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Fender American Vintage Series

January 30, 2014
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AS I PLAY IN A BAND WITH GP EDITOR MICHAEL MOLENDA, we’re often the test case for new products. So it wasn’t unusual when he asked me if I’d like to try out one of the new Fender American Vintage Stratocasters at a rehearsal. The surprise was that, at the time, I didn’t realize I was signing myself up to review all nine guitars in the series!

“American Vintage Series” isn’t just a seductive marketing phrase. For the new 2012 models, Fender’s R&D department dissected quite a few original vintage instruments to develop cosmetic, sonic, and electrical benchmarks for each guitar in the series. They even went so far as to restore some vintage tooling to accurately recreate models from the ’50s and ’60s. The result is that players now have an opportunity to get their hands on guitars that are closer to their vintage namesakes than anything Fender has ever offered outside of its Custom Shop.

Fender’s American Vintage Series consists of replicas of the 1965 Jaguar ($2,999 retail/$2,399 street), 1965 Jazzmaster ($2,874 retail/$2,299 street), 1956 Stratocaster ($2,874 retail/$2,299 street), 1959 Stratocaster, ($2,874 retail/$2,299 street), 1965 Stratocaster ($2,874 retail/$2,299 street), 1952 Telecaster ($2,499 retail/$1,699 street), 1958 Telecaster ($2,499 retail/$1,999 street), and 1964 Telecaster ($2,499 retail/$1,999 street).

Except for the ’52 Tele—which is only available in butterscotch blonde—the individual models offer a few color options. Only the ’59 Stratocaster gives you a choice of fretboard woods (rosewood or maple), and we tested both options. The ’56 and ’65 Stratocasters and the ’52 and ’64 Telecasters are also available in lefthand versions.

As this is a series, all nine of the guitars we reviewed share some common elements:

• Every model comes with a bone nut and features a 7.25" fretboard radius.

• All models have a nut width of 1.650" and a scale length of 25.5", except the Jaguar, which rocks a 24" scale length.

• All models offer 21 vintage-style frets, with the Jag again being the exception with 22 frets.

• Body woods are alder for the Jaguar, Jazzmaster, and Stratocasters (although the ’56 Strat is also available in ash), and ash for the three Telecasters (the ’64 offers an alder option, as well).

• The guitars are vintage NOS (new old stock) with no artificial aging or weathering. Seeing one for the first time is like discovering a lost treasure buried in the back of someone’s closet.

• All pickups are “new vintage” made to period-correct specs, and based on the sound of the original model.

• Although Fender went to the trouble of remaking paper/ oil capacitors for some of the ’50s models, each of the American Vintage guitars have “modern” wiring. For example, the Stratocasters come with 5-position pickup selectors. However, Fender purists will be happy to note that a new, period-correct 3-position switch is also included.

• Accessories include “vintage replica” paperwork for the original model year, as well as a manual, a strap, a cable, a cloth, vintage wiring diagrams, and a saddle-height wrench. The Telecaster accessory packages also include a vintage-spec “ashtray” bridge-pickup cover, and all right-handed Strats come with bridge covers, as well.

• All guitars are strung with a set of Fender USA 250R NPS strings, gauged .010-.046.

I tested each model in the GP sound room using a Victoria Ivy League 1x10 combo (speaker was a Jensen Alnico) and a Marshall 1-watt JMP head with a 1x10, Celestion-loaded cabinet. The signal chain was guitar to cable to amp—no compressors, delays, reverbs, overdrives, or other pedals were inserted.

’52 Telecaster

I was very eager to plug in and play this model, but I found myself staring absent-mindedly at the beautiful, clear finish for several minutes before remembering what I was supposed to be doing. Sparkly clean tones and brilliant note definition are hallmarks of the ’52 Tele, and the overdriven tones are out of this world. It’s amazing how many tonal colors you can pull from the neck and bridge pickups, and every one is grounded in the crisp, bright, classic sound of a vintage Telecaster. Even so, I found that all but the brightest tones produced some wonderfully subtle and creamy overtones. My favorite lead tone—on either pickup—was with the guitar’s Volume dimed and Tone at about 6 o’clock. Heavenly! Roy Buchanan-like pinch harmonics just jump out of this guitar. Oh, and one more thing: “Keef” vibe for days. After I tuned this Tele to open G, dozens of Stones classics were right at my fingertips. Yeah, that can happen with any Tele, but the midrange complexity and aggressive bite of this American Vintage model seemed so much more, well, Keith Richards approved. The ’52 is heavier than the other Telecasters in the series, but the guitar is so well balanced that you hardly notice. The thick, U-shaped profile of the maple neck is comfy to play, and construction is outstanding all around. Playing this guitar was pure joy.

KUDOS Variety of tones. Playability. Solid construction. Beautiful vintage look.

CONCERNS Heavy pick attack can produce overly bright tone.

