Hands-On Review:Fender 50th Anniversary American Series Stratocaster
Celebrating the Strat's illustrious first half century
By Vince Eagleton
It's hard to believe that the Fender Strat has hit the big five-o. Even more remarkable is that for most of that fifty years it has been the most popular guitar in the world, and certainly the most widely imitated.
When the Strat first came out, it was totally innovative with three pickups, three-way switching, a unique tremolo, and a vibe all its own. Many players didn't know quite what to make of it and had their doubts. It didn't take long, though, before players began to catch on to its tone, playability, and versatility. Once they did, they fell in love and the Fender Strat soon became the ascendant rock-and-roll guitar. It has never looked back.
Guitar of the gods
So many of the guitar gods have played Strats
- Jimi, Eric, Stevie-and the Fender signature models represent a long list of other great players who have preferred a Strat. Nor is the end in sight. As new musicians come along, they too discover the pleasures of playing a Stratocaster, and as new styles of music emerge, a Strat is frequently involved.
It is remarkable that Leo Fender could get it so right with only his second guitar design. Though Strat models have proliferated over the years, with variations and wrinkles to please every player, they all are basically the same guitar Leo designed. Most things go out of style in time and look old-fashioned, but not the Strat. While a new Stratocaster guitars look very much the same as those of 40 or 50 years ago, neither the old nor the new looks dated or old-fashioned. Its design is timeless.
So, how do we celebrate the Strat's 50th? We could have Strat parties across the country, or we could get all the Strat players to converge somewhere for one big celebration...a Stratstock. Fender has chosen to mark the occasion by creating limited edition versions of its favorite 50-year-old. There will be three in fact: the American Series Anniversary Strat, which I am writing about today, having one in my clutches. There will also be an American Deluxe model available soon; and a Custom Shop replica of the '54 is also available as a special 50th commemorative.
All three will only be made during 2004, and each is different. The American represents the full sweep of the Strat tradition with a combination of modern and vintage features. The Deluxe represents the Strat's evolution with an extensive package of cutting-edge features. The Custom Shop model is a full-tilt replica of the Strat of 1954. I would very much like the chance to play and review that one.
An American beauty
What makes the 50th Anniversary American Strat special? A lot of things, but first there are all those things that make any American Strat an object of desire. The American Series guitars are Fender's front-line instruments, the ones that most fully embody Fender's pride and tradition, and Fender puts real heart into making them. You see this in the quality of the woods, the hardware, the beauty of the finishes, and in the neck and fret work. The American Strat has the feel, the look, and the sound that has made the Strat such a momentous success. The Anniversary models. I'm sure, are crafted with even a little extra care and pride.
The one I was given to review supports the point. It is truly a flawless instrument. The grain of its ash body shows enticingly through a beautiful two-tone finish. Its maple fretboard is wonderfully smooth and slick-feeling. Its rounded edges give it a broken-in feel, and the medium-jumbo frets are worked to perfection. I found it perfectly setup. The action was set a little lower than you find on most production guitars and precisely the way I like it.
Fender has been tasteful in identifying it as the 50th Anniversary guitar. A special commemorative logo has been engraved into the neckplate, and it comes with a vintage-style tweed case with the 50th logo embroidered inside. Otherwise it looks in every way a beautifully made Amercian Series Strat - an instrument that any serious guitarist would love to have as a main axe.
There's one feature that salutes the original and sets the Anniversary Strat apart from its American Series brothers... the pickups. They look like normal American-made single coils but are, in fact, Custom Shop replicas of the handwound '54 pickups. They have modern covers rather than the replica '54 covers used on the Custom Shop replica, but otherwise they are pure Custom Shop-crafted '54s.
The Custom Shop '54s are made like the originals. They have the pure, original Strat sound, spankier than most current pickups and a little more raw. This tonal character results, l'm told, from the irregularities of handwinding. Modern pickups are made on machines that are more precise and consistent. Consistency is good, but the early-day pickups could have more individual personality. Strat purists, especially, will appreciate the true, original Fender Stratocaster sound.
Now that I've thought about it, let's forget the big party idea. A better way to celebrate would be to score one of these Anniversary Americans, find a place to hole up where you won't be bothered, and just play and play.
h2. Features & Specs
- Modern C-shape maple neck with satin polyurethane finish
- Maple fingerboard
- Chrome hardware