Early Guitar Plastics

Throughout the 20th-century guitar-building golden age, manufacturers continually pushed the envelope with their instruments’ craftsmanship, playability, and use of emerging materials, namely their plastics. At present, it’s outlandish to think plastic goods were once considered rare. However, it wasn’t until World War II that plastic was brought to the forefront of manufacturing materials. Before plastic, natural materials such as bone, ivory, and tortoise shell were used for various purposes, such as pickguards, inlays, and binding. Along with wartime complications, companies had long faced shortages and high prices due to overhunting and government regulation. This disrupted the means of production and supply chain and forced companies to modify the materials used in fabrication.

One of the first viable commercial “plastics” used was celluloid. This compound was commonly used in combs, small boxes, and other small household items towards the end of the 19th Century and was later utilized in film for cameras. Celluloid is synthesized by first “nitrating” cellulose, combining it with sulfuric and nitric acid that is then rinsed, drained, and dried. This leaves the chemist with nitrocellulose. Next, the nitrocellulose is then kneaded with fillers, dyes, and other chemicals, such as Camphor, to create a gel. This gel can then be pressed into a finished sheet and cut into squares of celluloid. This is obviously a very brief simplification of the full chemical process, so for anyone interested in the exact science, we recommend the journal linked at the bottom of this blog post in our works consulted.

Celluloid became the go-to material for components like binding and guitar picks. This material also became the standard for pickguards, especially in an imitation tortoise pattern commonly seen on guitars of the era. “Green” pickguards seen from Fender in 1959-1964 also use this celluloid material.

Aside from their flammability, one drawback to these early plastics is that they are prone to shrinking, warping, and “off-gassing.” Off-gassing can occur randomly when the plastic and trapped chemicals inside the object break down. You will often see fogging or an oily appearance on the surface, and the fumes commonly corrode metal components surrounding the plastic. 

The next giant leap in manufacturing came with injection molding, which allowed manufacturers to easily create 3D molded objects, like knobs and pickup covers. Essentially, liquid plastic is pumped into metal forms, leaving some of the mold’s marks and seams visible. Fender used this technology extensively, especially on the Stratocaster. We’ve written about this type of plastic specifically on our earliest Stratocasters in our blog post here. As discussed in our previous blog post, this well-known “Bakelite” plastic is actually polystyrene, infamous for being as fragile as porcelain. In some cases, you can see the swirling of poorly mixed plastics as they were injected into the mold. This flaw is easiest to see on pickup covers.

Early 1954 Stratocasters, both with “bakelite” Polystyrene plastics

As Fender sought a more robust material to improve this fragility, they found their answer in 1957 with the newly invented ABS plastic. Still widely used today, ABS is a mixture of various compounds and chemicals forming a reliable plastic that can easily be used for injection molding. This also explains why plastics on Fenders of this era can have a yellow tint, as this plastic tends to yellow with time. 

To bring this full circle into the modern day, new plastic materials such as Delrin, PVC, and Nylon are currently used, in addition to ABS. There’s still something magical about those early plastics, and even more so in the way they age, whether it be the subtle warping of a celluloid pickguard, the smokiness of an ABS pickup cover, or even the fragility of a polystyrene tone knob. Each example harkens back to a time when the industry was just in its infancy! 

Works Consulted

Calvosa, Antonio. “Stratocaster Knobs and Pickup Covers.” FUZZFACED, www.fuzzfaced.net/stratocaster-knobs.html. Accessed 7 July 2023. 

Kelly, Martin, et al. Fender: The Golden Age. Cassell Illustrated, 2011. 

Reilly, Julia A. “Celluloid Objects: Their Chemistry and Preservation.” JAIC Online, 1991, cool.culturalheritage.org/jaic/articles/jaic30-02-003_3.html.

Smith, Richard R., et al. Fender: The Sound Heard ’round the World. Hal Leonard, 2009. 

Wheeler, Tom. The Stratocaster Chronicles: Fender: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat. H. Leonard, 2004.