Fender VG Stratocaster

Between the two extremes of players— those who rabidly embrace computer technology, and those who’d sooner play tambourine than a guitar with a hexaphonic pickup—are legions of guitarists caught in the middle. These are the traditional types who’d consider owning a high-tech modeling guitar if it freed them from having to drag multiple guitars to a gig and if it didn’t look too dorky. Developed through a technological partnership with Roland, Fender is betting the new VG Stratocaster will attract these “swing voters.”
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Like the other big-dog modeling guitar, the Line 6 Variax, the VG Stratocaster offers onboard instrument models, as well as instant alternate tunings through a standard 1/4" instrument jack without the need for a peripheral power supply (though the Variax offers one for people who don’t like changing batteries). The VG guitar’s biggest selling point, however, is that it also boasts a true American legacy. If at any time you want to get out of the digital realm on the VG (or if you run out of battery power), a flick of a knob puts you back in the real world, playing Fender’s flagship U.S.-built American Series Stratocaster.

Our VG came with a seductively smooth, satin-finished neck that was expertly set up with the Holy Trinity—great intonation, a low action, and the perfect saddle-height/neck-relief ratio to keep nearly every note on the fretboard chiming buzz free. That said, monster bends of a minor third or more on the high end of this 92"-radius fretboard tend to fret out. (Fender does make Strats with radii as wide as 12" for big-time string yankers.) The only other anomaly was a vibrato-arm hole in the bridge assembly that didn’t line up perfectly with the threaded hole in the trem block, resulting in some extra friction each time the bar was screwed in.

The easy-to-operate VG Stratocaster produces 16 different sounds from its four models (modeled ash-body Strat, Telecaster, humbucker pickups, and acoustic guitars), and 16 more sonic options if you select 12-string mode. Add the five magnetic-pickup tones, and the grand total of sounds you get is 37. The four digital models are called up by turning the M knob, and returning the control to “N” puts the guitar in normal magnetic-pickup mode. Interestingly, this bypass position is reached by turning the M knob entirely counterclockwise—a direction that might seem counter-intuitive to Strat players used to sweeping all knobs clockwise to quickly put their guitar in its most “normal” setting.

Naturally, the different pickup sounds within each model are accessed with the 5-way selector. If you change pickup positions while holding a note, though, the switch may produce a brief, subtle “gurgle” as the sounds transition. (The M knob produces a similar effect when turned.) One engineer dug this sonic quirk, and suggested it could be used as a sort of sequenced-filter effect—though you wouldn’t want to wear out the switch as it has a lot of wires soldered to it.

The VG’s most thrilling feature is the T knob, because it switches any modeled sound between standard tuning and four others without any changes in string tension or twists of the tuning pegs. It also engages the aforementioned 12-string mode. (Unfortunately, the modeled alternate tunings can’t be applied in 12-string mode.) If you’re wondering why the VG features a modeled Stratocaster when you’re holding the real deal, it’s included so you can apply the alternate tunings to Strat sounds, as well. Being able to instantaneously switch tunings on a fulcrum-trem guitar is extremely hip, as even dropped-D (achieved by simply lowering the sixth string a whole-step) requires multiple adjustments to all six tuners on typical floating- or near-floating-bridge guitars.

As long as you’re in tune in one tuning, you’ll be in tune in all the others. Only open-E—the trademark interval set of Duane Allman and many blues greats—is conspicuously absent on the VG. (Tip: When you switch to open-G, the VG naturally tunes all strings to their even-tempered pitches. But Sonny Landreth, Keith Richards, and other open-G masters often lower the second string slightly so the major third is in tune with the overtone series. This adjustment dials out the dissonance, and makes those big, one-finger major chords come alive.)

It was quite fun being the first guy on the block with a VG, because, from a distance, the guitar appears to be an ordinary Stratocaster. I had a ball perplexing bandmates at soundchecks (“Where’s that 12-string coming from? Is that a baritone?”), although the joke was on me during the VG’s first gig, when I inadvertently left the T knob set to dropped-D, and bricked the low note on the famous “My Girl” guitar hook. Red faced, I suddenly wanted to trumpet the VG’s secrets to anyone who would listen. (“It was the guitar!”)

