Originally released in 1954 the Fender Stratocaster guitar is very likely the most popular solid body guitar ever built. The Stratocaster was originally designed in 1953. There is one known 1953 Stratocaster prototype and there were others built that are no longer known to exist. Leo Fender, the founder of Fender Musical Instruments, was known to re-use parts wherever he could. So, those early prototypes were likely disassembled and the parts used on other guitars.
In very early 1954 there were models of the Fender Stratocaster being released. They were usually taken around with a traveling salesman and would be used to show off the new guitar. The salesman would usually sell the guitars off as they wrapped up their trips. The first 100 guitars or so were basically handmade prototypes that were made early in 1954. Estimates say that occurred from January – March 1954. These models had a serial number stamped into the back tremolo cover. Those guitars started with the serial number 0035 going up through serial number 0213 are documented. A documented list of serial numbers called “Werner’s List” mentions the following known serial numbers stamped onto the tremolo plate of 1954 Strats. 0035 (April 1954), 0065 (June 1954), 0087 (May 1954), 0105 (May 1954), 0123 (March 1954), 0136 (May 1954), 0146 (April 1954), 0155 (March 1954), 0156 (March 1954), 0159 (March 1954), 0166 (May 1954), 0176 (May 1954), 0189 (May 1954), 0193 (March 1954), 0197 (May 1954), 0202 (May 1954), (0207 May 1954). These guitars included a blank metal neck plate.
Fender started then stamping the serial numbers onto the neck plates since they found that players were changing strings and leaving off the back plate with the serial number on it. The first documented Strats with the serial number on the neck plate are: 0240 (June 1954), 0246 (April 1954), 0287 (May 1954), and 0333 (July 1954). As you can see from that list the numbers are seemingly all over the place fitting no real pattern.
Here is a video documenting serial number 0100 which is one of those very early strats. They mention it at the first but by looking at documented serial numbers there is no true way to know.
After the first hundred or so pre-production Stratocaster guitars the serial number was stamped into the metal neck plate. That started to take place around April 1954 as best as we can tell from documented original guitars. That practice continued throughout the rest of the Fender Pre-CBS era of guitars. Pre-CBS refers to the era of Fender Musical Instruments before the company was purchased by CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) in January 1965.
Factory production of the Fender Stratocaster began officially in October of 1954. So, the March – September models of the Strat from 1954 each have some minor differences from guitar to guitar as Fender was adjusting pieces of the guitar that would become the official release.
Serial number 0001 was stamped onto the metal neck plate of a blonde Stratocaster with a gold anodized pickguard. This guitar did belong David Gilmour of Pink Floyd for many years before he recently auctioned it off along with many other famous pieces. It, however, is not the first Stratocaster ever made. But, it is a very early example from 1954.
This guitar shows a neck date of TG 6-54 or June 1954 and shaped by famous neck shaper Tadeo Gomez who was an early Fender employee. His necks have become famous among collectors. The body has a handwritten signature “Mary 9.28.54” (this could very well be Mary Lemus, a Fender factory employee. Mary began work at Fender in 1954 as an assembler, eventually becoming a final assembly supervisor). This guitar also includes a gold plated tremolo, kluson tuners, and other metal parts.
Fender Production numbers are unfortunately not available. However, some research has shown that 268 Fender Strats were made during late 1954. There would have been more than that made in 1954 since that number relates to “fall model” guitars or those made after the official release in October. Others have speculated that as many as 1300 Stratocasters were made in 1954 but those numbers are unsubstantiated. These are guesses likely made based on known serial numbers. The problem with that theory though is that Fender stamped serial numbers onto neck plates that were used across their entire line of guitars. (Basses, Stratocasters, Telecasters, etc.) There is truly no way to know how many were made at any point during those early years.
The ranges of the serial numbers for 1954 (beyond the prototypes with the serial numbers stamped on the tremolo cover) are as follows. May 1954 – September 1954 range from 0035-09xx. These are still considered pre-production and include the early short skirt (mini-skirt) knobs made of bakelite as seen below. (photo courtesy of guitarhq.com)
You’ll notice that the skirt or the part the numbers are printed on are very short almost making the knob look like a top hat. Also, the switch tip came to be called a football tip. Since it looks like a football. The bakelite material they were made from wears very easily as you can see in the image above. The pickup cover is wearing through. That’s why these were later replaced with ABS plastic.
In October 1954 the regular production of Strats began. These serial numbers included numbers from the 0600s up to the 12xx range. In December 1954 the serial number jumped up to the 6000s – 7xxx range.
