Fender American Vintage Series
With original '50s and '60s Fender guitars changing hands for four-figure sums and purists swearing that their 1957 Strats are the best ever made it is no wonder that Fender have recently gone into the copying business — in this case copying their own earlier models.
Earlier this year an excellent series of vintage replicas arrived in Britain - the Fender Squier Series (see review in last month's E&MM) - which offered low-priced and cosmetically faithful examples of Fender's early range. America, however, already had its own series of replicas at that time and these were far more authentic than the budget-priced, Japanese-made Squier models. These guitars have just found their way onto our shores and they have been duly labelled the Fender American Vintage Series to avoid confusion with the Fender Squier Series.
With this American series Fender have really gone to town and every aspect of the original guitars has been copied as faithfully as possible. A team of veterans, many of whom had worked on the original models, was put together and manufacturing was based on the facilities of 20-odd years ago. Special tooling was re-constructed for machine heads and other pieces of hardware, pickups were accurately wound the right number of times, even Leo Fender's original pigment supplier was traced, and the result is a series of guitars that are virtually identical to those that any budding Buddy Holly or Dick Dale would have tried in some old, mid-western music store all those years ago.
Needless to say, this type of authenticity and attention to detail costs money. The three models reviewed here all have price tags of over £700 (the Squier series retails at around £200) and this leads into the whole question of why anyone would want to pay this type of money for a copy. After all, the main attraction of an original vintage guitar is that it is old. With passing time guitars attain a 'worn-in' feel, the wood mellows, damage done to coil windings and the changes which take place over the years in the magnetic field of a pickup give a distinctive 'personal' tone. It is these reasons, plus intangible, emotional and sentimental attractions that have placed 'originals' on their present high pedestal. No copy, however good, can provide these characteristics of ageing.
This isn't an argument that I'm prepared to go into here (really I'm just itching to write about the guitars themselves) except to say that if you buy one of these guitars you can rest assured that you'll be buying virtually the same thing that was on sale a quarter of a century ago. And, as the man from CBS- Fender said, "Paying £700 for a '57 Strat is a hell of a lot better than paying £2,000."
The entire American Vintage range is as follows: '52 Telecaster, '57 Stratocaster, '62 Stratocaster, '57 Precision Bass, '62 Precision Bass and '62 Jazz Bass. In this article I'll be reviewing the first examples of the '57 and '62 Stratocasters and the '62 Jazz Bass that have come into the country. They are priced at £738, £738 and £758 (inc. VAT) respectively.
Visually, the guitar that I've been supplied with is rather outstanding, with a 3-tone sunburst finish and a laminated scratchplate that uses the same intricately patterned shell material that was used on the originals. The use of this shell was discontinued some years ago because in manufacture the shavings from it were highly combustible, but for the sake of authenticity Fender have used it again on this model (it's only available from a certain part of Italy) and its presence here will no doubt be appreciated. Chrome pickup and bridge covers and a finger rest are faithfully reproduced and the chunky, knurled metal pickup controls deserve a paragraph to themselves.
This new '62 Jazz Bass is patterned after an extremely rare version of that guitar which was only built for a short time in the early sixties and its outstanding feature is its separate dual-concentric volume and tone controls for each pickup (later models switched to a 3 knob arrangement with a single tone control). These are accurately reproduced - the outer rings are in black, and control tone with a 10 stage 'clicking' action, and the large inner volume controls are in contrasting silver. These controls are great, bulky things with a pleasing 'dated' feel to them and, needless to say, the wiring and the pickups they control are just as true to the originals.
The body is the original offset contoured shape which is great for those bassists who like to lean over their instrument, rest their forearm on the top, and pull on the strings with their fingers in classic jazz fashion. It also makes for very comfortable playing when sitting down.
The neck is one piece hard maple with a rosewood fretboard measuring 38mm at the nut. Very thin for a bass, but then these basses are renowned for narrow necks and ease of playing. There are 20 frets, as on the standard Jazz Bass, and action at the 12th fret measured a uniform and slightly uncomfortable 4mm. Strings were flat wound.
One major complaint is that the '62 Stratocaster American Vintage Series guitar I was supplied with came with a marked camber on the neck so it was difficult to assess its playability. This was probably just a question of simple truss rod adjustment and there is no reason to suppose that any other guitar in this range would have the same problem. All the same it would be nice to see Fender checking this sort of thing before sending guitars out!
Fretting on the guitar is good, as one has come to expect from Fender, and machine heads are of the large clover leaf design. As Fender have re-made some of the original tooling for machine heads in this series they might not be Kluson's, although they certainly look similar. The white dot markers seem to be of the original mother-of-pearl, there is an extra third strap button behind the headstock and the fretboard is finished off at the nut by a gentle slope into the headstock - just as on the originals.
Soundwise this instrument is as good as, if not better than, any current Jazz model. Whether or not it sounds like, as well as looks like, the original '62 model is impossible to say but obviously the sound quality of these replicas will be much discussed as more and more professional players add them to their collections - and collectors items these guitars will most certainly be.
This guitar really is a beauty. It is in classic two-tone sunburst graduating from black to a light brown that has the same yellowish tinges associated with the genuine article. The look and feel of the body, with its original contoured shape and high gloss finish is superb, and it's hard to think of this guitar as anything other than a definitive Strat.
