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Gear of the Month: 1985 Fender Performer

John Page’s Performer was commissioned to combat lost sales to the “super strats” that were flooding the market in the mid-’80s.

Photos by Mark Bradford

In 1985, the launching of the Atlantis, releasing of Microsoft’s Windows 1.0 and Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Cold War meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan in Geneva made for a big year. But for guitarists, 1985 is a standout year because it signals the righting of the CBS-driven Fender ship that lasted 20 years. In January of that year, CBS sold the company to Bill Schultz and nine other employees and distributors for $12.5 million. However, within the agreement, the newly formed FMIC wouldn’t gain ownership or access to the currently standing Fullerton facilities so they were forced to continue importing lower-priced instruments and build a U.S. factory to start 1986 production runs.

Before the CBS sale, John Page—young Fender employee in R&D—was tasked with creating a new, radical guitar to be called the Performer. Throughout the transition from CBS to Fender, Page continued on with the Performer project and readied it for production once FMIC was in control of the company. Due to the aforementioned lack of facilities—the Performer was to be a U.S.-made instrument—Page and Fender moved ahead with production and the instrument was made in Fujigen, Japan.

The Tele and Strat have contributed to iconic records, performances, and even been the source of never-ending flattery by way of countless replication and imitation, but Page’s Performer was commissioned to combat lost sales to the “super strats” that were flooding the market in the mid-’80s.

The 1985 Performer has a Strat-meets-Warlock, double-cutaway body that was made with alder, basswood, or birch. (The design appears to be modeled after the flat part of the Strat’s body.) It features a maple neck with a 24-fret rosewood fretboard, a two-pivot bridge with a floating Fender System 1 vibrato made by Schaller. The pickups are two slanted humbuckers—mimicking the positioning of the bridge pickups in Teles and Strats—and are controlled by a volume knob, a tone knob, a 3-way pickup selector switch, and a coil-tapping switch. The tone knob has stacked pots—250k and 1M—with a center detent, which could’ve been a predecessor to the TBX tone control used in later Fender models. The impetus of the Performer was to propel Fender forward, but the guitar’s headstock nods to the past with its arrow-like design reminiscent of the company’s 1969 Swinger model.

Page’s legacy didn’t die with the Performer when its production was canceled in 1986. In 1987, he and fellow master builder Michael Stevens started the Fender Custom Shop. After amassing more than 20 years experience at Fender, Page started his own company, John Page Guitars, this year, showcasing his instruments for the first time at the 2012 Winter NAMM Show. As for the Performer, it only lasted two years and isn’t revered quite as much as a ’52 Tele or a ’54 Strat, but its influence can still be seen today in Parker’s Fly guitar, which was the first guitar to use carbon fiber and composite materials instead of traditional tonewoods for the body, neck, and fretboard.

A special thanks to Drew Jacques and Marc Bradford for the opportunity to feature this fine piece of gear and its story.