For many guitar collectors, Fender fans and players in general, the year 1965 stands out as a unique and important year for Fender instruments. It is the infamous year in which the management of Fender sold their ownership to the CBS Corporation. Because of this, Fender guitars and basses made before 1965 are collectively known as pre-CBS Fenders. They are regularly seen as being more desirable than any subsequent Fender ever built. Below, we take a look at the CBS, the changes they made to several of their instruments, and why it is seen as a low point for the company.
The Fender CBS Era
In early 1965, Leo Fender sold Fender to the CBS for $13 million, which included the companies Fender Sales Inc., Fender Electric Instrument Company Inc., Fender Acoustic Instrument Company Inc., Fender-Rhodes Inc., Terrafen Inc., Clef-Tronix Inc., Randall Publishing Co. Inc., V.C. Squier Company, Electro-Music Inc. (Leslie speakers), Rogers drums, Steinway pianos, Gemeinhardt flutes, Lyon & Healy harps, Rodgers Organs, and Gulbransen home organs.
This had far-reaching implications. At first, the sale was seen as a positive thing by many in the industry as they believed CBS's ability to bring in money and personnel would help further the brand. Unfortunately, what occurred instead was a series of cost-cutting measures along with several design changes of classic instruments. One of the most notorious changes during this era was the larger headstock on certain guitar models, which began in 1966. Bound necks with block shaped position markers were also introduced in 1966. Starting in late 1968, a bolder black headstock logo, as well as a brushed aluminum faceplate with blue or red labels (depending the model) for the guitar and bass amplifiers became standard features. These first "silver face" amps added an aluminum trim detail around the speaker baffle until 1970.
Other cosmetic changes included a new "tailless" Fender amp decal and a sparkling orange grill cloth on certain amplifiers in the mid-1970s. As far as guitars went, in mid-1971 the usual four-bolt neck joint was changed to one using only three bolts, and a second string tree for the two middle (G and D) strings was added in late 1972. These changes were said to have been made to save money: while it suited the new 'improved' micro-tilt adjustment of the neck (previously requiring neck removal and shimming), the "Bullet" truss rod system, and a 5-way pickup selector on most models, it also resulted in a greater chance of mechanical failure.
During the CBS era, the company did introduce some new instrument and amplifier designs. The Fender Starcaster was particularly unusual because of its shallow, yet completely hollow body design that still retained the traditional Fender bolt-on neck, albeit with a completely different headstock. The Starcaster also incorporated a new Humbucking pickup designed by Seth Lover. This pickup also gave rise to 3 new incarnations of the classic Telecaster.
The culmination of the CBS "cost-cutting" may have occurred in 1983 when the Fender Stratocaster received a short-lived redesign lacking a second tone control and a bare-bones output jack, as well as redesigned single-coil pickups, active electronics, and three push-pull buttons for pickup selection (seen in the Elite Series). Additionally, previous models such as the Swinger (also known as Musiclander) and Custom (also known as Maverick) were seen by many players nothing more than attempts to squeeze profits out of factory stock.
Although the profile of some of the CBS-era creations has grown recently due to their use by famous artists (such as the Starcaster being used by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood), most players still consider pre-CBS Fender instruments to be superior.
Hopefully, the quick history lesson above has given you a good idea on why so many players consider the sale to CBS a low point for the Fender brand. Since then, the company has definitely gained back its reputation as one of the best guitar manufacturers in the world, featuring many modern designs that stay true to the quality and craftsmanship of the originals while adding many useful features.
Your Turn to Sound Off!
How do you feel about the CBS-era? Is it as bad as some player believe it was?