Fender American Original '50s Stratocaster
By Phil O'Keefe |
Fender American Original '50s Stratocaster
A '50s era American original makes (another) comeback
by Phil O'Keefe
There are very few electric guitars that are as iconic as the Fender Stratocaster. First released by Fender in 1954, this shapely guitar was groundbreaking and futuristic back then, and still looks modern and sleek today. Fender has offered this guitar in various different versions over the years, including the long-running "American Vintage" series of reissue models that was first introduced in the early 1980s, and which was recently discontinued. But don't worry - that doesn't mean that vintage-inspired versions of this legendary Fender guitar are going away. In the place of the American Vintage series, Fender has released a new line of American-built, vintage-inspired guitars called the American Original series, and they recently sent me a 50s Stratocaster from this series to check out. Let's dig in and see what it has to offer, and how it differs from its predecessor.
What You Need To Know
- Like all of the models in Fender's new American Original series, the Fender American Original '50s Stratocaster is made in Fender's Corona California USA factory.
- If you're familiar with the previous, long-running "American Vintage" series, you may have already noticed that this new line doesn't have a specific year associated with each model like the earlier guitars did. Instead of basing the design off of a 1957 Stratocaster, Fender is now taking a bit different approach. Each guitar is based on an era or decade instead of slavishly adhering to the specific details from a single year. Fender says this allows them a bit more freedom to pick their favorite components in order to create a guitar with all the vintage character of each decade, but with the best features from various model years.
- The 25.5" scale length one-piece maple neck is finished in un-tinted gloss nitrocellulose lacquer and has a thick, soft V-shaped profile - it has a feel that is sort of in between a U shape and a harder V shape. It's unapologetically big and beefy. It comes equipped with black dot position markers on both the fingerboard and the side of the neck.
- A modern touch is the 9.5" fingerboard radius, which is a bit flatter than the vintage-correct 7.25" radius. This makes it a bit more comfortable to play and allows for easier string bends without worry of fretting out.
- The truss rod is installed from the rear, so the guitar has a "skunk stripe" on the back of the neck. You also get the expected body contours on the front and back that help give the Strat its distinctive shape and fantastic comfort.
- Truss rod adjustments are performed at the body of the guitar, just as on the vintage originals. It's a bit more of a hassle to do than when it's located at the headstock end, but this is more historically accurate.
- The American Original '50s Stratocaster is equipped with a bone nut. The neck measures 1.65" wide at the nut and is 0.920" thick at the first fret, and an even 1.00" thick at the 12th fret according to my digital calipers.
- There are 21 "vintage tall" frets. These are narrow like vintage frets, but with a bit more height than you might find on a classic Fender from the 1950s.
- The front of the headstock features a classic Fender "spaghetti logo" along with a single string tree to keep sufficient downward pressure on the B and high E strings.
- The American Original '50s Strat is equipped with Fender-branded Kluson-style tuners. These have slotted tops and a 14:1 gear ratio; they turn smoothly and hold their tuning well.
- The neck is attached to the body with the vintage-correct four bolt arrangement, and the seven-digit V-series serial number is stamped into the chrome bolt plate.
- The body is beautifully and flawlessly finished in gloss nitrocellulose lacquer and comes in your choice of three vintage colors - the review unit I was sent to try out is finished in the classic two-tone sunburst that was standard on Strats in the 1950s. You can also get this guitar in Aztec Gold or in a semi-translucent White Blonde; this allows a bit of the wood grain to pop through and be seen through the finish, similar to the classic Mary Kaye Strats from the 1950s.
- Fender opted for alder for the bodies of the sunburst and Aztec Gold models, while the White Blonde models use ash. The review unit has a two-piece alder body that is seamed very well; you can see where the two pieces join, but it takes fairly careful inspection.
- The pickguard is single-ply white plastic, which is held in place with the standard 8 screws of a '50s era Strat.
- The electronics are classic Strat, with three Pure Vintage '59 single-coil pickups that are based on units from 1959. They use AlNiCo V magnets, and these are staggered as you would expect.
- The pickups also use vintage style fiber bobbins, and are wrapped with Formvar wire and are wax potted. Fender has also stuck with vintage-approved cloth covered wiring too.