Pulling off soundcheck chicanery can be tricky, though, because the VG’s bright blue status light (located between the Volume and Tone knobs) is a dead giveaway that the Stratocaster in your hands is anything but ordinary, and when the house lights are low, it hits your audience right in their retinas. By the end of my second indoor gig with the VG, the LED was bugging me enough that I decided its initials stood for Light Emitting Distraction. Sure, it’s a helpful power indicator (it even starts pulsing when you have around 30 minutes of modeling power left), but cosmetically, it’s the only VG accoutrement with any dork factor.

Of course, the big question is how the modeled instruments and tunings sound. Volume-wise, the digital models and magnetic-pickup sounds are remarkably balanced, and the Roland GK pickup tends to work better than saddle pickups, if only because it lets you snap and pop strings without any unpleasant piezo-style thwonk. But while the VG’s acoustic emulations are fun, it’s the Telecaster, Humbucker, and Stratocaster models that are the stars of the tone party. Not only do these models cut brilliantly on stage or in the studio, but, being typical solidbody sounds, they all feel extremely natural coming out of a Strat.

When comparing the modeled Strat sounds to the actual Strat tones, it’s surprisingly tough to discern which are the digital sounds without looking at your M knob setting—the modeling is that good. It was only after fighting for space in the mix on a loud stage with a keyboardist and two horns that I noticed the advantages of each mode. The single-pickup tones are remarkably similar in either realm, but through a handwired, reissue Fender Vibroverb, the real Strat’s bridge/middle and middle/neck settings sounded more three-dimensional and less woofy than their modeled counterparts. On the other hand, the modeled single-coils cut through the din nearly as well, and they have a unique advantage—particularly in the studio: They are entirely free of 60-cycle hum.

Another advantage of the models is that you don’t have to use the sounds to strictly emulate their original purposes. Want a compelling chorus-like effect on a blazing lead? Crank up the gain, combine the Humbucker and 12-string models, and bend away like you never could on real multi-coursed guitar. Want sparkly harmonized fourths in stereo? Record the baritone model direct while simultaneously miking the unamplified sound of the VG, and spread the two signals left and right.

As good as many of the VG’s sounds are, however, there will always be some degree of eyes/ears/fingers disconnect the further away from a Strat tone you go. For example, the VG’s Telecaster sounds are extremely authentic, but the notes don’t bend like they would on a real Tele—particularly if the VG’s bridge is floating or near floating (in which case, there’ll be some string sag during oblique bends). The Baritone model is a great patch that delivers girthful low notes—despite a trace amount of digital warble when you strike notes hard—but lacking giant strings and a mammoth neck, you can’t attack the VG as you would a real bari.

It’s with the nylon-string and resonator models that this disconnect becomes most pronounced. With the VG plugged into a Soundcraft mixing console, a Manley Voxbox compressor, and a pair of JBL LSR4328 powered monitors, I gave these models a fair shot, but even with my eyes closed, my ears weren’t quite buying ’em. The tones are plenty useful for trippy indie-rock sounds, but don’t expect Segovia or Son House to fill the air. The steel-string models are more accurate. A very cool feature of the acoustic sounds is that they all feature adjustable reverb. (In acoustic mode, the VG’s Tone knob becomes a reverb-level control—slick!)

A jack of many trades and a master of some, the VG represents the most significant advancement in Stratocaster technology in 53 years. And, just as the original Strat gave players a lot of flexibility from a single guitar, the VG follows in the same spirit by offering a wealth of tones from an almost equally simple set of controls.

Some may question having to drop an extra $700 or so to upgrade from a standard American Series Strat to a kick-ass Strat with modeling capabilities, but let me tell you this: The most fun I’ve ever had draining four AA Duracells was the 90-minute recording session, the two three-hour gigs, and the one-hour living-room jam I did with the VG Stratocaster.