Fender Standard Strat
"Nobody makes a Strat like Fender"... that, roughly translated, was the message from CBS/Fender this year.
It hasn't been a particularly easy 12 months for them. They were only part way through 'phase-one' of a complete re-think/-design/-orientation when the Japanese Tokai imitations hit them square in the incomes policy.
Their retaliation, the superb Squier made-in-Japan-under-licence guitars, were a counterstroke of Churchillian proportions. Unfortunately they were so good, they began to steal from the company's own American made products.
They were cheap, immaculately machined, and sounded like a dream. Even the likes of Andy Summers exhibited a '57 Squier Strat in his guitar collection, pictured in the second issue of One Two.
At the Namm trade show in America, this June, 'phase-one' finally reached a peak. Fender announced they had abandoned the stick-in-the-mud principles that had passed unquestioned on their instruments for the last 20 years. They'd listened to guitarists, observed the opposition and split the future into two lines — the affordable Standards and the classy Elites.
Why, then, is this basic, un-tremoloed, standard Stratocaster a wallet-boggling £423? You could virtually buy TWO Squiers for that...
Let's first look at what Fender have changed. Well, the angled jack socket has vanished. Distinctive, though it was, it always meant you had to use long jack plugs (an angled one wouldn't fit) it required extra routing into the body and knocked on the head any chance of easily connecting plug-in effects boxes or preamps like the Dan Armstrong series. Now we have a simple scratchplate mounted socket taking the place traditionally occupied by the second tone control. This Standard has a master volume, a master tone and a five position pickup selector.
The strings no longer pass through from the rear of the body. Instead the bridge is a simple baseplate and saddle affair, adjustable in all the desirable ways and the strings are top loaded through a lip at the far end. That's one less job of machining to do.
So far everything we've encountered has been in the cause of economy, though that might be a hard one to swallow when shunting the tenners across the counter. I suppose you could argue that without this rationalisation of production, the instruments would be pricier still.
In fact CBS/Fender claim that this latest Stratocaster is 21% cheaper than previous common-or-garden versions.
Now for the improvements. The term, here, is radius. Fender radiused necks have had a deeper curve across the fingerboard than, say, Gibsons. While this might delight some fingers, it frequently results in strings cutting out when you bend them above the octave. They buzz against frets closer to the pickups.
Fender have switched to a more Gibson-like camber and sure enough this Standard took any amount of string thrusting without choking off in mid-twang. Their move to wider, lower frets (again a Gibson trait) has also helped out, and, being something of a fat fret merchant, I found this newcomer easier to get on with than past Strats.
But if Fender are going to stick to this tighter radius, they ought to think again about the thickness of the neck itself which is incidentally held on by four bolts these days, rather than three. It's thin and rounded at the back, no V shaped like the earliest Strats. The flatter fingerboard makes for very sharp edges which dug into my thumb at almost all points along the neck. An extra millimetre of wood in the right place would make a vast difference.
The five way selector chooses the white covered, single pole pickups individually, or combines them in what is popularly known as the 'honky' position. This is no reference to racial distinction, but merely an acoustic description of the out-of-phase discovery made by long lost Strat players who originally jammed their three position switches half way between click stops. Accidents make the best noises.
This Standard is a sharp, lively sounding Strat, the pickups are a touch hotter than recent American manufactured Strats and it's maybe warmer than many Strat copies — even the expensive ones. Sometimes when rival manufacturers fit super-hot pickups to Strat styled bodies, you end up with very metallic sounding E and A strings — as if they should be vibrating across a bar of steel.
This isn't the first time Fender have revamped the Stratocaster, but it is unusual for them to have ditched so many identifying traits in one go. What's the dyed-in-the-wool Strat player going to make of it all?
It PLAYS like the genuine article — lots of spit in the upper registers, better sustain than before (particularly over those top string bends) and with a wide degree of tones available simply by shifting your plectrum from bridge to neck pick-up. It reacts.
But, sadly, I think he's going to look at the missing jack socket, spot the smaller bridge and notice the lighter body (lighter since it's lost the massive tremolo block) and think... er, this is an economy model. Then he's going to squint at the price tag and realise, actually, it's not.