1976 Fender Stratocaster
Way Too Much Backstory
This guitar represents my initial foray into what would become a bit of an obsession with vintage guitars. I spent several years in the wilderness without owning a single guitar after having to sell both my ’75 Les Paul Custom and ’74 Rickenbacker 4001 in order to keep a roof over my head. In 1984, I was gifted a brand new ’83 Squier Strat – white with a rosewood neck. Although this era was a particularly good one for the Squier, as the years passed I began to become interested in acquiring something a little older and a little more domestic.
Shortly after the British invasion, I negotiated my way into owning a pawn shop acoustic guitar. I even took a few lessons. I didn’t seriously start playing guitar until a few years later – as the ’60s became the ’70s. This being my “era” so to speak, I always liked the ’70s big headstock Strats. I decided I needed to acquire my very own 1970s Stratocaster. I began my search, not realizing at the time how much I didn’t know about them from a collector’s standpoint.
I was also rather new to the world of eBay, but figured it might be a good place to start my search. I eventually found a listing for a red 1977 Stratocaster with a maple neck and Texas Special pickups. Since I like Texas blues, and red is my favorite color, It seemed like the perfect guitar. I placed a bid and won the auction by $10. I felt good about the price, especially considering that I had just purchased a vintage guitar.
As the sale was finalized, the seller actually contacted me to thank me for my purchase, and to let me know he would be shipping it out to me immediately. He also mentioned that he had it on good authority that this guitar was once owned by David Crosby! How cool is that? It would have been super cool if he had some kind of proof to go along with the claim.
As you may have already guessed, this wasn’t my dream guitar after all. As I began to learn more about older guitars, and about Strats in particular, I realized that there were more than a few things about this guitar that were problematic.The body was refinished, and not very well. It looked ok from a distance, but the finish was quite thick, applied over a badly prepared surface. To the best of my knowledge, the red color was not correct for ’77. It seems that most were either black, white, sunburst, or natural. The neck pocket contained some traces of black paint, and no sign of any factory stamps or marks. They were obviously sanded away at some point. Black paint was also visible in a couple of chipped areas. There were also some areas that had been roughly carved away in the electronics cavity and the tremolo pocket. There was a rather large patched area under the bridge. I assume that some kind of custom bridge/tremolo was installed there in the past. The tremolo assembly installed on this guitar was a non-original, aftermarket part – not the correct design. There were extra holes in the headstock that I assume were for a locking nut – near the cigarette burns.
All of the electronics had been replaced. I knew about the pickups, but I wasn’t prepared for the sloppy rewiring job under the pickguard; Chinese pots, mystery capacitors and sloppy solder. I later discovered that the pickups were installed in the wrong order.
I was not feeling good about my purchase.
After a short period or mourning, I began once again to browse the online listings. I quickly realized that a nice, original ’70s Strat was going to be a bit over my budget – especially after purchasing the ’77. (Of course I would also come to realize that sometimes it’s more cost effective to spend a little more money up front – rather than spending more over time to fix a lot of stuff.) I continued to look, hoping to find a deal, and in the process came upon several listings for ’75 Strat parts. I soon realized that these listings were from the same guitar. The seller was parting out the body, neck and full bridge/tremolo assembly. I could combine these parts with some of my ’77 parts to make one nice guitar! I obsessively watched the listings, and ended up winning all of the bids. The seller then contacted me and informed me that he also had the original neck plate with the serial number, and asked if I would also be interested in purchasing that as well. Yes please! I could now build myself a nice, almost-all-original guitar – with a legitimate serial number.
These parts were all described as being from a ’75 Strat, but once I began to do a little research it seemed that this may not have been the case.
The serial number on the neck plate was 674629, which, according to most sources, falls well within the range of guitars produced in 1975. I verified this fact using several online sources such as Guitar Insite, Vintage Guitars Info and Reverb. Although most sources are in agreement, there are some discrepancies. For example, at Guitar Insite there is a serial number decoder, which believes my serial number to be from 1975, but just a bit lower on the page there is a table in which my serial number falls within the range of numbers from 1976.
At this point, I may have remained convinced that these parts were indeed from a ’75 Strat, but additional evidence would cause me to change my mind.
