Fender revamps and renames its American Special series with some fun new tweaks. Words by Peter Hodgson.
Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #133. Subscribe to our print edition here!
There are plenty of reasons the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster have endured since the 1950s, but perhaps the most important is that they’re both instruments that have been able to subtly adapt to changes in technology while still retaining their core essence. ‘Technology’, in this case, doesn’t mean changes in the processes used to build the instruments, but rather the player-friendly aspects of the instruments themselves.
Originally, the Stratocaster had a three-way pickup selector switch, and players had to modify these in order to get those now-classic ‘in-between’ sounds, or be stuck with awkwardly trying to balance the switch in the correct position without knocking it and losing that tone mid-strum.
As for the Telecaster, if you’ve ever played an original ‘50s one or an authentic reproduction, you’d know that Teles can put up one hell of a fight if you’re not used to them. The American Performer series takes the place of the former American Special series with new features and colours across six new guitar models, including single-coil and humbucker- equipped Stratocasters and Telecasters, a Jazzmaster and a Mustang, plus three bass models (Precision, Jazz and Mustang).
STRAT YOURSELF IN
The Stratocasters in the series feature modern C-shaped neck profiles with satin polyurethane lacquer finishes to keep the playing experience nice and smooth (unlike, say, the glossy finish on the neck of a ‘50s- or ‘60s-style Strat). There are 22 jumbo frets and the choice of either maple or rosewood fretboards.
The body is made of alder and the tremolo system is a traditional six-screw type, which combines with the oversized headstock to give the instrument a bit more of a vintage vibe than some of the more modern Strats on the market.
There are still plenty of modern updates here. For example, the 9.5-inch fretboard radius is less rounded than the 7.25-inch fretboard of a vintage Strat, giving you more confidence for bending strings but without imparting a super-flat shred-stick vibe. New Classicgear tuning machines have a vintage look, but a modern 18-to-one gear ratio.
The single-coil version comes with three specially voiced Yosemite single coils with flat-staggered alnico pole pieces and a Shellac coating to constrain feedback, while still letting those crisp fender highs come through. The HSS model has a DoubleTap humbucker designed to split into single coil mode quite nicely. And there’s a push-pull tone control which lets you add the neck pickup to any pickup selector position, in addition to Fender’s famous Greasebucket tone circuit which lets you roll back the high-end without losing your lows.
This is very much a Strat in sound, yet a slightly more refined and crisp-sounding version of one. While some of Fender’s pickups are voiced more specifically to certain genres or intended gain levels, these ones seem to strike a really fine balance of adaptability to whatever you might apply them to – be it indie, rock, blues, country or some vintage metal styles.
THIS TELE DOESN’T PHONE IT IN
The American Performer Telecaster has a lot in common with its Stratocaster buddies. That same C-shaped neck carve is here, along with the 9.5-inch fingerboard radius, satin neck, 22 jumbo frets and Classicgear tuners. Again you get an alder body, and the logo is Fender’s silver ‘70s variant. Once again, you get the Greasebucket tone circuit, and the version with a humbucker in the neck position has a specially-voiced DoubleTap humbucker with coil-splitting capability.
While there are plenty of Telecasters with updated six-saddle bridges, this one nods to the past with a traditional three-brass-saddle design – two strings per saddle – for that classic Tele attack. To my ears, this definitely makes a difference. You can hear it in the harmonic overtones, especially on pristine clean sounds. Those ‘50s country Tele tones just wouldn’t be the same without those heavenly resonances that seem to happen when pairs of strings are sharing the same saddle. Maybe it’s just me.
Sonically, this is very much a Telecaster, but the notorious Tele neck pickup woofiness is not a problem here. It’s well-voiced to be a usable lead or rhythm pickup, and the bridge pickup has plenty of twang. You can darken it up with the Greasebucket tone control without making it too muffly, and it has a nice upper-midrange bite that sits just right in a mix.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you want a more modern Strat or Tele with compound radius fingerboard, noiseless pickups, two-point fulcrum tremolo and a more sculpted neck joint, the American Elite series is waiting for you as the ultimate high-performance Strat or Telecaster. If you need something more faithful to old-school ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s Fenders, there’s the Classic series. The American Performer series very comfortably slots somewhere in-between: it plays and sounds like an evolution and refinement of those classic designs while still retaining key elements of their vintage charm.
• Alder bodies
• New Yosemite pickups
• 9.5-inch radius fretboards
• 22 jumbo frets
• Traditional bridges
• Comfortable satin necks
• Great tone circuits
• Versatile new pickups
• Included gig bag is nice, but a case would be better
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