It was 55 years ago that Leo Fender and his Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing company brought to the market the groundbreaking Fender Stratocaster, the solid body, three-coil wonder that would help re-shape the course of popular music. Never content to rest on its laurels, Fender has continually looked for ways to improve upon the successful Strat formula. This year’s crop includes brand-new American Special Series–a budget-minded line of U.S.-made guitars that sports many of the key features found on the prototype American Standard–not to mention some new variations on the old classic Strat itself.
The Strat Special Sound
With its American Special Series Stratocaster, Fender delivers a guitar that is well suited for modern and traditional tonal sensibilities–and, best of all, at a price that’s palatable enough for even the shyest of wallets. Make no mistake, this ain’t no stripped-down Standard. On the contrary, the Special (offered in a variety of finishes) easily holds its own with impressive details such as jumbo frets, high-gloss maple fretboard, synchronized tremolo system, and oversized ‘70s-style headstock.
Similar in character to the higher-end American Standard Alnico V pickups found on the American Standard, a trio of over wound, big-bodied Texas Specials shape the sound of the Special Series Strat, providing a full, muscular tone in neck position, while delivering the renowned Strat “growl” in bridge and bridge/mid setting.
Of course, some like it even hotter–and for those folks, there’s the American Special Stratocaster HSS model (patterned after the American Special Stratocaster HSS Strat), that substitutes a bridge-position Atomic humbucking pickup to go with mid- and neck-position Texas Specials (hence the “HSS” designation, for humbucker/single-coil/single-coil). The distinctive-sounding Special HSS is outfitted with a rosewood fretboard and a black/white/black pick guard. Color choices are sunburst as well as classic black.
Stratocaster HSS test
I took the American Special HSS for a test drive using my late-’50s tweed Gibson GA-40, it’s Class A circuitry well suited for the guitar’s hotter pickups. The HSS didn’t disappoint–in bridge position, it’s full-on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out-era Keith Richards, with all the tone and crunch of a beefy solid body but without all the extra weight; mix the humbucker/single-coil in bridge-mid position and you’ve got the ultimate combo of bass boost and Strat tone. The sound is equally impressive in neck position–boost the master gain to saturate the amp’s power tubes and it’s big and beefy rather than clean and bluesy. (For that matter, the HSS’s five-position blade switching has enough tonal shades to suit any palate.) The slinky 9.5”-radius neck makes it easy for less-than-fleet-fingered players (like me) to get around, as do the sleek fingerboard and finger-friendly jumbo frets.
The Standard bearer
Of course, after all these years there’s still nothing quite like the sound, look, and feel of the classic American Standard Stratocaster. The latest incarnation offers many traditional features (such as a period headstock adorned with old-school logo) while maintaining the tonal versatility required by today’s breed of players. The new model has all kinds of stuff under the hood: a new bridge design with closely spaced bent-steel saddles, two-point synchronized tremolo, micro-tilt adjustment, and a bi-flex truss rod system that facilitates easy setups and neck readjustments, not to mention denser, copper-infused bridge block for enhanced sustain and resonance. For the style-conscious, the Standard comes in a wide array of finish options, including the striking Sienna Sunburst and Blizzard Pearl.
Using various switching configurations (and once again running through the Gibson amp’s tweed circuitry), the Standard’s three single-coil Alnico V pickups provide a multitude of monumental sounds, from the sinuous Jerry Garcia-esque lead lines in bridge position to the full, rounded neck-position tones favored by legions of blues movers. A lighter finish coat makes this a much more resonant Strat. Like all Standards through the years, the current model comes with hand-rolled fingerboard edges to ensure smooth playability, and its set of sturdy, staggered tuning machines keep you locked in from one set to the next.
For a meatier approach, there’s the American Standard Series Stratocaster HSS, which utilizes a bridge-position Diamondback humbucking pickup and higher-gain-mid- and neck-position Tex-Mex pickups, comes with a finger-friendly maple fretboard, and like the regular Standard, includes hand-rolled fingerboard edges, deluxe staggered cast/sealed tuning machines, and two-point synchronized tremolo.
Top dog or budget buster? You decide
Sure, it would be great to walk into your local music retailer, cast an eye in the direction of the newest and nicest American Standard Strat hanging on the wall, and, in your best Wayne Campbell, inquire, “Do you take-ka–ching–cash?” Times being what they are, however, not all of us have that kind of scratch. If circumstances dictate that you set your sights on something a bit more budget-friendly, fear not–a few good blasts of an American Special Strat through a choice amp, and you’ll know right that you can’t finder better bang for your buck. Dig little deeper, and you can own a piece of guitar history in the American Standard. Either way, you end up with a winner. The choice is yours.
When buying used gear, read: How to spot fake Fender guitars.
By David Simons