The neck and body stamps provide further evidence that this guitar was actually produced in 1976. The neck is stamped 09031964. The “6” indicates that the neck was produced in 1976. In the neck pocket of the body is another date stamp that reads 2261: week 22 (June), year 6 (1976), day of week 1 (Monday). See Vintage Guitars Info.
My final conclusion is that this guitar is (mostly) a ’76 model, but there remains the possibility that the neck plate came from a different guitar than the neck or body. Another mystery that will remain unsolved.
Assembly V1I was never a fan of the ’70s natural finish on these guitars, although I love the natural finish on my Mapleglow Rickenbacker 4001. Go figure.
I found “a very Hendrixy looking creamy white colored 1970’s Fender Stratocaster body” for sale (this was the way it was described), and I bought it. Jimi at Woodstock was always my goal, and I figured this replacement body was an easy way to get there without having to learn how to apply a proper vintage finish to the original body.
I proceeded to assemble my new guitar using the following parts:
- the new white body
- neck, neck plate and tremolo assembly from the ’75/’76
- pickguard, pickups and electronics, jack, tuners, neck screws, string trees, strap buttons from the ’77
- 30+ year old vintage pickup covers and knobs appropriated from the ’83 Squier
After making all of the necessary adjustments, the guitar felt pretty nice to the touch, the electronics all still worked and to my ear it sounded pretty good. It was my go-to guitar as I began frequenting a local open mic blues night – playing with other musicians and in front of an audience for the first time in almost 30 years.
14 years later I decided it was finally time to properly restore and refinish the guitar.
The To-Do List
My first priority was to repair the original body and to apply an Olympic White finish (like I said, Jimi at Woodstock). I did some research and decided that nitrocellulose lacquer was the way to go, even though I had also learned that Fender guitars of this era were actually finished with a nitro clear coat over a polyurethane color coat.
The body was made of ash, a more attractive wood used for the natural finish guitars. Ash bodies are also much heavier than the typical alder bodies. I discovered a few problems that would need attention before this body could be prepped for paint.
The first problem was with the alignment of the pickguard relative to the neck pocket and bridge. In other words, the screw holes were poorly positioned. I verified that this was actually the case by test fitting a number of old and new pickguards. All of them fit, but there were crooked gaps around the neck pocket and bridge.
The more serious issue was with the fit of the neck to the body. It took a while for me to figure out that this problem existed, but once I understood the issue I also realized it would not be an easy fix. The neck pocket was simply too deep. When the neck was attached, the side fret markers were hidden below the edge of the pickguard. I compared the depth of the neck pocket to that of other Stratocasters, and made note of the difference. I also compared the thickness of the various necks in order to eliminate this as an additional factor. Since these necks were all the same thickness, the depth of the neck pocket was indeed the problem.
Finally, the neck would also need some attention. It had been refretted, but some of the frets were significantly worn, and there was some buzzing when playing on some of the higher frets. The replacement frets were a fatter wire than what was used originally. My plan was to replace the frets using the original size wire. The neck also appeared to be a bit more concave than it should have been, which meant I would need to figure out how to properly adjust a truss rod (not to mention how to do a full refret).
Finally, there were the aforementioned cheap, sloppy electronics. I planned to replace everything but the Texas Specials.
The first step of the body rehab was to fill the pickguard screw holes, prior to drilling the new ones. The ash body was fairly heavy, and made from three nice looking pieces of wood. It almost seemed a shame to cover it up with paint. I made wood plugs using a piece of ash. I applied wood glue to each, and carefully pounded them into place. Once the glue had set I sanded them flush with the surface.
I attached the neck and bridge to the body to aid in aligning the pickguard, which I used as a screw hole template. I also attached high and low E strings to help ensure that everything was lined up correctly. I then carefully drilled the new holes.
