Hands-On Review:Fender 50th Anniversary American Deluxe Stratocaster
Fender 50th Anniversary American Deluxe Stratocaster
Hail to the king.By Dmitri Wojnarowski
1954 was a momentous year in pop culture and in America's development as a modern nation. In January the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, was launched in Groton, Connecticut, by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. In August the first flight of a B-52 Stratofortress occurred. The first Playmate was featured in Playboy magazine (Margie Harrison, if you're wondering) and the Miss America pageant was televised for the first time. Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston announced the first successful kidney transplant. The Boy Scouts of America desegregated on the basis of race. Elvis Presley logged his first recording session for Sun Records on July 5 & 6, 1954. It was the first year record companies delivered 7" 45rpm record singles to radio stations instead of the standard 78s. It was also in 1954 guitarist Les Paul commissioned Ampex to build the first eight-track tape recorder. On May 10 Bill Haley and his Comets released the timeless tune "Rock Around the Clock." And of course, in Fullerton, Califonia, the first Stratocaster rolled out Fender's doors into an unsuspecting world.
A royal heritage
Why mention the Stratocaster alongside all these other famous '54 achievements? Because after 50 years as a foundation of rock-and-roll, the Fender Stratocaster isn't just another guitar-it's an icon. Just like the Stratocaster's early adopter, Buddy Holly, or its later innovator, Jimi Hendrix, it will never fade away or be diminished.
The Strat is a true original in the realm of guitardom, with a design, sound, and spirit seemingly plucked from the ether, or at least outer space. Except for having six strings, it was like nothing else. Plus, it came in hip colors like fiesta red, surf green, and Daphne blue. Its radical look, sound, and capa-bilities inspired new genres of rock from surf to psychedelia. And along the way it became the guitar of choice for everyday players and bona-fide stars, as well as becoming the most popular, recognizable, influential, and best-selling electric guitar ever made.
A rockin' good time
Fender has kicked off a Stratocaster celebration in 2004 to honor the axe, starting with the Fender Custom Shop producing an exact replica of #100. The model I was sent to review was not, unfortunately, that guitar. There is no doubt, though, that the 50th Anniversary American Deluxe Stratocaster is one killer axe. It nails the 1954 vibe while updating the model with all the magnificent modifications that American Deluxe Strats include today.
As I picked the Anniversary Deluxe up for the first time I was knocked out by how comfortable the Stratocaster is. The sculpted forearm and tummy bevels, as well as overall better balance, make it a breeze to play. It's funny how you sort of take it for granted after a while. As Eric Johnson puts it: "Once you start playing one, it's hard to play anything else." The Deluxe model's rolled neck edges and meticulously dressed frets have a luxurious feel that's nice for your hands and your fret speed, and its sculpted neck heel slides into your palm a little smoother for very natural- feeling access to the upper frets.
The finish and woods are premium quality and the abalone inlays and gold hardware help this axe earn the deluxe title. There's also a 50th Anniversary Stratocaster emblem embossed in the pickguard and neck plate. But this guitar is about far more than looks. It has two features that blow away anything currently on the market or aftermarket. The first is the S-1 Switch. It opens up new possibilities in pickup configurations, as well as incorporating some that hot-rod freaks have done for years. Activating the S-1 circuitry converts pickups from series to parallel, making the Strat more tonally diverse than ever before.
A powerhouse pickup
The Deluxe's other secret weapon is the Samarium Cobalt Noiseless (SCN) pickup. With solidbody guitars, the pickup is half the battle and this tone howitzer is almost enough to win the fight by itself. It is the quietest pickup to ever grace a Strat—quieter than any humbucker. And it retains the response, clarity, and bell-like chime that made Fender's pickups famous. Buckets of the cleanest, sweetest sound ever emanate from these hum-smashing pups, plus they have outrageous bite and output for full, fat tone. It may be the best single-coil sound ever heard.
The SCN pickup is the result of a special collaboration between Fender and pickup-wizard extraordinaire Bill Lawrence. Throwing the pickup-design book out the window and questioning everything, they were determined to create something truly special. Part of what makes this pickup so praiseworthy is the Space Age magnet material (samarium cobalt) and the design that keeps the separate coils from engaging and creating noise. The other part is the pole pieces themselves. Whatever they're made of is so top secret and so revolutionary Fender couldn't even tell me what it is. No matter how much I pressed, they wouldn't give up the goods. Eventually the information will be released, but until then it will remain a mystery.
There's one thing that's not a mystery, though. This Strat is the best I've ever laid hands on, no matter the vintage, which is as fitting a tribute as any for the guitar that started it all 50 years ago. Happy Birthday, Fender Stratocaster. And thanks for all the fun.