‘The Real Ones’ - A history of G&L

 
 

When starting G&L, Leo Fender clearly had no intention to revisit his work at the company he had sold in 1965. With the L-1000/L-2000 and F-100 he continued his efforts started at CLF Research. But market pressure is a funny thing. While selling instruments which Leo considered to be superior over his prior work, Dale Hyatt heard a lot of demand from his dealers to built more traditional fare. After all, Leo Fender is mainly known for the single-coil guitars he developed but the first G&L sales catalog strangely enough only contained hum-bucking instruments. However, this article by Gabe Dellevigne on the Guitars by Leo website shows that from the get-go Leo had a single-coil version of the Magnetic Field Design (MFD) pickup in mind. And throughout the 1980s and after BBE took over, G&L released several Strat-like models. Especially for the models introduced during the first half of the 1980s, the bodies, output jack position, pickup positions, and headstock shapes are not exactly the same as on a Stratocaster, but their wiring harness in terms of layout and functionality is very similar.


As A.R. Duchossoir describes in “The Fender Stratocaster”, the original was designed with input from many: Mr. Fender, Bill Carson, Freddie Tavares, Mr. Fullerton, Don Randall, and Rex Galleon. Here it is just George & Leo who reveal their updated view on the 3 single-coil pickup guitar with contoured body in March 1982 with the introduction of the S-500. Its shape is akin to the Stratocaster but there are enough differences under the hood to make clear one is rather dealing with the next step in the evolution of the Strat as envisioned by George and Leo, especially sonically. The 3 square cornered, narrow-bobbin MFD pickups have considerably more output than traditional Strat pickups and a louder response in the upper registers. When I asked the owner of the Sunburst finished, swamp ash S-500 prototype with S/N G005241 to pull off the neck, it revealed a 9 28 81 date for the body and a neck date of DEC 21 1981. This prototype has a 2 part aluminum pickguard already. Another friend of mine happens to own an S-500 built the same week as my very early S-500 and it also has aluminum guards. Hence the plastic guard around the pups on mine seems to be an exception. A comprehensive history of how the S-500 evolved from the T-400 and F-150 can be found in this October 2014 article by Gabe Dellevigne and Greg Gagliano in Vintage Guitar Magazine.


On first looks, the Nighthawk, introduced in April 1983 with and without pickguard, looks like the S-500. But closer inspection reveals a number of differences: the Nighthawk “pup” guard has an additional screw hole around the center line of the DFV and is always made of plastic, the 3 round cornered, narrow-bobbin MFD pickups are angled and positioned slightly differently than on the S-500 (see side by side picture below) with the bridge pickup angled less on the Nighthawk, and the interface between the 2 parts of the pickguard is straight edged on the S-500 and triangular on the Nighthawk. The wiring on both models is still the same, hence the more mellow sound of the Nighthawk is due to the lower magnetization and position of the pups.


In December of 1983, G&L was forced to abandon the Nighthawk name after the DC-area band Nighthawk threatened to sue over the use of “their” property. Hence, while its looks otherwise remained the same, the Nighthawk became Skyhawk. Around mid-1984, Leo also redesigned the wiring harness of the Skyhawk to sonically differentiate it even more from the S-500.


Both the S-500 and Skyhawk were redesigned in 1988, the same time G&L started experimenting using a polyurethane base-coat, still with nitro top-coat, adding additional differentiation. This mainly because nitro is more labor intensive and dissuaded by Californian environmental laws. The body contour for both now became more stylized, the pickups were mounted to an identical 1-piece multi-ply plastic pickguard, and the Strat input jack was away from the guard. With the similar guard, the pickups on the S-500 got much smaller covers with rounded corners and the slant of the bridge pickup was less than before. But an expander switch was added, allowing the selection of all 3 pickups or the combination of bridge and neck. Ignoring the G&L teat on the smaller headstock, with a sharper corner for the flange, all these changes made the S-500 look even more like a Stratocaster. The redesigned Skyhawk though had a so-called “sickle headstock” and hence a distinct feature. This got rectified with the Skyhawk Signature, introduced late-1988, which got the same headstock as the S-500. The S-500 Signature, introduced the same time, allegedly has 100-200 more windings per coil but given the fact that all pickups were hand-wound in the day, this difference was not always realized. However, up to the day Dale retired, one could order a “late early style” S-500. In this configuration, one would still get the 2-part aluminum pickguard, pickups with square corners in old location and orientation, no expander switch, but a smaller headstock compared to the original S-500 although retaining the more rounded curves.


Leo’s pickup design reached its pinnacle with the introduction of the Z-coil MFD on the Comanche. Introduced on the June 15, 1988 price list, G&L initially misspelled the model name as “Commanche” even though it is correct for the handmade logo used on the prototype and in other marketing material. The January 15, 1990 price list includes 2 variations: the Comanche V and Comanche VI. The Z-coil MFD adds hum-bucking and high-fidelity to the tone shaping tools of guitar players. Nowadays, the Comanche (V) is still part of G&L’s lineup.


Similarly, the S-500 is still carried by G&L, but has undergone more modifications. The pickups became hotter, wire changed from enamel to poly coated, and it became available with beautiful maple tops as the S-500 Deluxe (as wielded by Umphrey’s McGee’s Jake Cinninger below).


The Skyhawk no longer appeared on the January 1, 1992 price list, the first issued after BBE had taken over operations at G&L. Effectively it was replaced by the Legacy, which made its first appearance on that same price list, even though the latter has Alnico pickups instead of MFDs and hence should be considered to be a different guitar entirely. More than a quarter of a century later, the model was reintroduced in mid-2018 as the CLF Research Skyhawk, offered in 4 configurations with different body/finish/fingerboard combinations. In early-May 2019, the Fullerton Deluxe Skyhawk was added only deviating from the CLF Research Skyhawk in minor details. Personally, I do not really understand what the Fullerton Deluxe is adding or subtracting from the CLF Research version beyond 2 new colors. I can only assume it is merely a question of price point.


Leo’s vision on improved Stratocasters (L-to-R):

1982 S-500 (pre-BBE mahogany), 1983 Nighthawk, 1983 Nighthawk (no guard), 1986 Skyhawk w/Kahler, 1988 S-500 (pre-BBE ash), 1988 Skyhawk, 1990 Skyhawk Signature, 1991 S-500 Signature.

 

The Improved Strat