Early (January-May) 1954 Fender Stratocasters:
- The first 100 or so Fender Stratocasters had 4 digit serial numbers estimated to range from 0035 to 0213. The serial numbers were stamped onto the tremolo plate. The neck plates were blank on those guitars.
- These were all made with an extremely contoured body made of ash.
- It’s not uncommon to see a dig out cavity or slight route in the bridge pickup cavity of the body. This was commonly done during assembly to allow for the fit of the pickup wiring. Later a worm route was added into the process before painting.
- The sunburst finishes of this early period were basically one tone sunburst. They were the plain ash in the center with a brown edge around it on the front and back of the body. Then, this would be clear coated. Since all of the finishes were nitrocellulose at the time it would yellow giving the appearance of a yellow in the center of the burst over time.
- Some of the potentiometers used for volume and tone were 100k ohm with a solid brass shaft. They were generally Stackpole brand. (code 304). An example pot date of a known guitar is 304221 and they are 250k pots. That is serial number 0104 stamped onto the plastic back plate. (Courtesy of ReCaster Restoration in Italy). Those pots are dated 21 week of 1952.
- The plastics used for the pickup covers and knobs have a sort of marbleized look to them.
- Pickup height rubber grommets are often black instead of translucent brown. (Note the pickup rubber grommets are just surgical tubing cut into 3/8″ lengths.)
May-June 1954 era Fender Stratocaster:
- The body, still made with ash, was extremely contoured. The standard finish was now a two-tone (“Canary yellow” to “Amber brown”) sunburst finish with the center yellow color sprayed. There were also custom colors done during 1954. Of the notable custom colors are 0001 which is a desert sand color with gold hardware and a gold anodized guard that belonged to David Gilmour for many years. Another is the Gold 1954 Stratocaster given to Eldon Shamblin from Leo Fender. One more is the Cimarron Red 1954 Stratocaster given to Bill Carson by Leo Fender.
- The 4-digit serial number on metal neck plate starting with 0001.
- Thin “spaghetti” logo (decal) that included no patent numbers.
- The smaller headstock with more round edges than later Strats. It included a round string tree.
- Neck attaches with 4 bolts and a metal neckplate.
- Rear tremolo back plate (white single layer .060″ plastic) has round string holes.
- Often a piece of masking tape is seen in the control cavity with the final assembly person’s signature. Most often seen is “Mary” as in Mary Lemus, a Fender factory employee (Mary began work at Fender in 1954 as an assembler, eventually becoming a final assembly supervisor). Also seen very often is “Gloria” as in Gloria Fuentes, another Fender factory employee assembler.
- The neck is one piece of maple with black dot position markers. Walnut “skunk stripe” down back of the neck where truss rod was installed.
- Single layer, white ABS .060″ thick pickguard with 8 attachment screws (ABS was a new material in the 1950s). Back of the pickguard is matte finished until about 10/54, when the back of the pickguard changes to a gloss finish.
- A small aluminum shielding plate is installed underneath the pickguard that covers the control cavity.
- Pickups have two very small “tits” in the bottom black fiber part of the pickup on the outside edge around the two wire eyelets. Also, there is a very faint ring pressed into the black fiber that goes around each eyelet.
- White “bakelite” (Polystyrene) plastic knobs and pickup covers. First generation: early 4/54 to 7/54 Stratocasters have different knobs and pickup covers. These are marbleized and a bit translucent. This is seen mostly on the thinner plastic pickup covers than on the knobs, and the amount of translucency varies from guitar to guitar. Some pickups covers are so translucent the black pickup bobbins can be seen through the covers. Also, the pickup covers had rounded edges even when they were brand new. The volume/tone knobs are a different shape too, known as “short-skirts” or “mini-skirts”, being slightly taller and slimmer with the numbered skirt being a much smaller variant of the famous 9/54 and later plastic Stratocaster knob. There were no “spokes” on the underside of these volume/tone knobs. The mini skirt bakelite knobs were mounted on smooth solid shaft potentiometers too (the 9/54 and later conventional Strat knobs were mounted on knurled split shaft pots). The shape of the 3-way switch tip resembled a “football”.
- White “bakelite” plastic knobs/covers, second generation (7/54 and 8/54 only): all Strat plastic parts used the same molds as the “first generation” plastic parts, but the plastic itself is different. Now the plastic is completely opaque, with no translucent or marbling effect (the prior translucent effect is seen mostly on the pickup covers). Also, the plastic is incredibly white and stays that way (it does not yellow much with age, unlike the mid 1957 and later “vinyl” (actually ABS) plastic part – note the first generation Strat plastics don’t really yellow much either.)
