The Truth About... Early Korean Squier Strats

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 19 August 2012 |

Perhaps one of the biggest talking points regarding the Fender company’s history through the latter half of the 1980s, is the move in production of the Squier guitar range from Japan to Korea. What I find most interesting of all, is the extremity of opposing views on the early Korean Squier Stratocasters, first produced in 1987. Some say they were excellent; some say they were absolute rubbish. Very few guitars have polarised opinion in quite such a fashion on the basis of their quality. So I want to look in this article at the Korean Squier Stratocaster of the late 1980s, and compare it with its immediate predecessor – a very similar looking incarnation of the world’s most famous guitar, made in Japan.


Lake Placid Blue was one of just four colours in which the original Korean Squier Strats were available.

AN IMMEDIATE PROBLEM

As I write, we’re in the middle of August 2012. That makes it a quarter of a century since Squier Strats first started rolling off the production line of Fender’s first Korean Squier contractor – widely acknowledged as Young Chang. A quarter of a century is a long time. And it’s a long time during which a lot of people have made a vast number of modifications to virtually incalculable numbers of late ‘80s Korean Squier Strats. Not only that, but these inexpensive instruments have often changed hands numerous times. Much of what’s written about the guitars on the Internet comes from people who’ve acquired them secondhand, within the fairly recent past. There’s thus a great deal of confusion over the the precise original features. Not only is it very easy to change the appointments on a Korean Squier Strat – there’s also, due to severe compromises in the quality of some original parts, been an almost unparallelled impetus over the years for owners to do so.

This leaves us in a situation where very often, the only component we can pretty unequivocally establish as being original to a specifically serial numbered Strat, is the neck. But as someone who remembers the Korean Squiers from their introduction (as an owner as well as a market observer), and who’s retained a wealth of original published matter from the period (guitar magazines, musicians’ papers, etc.), I feel I can add some concrete fact to the rumour-driven and often speculative discussion which continues to rage. I want to put some of today’s more arguable theories on early Korean Squier Strats to the test, but my ultimate goal is to explain how the Korean Squier Strat differed from its immediate Japanese predecessor. Let’s go straight in at the deep end…

THE “BUILT WITH LEFTOVER JAPANESE PARTS” THEORY

It seems to have become fairly widely (although certainly not universally) considered that the first of the Korean Squier Strats were built, by Young Chang in Korea, with leftover parts from the Japanese FujiGen Gakki factory’s ’87 Squier range. It is, however, very difficult indeed, if not completely impossible, to read any truth into this notion, other than the fact that one or two hardware components, such as the machineheads, were from a common source. Here are the numerous reasons why the theory seriously struggles to hold up…

When Korean Squier production started, the Japanese FujiGen Gakki factory's need for its own Strat parts did not evaporate. In fact, FujiGen's Standard Strats were made until 1991, albeit subsequently with Fender branding rather than Squier. Essentially, the Squier MIJ Standard Strat became the Fender MIJ Standard Strat, which was built to the same spec. This makes today’s theory that the initial batch(es) of Korean Squiers were built with ‘leftover’ parts from Japan difficult to reconcile. If FujiGen still had a use for their Strat parts, it's difficult to see why they'd send them to a well established Korean factory which was quite capable of manufacturing its own.

But evidence against the ‘leftover parts’ theory is more than just circumstantial…


The style of pickup used on the '87 MIJ Squier Strats (top) had a trad-shaped bobbin with a 'lip' for the attachment of the connection wires. The style used on the '87 MIKs (bottom) was devoid of this lip. I've seen another design of pickup on the '80s MIK Strats, which has its magnet above, rather than beneath the bottom plate. However, it still lacks the 'lip' which characterises the MIJ Squier pickups. Please see the main text for more on the pickups.

The ‘87 Korean Squiers had a completely different neck from the ’87 Japanese Squiers. MIJs had the truss rod mounted with adjustment at the body end of the neck. MIKs had the truss adjustment on the headstock, so the whole build was different. There’s no way an ‘80s MIJ Squier Strat neck can be mistaken for the necks fitted to the early MIKs. I’m still open minded, but I’ve never yet seen an ‘80s MIK Squier with the '80s MIJ truss rod arrangement. Incidentally, some of the '80s MIJ Contemporary Strats did have the truss adjustment on the headstock like the MIK Squiers, but the Contemporary necks were distinctive in that they had 22 (as opposed to 21) frets and smaller fingerboard dots. They still can't be mistaken for the MIK Squier necks.

