The mid to late seventies was a dark period in electric guitar manufacturing. Gibson and Fender – at the time without much competition in terms of output – had lost their way due to corporate takeovers of both companies in the previous decade, profit-driven organizations who were more interested in saving production costs than turning out playable and well-made instruments. The late seventies period Fender guitars were heavy, badly finished and dripping in thick polyester goo while Gibsons – if you could find one for sale in a shop – were a travesty compared to the beauties that the company had managed to turn out 20 years previously. Fender didn’t offer a great deal of choice either; there was one model of Stratocaster which came with either a maple or rosewood fingerboard in only six colours. Same with Teles (not forgetting the Customs and Deluxes) and the basses and there were a few ‘junior’ models like the Mustang and Musicmaster. Jazzmasters and Jaguars were around but nobody wanted them at that time as they were perceived as far too old-fashioned – and expensive. Gibson was still selling the hugely popular ES-335 and all its variations but Fender, who had ventured briefly into the semi-acoustic market in the mid-sixties with the Coronado and Montego without much success, didn’t have anything like it.
So, in 1976, Fender had another go and launched the Starcaster semi-acoustic. It had a large ‘offset’ body with f-holes, typically Fender-style bolt-on neck and a large ‘paddle’ headstock which was partly painted black. It also had Fender’s version of the humbucking pickup which at the time was installed on Tele Customs and Deluxes but generally denounced by players as sounding weedy and characterless. After all, Fender made guitars with solid bodies and single-coil pickups didn’t they? Wasn’t the Starcaster another lost cause? The guitar – according to the 1976 Fender catalogue available in Tobacco Sunburst, Natural, Walnut, Black, White or Blond – was at best ignored and at worst ridiculed when it arrived in the UK. Sales were hopeless but despite Fender persisting with it, the model was discontinued in 1980. In hindsight, there was absolutely nothing really wrong with the Starcaster; it was just a guitar out of its time.
Interest in the model was revived by the indie bands of the late nineties and gradually the Starcaster started to be championed as a lost gem, notably by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Dave Keuning of the Killers amongst others. Vintage dealers got in on the action as well and the previously unwanted Starcasters became not only very hard to find but prices for original models started to rise to unheard of heights. In 2013, in response to the revived interest, Fender decided to re-introduce the Starcaster as part of the affordable Modern Player Series – in Black and Aged Cherry Burst as well as Natural – and the newly available model is essentially the same guitar that the company abandoned over thirty years ago apart from a different bridge unit and no master volume control or large string retainer on the headstock.
The new Starcaster features a gloss polyester laminated double-bound maple body with an alder centre block, modern ‘C’-shape maple bolt-on neck with a maple fingerboard fitted with medium jumbo frets and black dot inlays, two Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups, two volume controls, two tone controls and as three-way switch on the lower bout. Whereas the original Starcaster had a strange and very un-Fender-like ‘tray’ on which the plate bridge was mounted, the new model features a Gibson-like Adjusto-matic bridge with a stop tailpiece and ‘skirted’ knobs instead of amp-style knobs. The back of the neck has been tinted for an ‘aged’ look and the guitar is surprisingly light considering the large areas of laminated maple.
Plugged in, the Starcaster is very smooth sounding and not over powerful. Most players will want to use some sort of low-gain overdrive to give the pickups a hint of Gretsch-like grittiness, which should find the guitar a home with Americana and roots players as well as the second and third generations of the aforementioned indie guys. In no way a blues wailer, the guitar will ably serve jazzers as well as rhythm-only strummers and possibly the rockabilly crowd. Strapped on, the Starcaster balances well and is light enough to last a whole gig without downtime.
Now of course, The Starcaster wouldn’t look out of place at all on a wall full of similar contemporary semis. In fact, if you weren’t aware of the guitar’s ‘70’s origins and unfortunate history, you might suppose you were looking at it as a completely new Fender guitar, very much in vogue and well at home in today’s diverse styles of guitar playing. It looks as though the Fender Starcaster’s time has at last come.