Alone among Fender electric instruments, the Stratocaster has two different headstocks. Same shape, basically (but not precisely), but two sizes—the original smaller design and a larger one, which came a decade later. Both coexist today more or less peacefully.
Just the Strat. Not the Telecaster. Not the Jazzmaster or the Jaguar. Not the Precision Bass or the Jazz Bass. Not any other Fender electric instrument with history measured in decades. They’ve all had the same headstocks all along, more or less (more on this in a moment). Only the Strat has two different headstocks, each with its own devout adherents.
Now, why would there be two? Because of CBS, that’s why. That’s right, the Columbia Broadcasting System (as it was once called), former owner of Fender. Here’s what happened long ago.
In its original incarnation, introduced in 1954 and basically perfected by 1957, the Stratocaster had what is referred to in the modern era as a small headstock. That design lasted until late 1965.
CBS bought Fender in a deal that took effect on Jan. 5, 1965. To the chagrin of many longtime Fender employees, the Tiffany Network started messing with the Stratocaster almost immediately. Only a slight change at first—the guitar got a new neck plate stamped with a large stylized Fender “F.” In the words of one observer quoted in author Tom Wheeler’s The Stratocaster Chronicles, this small but rather ostentatious move by itself served as “an adequate symbol of the CBS invasion.”
But in December 1965, an even more significant—and visible—change was implemented. The Stratocaster’s headstock was enlarged and slightly re-shaped. Like, enlarged somewhere in the five to ten percent area, so it was quite noticeably different.
“The rationale was simple, ” notes author Richard Smith in Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World. “The new design allowed a bigger decal.”
That’s it. A bigger headstock had room for a bigger Fender-logo decal. With hindsight, it’s seen by many as the first really notable example of troublesome CBS meddling in Fender instrument design. As Smith subsequently notes, “At first, CBS’s problems and mistakes at Fender were small but nonetheless consequential. Someone decided to enlarge the headstock on the Stratocaster and unintentionally ruined its visual balance.”
And that’s how it stayed for the next 15 years. And it’s worth noting that many refer to the larger Strat headstock as the “’70s” or “’70s-era” headstock even though it was around for fully half of the 1960s, too.
It’s worth noting here that CBS standardized the headstocks of all Fender guitars except the Telecaster using the larger Strat-style design in 1966, so that the Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Mustang and Duo-Sonic guitars all had the same headstock, whereas they all had slightly different ones before 1966. Except for the Stratocaster, however, none of those guitars were ever known for or are available in the modern era with two distinctly different headstock designs.
Anyway, as noted, more than one purist cried foul at such a glaring Stratocaster design change that had nothing to do with the guitar’s tone or performance. The larger headstock simply provided more space for a larger name.