You better believe it! Considering the evidence of our three test examples—the Esprit, Chambered Tele, and M-80—the Squier marketing department isn’t taking any liberties with the term. Outwardly, each is quite a different guitar, but there are clear familial traits that link them. And while each has visual echoes of Fender’s past—the M-80’s mutant-Mustang body lines, the Tele’s classic profile, the Esprit’s familiar horns—their common traits stray far from Fender lineage. All three Squiers carry the same covered Duncan Designed alnico 5 humbuckers, 3-way pickup selectors, and dual Volume and Tone controls; are of set-neck rather than bolt-on construction; have a 24e" scale length and 12" fretboard radius; sport medium jumbo frets; and offer an Adjusto-Matic bridge with a stop tailpiece. That said, each absorbs these details smoothly to present an overall impression of refreshing originality.
The workmanship is impressive on each of these Korean-made instruments. Certainly, there are some differences between these and guitars costing two or three times as much, but they don’t necessarily jump out at you. Aside from such undercover elements as wood and hardware origins, compromises show up mostly as minor untidinesses—such as an occasionally patchy application of shielding paint in a control cavity, a slightly rickety feel to the toggle switches, some finish bleed over the binding (on the Tele in particular), a little filler here and there around the pearloid-and-abalone position markers (although I have to say the Esprit’s inlay work approaches perfection), the fact that the pickups are Duncan “Designed” and not “Built,” and a shared tendency for the bass-side adjusting screw on the bridge pickup to work itself loose (an aggravation that could be quickly remedied with a dab of Loctite Threadlocker 222). Finishing details usually reveal cost cutting, but the polyurethane paint jobs here are extremely good. In all, these guitars are a pleasure to behold, and to hold. I tested the Squiers using a variety of amps, including a Dr. Z Z-28 combo, a mid-’60s Silvertone 1484 Twin Twelve, and a Marshall DSL60.
The original semi-hollow Fender Esprit Elite and Ultra models of the 1983 Master Series were members of another team of three guitars—the first from the fledgling Japanese factory to bear the Fender name rather than the Squier brand. They were also the first set-neck Fenders ever made. Despite these worthy footnotes, the Esprit probably would have vanished without a trace if not for Robben Ford’s use of the guitar, and the subsequent issuance of the Custom Shop Robben Ford model.
Our Squier Esprit—one of two chamber-bodied models in the bunch—has lines that are faithful to its predecessors. Original Esprit designer Dan Smith (now vice president of R&D at Fender), had a hand in bringing back the Squier version, which is similarly elegant and refined both to look at and to play. The gloss antique-burst finish has been beautifully applied, and it lifts a surprising gold-hued dimension out of the carved, arched mahogany top that approaches gentle quilting. Six-ply top binding frames the picture nicely, and satin-finish hardware lends a subtlety to the look that a mediocre chrome job might spoil.
The mahogany neck has a chunky heel, but it blends seamlessly into the body, affording an easy ring-finger reach up to the 22nd fret. The “C” profile is on the thin side (with a thickness of 0.812" at the first fret), yet it carries a smooth curve that sits comfortably in the hand and aids a good grip up and down the bound rosewood fretboard. The setup is good, the fret ends are smooth and hitch-free, and a medium-low action makes for great playability. The break angles from the nut slots to the tuners on the asymmetrical three-a-side headstock are steep enough to avoid needing string trees, and the tuning is stable and true.
Unplugged, the Esprit has a solid, woody, and balanced voice that promises good things to come. Amplified, it is easily the most accomplished of the trio. Its bridge humbucker has a good chunky rhythm sound with lots of midrange emphasis and decent bite for leads, and the neck pickup delivers fluty, fluid tones that work well for blues or jazz. Through both the cranked
Z-28 and the Silvertone with an Ibanez Tube Screamer in line, I got a great variety of compelling and expressive tones. The two Volume controls allow for myriad textural shadings in the dual-pickup position, and the sounds stay crisp when you turn down. I also like the voicing of the Tone controls, which smoothly roll off treble without killing the definition.
