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Fender Ultra Series

Fender has recently been teasing us with videos of something upcoming and dramatically different. “Never play a Fender the same way again.” The video showed what looked like something Stratocaster-inspired, sleeker, with a contoured neck heel and some kind of access-improving cutaway. And now on 5 Nov, the ball drops with a resounding “splat”.

The Ultra series is nothing more than a rebranded Elite series which in its turn was a rebranded Deluxe series.

During the past few years, before I lucked out and found my Sonic Blue American Series Stratocaster, I have had off-again, on-again thoughts about investing in a brand new Fender. I have given the Deluxe/Elite models due consideration. But I’ve never been able to get excited about any of them. They just don’t push my buttons. Those guitars get it all wrong, in my opinion. The switching is different from one year to the next. The color of the pickguard is ugly. The logo is ugly. I don’t like how they splash text all over the pickups. I’m not fond of locking tuners. The knobs are the wrong shape. This year, they have got the notion that yellow-tinted necks are cool. They are not. Oh, and they’ve also jacked up the prices. Again.

Sorry, Fender, no sell.

 
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Posted by on 5 November, 2019 in editorial, gear

 

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The Lost Lenore, Found

It is so interesting when I look back on my latest entry, the one from 10 July about my old light blue Stratocaster, and think about what happened three weeks later. I spent some idle time during my vacation going back and forth about the new Mexican Vintera Stratocaster as a substitute. In the end, I decided that I didn’t want to go through with it. There were simply too many compromises involved. About the only thing that I prefer with the vintage-style models over the modern ones is the old-school tuning posts. I didn’t want to run the risk that I would not enjoy the Vintera. Instead, I tried, and fared pretty well at, getting excited about a Professional Stratocaster in Sienna Sunburst. Then the incredible thing happened on one of the last days of July. My dad sent me a link to a classified ad, and I had to pick my jaw up from the floor. From prior experience, I know that there are American Standard Stratocasters in light blue. It just didn’t occur to me that any of them could find its way over to Sweden. But this one obviously had. That the seller lived on the other side of the country was just a minor logistical issue.

So now I am the happy owner of a 2002 Fender Stratocaster American Series in Sonic Blue and with a maple neck. I could not have asked for a nicer guitar if Todd Krause himself had phoned me up and told me he’d make one for me. It is just perfect. It is not an American Standard, but Series, since that was the name Fender used between 2001 and 2007 (I think…). That means that it was made after Fender switched to the semi-staggered tuners, but before they replaced the old stainless-steel bridge saddles with chrome-plated steel. To think about the compromises I was almost ready to make, and then I wind up in a situation where I don’t have to make any of them! It is almost ridiculous that I wound up paying almost two Swedish grand less for this one than I would have had to shell out for a brand new Mexican-made axe.

One of the things I always feared when dreaming about getting my hands on The Blue One was that it was going to be a beautiful guitar that didn’t play well. I have been able to put those fears to rest. It took a bit of an effort, I even went completely out of character and whipped out my truss rod wrench, but damn if it didn’t work! This guitar not only just conquered the beauty crown from my Tele, it sounds just as good and because it is a Strat, it is just a tad more comfortable to play. There are some minor issues with it, but it doesn’t affect the amplified sound, so it isn’t critical. I’m anyway thinking of substituting the bridge pickup for something a bit hotter and definitely hum-cancelling, so why not have the guy do everything at once?

Sometimes I can be a bit bummed, since it doesn’t feel like I am happy enough about it, but checking back over what I’ve just written, I get the feeling that it’s got more to do with a pervasive feeling of unreality. Like I’m going to wake up at any moment and it’s time to go to work and then come home and play my yellow Strat. But no, I just checked, and it’s right there between the other Strat and the Tele.

 
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Posted by on 19 September, 2019 in gear

 

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Sonic Blue, or: The Lost Lenore