’56 Stratocaster

Sporting the quintessential Strat look, this guitar conjures visions of Hendrix at Woodstock, even though it is based on a guitar that was designed, built, and sold more than a decade before that famous performance. The ’56 Stratocaster’s clean tones are exemplary, with brilliant pop, snap, shimmer, thud, and chunk—depending upon how you attack the strings and set the guitar’s Tone knobs and pickup selection. Even when hammering the low string, the ’56 Strat delivers an articulate and springy resonance that’s never spongy or muddy. As the pickups are period correct, however, I noticed they produced slightly brittle tones when pushed hard for amp distortion. But, considering that not much hard rock, metal, or punk music was making the scene in 1956, it makes sense that this model would lean towards country, honky-tonk, soul, R&B, and cleaner rock and roll styles (think Buddy Holly or the Shadows). Cheers to Fender for nailing that vibe, rather than making the ’56 a tonal “utility player.” The guitar’s deep, thick, soft-V profile neck is a bit much for my taste, but it still plays very well. Overall construction, hardware, and frets are excellent. This is eye candy that jumps, jukes, and rules.

KUDOS Classically beautiful. Solid construction. Sweet clean tones.

CONCERNS Pickups a bit harsh sounding for modern overdrive/ distortion tones.

’58 Telecaster

This is a classic sunburst Tele with a beautifully grained maple neck—what more do ya want? This D-shaped neck feels pretty darn good, and sports a nice balance between depth and width. The maple fretboard is fast, and no fret buzzes were detected at any point on the neck. I found this to be the best-playing neck of all the Teles in the series, as it’s very easy to go from playing double-stops to whole-step country bends to jazzy single-note runs. Sonically, the ’58 is a bit too bright with the Tone knob cranked (although at 70 percent up, you can squeal and scream like Albert Collins), but the tones are truly superb when you keep the Tone knob near the middle of its travel range. This guitar can pull great natural overdrive from your amp, with the bridge pickup in particular sounding otherworldly good. Added thrill: I got real close to that wonderful guitar-solo tone that Paul McCartney got on “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Construction and playability are excellent. I’ll mention this, because I’d hate for you to miss out on the fun: The ’58 really comes alive when you dig into the strings and roughhouse a bit, forcing the pickups to push your amp into overdrive territory.

KUDOS Great playing neck. Great tones—especially overdriven sounds. Solid construction.

CONCERNS None.

’59 Stratocaster

(MAPLE FRETBOARD)

This guitar has great vintage vibe, but it can also deliver the goods for modern music. The clean tones are bright, articulate, and very present without being brittle or too edgy. Unlike the period-accurate pickups on the ’56 Strat, the ’59-era models can drive an amp into a sweet and tasty overdrive—provided the guitar’s Volume knob is almost dimed and your pick attack is heavy. The very cool thing is that even when overdriving an amp, all the notes in a strummed chord ring with near-perfect clarity. Only a slight hint of flabbiness on the lowest notes of the sixth string is evident. The excellent note definition ensures that even super-saturated, 2012-era shredders can wield this 1959 homage with confidence. While I must confess I prefer rosewood fretboards because of the feel, I enjoyed working this maple ’board and D-shape neck very much. Playability is easy and comfortable. In fact, for this model, the factory setup was spot on. Like the other guitars in the American Vintage Series, construction is solid, fret dressing is excellent, and the finish is flawless. Although the Tone controls were not functioning on our test model, the ’59 Stratocaster offers a vast tonal topography that can well serve myriad styles and players.

KUDOS Great clean and distorted tones. Solid construction.

CONCERNS Arrived with broken tone pots.

’59 Stratocaster

(ROSEWOOD FRETBOARD)

Everything about this guitar screams, “Play me!” The faded Sonic Blue color is gorgeous, the body is light, the mid-’60s C-shape neck feels wonderful, and the luxuriously dark rosewood fretboard is silky smooth. And when I say “silky,” I mean it’s so easy to move from one position to another that it feels as if the frets are filed right down to the wood. I played for 30 minutes with hardly a hint of fatigue, and every second was absolutely joyous. I could see myself performing long, multi-set gigs with this guitar and never losing the smile on my face. The tones are as wonderfully varied as on the ’59 maple Strat, but here there are more pronounced Knopfler-like quack tones from the 2 and 4 positions on the pickup selector. Articulation and clarity also match the maple version, but the rosewood model offers a slightly spikier bridge-pickup tone when the Tone knob is full up. Overall, I was wowed by the wide range of tones offered by both ’59 Stratocaster models. Not surprisingly, playability, construction, and finish are excellent. Fender’s quality control on those issues is absolutely consistent, though the factory setup exhibited a bit of fret buzz on the low strings. This guitar has classic Fender vibe, look, and tones, with but a tiny edge over the maple version, simply due to my preference for rosewood.

KUDOS Great quack tones and overall versatility. Solid construction. Beautiful NOS appeal.

CONCERNS None.

