Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster

Of all the models made by the Fender Custom Shop the Stratocaster must certainty be the most prolific. While Fender don’t actually publish the numbers they have manufactured it’s fair to assume that the Strat will be the most prolific followed closely by the Telecaster.

The story of the Fender Custom Shop goes back to the 1980s and around the time that the Fender company was changing hands. From 1975 there had been a slow and steady decline in quality at the CBS owned Fender and by the early 1980s things had reached a critical point. Japanese copies of old pre CBS models were superior to the actual American made models at the time. In 1982 Fender had a re think and with the help of Dan Smith, formerly of the Yamaha music company, set up a separate production facility that would go back to the roots and begin to produce real guitars again.

The first of these were the American Vintage Reissue series of guitars that were released in 1982. This was the first time since CBS had taken over that Fender made guitars in the pre CBS style with the original features. The line up they released consisted of:

  • 1957 Reissue Stratocaster
  • 1962 Reissue Stratocaster
  • 1952 Reissue Telecaster

1986 American Vintage Reissue Stratocaster

These fine instruments featured thin nitro finishes, correct headstock shapes, tinted lacquer and original style logos. They were once again crafted in a style much close to the pre CBS versions albeit with some differences. It’s fair to say that they were not truly authentic copies of the originals, many of the fine details were different and it was instantly possible to tell them apart from the original guitars they were emulating.


The birth of the Fender Custom Shop

In 1985 CBS sold Fender to a group of private investors lead by Bill Shultz. CBS had had enough of the company and it was clear that while work had started to revive the ailing reputation, there was still much to be done.

By 1987 the part of Fender that had gone back to it’s pre CBS roots and been building these traditional style vintage reissues officially became known as The Fender Custom Shop. It would become the player focused custom order workshop employing only the best builders and making top of the line instruments separate from the main production line. It allowed the company to re-establish relationships with artists and build them top of the line custom order guitars. Prior to this, artists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Yngwie Malmsteen wouldn’t have touched a brand new Fender guitar with a barge pole, instead preferring to use old pre CBS examples. Shultz knew that the success of the company hinged on these key endorsees using new Fender products so the Custom Shop was going to allow him to do this.

Early Custom Shop Stratocaster and Telecasters were mostly reissues of classic pre CBS models. They used the V prefix serial numbers just like the American Vintage Reissues but were distinctly ‘Custom Shop’ models from a small logo on the rear of the headstock.


Early Fender Custom Shop Stratocasters

The instruments from those early years were now doubt excellent quality. Light and resonant woods were still abundantly available back then which made it possible for them to select the best necks and bodies for use on the custom shop range.

It’s worth noting that the hugely popular Relic series of instruments didn’t come into existence until 1995 so for the first eight years of the Fender Custom Shop the model range consisted of mostly up market vintage reissues, versions of modern spec instruments and one off custom models. During that time the reissues lacked a certain authenticity, many of the parts used came from the normal Fender parts bin and many of the finer details were being left out. There was still a clear and obvious difference between the real pre CBS instruments and the custom shop offerings of the day.



Custom Shop Relic Stratocasters

By the mid 1990s the vintage guitar craze was in full swing. Pre CBS instruments cost thousands of pounds and all the clean original examples were rapidly being hoovered up by collectors or investors. The only way a player could get their hands on a real vintage Fender was to buy a heavily modified one, or bag a large inheritance! The Fender Custom Shop had the stroke of genius to create pre aged guitars that looked and felt just like a genuinely old vintage model. Thus creating a much needed price point where players could get something in their hands that was ‘almost’ a pre CBS Stratocaster or Tele.


The idea took off amongst cynicism from some camps, with some negative comments from those who thought it was crazy to pay extra to have your guitar beaten up. It is worth noting of course that while many areas of the guitar were pre aged, the necks remained dent free, the frets were as new and all the electronics and hardware, while cosmetically aged, functioned as brand new components. Where things really made a difference was in the removal of lacquer on the back of the necks, the rolling of finger board edges and lacquer wear on the fret boards of maple neck examples. These features actually made a difference to how the guitars felt and gave them that ‘old favourite pair of jeans’ feel.



The Time Machine Series Statocasters

By 1999 the marketing team realised that these Relics were here to stay so created the legendary ‘Time Machine Series’ which cleverly offered a selection of different stages of ageing. A customer could choose either an ‘as new’ model with zero ageing a mildly aged guitar, a Relic version and later, a ‘heavy relic’. They were in effect the same instruments just with different levels of factory ageing.

This range began to dominate the sales of the Custom Shop guitars and as the years progressed things started to become more interesting with the offerings Fender made available.


Another refresh and some interesting improvements

Around 2008 – 2010 something started to happen at the Custom Shop and we started to see subtle changes coming through. The little details on the guitars that collectors of pre CBS instruments obsessed over were now starting to appear on the Custom Shop Stratocasters. Not only were they offering a myriad of re issues from different years of production, typically from 1954 up to 1969 but the really nerdy year specific details started to appear. The line of text on the back of the machine heads (although it read ‘Fender’ as opposed to Kluson) the reintroduction of ‘Pat Pend’ bridge saddles and correct patent numbered super authentic logos now meant that your Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster looked like the real deal.


Authentic year specific neck shapes were being used, body contours were becoming more accurate as were neck and headstock heels. Overall there certainly seemed to be good things happening at the Custom Shop around this time.



Key milestones in Custom Shop Stratocaster production

  • 1987 – Formation of the Custom Shop producing up market re issues, custom orders and modern spec guitars
  • 1995 – First Relics appeared
  • 1999 – Time machine series launched
  • 2009/10  – Detail changes started coming in to improve authenticity


Limited Edition Custom Shop Stratocasters

Fender have never been shy when it comes to adding another layer to their range and price list. Their marketing team are constantly working on new ideas to sell more guitars. The limited editions are released every year, often to commemorate an anniversary, or sometimes just to have something new to offer at the NAMM show. What we have found anecdotally though is that these limited edition models are marginally better than the normal production custom shop guitars and often feature some quite interesting specifications. They will often retain their value very well and are great collectibles.

Fender Masterbuilt 1954 Stratocaster

The Real Deal

In our minds, the Custom Shop Stratocasters from the 2000s to today are REAL fenders. They have become so good, so authentic, and so detailed that the need to go hunting for that elusive vintage guitar has significantly diminished. For the price of an original pre CBS Stratocaster you can buy four or five new Custom Shop models and have a lot more fun. With the full range of model years to choose from and a myriad of pickup combinations, wood types and neck shapes these instruments have become the new collectors choice.


Posted on 28th August 2023

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About the Author

Coffee House Guitars is owned and run by Julian Deverell who's been playing, buying, selling and collecting guitars since the 1990s.

Julian has owned hundreds of guitars over the years and has extensive knowledge of Fenders. He's also passionate about high end guitars and getting them in optimum condition, set up and at their best.

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