The next task was going to be a bit more complicated. The neck pocket was 4mm too deep. I fabricated an ash shim at the correct thickness, sanded down the inner contour for a snug fit in the pocket and left additional material on the outer edges which I would trim flush after gluing in place. The area under the micro-tilt plate also had to be shimmed by the same amount. I created a round piece of ash to fit within the existing hole, and through a process of trial and error I was able to properly position the screw holes for the two plate attachment screws, the neck screw and the allen adjustment screw. I glued the shim in place using the attachment screws as a temporary clamp. With this still in place, I glued in the main shim, having previously drilled out a corresponding hole for the micro-tilt plate – using it to aid in alignment. I clamped it in place and allowed the glue to set. I then used a flush-cut router bit to trim the excess material. I used a bit of epoxy filler and hand sanding to blend the shim with the body contour.
Having completed the repairs to the body, I could now concentrate on the refinishing process. The “Jimi at Woodstock” color combo – Olympic White with a maple neck was still my favorite, but during the many years it took for me to get to this stage of the project, I acquired a Custom Shop 1969 Reissue in Olympic White with a maple neck – much closer to the real thing than this mid ’70s guitar. That box being checked, I had a decision to make.
As mentioned earlier, and to the best of my knowledge, most of the ’70s Strats were either black, white, sunburst, or natural. I recalled that some of my favorite guitarists played a black Strat back in the day. In hindsight, it was a pretty easy decision. I happened to take a look at the photo of Blackie on the cover of Clapton Crossroads 2 one day, and It was a no-brainer. I would paint this guitar black.
This time, I began as usual by sanding all of the surfaces, but I wasn’t too concerned with removing every bit of the old clear finish. I figured that whatever was still on the body would improve the sealer coat. I applied grain filler and multiple sealer coats. I sanded and applied white primer – sanding smooth prior to applying the first color coat. After spraying a couple of color coats, the surfaces were unexpectedly rough. An interim color sanding followed by more color coats fixed the problem. After applying the final color coats and clear coats, followed by wet sanding and polishing, the end result looked pretty good.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the neck pocket repair was virtually undetectable.
See my Music Master page for a more detailed explanation of the steps I take to paint and polish.
I managed to locate and purchase a nice set of vintage Stratocaster pots with capacitor, nuts and washers manufactured in ’75. I re-wired everything using the correct 1970s style wire. After moving the pickups into their proper order, the leads on the middle pickup were too short. I “borrowed” wire from the newly-repositioned bridge pickup which I used to span the extra distance on the middle pickup.
After everything was back together, I realized that I had a problem. The middle pickup was not working. I did what I should have done earlier, and checked the pickup with a multimeter. I could not get a reading. The bridge and neck pickups tested at 6.7K and 5.8K ohms resistance respectively. I needed a new pickup, so I began searching for a replacement. I found several complete used sets for sale, but eventually found and purchased a new, unused single Texas Special middle pickup – from Australia!
I was surprised that it took only ten days for the pickup to arrive from Australia!
Replacing the pickup was pretty straightforward. After carefully trimming, routing and soldering the leads I connected the assembly to an amp and tested each pickup as well as the volume and tone pots. Everything was finally working perfectly.
Here’s the part of the project that really made me nervous. This was going to be my first refretting experience. I really hoped that all of my research would pay off with a successful end result – a playable guitar. I purchased a set of Dunlop 6230 frets, to replace the existing worn, fat frets. These were a closer match to the original factory frets. I also purchased a few tools that would be necessary to get the job done. From Stewart MacDonald, I purchased the following:
- fret pulling pliers
- 7.25″ radius block
- fret press caul and 7.25″ radius insert
- fret crowning file
- fret end dressing file
I purchased a Grobet #4 Swiss file which I would use for the fret ends. This is a very fine file, which if used carefully will not cause significant damage if you slip up and drag it over the finish on the neck. I also fabricated a bevel block holder which would hold a standard flat file. I would use this to bevel the fret ends.There are many articles and videos that explain the refretting process. Here is the first video of a particularly informative five-part series that I used to guide me through the process. Since I’m not an expert, I will simply recount the steps that I took. First, I removed the frets by heating them with a soldering iron, and carefully removed them by pulling them out using the fret pulling pliers. Once all of the frets were pulled, I spent quite a lot of time cleaning all of the nasty, mysterious gunk from the slots using a combination of various household cleaners, brushes and even a razor saw for the most stubborn areas.