I once owned a Fender Stratocaster Yngwie Malmsteen model in Sonic Blue. It was the late 80s or early 90s version of the Yngwie guitar, with the vintage headstock and logo, and the American Standard stainless steel bridge saddles. Before Yngwie decided that he could only play yellow guitars, his signature model came in two alternative colors in addition to yellow: Candy Apple Red and Sonic Blue. Sonic Blue is the lightest blue color in the Fender range, very much like the color of the sky on a bright summer’s day. I was in love with the combination of Sonic Blue and a maple fretboard before I had even heard anything by Yngwie Malmsteen. It was by far the prettiest guitar in A.R. Duchossoir’s book about the Stratocaster. How I came to own one is one of those stories that are so weird that they can only happen in real life, it would be way too contrived to put into a book or a film. When I finally became spellbound by Yngwie’s speed and aggression, someone told me that the key to his technique was the scalloped fretboard: the lack of contact between finger and neck somehow enabling the former to move faster over the latter. I now know that this is utter crap, even the man himself has debunked the notion multiple times. But when I was 14 years old and new in the world of technical lead guitar playing, there was no way for me to know. All I wanted was to attain the same technical ability on the guitar at any price. At the time, I had an American Vintage 1962 reissue, a wonderful instrument – but it didn’t have the scalloped neck that I so desperately craved. This came to a head in August, 1991. On the Saturday, I saw a yellow Yngwie Stratocaster at the music store I used to frequent. Everything was arranged, it was just a matter of swinging by our apartment to pick up my vintage reissue and then the trade-in would happen. On the very next day, my dad saw a classified ad in the newspaper: a guy had a blue Yngwie guitar for sale at an insanely low price. The trick was that he lived in Strömstad, about a two-hour drive from where we lived. It was a huge risk to take for something that in all honesty sounded fairly fishy. But for the price, just about any kind of Stratocaster-shaped guitar with a scalloped board felt like a reasonable deal. I could not believe my eyes when the guy opened the case. It was a US-made signature guitar with the correct serial number – and it was Sonic Blue with a maple neck. I would not let it go. In fact, I only put it in its case to get from his apartment down to the car. Then I sat in the back seat during the two-hour drive home and played and played and played. Everyone got what they wanted out of the deal: my dad got the Surf Green ’62 model that he plays to this day, and I got my dream guitar. I was in ecstasy for months. I would sit in the back of the bus going home from school and fantasize – not about girls, but about the guitar that was waiting for me in my room. And when I came home, I could just sit around and look at it. But of course, within minutes, admiration gave way to temptation and I picked it up. I think there is a lesson to be learned here. I managed to improve dramatically during the summer and fall of 1991, but it had nothing to do with the scalloped neck and everything to do with the fact that I practiced incessantly. My new guitar was able to inspire me to do that where the old one had failed.

Just over a year later, the blue Stratocaster was gone, traded in for a black BC Rich Warlock. Yngwie had been replaced at the top of my pantheon by Marty Friedman, and our band had evolved from its humble hard rock beginnings to something that was more akin to death metal. It felt right at the time. I wanted something with humbuckers to juice my 100-watt Marshall Valvestate more, I wanted a 24-fret guitar and also a guitar with a double-locking vibrato system. But I think that the primary reason was that I just didn’t think that people would take me seriously as a death metal guitarist if I got on stage with a light blue Fender. It is especially sad since the death metal phase didn’t even last for a year, and after that we started playing decidedly lighter and more melodic fare – stuff that would have been a perfect fit for a more traditional guitar. Since then, I have attached almost mythical properties to that guitar, as well as the monumentally stupid-ass decision to get rid of it. It is inevitable in life that you do (or don’t do) things that you’ll wind up regretting, but I think I can honestly say that if we restrict ourselves to purely materialistic matters, then trading away my Sonic Blue Stratocaster is hands down the thing I regret the most. (Buying that Peavey amp comes second.) When I got my Vintage White American Standard a few years later it alleviated some of the anguish, but over the years it’s been made abundantly clear that the scars are still there. The most pertinent question is: would I want to buy it back? To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure. It’s not that I have any particular desire to own a Malmsteen signature, I can absolutely do without the scalloped neck for instance. I think that over the years, as I’ve played more Fenders and got used to the updated feel of the American Standard, my tastes and desires have changed. What I really want is for Fender to simply issue the American Standard in Sonic Blue. They’ve come so close so many times, but there is always something to put me off. Either it’s the 70s headstock, a rosewood fretboard or both, or it’s some form of Squier. I did learn that Fender did a brief run with light blue Stratocasters with maple necks in 1995-96, and a few years back one of those was listed for sale – at a music store in Manhattan.

All of this has now been turned on its head via the recent announcement of Fender’s Vintera series: basically the replacement for their Mexican-made Classic series. There is a 50s Stratocaster, obviously with a maple neck, and it comes in Sonic Blue. So the question is not whether I want it or can afford it, but rather if I will be able to get used to a rounder fretboard radius and just 21 frets. I will have to get back to you on that.