I’m going to deal with the issue of the bodies separately, later in the article, but the likelihood that any of the bodies used on the earliest MIK Strats were produced anywhere other than Korea, looks negligible.

The pickups in the early Korean Squiers were totally different from those used in the ’87 MIJ Squiers. They’re both ceramic bar magnet types, but the pickups in the MIKs had no front lip on the bobbin for the wire attachments. MIJ Squier ceramics had a traditional bobbin shape with the regular wire attachment. The bar magnets on the MIK pickups were typically stuck in place very haphazardly, so as to indicate extremely poor attention to build standards. The MIJ Squier pickups, meanwhile, had their magnets uniformly fitted. The coils on the MIK’s pickups were not wound tightly and were prone to microphonic squeal. The MIJ coils were much tighter and did not, in my experience, ever squeal at gigs or full volume band rehearsals. Finally, the MIK’s pickups sounded thinner and cheaper than those in the ’87 MIJs. If the pickups found in the 1987 MIKs were made in Japan, they certainly weren’t the ones used on the Squier MIJ Strats of 1987.

The pots on the ‘87 Korean Squier Strats are mini-sized, whereas the ’87 Japanese Squiers had full-sized pots.

The tone and volume knobs on the first Korean Squier Strats were noticeably different from those on the MIJs. MIKs had the type of knob Tokai used – not Fender. These knobs, distinguished by a smaller lettering font, were routinely used by Young Chang, from the very earliest Squiers, through into the 1990s – as well as on their own Fenix Strats.


A comparison of the pots and knobs used on late 1980s MIK and MIJ Squier Strats. On the left, the type of pot and knob used by Young Chang on their early Squiers. On the right, the type of pot and knob used by FujiGen Gakki on their ’87 Squier MIJ Strats. The knob fonts are very clearly different, with Japan (right) using the standard Fender design fitted at the time to all MIJ and USA Fender Strats, and Korea (left) using the font style which appeared on Tokai guitars. The difference in the pots speaks for itself.

One component which does appear to have come from Japan on at least some early Korean Squier Strats, however, is the bridge – or at least the bridge saddles, which are double-Fender branded. These Fender saddles, or saddles very much like them, had previously been found on Fender Strats made in Japan by FujiGenGakki. The saddles definitely weren’t American (as some have suggested), because the USA versions had contrarily-orientated Fender wording.

But interestingly, the bridge saddles on the previous Japanese Squier guitars were unstamped. It was the Vintage Reissue MIJ Fender Strats which featured these double-stamped Fender bridge saddles – not the Squiers. More interestingly still, these same double-stamped bridges were also used on the early Mexican Strats, whose hardware was acknowledged in print (in consultation with Fender's John Page) to be imported from… guess where… Korea. So there does exist published acknowledgement that the Koreans were making Fender stamped Strat bridge saddles. On this basis, there’s no particular reason to conclude that the saddles which appear on early MIK Squiers were manufactured in Japan, as opposed to Korea. Both countries manufactured double-stamped Fender Strat saddles. You'll see in due course why Fender Korea would have needed 'Fender' stamped bridge saddles in 1987.

When you put everything together, you get an image of Young Chang being quite capable of making their own guitars and not needing a supply of parts from FujiGen to get them started. Young Chang wasn’t like Fender’s Ensenada factory in Mexico – it was an existing instrument manufacturer already well established as a producer of complete guitars (including plywood construction Sigmas for Martin) and pianos. It’s also abundantly evident that most of the parts appearing on even the very earliest Korean made Squiers were different from those used on the MIJs.

PLYWOOD OR SOLID WOOD BODY?

From the start, these new Korean Squier Strats were a drastic cost-cutting exercise for Fender, whose £299 (RRP) Squier MIJ Strat had found itself constantly outsold in the UK, not only by the more expensive Fender Stratocaster, but also by sub-£200 guitars like the Westone Spectrum and, most seriously, a market-busting, Korean, plywood-bodied humdinger called the Marlin Sidewinder. Fender needed to slash a full £100 off the Squier Strat’s RRP in order to break into the 'budget' territory of the day, and the required savings were not going to come from a manufacturing relocation alone.


In this original 1980s ad for the new Korean Strat it can be seen that only four colour finishes are available. It's pretty clear from the ad that Fender is proud of the new retail price.

