Let Us Now Praise the CBS Era!
Fender’s “CBS Era” has got to be one of the most misunderstood and most unjustly maligned periods for any guitar manufacturer. For those of you unfamiliar with this era, the Columbia Broadcasting System, otherwise known as CBS, otherwise known as the television station that airs NCIS, bought the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company in 1965, in an attempt to extend their reach beyond just television. Some years prior, they also acquired Columbia Records, which boasted a mega lineup of artists including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Santana, and Janis Joplin, just to name a few. CBS paid $13 million for the company in 1965, which adjusts to roughly $100 million in 2017 dollars. For perspective on just how big the guitar industry boom of the mid ‘60’s was, consider that in 1964, CBS also bought the New York Yankees – yes, the New York Yankees, for $2 million less than what they paid for Fender.
Clingers (I won’t call them purists because being close-minded is not pure) like to define Fender’s ‘60’s years as “pre-CBS era” and “CBS era,” with the former always carrying an implication of inherently greater worth and/or higher quality. I will posit the highly controversial and unpopular belief that the CBS era is by no means inferior and actually stands as one of Fender’s peaks in terms of enduring design and brand adventurousness.
I have always been a fan of the CBS era, and this belief was reaffirmed when I saw Franz Ferdinand at the College Street Music Hall in New Haven a couple weeks ago. Frontman Alex Kapranos proudly brandished an original Fender Telecaster Deluxe for the complete duration of the band’s show. The gigantic headstock, the Wide Range CuNiFe pickups (designed exclusively for Fender by the inventor of the humbucking pickup, Seth Lover), the mocha finish – what’s not the like? The Telecaster Deluxe, reissued in 2004 as the Classic Player Telecaster Deluxe ’72, has become one of Fender’s most enduring and popular models, and the reissue has now been in production for 13 years, and is showing no signs that it will go away. But wait a minute! Is this not a model from the dreaded CBS era? Why, yes, it is! The CBS era is responsible for some of the coolest, most sought-after, and outright best guitars in the Fender repertoire, which is why many of them have been reissued, and why originals command big money on the collector’s market today.
It is not only the Tele Deluxe that has a strong following. Consider the Starcaster and Coronado II models, both reissued under the Modern Player line in 2014. The offset, semi-hollow body Starcaster has served as the template for some of the coolest boutique guitars available today, and the fully-hollow Coronado II has more than just a cult following clamoring for its unique tones and killer looks. Killers guitarist Dave Keuning and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood have played original Starcasters for years, and indie rock guitar god Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo can frequently be seen playing a candy apple red Coronado II on stage. And though the popularity of these two models is formidable, it still pales in comparison to that of the Thinline Telecaster, which has proven to also be wildly popular as a reissue, with both originals and reissues being played by professional bands the world over. The Thinline Tele was designed by Roger Rossmeisl, who was also responsible for the Coronado. His best-known work includes the Rickenbacker 300 series – one of the most iconic and all-time famous lines of guitars.
While the stunning models get most of the attention, the CBS era also brought some aesthetic changes to the Fender line. The electric guitars (except for the Telecaster standard) all received bigger headstocks with bigger type for the logo and model name, a “bullet” truss rod system for most models, a 3-bolt neck with a micro-tilt adjustment for most electric models, bound necks and block inlays as seen prevalent on Jaguars and Jazzmasters, and bold new finishes, such as Antigua, mocha, and “wildwood,” which involved injecting dye into living trees before harvesting. Not all of these features appeal to all players, but I’m all for companies trying new things and attempting to innovate.
One of the chief criticisms of this era is CBS’s blatant cost-cutting and recycling of parts. They wouldn’t throw a screw away if it could be repurposed into something else. After the Electric XII failed to poach Rickenbacker 12-string players, Fender plugged half the holes on their “hockey stick necks” and turned the remaining XII’s into 6-string guitars, with an added sculpted lower bout and a Mustang tremolo and branded it the Custom (sometimes seen as the Maverick). Fender did the same with leftover Musicmasters by hacking up the lower bout again into something that looks like it would pre-date metal-styled guitars by at least two decades and shaving off the drooping side of the headstock into what looked like an arrow. This model, the Swinger (sometimes referred to as the Musiclander or the Arrow) did not at all fool the public and was rebuffed as a recycle job, as with the Maverick, and sold poorly. That being said, try to find one on the used market for less than $2,500. Not to be a total stooge, but even these models have an insane amount of offbeat appeal, which is why they still fetch insane premiums.
It is easy to romanticize pre-CBS Fender life. Just Leo, Freddie, Forrest, Tadeo, and all the other men and women churning out guitars that would not only change music, but change the world. And as such it is easy to villainize the big bad corporation coming in like a tornado and turning it upside down. But consider the ingenuity and also the minds behind some of these models. If someone told you that the designer of the Rickenbacker 300 series and the inventor of the humbucking pickup built a USA-made guitar together, would your interest not be piqued? With all this being said, these are merely my opinions and they are no more or less valid than of those who fervently assert that pre-CBS Fender is the be-all, end-all. So consider my words, but formulate your own opinion about guitars, amps, pedals, etc. Purchase and play the gear that makes you happy, not somebody else. Be bold – be yourself!
-David Elliott, writing for Martel Music Store