As someone who came of age in the mid ‘eighties, I was pitched into an era when, if you wanted a new Fender guitar, it had to be Japanese. By the early 1980s, CBS Fender was widely considered to have ‘let itself go’, even though there had been serious improvements in some models since the ‘seventies. With CBS seemingly unable to rescue Fender’s reputation, Fender employees eventually bought out the parent company and set about dramatically revamping output.
Actually it was more of a revolution than a revamp, involving a move from the old Fullerton factory to a new one in Corona, and a new, uncompromising ethos on quality and design. As this massive reorganisation took place, new American Fender guitars disappeared from the retailers’ racks across the UK, and through ’85 and ’86, it did appear that brand new American Fender guitars had become a thing of the past.
But in early 1987, after only a small amount of public activity the previous year, the new Fender company introduced their American Standard Stratocaster, with much fanfare. This guitar was a new slant on a time-honoured classic. An instrument for the late ‘eighties player who wanted archetypal Strat sounds, coupled with supreme playability. Fender had implemented subtle but effective innovations, without losing sight of what gave the Stratocaster such appeal in the first place.
I got mine in 1988 – a torino red example costing £380. That wasn’t much more expensive than the Japanese Fenders, which by ’88 weren’t as predictable in terms of quality, and were considered by many guitarists to be copies rather than originals – Fender logo or not.
Compared with the Japanese vintage reissues available at the time, the USA Standard felt quite heavy – despite the fact that the universal block-type (swimming pool) pickup routing took out more wood than the vintage ‘per pickup’ type. Body contouring was not as deep as on an old 1950s body, but a substantial amount of wood had been removed, so the alder Fender USA used must have been of a pretty weighty variety.
On the '88 Standard Strat, the pickups were alnico Vs with moulded plastic bobbins and a flat pole-piece profile, as opposed to staggered. These were essentially the same pickups which had been used on the regular early '80s USA Strats. It would be hard to imagine pickups with a more 'Stratty' sound. Their tone was bright, pure and highly detailed, with that slight grittiness at the top end, so typical of Fender alnico Vs.
The vibrato unit was a then modern 'fulcrum' design, pivoting on just two screws as opposed to six. The USA Standard also had a flattish (9 1/2") fingerboard radius in keeping with the preferences of the day, a satin finish on the neck for easier hand-glide, vastly improved tuning heads (in comparison with vintage Klusons), and TBX, as opposed to standard tone controls. Build quality and finish was superb, and even beneath the scratchplate everything looked perfect.
This original UK full-page ad for the revitalised 1987 USA Standard Stratocasters was an eye-opener in the wake of two years without any availability of new American Fender Strats in the shops. The features were right, the look was right, and with a billed RRP of £429 (further discounted by dealers), the new American Strats sold fast.
It quickly became apparent that some of the MIJ Strats, which had maintained prices in the £350 to £430 ballpark during the USA Strats' absence, would now have to be reworked to hit a lower price point, or simply discontinued. It was probably no coincidence that a big shake-up in the MIJ range took place in 1987, shortly after the new USA Standards went to market. The shade of the dark blue example in the ad is Gunmetal blue. The shade of the red one is Torino red. You can see another '80s ad for the American Standard Strat and some of its companion instruments in my 1987 Strat Plus article
Contrary to opinion in some circles, the USA Standard's TBX tone control featured no active circuitry. It was widely claimed that the TBX boosted as well as cut frequencies, which I’m sure was what gave rise to the perception of active electronics. But in fact, it was neither active, nor capable of genuinely boosting frequencies. From the 1 to 5 positions in its rotation, the TBX functioned similarly to a regular 250K tone pot. At 5, the tone was ‘full up’ to the limit of 250K resistance.
Without getting too technical, the 250K max resistance meant that the control’s capacitor, employed to remove treble from the tone, was still having a minor effect on the sound – removing a small amount of top end from the raw pickup tone. Any ordinary 250K tone pot is the same. But what the TBX did, was to then progressively increase the 250K resistance between the settings 5 and 10. So at 10, the TBX allowed through significantly higher frequencies than a standard 250K tone pot. However, these higher frequencies were not added or boosted. They were already there in the raw pickup tone, and simply allowed to bypass the capacitor. Exactly the same effect could be gained by bypassing the tone control altogether. The TBX then, was merely a more efficient tone control than the original 250K type – not a genuine treble-booster.
One thing I didn’t particularly warm to was the pallid maple finish on the neck. Old Fenders had their necks coloured with a honey hue before being lacquered, but the USA Standard necks were plain maple, which looked a bit anaemic by comparison. Also, although the satin feel on the back of the neck was nice, the lack of gloss on the headstock looked a bit ‘budget’, I felt. My guitar had a rosewood fingerboard, however, which helped the appearance.
Whilst you couldn’t deny the American Standard Strats of the late '80s were spectacularly well made instruments, mine seemed rather clinical. It did everything it was supposed to do, and was without question easy to play. In short, it was technically perfect, and it looked great, but it just didn’t excite me in the way other Strats have. In the grand scheme of things, though, there was little argument that Fender had pretty much hit the nail on the head with this model. It was a major component in the quest to re-establish the reputation of Fender’s USA products, and whatever I thought, the market took to it like a duck to water. Perhaps for the first time since the 1960s, there was an industry-wide buzz surrounding brand new, American Fender guitars, and this time, the company was not about to let it die away.
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