The intention was to make the Korean Squier Strat (and Tele) bodies from plywood. That’s how the model met its budget. That was the spec. I can only speak in relation to my part of the world (England), but back in the late ‘80s, there was no mention of Korean Squiers having solid wood bodies. The body composition would be omitted from promos and dealer spec charts (even though all solid wood guitars had their full composition listed), but would be referred to in deeper analysis as "ply". There was never any contradiction to that, and no dealers I was aware of were under any illusions about the nature of Korean Squier body spec.

There was also in fact Fender Stratocaster (no reference at all to Squier on the headstock) produced briefly in Korea in 1987 and possibly into 1988. This 'Special Series' Standard Strat was exactly like the Squiers, but it had a solid wood body, and a higher price. If the Squier bodies had been made of solid wood, what would have been the point of that Fender guitar? People would have simply been paying more money for exactly the same product. Incidentally, I looked carefully into this model of Korean Fender Strat in relation to the "Japanese parts" theory. I was able to establish that it had the Korean neck as opposed to the Japanese type, and going on the exterior appointments it appears to have been manufactured by Young Chang. But beyond that I couldn't make much progress. I never owned a late '80s Korean Fender 'Special' Strat, and I've never had the chance to dismantle one. The presence of this Fender Strat does, however, very nicely explain the Korean-made 'Fender'-stamped bridge saddles. It's the missing piece of the jigsaw in many ways.

So that’s the theoretical side of things. What about the reality? Well, the first thing there should be no doubt about, is that 1987 plywood Squiers can hide their laminate construction very well indeed. The bodies on these guitars were full-thickness (as opposed to the reduced thickness bodies used later), and the pickup routing was traditional. No ‘swimming pool’ cavities or humbucker slots at the bridge. The early bodies I’ve seen have been thickly sealed/veneered all around the surface, so if you chip or wear away the paint you won’t see any stacked wood layers. The guitars are also as a rule heavily coated in poly finish, to the extent that the walls of the body cavities and even the walls of the neck pocket don’t show any bare wood, or, in some cases, any easily identifiable evidence at all of laminate layering.

I refinished a late ‘80s Korean Squier Tele, and despite what I’d been informed about the plywood construction, I genuinely thought I’d got a solid wood guitar until nearly all of the original finish was removed. Then I started to see the joins in the veneering near the edges of the body. Once all the finish is fully removed, it’s obvious the body is not solid-block wood, although you still don’t see the laminate layers until you sand through the veneered edges. Under the veneer on the body edges there’s a sort of thick and very durable gunky-looking sealant. To actually expose and access the ply you’d have to sand through that as well, but that would take a lot of sanding.

So Question 1 is: are some of the supposedly solid wood ’87 MIK Squier Strats simply plywood guitars that their owners deem to be solid wood because they can’t see any evidence of ply? If not, and the guitars definitely do have solid wood bodies, we get to Question 2: is the body original?… For anyone who’s bought secondhand, this will be difficult to answer conclusively. But as regards the originality of the bodies, back in the ‘80s, the new Korean Squier Strats were advertised in four colours only: Black, White, Torino Red, and Lake Placid Blue. At that early stage, I never saw any colours other than those listed. Today, however, early Korean Squiers appear in a wider range of colours. Either there was a lot Fender were keeping quiet back in the ‘80s, or people have been switching bodies.

I can’t and wouldn't want to rule out the fact that some ‘80s Squier MIK Strats were shipped with solid wood bodies, and indeed, as well as the bodies for the 'Special' Fender Strat (if that was made by Young Chang), Young Chang did definitely produce solid alder Strat bodies for their Fenix ST guitars. So who knows what might have happened in the hustle and bustle of production at one time or another? But I’m convinced there was never any official spec other than a ply body for the original ‘80s MIK Squiers, and I don’t believe they should, as a breed, realistically be associated with anything grander.

THE COMPARISON

So what do we have with the ‘87 MIK Squier, as compared to an MIJ of the same year? Well, the MIK's body is cheaper and inferior, the pickups are cheaper and inferior, and the pots are cheaper and inferior. In a general sense the build quality isn’t as good or as predictable with the MIKs, but the early ones are certainly acceptable, and if you get a good one, it can fairly be described as well made. A less predictable build does, however, affect functional stuff, such as the operation of the vibrato. The more accurate and precise the build, the more chance you have of getting a trem which properly returns to pitch. An MIJ would thus be more reliable in this respect.