I adjusted the truss rod of the now clean, fretless neck to make it as straight as possible. The neck relief would be adjusted after final assembly. Using my drill press as a fret press, I inserted each of the frets using the caul and the 7.25″ radius insert – supporting the neck with a padded support block. Each fret was glued in place using thin super glue.
Once all of the frets were installed, I used a coarse flat file inserted into my bevel block (at 90°) to remove the bulk of the extra fret wire. When I got close to the edge of the neck, I replaced the coarse file with the finer Swiss file. I continued using the fine file until the fret ends were flush with the neck, I then re-inserted the coarse file into my bevel block at an angle (approximately 30°), and continued until all of the frets were evenly beveled.
It was now time to level the frets. I used a marker to draw a black stripe across the top surface of each fret. This would allow me to visualize my progress. Using the radius block, and #400 grit sandpaper, I sanded until the black marker disappeared. The frets were now all the same height with a consistent 7.25″ radius.
I next used the crowning file to reshape the profile of the frets, followed by the end dressing file to smooth the sharp beveled edges.
I applied tape to the fingerboard to protect it during the finishing and polishing phases. I began the polishing process by hand sanding – starting again with #400 paper. I followed with #600 and worked my way through all grits – ending with #1500. The final step was to polish with extra fine #0000 steel wool. I removed the tape and hoped for the best.
On a side note, I caused some additional work for myself by not initially cutting the frets short enough before installing. I used a Dremel with a cut-off wheel to trim them before filing, which worked pretty well, but one of these pieces flew onto the headstock and immediately burned into the lacquer. As luck would have it, there was already an existing scratch there when I purchased the neck, so my mistake gave me an excuse to repair the area. I first used a brush to apply some tinted lacquer to the damaged area, but it looked pretty awful. I finally sanded away the finish from the damaged area, and sprayed it with amber lacquer – carefully blending it with the original finish. It was a painful, process, but I think it worked pretty well.
It’s certainly not Clapton’s Blackie, but I think this guitar does have a certain mojo.
Once I got everything back together, I was very pleased with the end result. The neck fit perfectly within the modified neck pocket, and my first refret job seemed to have been a success.
The guitar has a nice feel, and there’s no sign of string buzz. I love the way this guitar sounds – better than I remembered from before. Perhaps there’s something to be said about properly installing the pickups.
The ash body makes this guitar rather heavy, weighing in at 9.5 lbs. (it’s a pound heavier than my Les Paul!), but that’s not a deal killer for me. The only real issue with the guitar is that the threads in the tremolo block are stripped, and therefore the tremolo bar is always loose. Apparently, this a problem particular to the ’70s Strats due to the bridge and tremolo block being a one-piece design, and possibly due to the type of metal used to cast the part. For the time being, I am living with the problem rather than replacing the bridge/block with a non-original part. If it really starts to bother me, I may replace it. Stay tuned.
I couldn’t get over that stripped tremolo block after having done all of the other work on the guitar. I wanted to keep the original parts on the guitar – even if they weren’t the best, but I really needed to come up with a fix for this tremolo issue – so I could finally stop thinking about it! Realizing that finding a nice, problem-free vintage replacement was pretty unlikely, not to mention way too expensive, I decided to use a Fender American Vintage Series replacement bridge/tremolo assembly (part no. 099-2049-000). These are the same parts used on the Vintage Reissues.
I had also considered using replacement parts from Callaham Guitars, which are supposed to be superior to all the rest (not to mention that they’re located near my old home town in Winchester, VA), but I have that weird problem with originality. See their website for details. I did purchase my new tremolo bar from them. The Fender assembly includes the shorter version, and my guitar originally came with the longer one.
Replacement was pretty straightforward. Once everything was in place, and a new set of strings were installed, I tuned it to pitch and gave it a quick test drive. I was amazed at how much better the guitar sounded without even plugging it in! I guess those ’70s bridges were pretty lame after all.
As I made some initial adjustments to the action and intonation, it occurred to me that the previously floating bridge was now not floating so much. I loosened up the screws holding the spring claw on the back side just a bit and the guitar was immediately transformed. I had always felt that the string tension on this guitar was a tiny bit stiffer than what I preferred, but after making these adjustments it was absolutely perfect.