Fender 57 Strat & Fretless Jazz Bass
Fender 'Limited Edition' 57 Strat & Fretless Jazz Bass 'Special'
Tales From Old Tokyo — Fender Japan gets in on the Vintage Replica act IN TUNE explores the Oriental approach to time travel.
As readers of our story on Fender at the Crossroads (IT Issue 6) will know, almost all today's Fenders are manufactured in Japan. In fact the only exceptions to this rule are a handful of highly priced (and highly prized for that matter) models, some of which — we hear from Arbiter Musical Instruments, their UK distributors — will be arriving in Britain within weeks. Meanwhile, the Fender Japan line has recently been expanded by the addition of some fascinating Limited Edition models including Jaguars, Jazzmasters, 'Vintage' Teles and Strats, and it was a '57' Strat that we borrowed for the guitar part of this double-headed review.
Quite what Fender mean by 'Limited Edition' in the case of these models is hard to define. Normally the term is used for art prints and suchlike where the number of copies made and sold is guaranteed to be kept to a fixed number. The idea is that the limited number makes each item rare, collectable and valuable. In the case of the '57 Strat, however, the Arbiter representative with whom we spoke wasn't able to confirm how many of these replicas were being offered — although it's unlikely to be very many, they said. Our feeling is that, if the Limited Edition tag is to have any meaning, then the production run should be specified.
As for the fretless Jazz Bass 'Special' we also borrowed for this review, we weren't sure whether this was a limited edition type or not. Either way, it's interesting to see this version of one of the world's best-loved fretless basses now being made away from California, and to see how well (or otherwise) the Japanese makers had done their work.
Launched in 1954, the Fender Strat has outsold every other guitar since, and probably still continues to do so today. It's also the world's most copied guitar, having spawned, virtually single-handedly, the entire Japanese guitar building industry for makers who have relied on (stolen, some would say) Leo Fender's genius in designing what has become, arguably, the definitive solid bodied electric guitar. An analysis of why the Strat is so popular would take a whole issue of IN TUNE, and wouldn't be relevant in an individual guitar review anyway, but it's important to realise how far back the Strat's history goes and that, although the basic functionalism of the design hasn't changed, the guitar has undergone revisions, counter-revisions and countless detail changes time and time again.
By 1957, the four year old Stratocaster was at one of several peaks of its perfection. Still fitted with a solid Maple neck (as opposed to an applied Maple fingerboard), the '57 model had a slightly smaller headstock than those on later versions, and both these features are accurately reproduced on this new 'oldie'. Later on, Strats had the infamous 'micro-tilt' adjustment device fitted, allowing users to alter the angle of the neck to the body. As true devotees of the Strat generally hated this 'improvement', it isn't featured on the '57 limited edition. Neither is the 'bullet' truss rod adjuster, another concept assumed by later Fender managements to have been an advance, but, again, one that many players dislike. Incidentally, modern Strats are also, thankfully, missing these unloved extras! One obvious area of deviation from a genuine '57 model was the presence of a five-way pickup selector. To have been entirely faithful to the genuine article, this should really have been a three-way type, but — considering how much nuisance is involved in setting the once-famous 'in between' position on 3-way types — Fender's decision to 'cheat' in this small way is undoubtedly the right one. What is surprising is that it took them until 1978 to make the change on conventional Strats.
It's the little details that often count most to real fanatics, and one example of minutiae which Fender have certainly got right on this replica is the use of a single ply, all-white scratchplate, the later white/black/white laminates not beginning till '59. Full marks on your homework, lads!
So, the 5-way selector switch apart, our new sample was a very accurate replica of the 'real thing'. But what was it like as a guitar?
Straight from its box, this latest Fender felt glossy and good, an immediate check-over revealing excellent set-up with light-ish strings. Visually it looked fine, although the lacquering on our sunburst sample did look a little 'plastic' — probably inevitable, given the Japanese manufacturing processes, but a pity all the same. Body weight, hardware details, machines, trem system: everything that should have worked did so excellently, and in every respect the guitar looked and felt a winner. The traditional fixing of the one-piece Maple neck (good Maple too, by the look of it) to the body was perfectly carried out, but we measured the width of the neck at the nut as a shade over the 1 5/8" we'd expected. Mind you, we were being very critical and you wouldn't notice such a minute variance once the guitar was in your hands. Hardware aspects really need no comment here, apart from saying that the Japanese-made machines worked smoothly, and the traditional Strat bridge was fine, as was the tremolo.
Unfortunately, one area where we did find problems was with the nut. Although it's not too uncommon on new guitars, we found our strings sticking in the slots when the trem was released, and this was a disappointment. A rub with a graphite pencil would probably have solved this, but in a perfect world it would have been right as it came from the distributors. With luck, a conscientious dealer would rectify this before the guitar was sold — at least, we'd like to think so!