’64 Telecaster

The playability of the ’64 Tele is every bit as nice as the ’58 model—except that its mid-’60s, C-shape neck feels thinner, even though it also has a 7.25" radius. The easy and fast feel encouraged me to play solo riffs from Zep’s “Communication Breakdown” and “Black Dog,” as well as funky rhythm figures like James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” The fretwork is pretty sweet, and rapid single-note runs are easy to pull off. Like all the models in the American Vintage Series, the construction, finish, and hardware of the ’64 is first rate. This model’s pickups are voiced very differently than the ’52 and ’58 models. The neck pickup sounds great, and it produces a slightly ballsier tone than the two other Teles in the series. The bridge pickup offers classic Tele snap, but it’s a tad smoother and less edgy, so you can roar without backing down the Tone knob. With both pickups on, the blend is a very cool, raunchy grind—especially when really driving a tube amp—that I could see a young group of indie rockers building an entire band sound around. But the ’64 can also cut funk, R&B, classic rock, and blues with equal glory.

KUDOS Variety of tones. Playability. Quality construction. Lightweight.

CONCERNS None.

’65 Jazzmaster

This guitar looks so gorgeous that I wanted to play it the instant I saw it. I can’t imagine the ’65 Jazzmaster not stopping a guitarist dead in his or her tracks upon seeing it hanging up in a music store. The Aztec Gold finish is stunning, and is complemented by the cream-colored single-coils and a bound rosewood fretboard, which was an option in ’65. But this beauty also plays great. The mid-’60s, C-shape neck and vintage frets invite effortless riffing, and, as a result, the Jazzmaster handled every style I threw at it with grace and poise. It just loves being strummed, and it yields stout, balanced, and bell-like tones. There’s also a warm and pronounced low-end response that’s perfect for Wes Montgomery-style octave runs. I plucked an open E on the sixth string and was astounded at how much it sounded as if I had hit the same note on an upright piano. The Jazzmaster single-coils were surprisingly quiet on the test instrument. There was minimal hum, hiss, and other artifacts—even when played a few feet away from a computer monitor (home recordists who use DAWs take note). Construction is excellent. The spectacular gold finish exhibits no dimples or other anomalies, the frets present no sharp ends, and all hardware is tight (no rattles, wobbles, or wonky knobs). The ’65 Jazzmaster is simply magnificent on all fronts.

KUDOS Extremely versatile. Piano-like bass frequencies. Excellent construction. Stunning looks.

CONCERNS None.

’65 Jaguar

After opening the case and seeing the Jaguar’s stunning color, bound rosewood fretboard (a period-correct option), and gaggle of switches, my first impression was, “Oh, baby!” Further testing only confirmed that the ’65 Jag is a winner. The shallow, mid-’60s C-shape neck invites you to play for hours without fatigue—which is good, because it will take you a while to even scratch the surface of the multitude of sounds this guitar offers. I got juicy overdrive tones that always retained note definition, as well as clean sounds that spanned from warm and jazzy to aggressively glassy and sharp—though never harsh or painful. I found myself playing everything from the Beatles to Steely Dan to B.B. King on this ax, and everything sounded equally good. Workmanship is excellent: well-dressed frets, a tight neck socket, a flawless finish, and solid hardware—but the factory setup was a bit off the mark for a guitar at this price. Out of the case, the Jag exhibited some fret buzzes, fretted out north of the 14th fret, and had a spot of trouble staying in tune. None of these minor issues dampened my enthusiasm for this awesome guitar, but it would have been nice not to deal with them at all.

KUDOS Silky, easy-playing feel. Excellent tones. Sweet and sexy vintage vibe.

CONCERNS Some setup issues.

’65 Stratocaster

This was the model that Molenda brought to band rehearsal, so it was the first guitar in the American Vintage Series that I saw and played. It was a very good first meeting. The ’65 instantly responded well to my technique and tonal preferences, and it was so fun to play. I’d wager that this Strat is the most immediately flexible model in the series, and, as a result, I can see almost everyone liking it from the instant they put their fingers on its mid-’60s, C-shape neck. This particular set of vintage-repro pickups sounds much fatter than those on the other Stratocaster models, with great sustain, killer bluesy tones (neck pickup), and nicely biting and edgy sounds (middle and bridge pickups). The ’65 Strat may be the perfect “all arounder” in the series, though I leaned towards mid-’60s rock (think Kinks or Easybeats), neo-garage, and psychedelic styles. I was quite taken with the beautiful Dakota Red color—that’s close to that deluxe red made world famous by Ferrari—and its perfect match with the rosewood fretboard and off-white pickguard. Fit and finish is superb—though I must report that some fret buzz was evident between the fourth and tenth frets. There’s almost nothing not to love here, as the ’65 is fun to play, gives up tons of great tones, and is beautiful to behold.

KUDOS Variety of tones. Playability. Construction. Looks stunning.

CONCERNS Some fret buzz.

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