One of my favorite Fender guitars has always been the Mary Kaye Stratocaster. Mary Kaye was a female guitarist and performer that was quite popular in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Called by some the “First Lady of Rock and Roll.” The Mary Kaye Trio was a very popular Las Vegas lounge act.
Mary Kaye was photographed in a 1956 Fender promotional advertisement featuring a new blonde ash translucent Stratocaster with a maple neck and gold hardware. Since then this guitar became popularly known as “The Mary Kaye Strat.” Funny thing is she never got to keep this guitar as Fender had other ideas for this new model.
The original Maple Neck Swamp Ash blonde 1954 Fender Stratocaster guitar, the Mary Kaye model, is an expensive and highly collectable guitar. Only a few were produced in 1954, but Fender re-introduced the color after strong demand. The originals fetch big money, well out of the reach of most guitar players and even many collectors. I have seen some original Mary Kaye Stratocasters with Rosewood fingerboards. The early ones had 8 screw hole single-ply white pick guards and gold hardware. Some later ones had a “mint” colored 8 screw hole three-ply pickguard with gold hardware.
Fender made a limited Custom Shop series Mary Kaye Tribute Strat in 2005. In 2007 a 57 Reissue Mary Kaye Strat was released for the 50th anniversary of the Stratocaster. These Custom Shop models run about $5K-8K range or even higher. Fender has from time to time come out with a less expensive production Mary Kaye Strats that sell for about $1400.
I already had a few parts in stock that could be used for this project so I decided to do a Mary Kaye project.
First stop was Mark Jenny where I bought a fantastic aged vintage swamp ash nitro finished Mary Kaye blond Stratocaster body. Only weighs 3 lbs 12 oz. This body is not a heavy relic, as I preferred more of a closet clean look. With the thin nitro finish it will age nicely by just playing it.
I already have a gold neck plate with screws, white 8-hole single-ply and an 8-hole mint three-ply pickguard (I will have to make a decision on which one to use as both can work for this tribute project).
I have ordered electronics, pickups, gold screws and gold hardware from several sellers on eBay so parts will soon start arriving.
I have purchased Fender Custom Shop Fat 50s Stratocaster Pickup set, 5-way switch with no load tone control wiring. Thought if this was good enough for several of the Mary Kaye Custom Shop models it would work well for me.
I am still deciding on a maple or a rosewood fingerboard for this project. I want a genuine Fender 21 fret vintage-style neck, but with at least a 9.5-inch radius. Maybe even a flatter 12-inch radius. I have seen several I like on eBay. Want one with truss rod adjust at the heal to be period correct and a larger C or V profile neck with gold Kluson vintage-style tuners.
Finished the copper foiling the cavities on the body while I wait for the other parts.
I drilled out the neck plate screw holes while I wait for the neck I bought. I decided the neck is going to be a maple fingerboard, not rosewood for this project.
I found a great American Fender ’57 Reissue Hot Rod Stratocaster neck on eBay and bought it. It is a 1-Piece Maple with modified flatter soft “V” Shape- 9.5-inch radius (184 mm), 21 Medium Jumbo Frets with a nitrocellulose lacquer finish with a satin back. It has the the truss rod adjustment at the heal and since it is a ’57 Reissue it will look right at home on this project. The neck comes with vintage Kluson-style tuners, but in chrome. So I will have to swap them out for some gold ones.
So I decided on the neck, but still not sure about which pickguard, 1 ply white like the production Mary Kaye Strats or the 3-ply mint colored like the recent Fender Custom Shop Mary Kaye Strats come with. The original vintage Mary Kaye Stratocasters had 1-ply white and 3-ply mint colored pickguards on different years. See some of the pictures of some vintage Mary Kaye Strats below.
The 3-ply mint is growing on me and it is a much more deluxe pickguard. Have to wait to other parts to arrive to be sure.
Postman brought some parts today. So I was able to make some progress.
Got the neck on. Pickups, pots and 5-way switch on the mint colored pickguard (yes this is the one I decided on), gold jack plate, gold Fender tremolo all mounted.
I want to replace the black screws that came with the Fender Vintage Tremolo. They used gold screws on the originals and the black ones look out of place to me. I will have to find some gold screws and springs.
Still waiting on gold Switchcraft jack, gold period correct Kluson tuners and gold strap buttons. Starting to look like a Mary Kaye tribute. I think the mint colored pickguard gives more character than the plain white one I had. This thin skinned nitro finish should age nicely and fairly quickly and that is the plan.
Gold Switchcraft jack arrived and the wiring is now complete. Waiting on the final part, the gold Kluson tuners. Hopefully the postman brings them tomorrow.
The Kluson tuners and gold strap buttons arrived completing the parts list. I mounted the remaining parts and strung it up. Came out great.
The gold Kluson tuners are reissues that have the “one line” Kluson Deluxe like the original ones that Fender used from 1956 to 1964 on Stratocasters. I made sure that even the Switchcraft jack was gold like most of the original Mary Kaye Strats.
The neck American Fender ’57 Reissue Stratocaster Neck has a very nice feel and looks period correct on this guitar.
The goal for this project was to create a nice tribute to the Mary Kaye Strat with a few modern things like a 5-way switch and 9.5 neck radius. I was not after a clone or heavy relic. This body is a thin skin nitro like the old Fenders and will age on its own from playing in its own time.
The guitar is basically finished, but I am going to swap out the tremolo block and the black screws. I ordered a Callaham replacement steel tremolo block that should improve the sustain as well as get rid of the play I have in the tremolo arm.
After playing the guitar for awhile I think the Fender Tremolo is killing sustain and is not precise enough to be comfortable. Since the hardware on this guitar is gold and I want to keep the vintage period correct look it limits my options a bit. So the solution is to replace the tremolo block to improve the sound and usability and keep the rest of the gold Fender hardware.
