New Strat, Part One: Fender’s got a good thing going…

So, first thing’s first – my old Inca Silver Strat will always be near and dear to my heart. But, after almost 20 years, she was about due for a refret, and during the Fender period of the extensive pickup swapping I’ve done in her over the years I found myself thinking it would be kind of fun to have one Strat set up as a “rock” guitar – low action, high output pickups, and a fairly aggressive two point trem – and another set up for bluesier playing, with lower output pickups and a little higher action, and more of a vintage sounding and feeling guitar. So, as I write this, I’m sitting here with a new Strat on my lap, while my old one is in the shop (the always-excellent Mouradian Guitar Co.) for a well-earned refret. She’s a bit of a mutt – an ash 2014 American Standard body finished in sienna burst mated to a 2014 American Deluxe neck with a rosewood body. She’s resonant as hell, though, sounds great unplugged, and even better plugged in. I think I’ll keep her around for a while.

In general, I’ve been really impressed by the quality of essentially all of the Fenders I’ve played recently.  Back in the 90s when I bought my first, the story went you played every Strat in the shop, and without fail yo’d find one that was better than the others, so that’s the one you bought. I actually lucked out, as I ordered mine through the shop because I wanted a silver strat with a maple fretboard, and the one I got in was either excellent, or is one I’ve played for so long now and grown so familiar with that any quirks are just part of how I play. People tell me I can make anything sound like a Strat, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact I really musically grew up playing one. After buying mine, I gradually got into other styles of music and types of guitars (and playing Ibanez almost exclusively for years, while my Strat got only occasional playtime) and eventually felt like while I really liked the Strat I had, if I were to do it all over again I’d probably buy something other than a Fender – a G&L, or an Anderson or Suhr. Two things happened, though. First, I began to get back in touch with my musical roots – Jimi, the Stones, Howlin’ Wolf, SRV – and started incorporating more blues-rock elements into my playing, and suddenly a guitar with singlecoils was a very useful thing to have around. By the time I finished my album, five of the thirteen tracks had lead guitar played part or all on my Strat, and while that’s my Suhr on the cover, it was the Strat that was on more songs than anything else.

Second, and more to the point here, after having gradually come to the opinion you were mostly paying for the name with Fender, I kept walking into a guitar store, idly picking up a Strat or a Tele, and finding myself thinking, “hey, this is really good…” I’m not entirely sure what it is, but I guess Fender has been doing a lot of work to automate their production line, both in terms of CNC and, I understand, finishing techniques that has both helped keep prices down (a Strat today actually costs less, adjusted for inflation, than mine did when I bought it new) and kept QC more consistent from guitar to guitar.

They’re also being fairly thoughtful in terms of specs, and doing a pretty good job preserving “vintage” aspects of their design, without really sacrificing playing performance. One of the reasons I wanted an American Deluxe neck for this guitar was that they introduced a multi-radius fretboard on this model a few years back, which allows much easier bending as you go up the neck without forcing you to raise the action. Similarly, the rolled neck edges make for a much more comfortable neck, and the thinner finish definitely seems to help resonance. And, while I didn’t find the extra positions the S-1 switching allowed useful to me, nor did I miss the tone of stamped metal saddles when I got my American Standard, both were interesting innovations that didn’t impact the look of the guitar, while improving functionality. Meanwhile, the card switching idea in the newer American Deluxe guitars was a very interesting idea, one sure to put off purists… and, accordingly, one Fender made optional, unlike Gibson’s robot tuner guitars being rolled out across the line, and then immediately cancelled when no one actually wanted them.

Of course, none of this matters if the proof isn’t in the pudding, and again, I’ve continually been impressed every time I grab a new Fender off the rack and start playing. Whatever they’re doing is working, and I can’t help but think that in ten or twenty years we’re going to look back at the 2010s as another “golden era” in Fender’s history.

At present I’ve got a set of Fender Eric Johnson singlecoils in her, which I really like (more on that later, in part two). Since my ’97 is an alder body and a maple fretboard, I wanted to go ash and rosewood on this one, and additionally since I spec’d this out as kind of a clean toned/blues guitar, I wanted a sunburst of sorts (and I’ve always loved Fender’s siennaburst finish) with a black or tortoiseshell pickguard and cream pickups, knobs, and switch. The bridge is a Hipshot Contour that I’d tried in my 97 that is silky-smooth but wasn’t quite aggressive enough for that guitar – it’s a great sounding bridge, though, and is perfectly at home here. Unlike my other Strat, this one is wired up standard, save for a treble bleed circuit on the volume knob.

Video quality is a little grainy, but here’s me messing around on her not long after I swapped the pickuard for tortoiseshell:

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