Imagine launching a product line that is so successful that within about a decade your company is worth more than the New York Yankees. Well, that’s pretty much what Leo Fender did. When CBS bought Fender in 1965, they did so for a price of thirteen million. When they acquired the Yankees a few years prior, the price tag was just shy of this by about two mill. Not unlike buying a baseball franchise, purchasing Fender in the mid-1960s meant acquiring both a name and a roster. The roster included some stellar instruments and amps, but one arguably stood out from the pack.
In its first sixteen years of production, the Fender Stratocaster saw modest revisions. By the mid-1960s, however, Leo Fender began tinkering with the design. If you look closely at Strats of this era you’ll see a few hints of his experimentation. Three-color sunburst finishes crop up, fonts and logos on the headstock shifted, and neck profiles evolved. These were all signs of things to come on the Stratocaster’s sixteenth anniversary in 1970.
1970 was a landmark year for Fender, both in terms of gear and personnel. After staying on for five years since selling the company to CBS, Leo Fender moved on. This is what makes the 1970 Stratocaster so significant—it was his last take on the design with the brand built under his surname. So what was his legacy?
Visibly and sonically, Stratocasters of the 1970s are in a class all their own. The necks have a distinct “U” contour, which extends upwards towards that brilliant, bold, and beefy headstock first adopted in 1965. The most significant feature of these instruments, however, is not the neck itself but how it is attached to the body.
Before 1970, the only way to adjust the neck angle of a Stratocaster was to use small wood shims in the neck socket. You’d then reattach the neck plate, tighten it down, and hope the angle was better. Hardly scientific. Enter Leo’s idea for the “Micro-Tilt” system. In 1970, Fender Strats came with a three-bolt, triangular neck plate, but this was more than a visual change. Directly below the lowest screw was a small hole for an Allen key. When the screw tucked beneath the neck plate was turned it adjusted a small metal plate under the tail-end of the neck, resulting in incremental tilts to taste. No surgery or shims required. This design, of course, meant rethinking the truss rod. So, you’ll also see that early 1970s Stratocasters bear that “bullet” truss rod extending out above the nut. That’s all thanks to the need for more real estate down low for the Micro-Tilt.
Celebrated by some and criticized by others, 1970s era Stratocasters are a critical chapter in the story of Fender guitars. Arguably, this is the last decade of designs in the now “classic” era. Unforgettably, they also bear the imprints of a design master who didn’t stop innovating even as he left the company he founded to embark on new ventures.