1981 Fender Lead I

CRAVE Guitars says…

Pluses: Build quality, Seth Lover pickup, vintage-inspired neck, originality, vintage market price

Minuses: Single pickup, not a Strat, weight, collectability status

Verdict: Unusual and quirky. This is a lovely example of a ‘forgotten Fender’ in a great colour. Not for everyone but a good supplementary guitar for those who may already have a classic and want something different.

Model Description:

The Fender Lead Series was introduced in 1979 and stayed in production until 1982. The model was the brainchild of Dennis Handa, Fender’s Marketing Director at the time. The aim was to position the Lead in a niche between Fender’s budget ‘student’ guitars and the company’s more upmarket guitars. Because it was relatively short‑lived ‘experiment’ with no obvious lineage, the Lead tends to be overlooked as a one‑off compared to the more familiar perennial models. Key selling points included the 1950s vintage‑styled neck, the flexible pickup/switching options and keen pricing. The American Lead Series comprised the Lead I (1 bridge humbucker), Lead II (2 single coils), Lead III (2 humbuckers), and a Lead Bass. The guitar’s design borrowed from both the Stratocaster and Telecaster with some unique features of its own, for instance the specially designed Seth Lover split coil humbuckers (unique to the Lead I and III) or the II’s ‘X‑1’ single coil pickups that later appeared on the Stratocaster. The Stratocaster‑like body shape is a little smaller and a slightly different outline to that of its famous sibling. Bodies were made of either alder or ash and fingerboards were either maple or rosewood. Finishes were generally limited to wine (a transparent red) and black, although white and sunburst replaced the wine finish in the final year of production. The American Lead model was effectively superseded by the more Stratocaster‑like Japanese Squier JV series from 1984. Fender reintroduced the dual single‑coil Lead II and dual‑humbucker Lead III models in 2020 as a part of the company’s Player series, which are made in Mexico. To‑date, the Fender Lead I has not been reissued.

Guitar Description:

This 1981 Fender Lead I is a genuine ‘Made in U.S.A.’ guitar from the Fullerton factory in California. Make no mistake; this is a seriously good guitar, clearly influenced by Van Halen’s popularity at the time.  CRAVE Guitars has a real penchant for single pickup guitars because there is something pure and simple about them. The gorgeous trans-red finish and black appointments make this a very striking instrument. While the polyurethane finish of early Leads is prone to clouding and/or cracking, this later one is fine with no issues. Overall, the condition is very good for a guitar in its 4th decade of use. It is 100% original and has its dedicated case (specially designed for the model). Condition-wise, there are a couple of scuffs and minor marks but nothing serious. The sounds on offer from the single hot humbucking pickup are impressive and surprisingly varied because of the clever switching. If you are tired of the classic models and want something different but still with the Fender logo, the Lead could be for you. Personally, for what it’s worth, I reckon the Lead is an awesome guitar and deserves greater appreciation. Often described as one of the ‘forgotten Fenders’, the Leads are relatively scarce, so they have now accumulated a modicum of intrinsic vintage appeal. Good condition, original Leads are becoming increasingly collectable and market values are increasing as demand grows while supply is by definition limited. The early 1980s is now becoming fertile ground for interesting vintage curios from the likes of Fender and Gibson, including the Lead. Savvy aficionados looking for what might be the ‘next big thing’ are picking up on underrated guitars with compellingly unique features. Take a lead (sic!) from those in the know and get one of these cult classics before they become an expensive trend on the risk‑averse vintage market.


  • Manufactured in Fullerton, California, U.S.A. in 1981
  • Stratocaster-style contoured 3‑piece ash body with transparent wine red polyurethane finish
  • Maple bolt‑on vintage‑style Stratocaster neck with rosewood fingerboard, 21 medium frets and dot markers
  • Original ‘F’‑stamped Schaller tuners
  • Scale length 25½” (647mm)
  • Fingerboard radius 7¼“ (184mm)
  • Nut width – 15/8” (41.5mm)
  • Original chrome hardware
  • Original 3‑ply black‑white‑black scratchplate
  • Original hardtail bridge with through-body string mounting
  • Original single Seth Lover black split coil humbucking bridge pickup with exposed pole pieces
  • Original 3‑way pickup coil selector and 2‑way phase switches, pots, knobs and jack socket
  • Original moulded ABS Fender USA hard shell case
  • Weight: 9lb (4 kg)


  • Steve Morse
  • Eric Clapton
  • Bono (U2)
  • Elliott Easton (The Cars)
  • Annie Clark (St. Vincent)
  • Andrew Savage (Parquet Courts)


An Fender Lead II owned by Eric Clapton was the first guitar to be inducted into the now‑extensive Hard Rock Café guitar collection. The guitar is on show at the Hard Rock Café in London.

Detail Gallery:

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