The Story Behind Fender "Selmer Refinish" Guitars

Ever come across a Fender with a "Selmer refinish" or "Selmer refin"? If you're a British guitar fan with an interest in vintage custom-color Fenders, you almost certainly have. You probably also know that the term is linked to a debate about whether or not new Fender instruments were refinished for the UK market during the '60s.

In the previous decade, budding British guitarists who fancied a stab at rock 'n' roll were poorly served by electric instruments. There was an import ban on US-made guitars and only a few firms closer to home willing to supply the growing demand. Grimshaw was the first UK brand to offer a hollowbody electric, while Selmer and Besson imported European-made Hofner and Aristone models. Following the arrival in 1958 of Britain's first rock 'n' roll TV show, Six-Five Special, it wasn't long before primitive UK-made solidbody instruments appeared by Supersound, Dallas, and Burns-Weill.

One of the biggest names on the scene was Cliff Richard and his backing band The Drifters, soon to become The Shadows. By 1959, their lead guitarist, Hank Marvin, was playing an Antoria solid, an early Japanese import made by Guyatone. Hank tells me it wasn't very good: "It had a thick neck, which was badly warped, creating a very high action. Cliff offered to buy me a good guitar, an offer I couldn't refuse."

Hank suggested Cliff buy a Fender guitar, the type used by Buddy Holly and James Burton. With new American instruments unavailable thanks to the import ban, Cliff's management sent to the US for a Fender catalogue.

Bruce Welch, Jet Harris, Tony Meehan, and Hank Marvin of The Shadows (1960). Photo by: RB / Staff. Getty Images.

"The wow factor was very high as we pored over the pictures and specifications of the various guitars and amps," Hank says, recalling that he favored the Stratocaster, the model Buddy Holly played and the most expensive in the line. "We assumed James Burton must also play that, but we later learned he played a Telecaster. I was very attracted to the catalogue cover photo of the red Strat with the maple neck and gold-plated hardware, and the order was placed as a personal import."

The Strat was delivered to the flat that Cliff, Hank, and rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch shared in London. "You can imagine the anticipation as we opened the cardboard packaging and extracted the guitar in its case," Hank says. "Keep in mind we had only seen photos of Stratocasters. We opened the tweed case and just looked at the Strat for a while, almost speechless. It was almost like a dream."

Hank's Stratocaster, serial number 34346, was a special order instrument, among the last maple-fingerboard Strats to escape the Fender factory in 1959. Finished in custom color Roman Red and with gold-plated hardware, it featured a beautifully figured birdseye maple neck. The importance of this single instrument cannot be overstated: In Hank's hands it would turn the UK music scene on its head. His Strat not only looked and sounded futuristic but also represented a call to arms for young guitarists across the nation.

The Shadows were powered by Vox amplification, and Vox boss Tom Jennings quickly secured a deal for his Jennings company to become Fender's UK importer. Demand was high, and by fall 1960, Jennings offered Fender's complete line of guitars and amplifiers. Guitars and basses were available in standard Sunburst finish, or Blonde for Telecasters and what Jennings called "Mushroom" (Fender's Desert Sand) for the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic.

For an additional eight or nine guineas (a guinea was equal to £1 and one shilling), Blonde and Red (Fender's Fiesta Red) were available on all but the Telecaster and student models. (Fender had replaced Roman Red with Fiesta Red as the company formally organized its custom color options.)

Hank's patronage made red the most popular shade. Don Randall, Fender's sales boss, told me later that the company "could hardly keep up with orders for Fiesta Red instruments from the UK—it was the first time we had produced custom-finished instruments in any real quantities."

By summer 1962, there was friction between Randall and Jennings as Vox gave preference to its own line of amplifiers, and it led to Fender adding a second UK distributor, Selmer, who already imported Gibson guitars. Selmer offered a reduced line—Jaguar, Jazzmaster, Stratocaster, Jazz Bass, Precision Bass—in standard Sunburst, or in (Fiesta) Red for an additional six to eight guineas. The new Jaguar was also offered in (Sonic) Blue, (Olympic) White, and "Cream" (Fender's Blond). It was the first time these new Fender colors were seen in Britain, and many players wanted their band to have matched sets just like The Shadows. Stratocasters, Precisions, and Telecasters weren't available in the new shades, but this wasn't going to stop retailers giving customers what they wanted.

