‘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 Sound, Inc. 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. Both the similarities as well as the differences with a Strat are pointed out even in the earliest reviews, as one can read in Alec Geanoulis’ contribution to the July 1982 issue of Musician’s Magazine included below, used by G&L as marketing material, as well as Roger Sadowsky’s “On The Case” article for the May 1984 issue of Guitar Magazine. 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 the Skyhawk, here with a rare Kahler™ 2320 flat mount fine-tuner vibrato. 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 topcoat, 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 hook 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.


After having spent lots of time experimenting with the number of windings, bobbin aperture, and size, Leo’s pickup design reached its pinnacle with the introduction of the Z-coil MFD with its 2 relatively reverse-wound, slightly offset coils. In effect, this pickup is the next step in an evolution revisiting the split humbucker as used on the Fender Electric XII which in turn is the guitar version of the Precision Bass pickup developed in the 1950s. The final design allows a humbucker to retain a lot of single-coil character adding high-fidelity to the tone shaping tools of guitar players. The Comanche was the first guitar with Z-coils and is without a doubt his most updated and modern Strat design. The model was introduced on the June 15, 1988 price list, but misspelled as “Commanche” even though the error was corrected for the handmade logo used on the prototype and in other marketing material. Unlike that prototype, the early Comanches had a Long-Horn body shape, i.e similar to the 3rd style Interceptor but with ordinary arm and belly contours, as well as a sickle headstock. The January 15, 1990 price list contained 4 entries for the Comanche: 2 models each in 2 variations. The Comanche V had the same wiring harness and switching scheme as before while the half-coils on the Comanche VI can be combined in 63 unique ways. Both models were still available with a Long-Horn body and sickle headstock. However, that 1990 price list also included the Comanche V Signature and Comanche VI Signature, variants added to the lineup during 1989, with a Leo Fender signature decal on their upper bass bout. With only few exceptions, these Signatures have a much tamer look using the same shape of the body and headstock as the Skyhawk Signature. Almost all pre-BBE Comanches have a rosewood fingerboard while those with a maple fingerboard are exceedingly rare. With a short hiatus between 1992 and 1997, the Comanche is still available today and pretty much identical to the Comanche V Signature without the signature. Reviews for the BBE-era Comanche, used by G&L as dealer promo material, are included below.


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 Sound, Inc. had taken over operations at G&L. Effectively it was replaced by the Legacy, which made its first appearance on that same price list. This model is even closer to a traditional Stratocaster. Instead of MFDs, it has Alnico pickups, initially a set of Seymour Duncan Vintage Flat Strat (SSL-2) pickups and later G&L’s own CLF-100 single coils. Shortly thereafter, an all blade humbucker version became available in the Legacy Special. Reviews used as dealer promo material for both these models have been included below. Still, the Legacy was not close enough to a vintage Stratocaster. Between 1995 and 2008 G&L carried the George Fullerton Signature model in their lineup, modeled after a late-1959 Stratocaster with associated wiring harness while using a set of CLF-100 pickups. And there was still more to come for the Legacy. Like for instance the Interceptor and Invader models, the lineup was extended with other pickup combinations, e.g. the Legacy HB, renamed to Legacy HSS, and Legacy 2HB, currently labeled as the Legacy HH, all (including the modern day Legacy) also available without pickguard and rear-loaded controls. Are these all improved Strats? Depends on your point of view. Except for the Comanche VI and the George Fullerton Signature model, all models discussed in this chapter use G&L’s proprietary PTB circuit. Definitely an improvement but also often a source of confusion especially for those used to dialing in tones with a Stratocaster. As such any Legacy still should be considered to be a different Strat. It is questionable if Leo would have gone for the Legacy. Dale on the other hand, being the pragmatist sensitive to market demands, would have been fine with it I suspect.


The Comanche, Legacy, and S-500 were available in a Semi-Hollow version between 2008 and January 2017. Each of these models is found in the 2009 Catalog below, all having a semi-hollow swamp ash body with a single f-hole because alder is too soft for this purpose. Only few were built and they are quite rare. At the time of writing, only 23 Comanche Semi-Hollows, 16 Legacy Semi-Hollows, and 11 S-500 Semi-Hollows are listed in the Guitars by Leo Registry. A gorgeous Legacy Semi-Hollow (S/N CLF52383) with a maple top and Bird’s Eye maple neck/fingerboard has been converted to an otherwise unavailable Legacy Special Semi-Hollow.


In mid-2018, more than a quarter century after it was discontinued, the Skyhawk was reintroduced 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. Or what the exact difference are with the S-500 beyond the body and headstock shape: same pickups, same expander switch. But if you have a desire for that vintage G&L look and feel and unable to score a vintage Skyhawk, no doubt this would be an excellent option. Finally, a configuration never seen on a pre-BBE Skyhawk is one with 2 humbuckers: the Fullerton Deluxe Skyhawk HH marketed as “... That’s ASAT Deluxe territory, but the Skyhawk HH adds G&L’s PTB system ...”. Interesting ...

 

The Improved Strat