Howdy once again guitar gang! So, boy howdy is there a TON of confusion over the Korean made Fender guitars, and I'm NOT talking about the Squier moniker here, I'm talking about the honest-to-goodness Fender's! As a point of reference, please read my last blog on Made in Japan Fenders, since it dovetails in with this blog nicely. First, I have a confession to make, and it's a biggie! When I saw my first MIK Fender Strat at a Pawn Shop, I thought it was a fake. Yep, me. I've co-authored a book on Leo Fender and written numerous feature stories on Fender for Vintage guitar Magazine; here in Nashville, when folks have questions about the authenticity and/or originality of a Fender guitar, they come to me ... and I missed this one by a MILE!
The guitar I saw all those years back was what I now know to be a "Lite Ash" Strat from the early years of the new post-CBS ownership of Fender, during that time period when Fender was trying to figure out how the heck to make guitars with no actual manufacturing plant having been included in the Fender purchase. Again, as I discussed in length in my last blog, they leaned HEAVILY on their existing plants in Japan, but they ALSO began to tap their Korean manufacturers, which up to that point had only produced the Squier branded instruments. Here is an important item to remember: as with Japanese manufacturing, (South) Korean Manufacturing was way ahead of it's time and way under-rated in the 1980's and 90's. Folks laughed when the first Honda cars arrived in the States, but they sure ain't laughing now, and the same can be said for Hyundai and Kia from Korea. Another important fact here is that practically no instruments are manufactured in either Japan or Korea today ... not because the quality is too low, but because it's too high, and so is the cost of labor in those countries. Even the Korean instrument giant Samick has now moved all of it's guitar manufacturing to their plant in Indonesia because they can no longer afford to pay the going rate for Korean labor. Get the point? Just like MIJ, MIK is NOT an indication of a lesser quality guitar, quite the opposite!
So fast forward to today (November of 2019). I currently have one of my own MIK Strats, a '89 Deluxe Lite Ash model) listed for sale on eBay. I've gotten soooo many well intentioned idiotic messages from folks who act as if they KNOW what this guitar is ... and they are just plain dead wrong.
Here for instance is a message I just received a couple days ago. (It's really hard to not break out laughing as I read it):
"That headstock detail is a fake. Neck is from a Korean Squire. If somebody sold that to you as a Fender Strat you got ripped off. Here's a real '89 Deluxe. Look at all the differences. (he points to a Reverb listing)
In particular look at the headstock and serial number placement. And also the fact that the Deluxes were all USA made.
Body looks like a Warmoth."
Where to start?
Even though he seems to believe himself to be quite an expert, he's just flat wrong on every point. Yes, I felt the exact same way a couple decades ago when I saw my first Korean Deluxe Lite Ash Strat. Luckily, I have gained some knowledge since then, and it's time the guitar community of the world knows about these transitional-period Fender guitars, and not continue to languish in ignorance.
So here is the skinny:
1987: The first Korean made guitars to proudly wear the Fender logo emerged as sort of a test-run for the new Bill Schultz led Fender team. Most were pretty straight-forward Strats.
1988: The Korean guitars were well received, and so Fender ramped up production in Korea, focusing on the new alternative "Super-Strat" and neck-through designs that Fender so desperately needed to have in order to compete with companies like Kramer and Jackson. These guitars were also well received, and quite profitable for the fledgling new company.
1988: The MIK production model Showmaster series Strats were introduced. These were often dual humbucker guitars and commonly had neck-through construction, arched maple tops, exotic woods, and/or other high-end detail features.
1989: The "Lite Ash" series was introduced. This guitar was co-designed by Fender in the States and the Samick design team, and it really brought some cool high-end features to what would otherwise be just another Strat: And yes, that particular Fender logo is unlike any before or since. I can't see how these guitars will NOT become collectors pieces as they are certainly one-of-a-kinds.
A Lite (swamp) Ash body.
2-point floating trem.
Seymour Duncan Pickups.
Highly figured Birdseye maple neck, fingerboard, and headstock,
Graphite string trees.
Mother of Pearl inlays.
These guitars remained in production (off and on) untill 2002.
1990: The Korean made production model version of the Custom Shop So-Cal Strat was launched. This was possibly the coolest MIK Strat of all.
Fender began backing off Korean production until it finally ended totally in 2002-2003 at which time they determined it was just too expensive to manufacture in Korea, and moved all their non-USA production of Fender branded instruments to the Mexico plant. As a side note, Fender determined Korea was too expensive for the Squier line way back in 1990, and moved Squier production to China, more recently to include Indonesia.
One last note, it's almost impossible to determine the EXACT date of production on a MIK Fender using the serial number, since the Samick plant was pretty loose with the numbers throughout the production run, but the Guitar Dater Project will getcha close! https://www.guitardaterproject.org/fender.aspx
So there ya have it, the history of Korean made Fender guitars, 15-years of the most interesting guitars ever to carry the Fender name. As a general rule of thumb these are excellent instruments at a VERY reasonable price, when you can find one for sale. And, don't be an idiot and tell the seller his guitar's a fake ;-)
And now an interesting side note:
This is Adrian Belew's personal MIK Showmaster and what he has to say about it on FB. Dude's sooo cool!
here’s a very unique and unusual guitar. in fact, not only have I never seen another one like it, but I don’t even know what it’s called. a cross between a stratocaster and a les paul goldtop.
like a les paul it has a curved top and cream binding around the body and the neck. the gold finish has a deep sparkle I am unable to capture with my limited photographic skills. the pickups are some kind of cream humbuckers but even they’re a bit different. in the middle and fourth position of the five-way selector they are thrown out of phase. the neck has 24 frets, meaning a high e note at the top of the neck.
the tuning keys have no name and operate in an unusual way. you pop the string through and as you tune it the tuning key somehow locks the string in by itself. when you take a string off the tuning key seems to automatically release it at certain point.
the tremolo certainly is a fender and on this guitar it behaves nicely. the guitar wears jumbo frets, has no fret markers, and plays beautifully. I am smitten.
the serial number is 03092616. if anyone out there knows anything about this model fender, especially what it’s called, I would welcome the information. I hope fender still makes these."
Sorry Adrian, not since 2003!
See ya all next week when we'll be looking at some of the best side-hustles for the musician who's got some bills to pay. It'll be awesome!