A closer look at this instrument reveals how faithful Fender have been to the original design. Starting at the headstock the first thing to notice is that it has shrunk to the early, smaller dimensions. The distributors say that this return to former design will now extend to current Strats so all new standard models will also be featuring this headstock from now on.
The machine heads are also of the early design and the nut appears to be made of the correct material - bone not plastic.
The neck is of one piece hard maple with the frets set directly into the wood with no applied fretboard. As on real vintage Strats the frets have that slightly obtrusive, business-like feel to them and this, the lack of fretboard, and the black marker dots all add up to a real air of authenticity.
Authenticity doesn't extend to the shaping of the rear of the neck however. The original '57 Strats were aimed at a mainly Country and Western market and this was reflected in a sharply angled V-neck. The neck on the model I was supplied with is certainly not the '57 version but is rather based on the '58-'59 shape which is softer and more rounded. This hardly matters - many players would plane away at the old style necks to smooth them out anyway and the V-neck wouldn't be acceptable to many guitarists today.
This does bring out the fact that Fender are well aware of the magic associated with certain years and of the mythology that surrounds their guitars. '57 is a poignant year in American consciousness (have you noticed that it's always a '57 Chevrolet etc. that's sung about?) and it's no doubt with this in mind that they called this guitar a '57 rather than a '58 or '59.
The neck measures 43mm at the nut with 21 frets and the action on my sample was set at a comfortable 2mm at the 12th fret on both E's.
Pickups are original staggered-magnet type with pole pieces sticking out in authentic fashion and the sound they produce using the old 3-way selector switch is archetypal Strat. Two volume controls and one tone control are fitted using original design knobs and the scratch plate is one-piece, non-laminated and, again, made of the original material.
Authenticity is extended to the bridge unit and tremolo arm. The bridge is in the old style - pressed metal rather than the more recent cast metal type - and the tremolo arm features the original extra twist out and away from the body of the guitar.
This guitar is also available in the much raved-about 'Salmon Pink'finish. There is, in fact, no such finish even though this is probably Fender's most famous 'original' colour - it's just another example of the mythology that surrounds vintage guitars. The official title is Fiesta Red and Fender will supply models in this finish at no extra charge.
Five years on from the '57 model Fender made some changes in the Stratocaster and this 1962 model is another firm favourite amongst those who maintain that vintage is best. The '62 Strat, then, is basically the '57 with a few modifications and additions.
The most obvious of these is the fretboard. Whereas the earlier models were fretted directly into the maple neck the '62 models had an added rosewood fretboard and the '62 replica has a superb example of this. Neck dimensions and action are the same on this model as on the '57 but I found this neck far easier to play. In comparison the '57 neck seemed somehow bulky and lifeless. This is obviously a question of personal taste and I must also say that I prefer to feel a different wood under my fingers to the one in the palm of my hand, but to my mind the '62 neck is an advance on the '57 - it also has softer curves which make it easier on the thumb. White mother of pearl dots, authentic bone (I think) nut, and original small headstock into which the rosewood curves in authentic fashion complete the vintage look.
The '62 finish is another modification on the '57. At this time Fender introduced a three-tone sunburst which is splendidly reproduced on this review model - the finishes on all these guitars really are a treat.
The last modification is the addition of a 3-ply scratchplate in white/black/white laminate and on this sit the original controls and 3-way switch.
Again the pickups are authentic staggered-magnet design and the bridge unit and tremolo arm are faithfully reproduced. The tremolo arms on standard Strats bend only in one plane. On these Strats the tremolo arms bend upwards and outwards so that the white plastic end piece is further out from the body. Both Strats come with bridge covers although these weren't fitted.
To my mind this '62 Stratocaster is an improvement on the highly-praised '57 model. The faster neck and the attractive 3-tone finish are the logical reasons for this but as always there is something indefinable that draws certain people to certain guitars and the end choice is always based on a 'feeling' one has for the instrument. Of the three guitars reviewed this is the one I would most like to take home with me.
All the guitars in this series are supplied with the original leather-trimmed hard-shell tweed cases and are available in a variety of original finishes to custom order. These finished are completely accurate and the pigments have been mixed by Leo Fender's original supplier - more evidence of Fender's genuine striving for authenticity. The above are just two more examples of the effort that has been put into this series.
In comparison to the Fender Squier series the American Vintage guitars are expensive - £500 more expensive - and the question as to whether they represent £500 of extra quality has to be asked. What the punter is paying for here is the research that went into the series, the amassing of a veteran manufacturing team, retooling and the use, whenever possible, of original materials. Any choice between the two series has to be an extremely personal one.
The actual quality and playability of these instruments, although high, did not impress this reviewer as being appreciably better than that of the standard Fender instruments and for the less pecunious buyer who prefers the older Fender styling, the cheaper Squier series are an obviously more sensible choice.
There are those, however, who will throw credit cards to the wind and insist on authenticity - they will most certainly go for the American series. After all, these guitars do represent the nearest equivalent to the genuine article available and, apart from the money, the serious collector will see no competition between the two series.
The American Vintage Series are distributed in the UK by CBS-Fender Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Alan Hardman
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