The Origins of Fender Signature Guitars

Jimmy Page's announcement of new signature Telecasters comes almost exactly 30 years since Fender released its very first signature models, although even then the idea of a signature or artist model was hardly a new one.

Way back in the 1920s, it was Gibson who jumped on the popularity of Nick Lucas, the first American to become a big star through guitar-and-vocal hits. Nick's bestsellers included "I'm Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover" (1927) and "Tip-Toe Thru The Tulips With Me" (1929), and he also cut some fine guitar-centric stuff like "Pickin' The Guitar" and "Teasin' The Frets."

Gibson's Nick Lucas flattop first appeared in 1927. For a while I thought this might qualify as the first signature-model guitar—and then I saw in Steve Howe's fabulous collection a guitar called a Bambina, which dated from about 1870. It was a tiny classical-like instrument with a 13-inch scale, designed by Catharina Josepha Pratten (aka Madame Sidney Pratten) who was a well-known guitar teacher in London at that time. She signed labels, and her French guitar-maker stuck them inside the guitars that she sold on to her eager pupils. The first signature guitar, perhaps?

Labels inside the Gibson Nick Lucas Special and Catharina Pratten's Boosey&Sons guitar.

Anyway, let's jump forward into electric endorsement land, where there was a flurry of signature guitars in the early '50s, starting with models for Les Paul (Gibson, in 1952), Chet Atkins (Gretsch, 1955), and Barney Kessel (Kay, 1957). Those players had little to do with the design of their sig models, and the makers simply put a famous player's name on what were largely their own designs in order to help sell more guitars.

Jump a little further forward, and we arrive in the '80s for the promised 30th birthday celebrations. Fender had a new management team who wanted to improve the brand's fading image. One of the ways they decided to do this was to cozy up to some famous Fender guitarists, hoping for a light sprinkling of their personal fairy dust.

At first, Fender talked to James Burton about the possibility of a signature model, but James had to wait until 1990 for his signature Tele to appear. (Or maybe that should read sort-of-Tele, as it would have three single-coils in a Strat layout.)

1994 Fender "James Burton Signature Model" Telecaster

It was Eric Clapton and Yngwie Malmsteen who came first. In 1988, these two artists introduced Fender's debut signature guitars, as their autographs appeared on some Strat headstocks. And now, the modern signature guitar had a difference: Guitarists were firmly involved in the design of their artist models.

Eric might at one time have been a Gibson man, but he'd nursed a soft spot for Strats since 1958 when, as an impressionable 12-year-old, he'd watched Buddy Holly playing one on the British TV show Sunday Night At The London Palladium. He recalled later it was like seeing an instrument from outer space, and he said to himself: That's the future—that's what I want.

The future in this particular form arrived for Eric in London in 1967, when he bought a '56 Strat, a guitar that would become known as Brownie, and which he began using regularly a couple of years later when he toured with Delaney & Bonnie. He also put it to good use on his first solo album, Eric Clapton, in 1970 (it's pictured on the jacket), and on the Layla album recorded later that year.

Eric Clapton with his '56 Strat, Brownie

Also in 1970, Eric bought six or so old Strats in Nashville. He gave one each to George Harrison, Pete Townshend, and Steve Winwood, and botched together various bits of the others to make one fine Stratocaster for himself. This guitar became better known as Blackie, and he used that one as his main live and studio electric for 15 years or so.

Enter Fender. Eric knew Blackie was coming to the end of its useful life, and he began talking to Fender about a modern replacement. His main focus was to get a neck shape that felt right, and George Blanda and Dan Smith at Fender made about a dozen neck samples for him to try. Two stood out, but Eric couldn't quite decide between them. One was like a pre-war Martin he had, with a very deep V shape, while the other had a kind of soft, rounded V—more like Blackie.

Fender had given Eric one of its Elite Strat models, and he liked the sound of its active circuit. He wanted something similar, but with more boost, which he called compression. With all this in mind, Blanda and Smith delivered prototypes to Eric in 1986 while he was recording August in Los Angeles. He then went on an extended tour, mostly playing a prototype with the Martin-like deep V neck, but that developed a fault and was sent back for repair. So he switched to the one with the Blackie-like neck. He soon decided that was the one he liked best.