 
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Posted by on 10 July, 2019 in editorial, gear

 

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Fender Player Series

I’ve spent the majority of my playing career insisting on American-made instruments, and my current collection indeed reflects that. Picking up a Squier, an Epiphone or even a Mexican Fender just wasn’t in the cards, for the life of me I couldn’t make myself excited by anything less than a proper US-made Fender or Gibson. The jury might still be out on an Epiphone Les Paul or SG, but I’ve been increasingly impressed by Mexican guitars in the past few years. It started with my two Taylors, both of which were manufactured south of the border, and I have also been very impressed by Paul Reed Smith’s SE series (my baritone was made in Indonesia). I don’t know if it is ironic in the proper sense of the word, but the more purchasing power I get, the more I tend to prefer guitars that are just good enough. Or to put it the other way around, the less I feel that the American stuff is worth what you have to shell out for it. The price issue is especially important since I am well aware that any new guitar I buy is unlikely to displace my black Les Paul as my Number One. but instead become another voice in my cast of character actors.

Fender’s Mexican vintage models are especially nice. We gave my dad a 50s Telecaster for his 50th birthday, and once you get used to the thick neck, it’s awesome to play. The Fiesta Red Stratocaster is also delicious. The Mexican vintage guitars have their own interesting solution to the issues I’ve had with those guitars, since they have the correct logo and a vintage Fender should have 21 frets. The Standard series guitars feel okay, but I’ve always felt that they look a bit cheap. I don’t like the logo, for instance. All of this seems to have been solved but the retooling and renaming into the Player series. Now we’re talking 22 frets, a vintage spaghetti logo, and modern wiring (middle pickup is reverse wound/reverse polarity, the bridge pickup has a tone control). They are awesome instruments that hit just about all the high points that I used to enjoy with the American Standard. I was especially taken by the Sonic Red model, which looks like it’s a cross between Dakota Red and Torino Red. It is just a pity that it doesn’t come with a maple neck, but only the pau ferro fretboard. I tried the pau ferro and I like it even less than rosewood. It is much lighter in color, which I don’t particularly care for, and it has a really weird texture that grates on my fingers. But, since they are only about 6000 crowns, I could buy two, swap necks and sell one of the mongrels. Yes, it’s just that good.

 
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Posted by on 9 July, 2018 in gear, review

 

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Editorial: Signature Guitars

Our desire with the whole Signature Series was to build the guitars exactly the way the artists play them. We didn’t just want to build something that everybody was going to buy and then the artist had to have his different.

Dan Smith, Fender, from A.R. Duchossoir’s The Fender Stratocaster, 3rd ed., 1988.

Undoubtedly, this was a dig at Gibson and Les Paul. It is well known that Paul did not want an archtop electric guitar, but a flat top, and he wanted the maple/mahogany proportions in the body reversed, so Gibson made them special for him. That’s all fine, I suppose. But what about Fender? Have they gone the way Dan Smith intended? You can just take a look at their website, at the two different Eric Clapton signature models. One for the general public, and a Custom Shop version, exactly like the one E.C. himself plays on stage, which is different. Okay.

I am not a great fan of Trivium, but I am impressed with Matt Heafy’s attitude towards signature guitars. I always wondered why such a comparatively high-profile player would settle with an Epiphone when he could probably have arranged a signature model with Gibson. The answer turns out to be that the guy wants the people who enjoy his music to be able to afford one! I think this is a very nice way of looking at it. People write a lot of shit on message boards, but occasionally, you do run across nice people with interesting things to say. Someone once commented that it’s us regular hobbyists and amateurs, Clapton, Slash and Petrucci fans, who get ripped off, so that Gibson, Fender and Music Man can continue supplying free instruments to already filthy-rich rock stars. And probably tack on royalty money to boot.

My favorite electric guitar is the Gibson Les Paul, so I probably have no right whatsoever to say this, but I am not overly fond of signature equipment. I think it’s a matter of association: I want to be myself and to have others see me as myself and not as some wannabe. And I also wouldn’t want to use something featuring the signature of an artist whose works I do not particularly enjoy – again, the association thing. I could never step on a Mark Tremonti phaser pedal because I don’t want to send him royalty money, and I don’t want a Petrucci or Hetfield guitar because I don’t want to be regarded as a wannabe.

 
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Posted by on 7 November, 2014 in editorial, gear

 

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Review: The Fender Stratocaster

It is all too easy to take the Stratocaster for granted. I know for sure that I did. It took several years with other makes and models to realize just how ingenious this design is, how amazingly right Mr Fender got it back in 1954. It is even more unbelievable when you put it into its historical context and conclude that the perfect rock and roll guitar existed almost before there was rock and roll!

The most striking thing with the Stratocaster is that something so beautiful can be so utterly functional and sound so bloody good, all at the same time. There is nothing that is out of proportion on this guitar, and still there is little about it that is merely decorative. The form follows the function – and how! It might have been a space-age instrument back in 1954, but the more “modern” models they brought out to complement and possibly even replace it look hopelessly dated and outmoded today. The Stratocaster is simply timeless. And that’s before you’ve even picked it up! When you do, you find that it just melds into your body. Every control is in the right place – close enough to your picking hand that you can adjust stuff on the fly, but far enough away that you don’t accidentally change settings.

