Early Stratocasters with Tremolo Cover Serial Numbers
Following the 1950 release of their wildly popular “Blackguards,” Leo Fender wanted to design a new guitar that he hoped would soon eclipse anything else on the market. As local musicians often dropped by the Fullerton factory to show off their homemade modifications to their Fender guitars, a new iconic guitar emerged out of these suggestions.
One of Leo’s favorite “guinea pigs” to field test these new modifications was legendary Western swing guitarist Bill Carson. We have Mr. Carson to thank for the highly comfortable contours on the Stratocaster after he stunned Leo with the rounded forearm contour and hack-sawed tummy contour he added to his Telecaster. Fender borrowed the initial body shape design from the Precision Bass, further refined by Freddie Tavares, and combined it with Mr. Carson’s contouring to create an exceedingly comfortable and ergonomic body shape. The necks on this new model were identical in construction to that of the Telecaster and Esquire, made wholly of maple with a walnut “skunk stripe” in the channel for the truss rod. The significant deviation from Fender’s previous neck design was with the headstock. It still featured six in-line tuners on one side of the headstock but had a much more exaggerated shape than the Telecaster’s headstock. After perfecting the new Tremolo design and working out the pickups, Leo was ready to present the new guitar. All it needed was a name, and thanks to Don Randall, this model was dubbed: The Stratocaster.
To spread the word of the new model before Fender’s official announcement in April of 1954, roughly 200 Stratocasters were made and given to salespeople to take with them across the country. Fender hoped to dazzle dealers with the revolutionary model, prompting them to order store stock. One unique feature of these sales samples was that their serial numbers were stamped right into the plastic rectangular plate that covered the spring cavity, commonly known as the tremolo cover/plate. This serial series started at 0100 and terminated at around 0300. After this, any mainline Stratocaster received the standard neck plate serial number, this time starting over at 0001.
We’re incredibly fortunate at Well Strung Guitars to have multiple Trem cover serialized Stratocasters for sale in the showroom. It’s fascinating to see them compared to each other and later 1954 Stratocasters from the regular serial series! Since these Tremolo plate Strats were some of the first made, it was only natural that Fender would make changes and improvements as more feedback trickled back to the factory.
One of the most pronounced visual differences between the Tremolo plate Stratocasters and those made after is the absence of an amber tint to the natural wood of the Sunburst. Instead, the center of the burst is merely the coloring of the ash underneath, and only the last few of the Tremolo plate serial number Strats saw amber applied.
The next most notable difference is the shape and composition of the plastic components. More often than not, the plastic components on these early Strats are said to be Bakelite, but according to Tom Wheeler in The Stratocaster Chronicles:
“The single-layer pickguard, knobs, and pickup covers [and switch tip] were made of a brittle plastic similar to Bakelite; in fact, it is often mislabeled Bakelite”
In actuality, this material was a polystyrene thermoplastic; an early but very fragile medium for injection molding plastics at the time. All the plastic parts, except the pickguard and tremolo plate, were injection molded, while the pickguard and tremolo plate were stamped out of a different plastic formula. Even then, these Styrene plastics were brittle, and they definitely still are today! The specific shape of the knobs and switch tips were also unique to these early examples. The knobs were a bit more square, with no taper and a smaller space for the numbers, known as the “Short Skirt” knob. The switch tip had a “football” style shape. In age and time, the Styrene knobs and pickup covers can develop a type of translucency, where you can even see the flow of the injection molding process.
Another trait all of our Tremolo Cover Stratocasters share is a chunky neck. They are quite consistent among the few examples we have. There’s a slight variance in the first fret neck depth, ranging from .93”-.97”, and a twelfth fret neck depth across the board at 1”. The weights of each are also more or less consistent, with them all being about 8 lbs. Like some Telecasters at the time, all of these early Stratocasters came in brown “Poodle” form fit cases made by Bulwin. Fender’s famous Tweed case didn’t appear until late 1954. Initial orders were slow, as Telecaster sales remained strong.
Some research suggest that less than 300 Stratocasters were shipped by the end of the year! As described in Fender: The Sound Heard’ Round The World:
“The Telecaster was still so new. Even when we came out with the Stratocaster, that newness hadn’t really worn off.”
Year after year, sales of the Stratocaster would increase, thanks to the likes of famous artists like Buddy Holly, who were seen performing with the Stratocaster throughout the 1950s. The rest, as they say, is history!
Calvosa, Antonio. “Serial Numbers: Strats Made in USA.” FUZZFACED, www.fuzzfaced.net/stratocaster-serial-numbers.html. Accessed 18 May 2023.
Kelly, Martin, et al. Fender: The Golden Age. Cassell Illustrated, 2011.
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.