1970's Fenders are made of a gray fiber material, nicknamed "gray bottoms". These were used until sometime in 1980 when they switched to black plastic with the number 016730 stamped into the base. Note that the pole pieces are flush to the covers on pickups of these guitars and that metal springs instead of rubber tubing is used for the height screws.
Starting in 1977 5-way CRL pickup selector switches were standard. On one side they will say 'MADE IN USA' and have a single patent number below the diamond CRL logo. The other side simply has a number going down one side, in this example it's 014418, I'm not sure if they all had the same number and I don't believe it to be a date code of any kind.
Beginning in 1971 Stratocaster bridges were made of a zinc/aluminum/other cast metal. The bridges on tremolo models were cast in a single piece instead of having a separate steel tremolo block. Saddles were also cast into shape and not stamped, nor did they feature the stamped "Fender Pat. Pend.". Saddles do seem to have a stamp on the underside of them, '027037'. I have also seen the bottom of a cast tremolo block that had a similar looking stamp but I was unable to make out the exact numbers. Note how the high E B & G strings have longer saddle intonation screws than the D A & low E strings.
From the mid 1960's on Fender used tuners with a big 'F' stamped onto the back cover. These use two staggered fastening screws and have a separate bushing intalled from the front. The buttons of these tuners are actually plastic plated with chrome. They still feature the split shaft design the Kluson brand tuners had. Strats of this era also feature two string trees, one for the high E & B and one for the G & D. Note that the G & D string tree is positioned higher than the other via a plastic, and I've heard sometimes metal, spacer.
1971 is when Fender switched to the infamous 3-bolt neck with mirco-tilt feature. Late 70's Strats will have a giant 'F' along with 'FENDER MICRO-NECK-ADJUST PAT. 3550496' stamped on the plate. The idea itself is actually quite good (and currently used on some models by Fender), it was just poorly executed with *sloppy neck joint routings. Loosen the bottom bolt and use a 3/32 allen key inserted into the hole to adjust the screw. When you have the neck pitch where you want it tighten the bottom screw. These necks also feature the "Bullet" truss-rod adjusted at the headstock.
*Don't let a loose fitting neck prevent you from buying one of these guitars. It's not too difficult to shim the joint, as I had to with my Strat. With the pickguard off and the neck positioned where I wanted it, I used thinly cut pieces of hardwood jammed down between the neck and body routing in two main areas to hold the neck in place. Cut a taper on one end of the shim to get it in, shove it down and break it off. You could even use a second shim piece (if rigid enough) and lightly hammer the piece in real tight if you want. The pickguard will cover it up. Removing the neck will undo all this and you will need to reset the shims.
Pickguards, pickup covers, knobs, switch tips and tremolo covers should be black plastic. Fender switched from white to black around 1975, and during this transition guitars may be seen with a mix & match of white and black plastic parts. Possibly a 1977 Strat could have mixed parts, but any later should be all black. There will also only be a small amount of silver shielding tape under the control area of the pickguard. In 1980 the entire pickguard got covered with shielding tape. A sticker that has the serial number on it will also be present on the underside of the pickguard.
In the late 70's Strats came in black tolex cases, which were made from laminated wood covered with black tolex. Cases of this era will feature a Fender logo on the bottom left corner. The logo has two rivets holding it on and features a Registered symbol and 'MADE IN U.S.A.'. The black leather ends I think are a synthetic leather with white piping, and the handles are plastic. 1979 cases have a dark maroon colored interior, while I think 1978 and earlier cases have an orange colored interior. These cases also have a heavily padded lid and section under the body. The compartment lid has black tolex lining on the tolex/maroon cases. Sometime in 1979 Fender switched to a black plastic molded case with black or maroon plush interior.
Vintage Guitars Info - Fender (Information from this site used with permission)
Thanks to the people that contribute on the below forums.
The Stratocaster Chronicles by Tom Wheeler
The Fender Stratocaster by A.R. Duchossoir
Numerous eBay ads are where about 1/3 of the pictures on this site came from. The rest are my own.