I ordered gold intonation screws and replacement springs as the black ones Fender ships are not period correct (so much for Fender advertising Vintage 57 – 62). All Parts had the screws I need.
After I receive and replace these parts I will be in a better position to decide if I like the pickups. I have the Fender Custom Shop Fat 50s Stratocaster Pickup set installed. I also have a set of Fender Custom Shop 69 Stratocaster pickups with Abigail Ybarra initialed in stock I can try.
Time to Replace the Tremolo Block and Black Screws
Callaham vintage replacement tremolo block and screws arrived on a snowy day. Now I have some work to do.
First step is to remove the strings, then the back cover plate.
Now removed the springs attached to the old block.
I removed the 6 screws that hold the tremolo to body. Then remove tremolo from body and remove the three screws that hold the gold tremolo plate on the block. Comparing the new Callaham block to the one that Fender provided with their so-called vintage reissue tremolo, they seem to weigh approximately the same. The Fender block looks crude as compared to the Callaham.
The Fender block looks to be made of a more ferrous or porous metal. There is a small chip in the Fender block which is the way it was received and you can see the make up of the metal they used. The Callaham is solid steel.
The Fender block has what looks to be a lacquer or paint added to it. I would think that would dampen the sound as well.
One of the biggest issues I had with the Fender block is the way they thread the block for the tremolo arm. They only thread it partially and even though Fender provides a spring to “tighten up” the arm there is too much play and makes the tremolo inaccurate when using it. By the way once you put that spring in just try to get it out!
Callaham block is threaded differently and there is no spring needed and there is no play in the arm. Also less chance of the tremolo arm breaking.
Fender seems to use these black screws on all their gold bridge hardware these days. They even put these on my Stevie Ray Vaughan Stratocaster (which I changed the bridge saddles anyway). The gold tremolo they used to make in the 50s and 60s did not use black screws. This is just an aesthetic thing. There is nothing wrong with the black screws. But I wanted the this Mary Kaye Stratocaster to look closer to an original one. The black screws just needed to go. It is actually not easy to find these screws in gold.
All the original Mary Kaye Strat pictures I found used only gold screws. I like this look better.
I put a new set of strings on the guitar. Next I did a rough adjustment of the saddles and springs. I floated the tremolo so you can get up and down movement and set the string action and intonation.
I plugged the guitar into an amp to listen and was happy to hear a very nice improvement in sustain and brightness. Sounds better for sure. Very well worth the time and cost to replacement tremolo block.
Callaham has a page with a nice explanation on tremolo blocks.
BUT, I do have one small issue to overcome. The gold bridge height screws are a bit too long. All Parts only sold them in one size so I thought this may be an issue. Some bridge height screws come in different lengths for the high and low E strings. These are all the same size. So I will have to cut these down and file them a bit as I could find no other replacement. Should not be so hard.
I just removed the bridge height screws one at a time and filed then down to size. Was not a hard job. They look better now.
I ordered a custom gold neck plate with serial number from Ron Kirn. The plate I used originally was a plain gold neck plate with no serial number. In the good old days Fender would stamp the serial number on the neck plate. Ron Kirn can stamp any serial number you want and has a machine just like Fender had in the old days. The stamping is the same as when Fender did it.
I just picked a serial number from that era. Ron Kirn can do these in chrome or gold and can also relic them if you want. I just had him do a gold plate without relic to add to the vibe of this project. You can find these sold by Ron Kirn on eBay.
Now I can say that this project is done.
Original 1959 Mary Kaye Stratocaster
Here are some pictures for an original 1959 Fender Mary Kaye Stratocaster with a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard. Most likely the 1st month that Fender ever made a rosewood fretboard according to vintage dealer selling this guitar (sounds correct to me). Notice that this Mary Kaye is a hard tail, no tremolo model. This one has a 10 screw hole mint 3-ply pickguard. Most modern Fender Stratocaster pick guards are 11 holes. The asking price was $24,500.00, which is way out of my price range.
The Mary Kaye Trio
ONLY film or video of Mary Kaye actually playing the Stratocaster
Mary Kaye talks about her career and the Mary Kaye Strat
Here is my inspiration for this Mary Kaye Strat Tribute Project
1996 Fender Custom Shop Cunetto Relic Mary Kaye Stratocaster
Picture I found online of an original 1962 Mary Kaye Stratocaster with Rosewood Fingerboard and “mint” colored three-ply pickguard
Picture I found online of an original 1957 Mary Kaye Stratocaster with Maple Fingerboard and “white single-ply” pickguard
Another 1957 Mary Kaye I found online
Fender Custom Shop 1956 Stratocaster Heavy Relic with maple fingerboard and “mint” colored three-ply pickguard
This Fender Custom Shop Mary Kaye model has Fat 50’s pickups in all positions, 9.5-inch radius, 10/56 V Neck Shape, 6105 fretwire and modern 5-way wiring. 10/56 neck is patterned from a 10-56 neck (10 = October, 56 = 1956), it’s a very big V neck (good example of the ‘boatneck’).
1959 Mary Kaye Stratocaster with the 3-ply mint green pickguard
Another original 1959 Mary Kaye Stratocaster with the 3-ply mint green pickguard. This one is for sale at Mandolin Brothers for a cool $50K. Notice this one has a 9 screw pickguard and brazilian rosewood fingerboard making it even rarer.
Keef playing Ronnie Wood’s 1957 Mary Kaye Strat
The Actual Terminology Of Fender’s Guitar Neck Lingo is a great reference for understanding Fender Neck sizes and shapes.