My Stratocaster is a 1996 American Standard with a rosewood fretboard. The finish is called Vintage White, which is a very vintage white indeed, since it has the deep yellow color of butter or vanilla. It was love at first sight, in spite of the rosewood fretboard, which I am not a fan of. (My aunt’s late husband preferred rosewood, and when he went looking for a used Stratocaster, we almost made a deal that if he found one with a maple neck, we would swap necks with each other.) I don’t use the vibrato, so I tighten the vibrato springs as far as I can and put the vibrato arm away. Then I’ve replaced the pickups with a DiMarzio set (Super Distortion S in the bridge, Area 58 in the middle and Air Norton S in the neck), just because that fits my temperament and playing style so much better than the stock Stratocaster pickups. Maybe if I got a second Stratocaster I would restore my 1996 Miss Vanilla to factory specs including setting her up for vibrato arm use.

One of the main reasons why I got so hot under the collar about my Stratocaster was the tiniest, most insignificant detail: that it had the old 50s style logo. It was the missing piece, the final little thing that made a good guitar design great. Personally, I think that the 1986 to 2008 American Standard/Series was the pinnacle of Stratocaster development. Mr Fender didn’t leave much room for improvement (it’s pretty much a matter of taste and application what you think about the single-coil pickups), still they did manage to tweak the Stratocaster just enough to make me prefer modern instruments to their elders. They flattened the neck radius from 7.25″ to 9.5″, added bigger fretwire as well as a 22nd fret. They improved the electronics slightly, including a reverse polarity middle pickup that acts in humbucking fashion when you select the “in-between” positions. My favorite feature, though, has to be the powdered stainless steel bridge saddles. No more snagging your right palm on the protruding set screws, no more rust, no more gathering of dust. And then you eliminate that funky 80s logo and go back to the original. The end result is a modern-speced guitar that looks just like the original to all but the most discerning eyes. That’s why I don’t do vintage reissue. And as for reliced or “road-worn” instruments, I prefer to start from a fresh sheet and be in control of that process myself.

Oh, and one last thing: I thoroughly dislike the ‘Strat’ nickname and consequently try my best not to use it. It’s an ugly word that doesn’t even have the redeeming feature of being inherently funny.

 
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Posted by on 17 February, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: The Fender Telecaster

The Fender Telecaster was the first electric guitar I fell in love with, at the tender age of five. It had everything to do with the Tele-wielding duo of Parfitt and Rossi from Status Quo, whose music I greatly admired at the time. (Actually, I still think it’s great music if you want good unpretentious rock and roll. And I have to admit to still wanting a white Tele with a black pickguard.) Others my age drew horses and figure skaters, houses and cars, whereas yours truly picked up the crayon in order to trace the contours of the Fender Telecaster. I might have discovered the Stratocaster not long after that, and developed an even stronger affinity for that model, but that doesn’t change the effect that the Telecaster still has on me. There is something about it that still speaks to me almost on a visceral level, and I have devoted a lot of thought to what it might be.

One idea is that this guitar brings with it a certain sense of getting down to the root, the original source. But the answer doesn’t lie far beneath the surface. The Telecaster is the epitome of elegant simplicity. Let’s face it: it isn’t really much more than a roughly band-sawn plank of wood with a guitar neck stuck on there almost like an afterthought. But that is precisely what makes it so attractive. It is unassuming and unpretentious and as a result it is just so charming.

Leo Fender invented the Stratocaster as an improvement of the Telecaster, and it manages to be one in basically every imaginable way. Still it does not supplant it. The sisters are similar, and yet so unlike each other. It is amazing that the Tele is approaching retirement age and still manages to be relevant. How many other commercial products from the late 1940s are still going strong today?

My Telecaster is a 2008 American Standard with a maple neck and ash body, finished in 2-tone sunburst. I bought it new in Boston in May of that year. It cannot have been in the store for very long when I discovered it. Not only is the neck dated March 12, I simply cannot see how someone would walk past such a wonderfully beautiful instrument and not pick it up and bring it home. It is easily one of the most spectacular guitars I have seen, let alone owned. There is one thing in particular that I like about it, and that is the perfect combination of a vintage look and modern features. I am going to go off on that riff a bit more in my upcoming Stratocaster review, but let’s just say that my Telecaster has all the modern stuff that I like (a flatter neck with more and bigger frets). Still, it looks traditional enough that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 50s bandstand.

 
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Posted by on 17 February, 2014 in gear, review

 

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