This is another well-made Squier, although the Tele doesn’t quite have the Esprit’s refinement. A simple tap-test raises a plasticky “thip” from the Chambered Tele’s mahogany top verses the Esprit’s firm, woody “thunk,” and the satin-textured wine finish doesn’t do justice to the potentially attractive wood grain beneath it. However, the satin-finished hardware (which in this case includes the knurled metal knobs) looks nearly as good here as it does on the Esprit, and, overall, the Chambered Tele projects a stylish-yet-businesslike esthetic.
Given the Tele’s slightly thinner body, the neck joint presents even less of a heel to contend with, and the “C” profile mahogany neck offers effortless playability from the first fret to the 22nd fret. The CT’s neck—which is about 1/32" thicker and slightly narrower at the first fret than the Esprit’s—has a fast, flattish feel that, combined with the good set-up and low string height on the review sample, could tip it toward fusion and shred styles.
Immediate associations conjured by your first glimpse of that seminal single-cutaway body shape and asymmetrical headstock notwithstanding, the CT defies Tele tradition by sounding darker and warmer than most examples of its namesake. There’s also a slightly percussive honk at its core that works well in some circumstances, less well in others. The neck pickup can be plump and vocal with some overdrive dialed in, and the bridge pickup has a tough nasal bark that works great for punching out distorted rhythm and lead work.
The unifying factor across the Chambered Tele’s settings is that it likes some distortion in most cases, and clean amp settings can be a touch abrasive. Nevertheless, this is the guitar I’d go to when aggression and biting attack were demanded. The model might not look it, but when set to the bridge position, it proves the gnarliest alt-rocker of the three—a real screamer with even just a little overdrive added, and a willing accomplice in generating soaring harmonic feedback.
Easily the most down-to-business rocker of the bunch, the M-80 has many of the same elements as the Esprit, but the variables carry enough clout to give it a very different character. A new design by Fender’s Senior Master Builder Todd Krause, the M-80 is intended as a workhorse instrument for contemporary players. Its solid basswood body lacks the chambers of the Tele and Esprit, and it’s the brightest and snappiest of the three.
Basic gloss black works great on this model, but you can also have it in amber satin or transparent crimson satin. (A bolt-on-neck version of the M-80 is also available for $332 retail.) To my eyes, the fancy pearloid-rectangle-with-abalone-slash position markers that work so well on the Esprit and Tele look a little out of place here. It also seems a little odd to have a marker at the first fret—a stylistic trait shared by all three guitars—but the satin-finished hardware elevates the dress quite effectively. The M-80’s flat-backed “C” profile neck is a hair thinner than the Esprit’s but shares its heftier width at the nut, which implies an effort to appeal to elements of the fleet-fingered brigade. Both feel and sound-wise, however, it’s also a very capable blues-rock or fusion machine (versus the Esprit’s mellower jazz-blues leanings).
The M-80’s glued neck joint doesn’t have thes seamless curves of its brethren, but the slight step up from neck heel to body doesn’t impede top-fret access at all. It’s an effortless player, and the excellent setup and fret dressing on the review sample meant I had to double and triple check on occasions to remind myself that this is indeed the only unbound neck of the bunch. Action as delivered was a touch on the buzzy side of low, but a simple thumbwheel adjustment on the bridge rectified that pronto.
Through each of my test amps the M-80 readily revealed itself as the most versatile guitar of the bunch. In the bridge position, it has a punchy, slightly scooped voice that makes it great for nu-metal. Set to the neck humbucker, it isn’t quite as airy as the Esprit, but its warmth and roundness—coupled with just enough brightness and a tasty edge of snap and snarl from that chunk of basswood—really lets it sing when you wind up the volume. The M80’s dual-pickup setting is also the most pleasing of the three Squiers, delivering a good blend of smooth, open, and stinging that neither of the others quite pulls off.
Sampled together, these three Master Series Squiers make a great case for how wood choice and constructional details can affect tone (all other major components and scale factors being equal). The fact that they share an identical sticker price indicates there isn’t any great disparity between their manufacturing costs, and the common price point makes the elegant Esprit seem all the more of a bargain. Versus the relatively slab-bodied M-80 and flat-topped Tele, it is easily the most finely crafted of the trio and well deserving of an Editors’ Pick Award.