Conceptualized by car designer Ray Dietrich, the original Firebirds had neck-through-body construction, fluid sculpture lines, a single-sided headstock, and special small humbucking pickups.

Photo by George Aslaender

This month’s guitar is a variation on the Firebird III, so rare that its production number is likely in the dozens.

As Gibson was about to launch its new, simplified “non-reverse” Firebird line in 1965, they shipped a small number of “reverse” I and III models that spring and summer with some eccentric features. In his encyclopedic 1982 book, American Guitars: An Illustrated History, Tom Wheeler whimsically labeled these as “Platypus” Firebirds, due to their oddity and rarity: Some had conventional guitar tuners, rather than the banjo tuners on standard ’Birds, and tubular plastic-tipped vibrato arms, rather than so-called “spoon handle” vibratos. So, naturally, I was intrigued. The subject of this month’s column is one of those rare ’Birds that I scored at the 1993 Great American Guitar Show in Philadelphia.

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Mutant forces converge in a super-playable solidbody. The PG Abernethy Sonic Empress review.



Splendid neck. Many cool, unexpected tones. Excellent build quality.

Expensive. Relic finish could be polarizing.


Abernethy Sonic Empress




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Image 1 — I’ll take one with everything: This ’64 Strat arrived at Dave’s Guitar Shop in its original case, with its factory-issue strap and the ’63–’64 Fender catalog inside.

Ash, rosewood, and factory-original black paint bedeck this beautiful 1964 Strat.

The Fender Stratocaster was introduced in 1954 as the next step in solidbody evolution from the radical, revolutionary Telecaster. Ten years later, the 1963-’64 Fender catalog still described the same important characteristics of this breakthrough model: The many remarkable design features incorporated in the Stratocaster, including many “Fender Firsts,” have resulted in making it the choice of many of the world’s leading musicians. It features advanced neck design, the contoured curves of the body, the improved adjustable pickups, the method of tone control, the mechanical bridge, the surface-mounted plug receptacle, and one of the most outstanding Fender developments—the exclusive Fender built-in tremolo.

The standard body wood changed from ash to alder by 1956, and the neck profiles became gradually slimmer.

But while the basics remained the same, several changes were made in the Strat’s first decade. The standard body wood changed from ash to alder by 1956, and the neck profiles became gradually slimmer. The most noticeable alteration took place in 1959, when rosewood fretboards were added to the previously 1-piece maple necks. The rosewood board began as a fairly thick slab, but by 1964 had become a thin laminate.

Image 2 — This close-up displays the extras that arrived with this historic Stratocaster, as well as the headstock’s spaghetti-style logo, which would be replaced by July 1964.

This month’s 1964 Fender Stratocaster is finished in custom-color black, but otherwise has the typical features associated with the first half of that year. These include a maple neck with a separate rosewood fretboard, clay dot inlays (replaced later that year by slightly larger pearloid dots), and the small headstock employed until 1966, with the original “spaghetti” Fender logo. (That logo was replaced by a “transition” logo decal starting in July of ’64.)

Image 3 — Rosewood fretboards were added to Stratocasters in 1959—initially as a thick slab and, by ’64, a thinner laminate.

Also, 1964 was the last year to see a greenish celluloid pickguard, which was replaced with white plastic ones in 1965. This Strat also came with the original white Tolex case, which held the factory-issued strap, a polish cloth, and a 1963-’64 catalog. The original list price with custom finish was $303.97. The current value for one in excellent all-original condition is $20,000.

Image 4 — This guitar sports its original pickups and electronics, and it’s among the last to enjoy the light-green celluloid pickguard that was replaced by white plastic on Strats starting the next year.

The Fender Concert amp behind the Strat dates to September 1963. Two 6L6 power tubes push about 40 watts through four Jensen 10" speakers. The normal channel has a bright switch along with volume, treble, and bass knobs. The vibrato channel also has a bright switch, volume, bass, and treble knobs, but adds speed and intensity knobs to control the tremolo. The 1963-’64 list price was $359.50. The current value for the amp is $2,000.

Sources for this article include: The Fender Stratocaster: 1954–1984 by A.R. Duchossoir, The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat by Tom Wheeler, Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World by Richard R. Smith, and Fender Amps: The First 50 Years by John Teagle and John Sprung.

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