A Fender 1958–59 catalogue.
Jennings' 1960 catalogue feat. Fender guitars.

Ted Lee was a semi-pro guitarist in a Manchester band called The Olympics, and one of his day jobs had been spray-painting cars in a local garage. His favorite music shop was Barratts in central Manchester, and when the shop's owner, Adrian Barratt, saw what Ted had done to a Dallas bass, he offered him work repairing guitars. Ted was too busy, but things changed when he bought his first Fender bass from Barratts, a Precision in Fiesta Red.

He didn't like what he calls its "pink" color, and after a few months he wanted to trade it in for a Sunburst example. Upon taking it back to the shop, Adrian asked how he'd kept it in such fine condition. Ted explained how he used wet-and-dry sandpaper and cutting compound to remove dings and scratches. "He asked if I fancied spraying some guitars for Barratts," Ted recalls, "and this time I said yes."

Ted was soon spraying guitars for other music shops in Manchester, including Mameloks, Johnny Roadhouse, and Reno's. "They were mostly new Strats and Precisions, which I color-matched using a Fender custom color chart that Adrian gave me. I did spray other makes, including a couple for a certain Liverpudlian band. I also did Tony Hicks's Gibson 345 plus two for Graham Nash, all in black."

Ted Lee (centre) with his band The Olympics

Ted set up shop in his garage at home, and by 1962 he was spraying four or five guitars a week, mainly new unsold Fenders. "The shops wanted them in different colors, mostly Fiesta Red, Sonic Blue, or white, over Sunbursts. I think I did around 200 Fenders like that, maybe more. There were others doing it down south, but I didn't know who they were. I was approached to take on more from other areas, but I had more than I could cope with."

Later, Ted sprayed used guitars, usually when a band wanted to complete a matching set, and these he had to strip completely. The trick, he says, was to get the color right.

Meanwhile, down at the Jennings factory, in 1963 a young Bob Valentine was busy unpacking, checking, and readying the company's imported Fender instruments for dispatch. When he opened the cardboard boxes they came in, he was met with a unique aroma.

"I called it the Fender smell. One day I heard that a couple of red Fender Stratocasters had been returned from The Shadows to us, so I asked Tom Jennings if I could buy one. He said yes, and that I could pay for it weekly out of my wages," Valentine says. "I think I paid under £100 for it. Mick Bennett [Vox prototype maker and designer] told me the guitar was Hank's, but I wasn't that interested who it belonged to. I just wanted a Fender Stratocaster."

The Shadows had returned their matched pair of "artist loan" slab-rosewood-board Fiesta Red Stratocasters—which Jennings had given them in 1961—and asked for them to be refinished in white. In the meantime, Hank had given the original Roman Red Strat back to Cliff, and that came in for a white refinish, too.

A white-over-sunburst refinished Strat body.
A Fiesta Red-over-sunburst Jaguar.

"I have no idea where this was done," Hank says. "It might have been through Jennings." In fact, Jennings sprayed a pair of brand new curved-rosewood-board '63 Strats in white and presented those to Hank and Bruce, while the original Roman Red Strat and Brian Locking's slab-rosewood-board Precision both received fresh coats of white paint courtesy of Jennings. (The Roman Red Stratocaster would keep its new white finish for a while, but in more recent years it's been refinished more than once by its current owner, Bruce Welch, to a nondescript shade of red.)

By the '80s and '90s, unscrupulous dealers had coined the term "Selmer refinish" as a way to legitimize almost any refinished early-'60s Fender guitar. I've personally encountered two one-owner Fenders, with original sales receipts, that were clearly refinished prior to purchase, and I know of others. Evidence indicates that Selmer and Jennings were refinishing brand-new instruments, just as Ted Lee was doing for retailers in and around Manchester, so it's time to put this debate to bed.

Finally, though, one important note. The highest values placed on custom-color vintage guitars are those that still sport their original paintwork. A resprayed pre-CBS Fender has a lower value than its factory finished counterpart, irrespective of who sprayed it, or indeed when. It takes a highly trained eye to spot the real thing. So, next time you hear the term "Selmer Refin," spare a thought for Ted Lee in his garage in Manchester.

About the author: Martin Kelly is author of Fender The Golden Age 1946–1970 and forthcoming books on Vox guitars and Rickenbacker.

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