From a playing point of view, though, the Fender felt really fine. The neck is a classic of its kind — very slim and ideally fast, gently cambered and fitted with accurately polished frets. Some string buzz was present, especially on the low E string, but this seems to be almost inevitable with even the best Strats, and so is one of those features which we're inclined to say you really have to learn to live with. It's more or less typical of the breed as a whole.
Run clean (the way we initially test all guitars), this guitar sounded excellent. All the unmistakable Strat sounds were there in abundance, from the 'Brand F' clang of the bridge pickup through through the perfect out-of-phase sound in position two, and so on. Clean, the guitar sounded as good as it looked and played. But — and we've thought long and hard about this — the majority verdict of the IT testers was that this Strat didn't sound as we'd hoped it might once we began to wind up our test amps towards overload. Through a good modern transistor amp (we used a Carlsbro and a Custom Sound) you'd probably be hard pressed to determine that there was anything missing from the '57's performance, but when we plugged the Strat into our Laney AOR all-valve combo, and later double-checked on a Marshall, we felt that the guitar's sound wasn't quite smooth enough, missing the piercing sweetness and purity of tone that we'd hoped to find in this vintage likeness. Could these be Japanese pickups? Certainly they didn't sound as good as either the basic Seymour Duncans we've been using recently, or a genuine vintage Stratocaster.
This limited edition '57 Strat replica is a fine guitar to play, with the detail work correct and the sort of build quality that one has come to associate with all Japanese-made Fenders. While it sounds fine when used clean though, we couldn't avoid feeling disappointed by its sound when overdriving. That aside (and it's entirely down to personal tastes — you might love the the Fender's distortion sound), this Strat isn't at all badly priced at RRP £360.94 — especially once the discounters have got to work on it! Given that you can pay around £300 for a new Standard Japanese-made Strat from some outlets then this model could be a fine 'status' buy for the fan of vintage looks. It's well worth checking out, but only you can decide whether the extra premium over the cost of a Standard model is worth it. We'd be tempted by this guitar, but we'd also think hard, at least eventually, about fitting it with better pickups.
Some instruments you seem to have an instinct about from the moment you unpack them, and this fretless Jazz Bass Special was one of those rarities. Finished in a glorious metallic shade of cinnamon/salmon which Fender call 'Burgundy Mist', it looked positively edible! Were we to be disappointed, or was this new bass as good as it first seemed?
Constructionally, the Jazz was well assembled, beautifully finished and the perfectly adjusted. The strings were set fairly low against the attractive Rosewood fingerboard, and the instrument was perfectly set up for fast playing.
The Jazz features twin pickups, the neck one a split Precision type, the bridge a Jazz 'bar' type, both connected to very comfortably styled rotary controls bearing the Fender 'F' on their crowns which handle pickup volumes. Just one tone control is provided, but it's wired to that excellent TBX circuitry which we've mentioned in previous Fender reviews, so it's a lot better than just any old passive tone control. With a centre detent, this control, although functioning as part of a passive (ie non-battery powered) circuit, has some similarities with active tone systems in that it offers a much greater degree of tonal cut and boost than you'd expect from a conventional passive type.
Set to its centre position, the single tone pot is more or less 'flat' in its effect, providing the Jazz with a nice meaty tone — depending, of course, on how you've set the individual pickup volumes and the three-way selector switch. Roll the tone pot up towards '0' and the guttural treble which the Fender pokes out is quite remarkable for a passive; great for growly, attacking bass lines! Turn the pot back, however, and the control works as a normal treble cut type whilst still giving the Fender all the traditional smooth and round bass boost which one associates with this model when used in a more string-basslike role. Tonally, this has to count as one of the most versatile passive basses around, capable of everything from a sharp funky attack to a deep, rich bass which really complements your fretless technique very well indeed. We found it hard to put down — and even harder to think of a competitor for at this sort of money.
Adding to the attractions of the Fender's really punchy sound is a fast and silky neck which makes it pure joy to play. Quite a lot of players, of course, seem to prefer the wider necks found on Precisions, but our feeling was that having this slimmer neck made the fretless that little bit easier to handle. Somehow (and not just tonally, although that helps) the Jazz feels more right as a fretless than does a Precision.
Although not exactly a cheap bass at its RRP of £443.32, this is a really attractive instrument, beautifully made and with a much more versatile sound than you'd get from most passive basses that we can call to mind. We'd put it head and shoulders above the majority of Japanese passive fretless basses and would recommend it very highly indeed for the seeker after a good fretless who has this sort of money to spend. Even undiscounted, we reckon this Fender Special Jazz is good value — and if you can talk your way into a few quid off then it becomes a very sensible buy in anybody's language!
Judging from our sample, we'd have no reservations about this bass at all — it's a killer!
Fender 'Limited Edition' 57 Strat (RRP £360.94)
Fretless Jazz Bass 'Special' (RRP £443.32)
More info on Fender from Arbiter Musical Instruments Ltd., (Contact Details).
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