- White “bakelite” (actually Polystyrene) plastic knobs/covers, third generation (9/54 to spring 1957): The plastic used on these “bakelite” knobs is the same as the second generation, but a new mold and knob shape was used. The new molds included the volume/tone knobs, 3-way switch tip, and the pickup covers (the tremolo tip didn’t seem to change shape). Because the earlier mini-skirt volume/tone knobs had problems with the skirt breaking (because it was so petite and thin), Fender changed the knobs to the now-famous standard Stratocaster knob shape. The skirt was larger and had three “spokes” on the underside of the skirt to provide support. These knobs too cracked easily, but in general, they did not self-destruct like the mini-skirt versions. Also, the pots used with the third generation bakelite volume/tone knobs had a split shaft instead of a solid shaft. And the pickup covers were changed slightly so as to have sharp edges (to increase strength, but often the sharp edges would round due to player wear). Also, the switch tip “football” changed to a pear shape.
- The tremolo tip basically stayed the same shape for all three generations of Stratocaster plastic. The only noticeable difference is the slight translucent plastic look the tremolo tip had from 4/54 to 7/54 during the first generation plastic parts era.
- The Tremolo metal bar has strongly exaggerated bends.
- Steel 2 piece tremolo, with 6 adjustable saddles. Each nickel-plated saddle is stamped “Fender Pat Pend” (note reissue models are stamped “Fender Fender”). The “Fender Pat Pend” is very faint (until about 1962). Also, the front edge of the saddle (closer to the nut) is shorter in 1954. The Strat was available without tremolo (known as a “hardtail” model) by special order only (and in this case, a special order non-trem Strat is worth way less than the much more common “trem” model).
- Tremolo block’s string-end ball holes are more shallow. These holes were deepened around fall 1954 to accommodate larger string-end balls. Also, the side edges of the tremolo block were very rounded. This changed in 1955 to be less rounded.
- Neck back shape feel was a large rounded “D” style neck. The fingerboard had a 7.25″ fingerboard radius with small (.078″ wide) frets.
- Edges of the peghead rounded. This stopped by 1955 with the peghead edges becoming much sharper at the edges.
- Sometimes the under-the-pickguard route for the lead pickup does not have the wire channel route until about summer 1954 when Fender added a shallow wire channel route in the lead pickup cavity. Because this proved to be a problem, often a hand chiseled wire channel was added to the Strat body by the final assemblyperson. This is easy to identify as there is no paint in this crudely hand chiseled wire channel in the bottom of the lead pickup route. This is most often seen in mid to late 1954 Strat bodies. Also, the 1954 bridge pickup wire route is not as deep as on 1955/56 and later models, so sometimes this route is crudely deepened with a hand chisel during final assembly.
- 3-way CRL switch has three patent numbers. The bakelite plate that holds the switch contacts has angled sides.
- “No Line” Kluson Deluxe tuners (which do not say “Kluson Deluxe).
- “Bobby Lee” style strap included with the guitar. The padded portion of the strap is rectangular. 1955 and later Strat straps have the padded portion banana-shaped. Pre-CBS black Strat straps do not have a “Fender” logo on the strap buckle.
October 1954 Fender Stratocaster “production” guitar specs:
- Now the strat is considered to be “production” and it’s characteristics are gelled and more consistent. A guitar is now an assembly-line produced instrument and has less “handmade” inconsistencies. Forrest White insisted that any Stratocasters produced before October 13, 1954, were “pre-production samples” or “artist models” (and were probably all sold directly to musicians from the Fender factory instead of through Fender Sales). The reason for this was purchase order PO #242 from Fender Sales for about 100 Strats, which was finished and delivered on October 13, 1954. After this point, Fender Sales (a different company than Fender Musical Instruments) handled all sales of Stratocasters, and technically no units were available directly from the factory. Models available before October 1954 were often “demonstrators” brought to music store to be shown off, and sometimes sold.
- Pots are split shaft 250k ohms, usually made by Stackpole (code 304).
- Channel route or wiring in lead pickup cavity is usually more “factory” looking and has finished over the route (but even late 1954 Strats can still have the lead pickup wiring “worm route” done during final assembly, showing bare wood with no finish).
Some of the information was gathered from my own experience while other information gathered was from guitar hq.com, books by Richard Smith as well as other sources.