Fender developed a production version, which went on sale to the public in 1988 as the Eric Clapton Stratocaster. Fender delivered Eric's "compressed" sound by combining Lace Sensor pickups with a midrange-boosting active circuit. The production model also offered a blocked-off vintage-style vibrato unit, carefully duplicating that feature of Eric's favored set-up—because although he never used the vibrato, he nonetheless disliked the sound of hardtail Strats.

Eric retired Blackie around this time and soon began playing his new signature models, and he's continued to do so more or less ever since. A change came to the production model around 2001, with a shift to Fender's Noiseless pickups, and in 2004 a high-end Custom Shop version was added to the line.

Fender ad featuring the signature guitars of Eric Clapton and Yngwie Malmsteen

Fender released in 1988 a second signature model, the Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster. The most obvious feature of the Swedish guitarist's instrument was its scalloped fingerboard, the inspiration for which had come early. When he was about 13, Yngwie saw a lute with a scalloped board, and from then on he made sure all his guitars had the feature. The idea was that the absence of physical contact with the fingerboard enabled him to play even faster than his lightning technique allowed.

Another feature of the new Malmsteen Strat was its DiMarzio pickups at the neck and bridge plus a Fender in the middle, along with a brass nut and old-style narrow headstock and two-pivot vibrato. That was changed to a six-pivot unit around 1998, and at the same time the model gained a '70s-style wide headstock, as well as the truss-rod adjustment moving to the headstock from the body. A further change around 2007 saw the headstock truss-adjuster seated in a metal bullet rather than the earlier walnut plug, and four years later the model gained Duncan pickups and Dunlop flush-mounted straplocks.

As well as these U.S.-made Malmsteen Strats, there were a number of Japanese-made versions. Fender Japan had featured Yngwie prominently in its catalogues since the mid-'80s and produced several models, including the ST72 Strats, that at first had Malmsteen features, if not the headstock autograph and official signature-model designation (but always the wide headstock). Similar Japanese-made models with Yngwie's signature on the headstock first appeared in the early '90s.

Following those first two signature models from Fender 30 years ago, in 1988, the company has added dozens more. Some have proved short-lived, while others have lasted years in the catalogue. The Clapton and Malmsteen Strats are the longest running, still in Fender's line today.

2004 Fender Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster

Fender's signature Strats have ranged from Tom DeLonge's model with a simple humbucker and single control to the Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar with a giant SRV logo emblazoned on the pickguard. Further sig Strats have been issued for Jeff Beck, Dick Dale, The Edge, David Gilmour, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Robin Trower, and many others.

The trend has also been evident in Fender's Telecaster lines, where various signature Telecasters followed the debut of a trio of models in 1990: that James Burton original, plus Teles named for Albert Collins and Danny Gatton.

More Tele sigs have since tumbled from the Fender factories, honoring players as diverse as Jimmy Bryant, Jerry Donahue, John 5, Jim Root, Joe Strummer, Muddy Waters, and Clarence White.

And let's not forget the signature Jaguars for Johnny Marr and Kurt Cobain or the signature Jazzmasters for Troy Van Leeuwen and J Mascis, among others.

2015 Fender Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar

But what of the big question hanging over all these instruments? Why would anyone want to play someone else's guitar? Personal preferences are just that—your tweaks, your fiddles, your mods help your guitar suit your way of playing. But surely they would not suit everyone. So why would Star X's instrument suit you?

Fans of a certain guitarist who want some of that mojo for themselves might figure that getting hold of a guitar just like his or hers will do the trick. More seasoned players might tell you that this is but a small part of the formula. They'll say that you'll be needing Star X's head, hands, and heart, too, if you really want to get inside how they play the way they do.

Is it the player or is it the guitar? That debate will run and run. In the meantime, it wouldn't be a bad idea to start practicing your signature. There's a knack to making it fit snugly on the headstock of your choice. That way, when Mr. Fender comes knocking, you'll be ready for him, just like Jimmy Page.


About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Stratocaster Guitar Book, The Telecaster Guitar Book, and The Steve Howe Guitar Collection. His latest is a new edition of Electric Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.


comments powered by Disqus