Review: Fender American Ultra Jazzmaster and Stratocaster

These hip new Fenders are modernized in all the right ways, without losing the core elements that made their original counterparts great to begin with.
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Fender's full American Ultra series lineup.

Fender's full American Ultra series lineup.

Described by Fender as “Our most advanced series of guitars and basses for discerning players who demand the ultimate in precision, performance and tone,” the new American Ultra series includes two Strats (Standard and HSS), a Telecaster and a Jazzmaster, as well as Jazz and Precision basses. 

Since these guitars aren’t intended to be vintage spec, Fender was free to do a bunch of performance-enhancing updates that include sculpted rear-body contours, maple necks with a Modern D profile, tapered heels for easy access to the highest positions and fretboards with rolled edges and a 10-inch to 14-inch compound radius. 

Other details include sealed locking tuning machines and a variety of finish choices. All models also have Ultra Noiseless Vintage pickups with advanced wiring options, and a premium molded case.

We received the Jazzmaster and Stratocaster HSS for review, which were tested through a Carr Rambler 1x12 combo and a Fender Blues Junior III and Deluxe Reverb.

Jazzmaster

Fender American Ultra Jazzmaster

Fender American Ultra Jazzmaster

A beautiful thing with its Cobra Blue paint and large pearloid pickguard, the Jazzmaster features a super-comfortable neck topped with a bound maple fingerboard carrying 21 smoothly finished medium-jumbo frets. 

In tandem with the silky satin finish on the back of the neck and a tapered heel, the playing feel is righteous. Light-gauge strings ride across a bone nut on their way to the locking die-cast tuners, and at the opposite end is an adjustable bridge with six chrome-plated brass saddles and a classic Jazzmaster vibrato. 

This design doesn’t vary the pitch as much as a Strat’s vibrato, but it’s cool how you can work the long bar to impart gentle up and down bends - so sweet and vibey sounding with some delay and tremolo added. A button at the front of the vibrato plate slides back to lock the unit for downward bends only, but it’s more fun to play it unlocked, and either way the system returns to pitch very reliably.

One of the coolest aspects of this guitar is its decidedly nonvintage wiring scheme. With the S1 switch (which is built into the master volume knob) in the up position, you get the usual pickup selections from the three-way toggle, with the pickups wired in parallel in the middle setting. 

The range of tones here is great, as the neck pickup is big and full-bodied and the bridge setting is twangy, but not too skinny or slicing. They combine in a beautifully clear and detailed way in Parallel mode.

With the S1 activated, both pickups are on full-time and wired in series, which delivers a massive sound with some grind added from a pedal. A cool trick here is that you can activate the slider switch on the upper bout to put the pickups out of phase, and then use the two volume-offset wheels to adjust the individual levels of the pickups. 

I could go from a huge overdriven roar to a slimmer, funkier sound simply by hitting the phase switch, which is pretty neat. With S1 in normal position (up), the phase switch yields the more nasally textures you associate with out-of-phase wiring, but again, the volume wheels (which only work when the phase switch is active) let you adjust those sounds to the nth degree, so it’s very easy to get just the right balance of phasiness. 

A tone control for each pickup allows for further shaping of the sounds, and it all combines to make the American Ultra Jazzmaster a very intriguing guitar to play and a hip alternative for all kinds of styles.

Specifications

American Ultra Jazzmaster

CONTACT fender.com
PRICE $1,999 street, Elite molded case included

NUT WIDTH 1.685" bone
NECK Maple, Modern D shape with tapered heel
FRETBOARD Maple, 25.5" scale, 10"–14" radius
FRETS 21 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Deluxe cast/sealed locking
BODY Alder
BRIDGE American Professional Jazzmaster with vibrato tailpiece
PICKUPS Ultra Noiseless Vintage Jazzmaster
CONTROLS Master volume (with S1 switch for activating both pickups wired in-series), tone (neck pickup), tone (bridge pickup), offset-volume 1 (neck pickup), offset-volume 2 (bridge pickup), phase switch, 3-way toggle switch
FACTORY STRINGS Fender USA 250L Nickel Plated Steel, .009–.042
WEIGHT 8.4 lbs (as tested)
BUILT USA

KUDOS Awesome look, sound and playability. Clever passive electronics
CONCERNS None

Stratocaster HSS

Fender American Ultra Stratocaster HSS

Fender American Ultra Stratocaster HSS

The superstrat with a humbucker in the bridge position has long been popular with legions of players, and this latest iteration of the concept should have plenty of appeal for working guitarists who need to cover a broad spectrum of sounds. 

Our review model had a cool Plasma Red Burst finish that really highlights the figuring in the ash body. Complemented by a mint-colored pickguard, it presents a stylish look that’s in keeping with the other cool new color schemes Fender has created for the American Ultras, which include Aged Natural, Arctic Pearl, Cobra Blue, Ultraburst and Texas Tea. 

Like the Jazzmaster, the Strat HSS features a great-playing Modern D neck with a comfy tapered heel and a maple fingerboard sporting rolled edges and 22 beautifully finished frets. The setup is inspiring, and the guitar is so resonant sounding that it was easy to get into just playing it acoustically for quite a while after taking it out of the case. 

Sustain-enhancing features include the locking tuners found on all AU guitars, and a precisely notched bone nut, and here the strings anchor to a 2-Point Deluxe Synchronized Tremolo that was adjusted to float. It’s a good setup that feels butter smooth and stays in tune well under hard use.

Though not nearly as adventurous in the wiring department as the Jazzmaster, the Stratocaster HSS also features an S1 switch on the volume knob that activates Fender’s patented Double Tap technology. This simultaneously splits the humbucking pickup and un-taps the working single-coil for a closer representation of classic Strat tones. 

That said, it’s great to have the full humbucker for overdriven stuff, and it sounded ballsy and badass when driving distortion pedals or a high-gain amp channel. 

Tone controls for the bridge and middle pickups make it easy to dial-in sounds for the rig you’re playing through, and what a great variety are available - from deep, soulful neck-pickup tones to twangy middle-position textures to those chiming neck/middle and middle/bridge combinations! 

It’s uncanny how dead-quiet these Ultra Noiseless pickups are too, as we found out when using this guitar in a home studio running a Presonus Audiobox 22VSL into a TH-U Slate Digital Overloud amp and effects models.

For a U.S.-made guitar that does what it does for this reasonable price, the American Ultra Stratocaster HSS is an exceptional workingman’s guitar that is modernized in all the right ways, without losing the core elements that make a Strat so great to begin with.

Specifications

American Ultra Stratocaster HSS

CONTACT fender.com
PRICE $1,899 street, Elite molded case included

NUT WIDTH 1.685" bone
NECK Maple, Modern D shape with tapered heel
FRETBOARD Maple, 25.5" scale, 10"–14" radius
FRETS 22 medium-jumbo
TUNERS Deluxe cast/sealed locking
BODY Ash
BRIDGE 2-Point Deluxe Synchronized Tremolo with pop-in arm
PICKUPS Ultra Noiseless Hot Strat (neck and middle), Ultra Double Tap humbucker
CONTROLS Master volume (with S-1 Switch to activate Custom Double Tap feature), tone 1 (neck/middle pickups), tone 2 (bridge pickup), 5-way selector
FACTORY STRINGS Fender USA 250L Nickel Plated Steel, .009–.042
WEIGHT 8.6 lbs (as tested)
BUILT USA

KUDOS A great playing Strat with excellent build quality and the added flexibility of a splittable humbucker in the bridge position
CONCERNS None

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