The necks on the early MIKs vary, and the shaping can be a bit odd. Indeed, back in the day Guitarist magazine described the neck on their review sample as “quite an extraodinary specimen”. The reviewer (Rick Batey) found it too thin, but said that other Guitarist staff members liked it. Whatever you felt about the neck shape you ended up with, though, the neck itself was normally very well made and finished. Apart from their tendency toward the unconventional, the ‘87 MIK necks were not in my view noticeably worse than the Japanese ones.


When the new Korean Squiers hit the shops, it was a difficult situation for the retailers. They didn’t want to be left with a pile of unsold Japanese stock, but equally, they didn’t want to 'bad-mouth' the new Squiers in print, because the Korean guitars would potentially be their bread and butter for the foreseeable future. Shops tried a variety of approaches, but absolutely no one used the word ‘Korea’ in their ads. The vast majority also avoided using the word Japan in relation to older Squiers, for fear of prompting questions about the new models’ country of origin, and then a widespread recognition that the new Strats were Korean-made. Perceptions towards Korean manufacture were still very poor at that time, and dealers didn't want customers to be put off the guitars before they'd even tried them.

In the above ad, from 1987, a prominent dealer has used the market's tenuous ’57 and ’62 Reissue status for the basic Squier Strats to justify the higher prices on Japanese models. Interestingly, the tenuous '57 and '62 denominations continued with the first MIK Strats, but the dealer only describes the new models as “Fender Squier Strat”. As you can see, the Japanese Squiers are selling at £249 (£50 below their RRP), whereas the new Korean models are selling at £175 (£24 below their RRP). The reality was that the features were nearly the same and neither model was an accurate reissue. The real difference was of course the quality. Clever approach though - this was one of the best methods I saw of dealing with the awkward situation. Oh, and by the way, even with their much higher prices, the Japanese Squiers still sold out fairly quickly. The first Korean models evidently weren't good enough to make a £74 saving a no-brainer.

Note the unsold original '82 USA Strats selling brand new in that ad, five years after their time, at £499. A very short time later another dealer got hold of some of those and put them up at £2,000!


Make no mistake, an all original 1987 MIJ Squier Strat will almost inevitably be a significantly better instrument than an all original 1987 MIK. But in turn, an ’87 MIK Squier is likely to be much better than an early ‘90s MIK job. More cost-cutting blighted the Korean Squiers as time went on, and it’s certainly the case that by the early ‘90s, the plywood construction was much more obvious, and the build quality had worsened considerably. Things then picked up dramatically in the mid '90s when the Squier Deluxe Strat (February 1996) entered the fray, and the plywood body spec was finally dropped in favour of basswood. The highly regarded Squier Pro Tones then showed off Korean Strat manufacture at its best for an all-too-brief couple of years. But the '87 MIK Squier wasn't in the league of the ash-bodied Pro Tones. It was a cheap, beginners' instrument, with manufacturing costs slashed almost to the bone.

If the ’87 MIJ Squier was fit for professional use in its own right (with a change of selector switch, perhaps), the ’87 MIK would arguably be fit for professional use after replacement of all the electrics. Some early ‘90s MIK Squiers on the other hand, would not generally be considered ‘salvageable’, and would probably raise objections from most serious amateurs whatever remedial work was carried out. That said, there's a fascinating ad associating none other than Hank Marvin with an early '90s Samick-made Squier Strat (Samick has a reasonable reputation among the numerous Squier contractors). You can find it fully documented and explained in my Hank Marvin Strat Precursor article.

The early MIK Squier’s ranking in the overall scheme of Fender/Squier Strat production was as low as it got back in 1987. That’s where the “rubbish” status came from. The guitar was, at that time, by some distance the worst guitar ever to have carried the words Fender and Stratocaster on its headstock. But taking into account some of the awful trash which subsequently crawled into the shops with the magic F-word lurking somewhere above the nut, it really wasn’t quite such an abomination afterall. If the ‘82 ‘JV’ Reissue was the Hendrix of the Squier Strat range, the ‘87 MIK was the Nigel Tufnel. You thought things couldn’t get any worse, until you saw a Britain’s Got Talent audition, and realised that actually, good old Nige was really quite watchable afterall.



Love Strats? Don't forget that there are many highly informative Strat articles on this site - all of which can be accessed via the Guitar Retrospectives page. Full articles for the pics in the composite image above can be found on the following links (clockwise from top left): Fernandes RST50 'Revival', 1980s Tokai TST50 Goldstar, Original '92 Squier Silver Series Strat, and Original '87 Eric Clapton Strat. This is just a small selection from the wealth of available matter.

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