- There is a master volume control, as well as two tone controls - one for the neck pickup, as well as one dedicated to the bridge pickup. This isn't quite in keeping with the original vintage design, which had no tone control for the bridge pickup, but one assigned to the middle pickup instead. While not quite vintage-correct, I found this arrangement to be a bit more practical since it allows you to adjust the tone of the bridge pickup - something I think is more useful in a lot of situations.
- For the controls, Fender has stuck with tried-and-true 250k CTS pots. The tone capacitor is a vintage looking .1 MFD Fender-branded part.
- Another place where Fender has bowed to modern tastes is the pickup selector. The original Strats from the '50s had three-way switches, but Fender has opted for a much more versatile five-way blade switch, saving owners the trouble of having to install one themselves.
- The only shielding is on the back of the pickguard near the controls and switch - the rest of the pickguard, as well as the body routing, is unshielded.
- The bridge features vintage-style Fender-stamped bent steel saddles and the classic six screw "Synchronized Tremolo" (sic) vibrato system. A bridge cover "ashtray" is included along with the case candy but isn't installed on the guitar as it arrives from the factory.
- The tremolo block is steel, and the guitar comes with three springs installed, with no extras in the case accessory compartment.
- With three springs, the factory setup allows the bridge to "float", giving you the ability to bend notes sharp or drop them flat with the tremolo arm.
- The recessed and angled output jack is in the traditional location.
- The American Original '50s Stratocaster comes with a beautiful red velour-lined G&G tweed case. The case has a long center support for the guitar's neck, as well as a large accessory compartment.
- Inside the accessory compartment, you'll find a zippered vinyl pouch which contains the manual, a certificate of authenticity, the bridge cover, tremolo arm, allen wrench for saddle height adjustment, a lacquer finishes care guide and a Fender sticker.
- As with most single coil pickups, these are susceptible to hum and noise interference.
- Unlike some more modern versions of the Strat, the middle pickup is not reverse wound / reverse magnetic polarity, so you get similar amounts of noise, even in switch positions 2 and 4.
- The beefiness of the neck, while not inappropriate or uncommon for guitars from the era being replicated, will be a turn-off for many players with smaller hands.
- If you prefer using five springs and having the tremolo set up so it will only drop in pitch instead of the stock "floating" arrangement, you'll need to buy another pair of springs and adjust the factory setup to your preferences.
I think there's a lot to be said for the approach Fender took with the new American Original Series. By taking their favorite bits from several vintage 1950s era Stratocasters and combining them, you get the best that each has to offer. The resulting guitar will be loved by many, but not by everyone. In particular, players with smaller sized hands may be disappointed by the chunky, vintage-correct neck profile, but those who want something substantial to grab ahold of will feel right at home with it. Thickness and profile choices aside, most players will appreciate Fender's decision to go with a slightly flatter fingerboard radius, as well as the use of slightly taller frets - both of which make for noticeable improvements in playability - especially when it comes to string bends.
This guitar will hold a lot of appeal for anyone who loves the unmistakable sound of a vintage Strat. The tone is straight-ahead, classic Stratocaster in all of its spanky, glassy, quacky goodness. Since the pickups all have the same winding and magnetic polarity, there's some noise there too, but that's to be expected with a vintage-style Strat. The inclusion of the five-way pickup selector and the bridge tone control (in place of the vintage three-way switch and middle pickup tone control) provide more tonal flexibility than if Fender had stuck with the traditional vintage wiring, but at the same time, the great sounding Pure Vintage '59 pickups with their fiber bobbins and the cloth covered wiring used throughout the guitar will make purists happy.
You may not be able to travel back in time to the 1950s and play a bunch of new Strats to find your personal favorite, but Fender's latest offering is the next best thing to being able to do that. It's got the classic visual appeal, it's well built, and sounds great. They've picked the best bits for you and put it all together in one very impressive vintage-inspired guitar. -HC-
Want to discuss the Fender American Original '50's Stratocaster or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Electric Guitar forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
Fender American Original '50s Stratocaster ($1,899.99 "street" for Aztec Gold and 2-color Sunburst, $1,949.99 "street" for the ash-bodied White Blonde model)
Fender's product web page
You can purchase the Fender American Original '50s Stratocaster from:
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician, and Guitar Player magazines.