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Candy Apple Red: The Story of Fender’s Most Popular Custom Color

What do David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, and Yngwie Malmsteen all have in common? 

We mean, besides the fact that they’re all inhumanely good guitarists. 

It’s not their hair either—only Yngwie still rocks a glorious god-like mane— it’s their guitars! Each of these incredible axe-slingers used a Candy Apple Red Stratocaster— whether their main axe, or simply in their touring rotation. And, they’re certainly not the only famous guitarists to own a Strat in that legendary Custom Color. Since becoming an official part of Fender’s Custom Color chart in 1963, the super-sweet red tones of this finish have become nearly synonymous with Fender’s name; hell, we get excited every time we get a new Candy Apple Red on the wall! So, what is it about this color that has had generations of guitar players and aficionados drooling?

It’s time (yet again) for a little history lesson.

candy apple red guitar


The ‘50s: Cars (and Guitars)

Ironically, the commonly used acronym for Candy Apple Red is, of course, CAR—and the car is where it all began! To understand the appeal of custom colors, you have to go back to the ‘50s— at least a decade before Fender released their first Custom Color chart. To call America’s fascination with automobiles feverish would be the understatement of all understatements. Owning a vehicle - especially an American one - had become a status symbol, the must-have item of the day. In an effort to capitalize on people’s desires, the big automakers of the time — Ford, Buick, Cadillac, etc. — began to add flair to their offerings: plush interiors, fancy dials and dashboards, and most importantly, brand new paintjobs with enticing names. A Ford Thunderbird was one thing; a Ford Thunderbird finished in Spring Mist Green was an entirely other thing. 

You can see where we’re going with this. Fender realized that if they followed suit — outfitting their instruments in fresh new paint jobs — not only would this differentiate them from their competitors; it would create a subtle connection to the automobile fetish that was so ubiquitous among the Americans of the ‘50s (hmmm, cars and guitars—what a great concept!)

So, they did, offering their Teles, Strats, and other models in the “colors du jour”; Lake Placid Blue (Cadillac), Fiesta Red (Ford), and Olympic White (again, Cadillac), to name a few. And in 1960, they released their first official Custom Color Chart, offering 14 factory-available colorways for players to choose from.

This is where we introduce our hero: a Mr. Joe Bailon. 

candy apple red guitar


10 Years to Perfect

As America was diving headlong into the automobile craze, Joe Bailon was busy making waves in the Kustom car culture, creating jaw-dropping mods on the contemporary vehicles of the time that have made him a legend in car-customization circles to this day. Bailon was working on a new “candy” painting process that lent cars a gorgeous sparkle, supposedly inspired by the look of taillights reflected in rain-soaked streets. How poetic. 

The process took him a whole ten years to perfect, but in 1956, he was done: Bailon had perfected his Candy Apple Red. To this day, it’s unclear exactly what car he first applied this revolutionary paint job to. But one thing is clear: his new color was going to change everything.


candy apple red guitar

Pink to Red, and Onwards

From ’56 and on, Bailon was putting his special Candy Apple Red paint job on his customs, and the Candy Paint look was starting to gain in popularity. So much so, that in 1963, Fender released a revised version of their original color chart which saw Shell Pink replaced with the new Candy Apple Red; when they saw how well received the sparkly new finish was, they added six more metallic finishes to the roster in ’65.

But the legacy of the Candy Apple Red had begun, and to this day, it is Fender’s most popular finish (behind the classic Black and Sunburst). Guitarists from the ‘60s to the present day have clamored to get their hands on a CAR Fender, and we get why. Whether or not you attribute its success to its relationship to the automobiles of the ‘50s, one thing is for certain: it just looks too damn cool.

October 28, 2020 — Bill Goldstein