How great a testament it is to the brilliance of the Fender company of the 1950s, that the original version of the iconic Stratocaster electric solid guitar is still arguably the most desirable in the company’s catalogue. This design of guitar, introduced in 1954, has now seen an incredible seven separate decades (‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, ‘00s and ‘10s), but in the eyes of many, no development or ‘improvement’ made by any individual or company during that immensely long period, has ever truly bettered the original.
I make no apologies for stating from the off that the subject of this retrospective is a wonderful musical instrument, made in the United States by Fender (around 1994), using premium materials, and faithfully replicating an original 1950s Stratocaster, right down to the expensive but beautiful cellulose lacquer finish.
The body is made of lightweight ash, and looks at first glance like a single piece of wood. It does in fact comprise two pieces, but everything matches up so nicely that you do have to pick up the guitar and look carefully to tell. I find ash a very unpredictable wood. Some ash bodies are ridiculously heavy, some are very cold in terms of sound. This one has everything. Attractive looks, perfect weight, and vibrant, rich tone.
These reissues were and still are available in a range of colours, but it should be noted that the vast majority of genuine 1957 Strats were sunbursts. Before 1956, there was no published recognition that Fender would produce Strats in any other colour, even though customers who specifically asked for solid colours (or blonde) could unofficially have their requests furnished as special orders – at extra cost.
By ’57, the basic state of play was still that the standard Fender Stratocaster came in sunburst. There was a more expensive version officially available in blonde with gold-plated parts (subsequently dubbed the ‘Mary Kay Strat’), and the catalogue did now at least allude to the fact that Fender would ship solid colours on demand. But with no colour sample reference, the increased cost, and the obvious prospect of a delay in shipping whilst Fender actually produced a custom order guitar, it was unsurprising that the overwhelming majority of purchasers simply took the sunburst. The sunburst reissue is thus the one which epitomises the 1957 Stratocaster. Incidentally, sunbursts on Fender guitars were exclusively two-tone black/yellow up until 1958, at which point red was added, for a three-tone effect. This one of course has the correct two-tone version.
In the summer of ’59, the distinctive one-piece Fender maple neck was dropped, and a rosewood fretboard version became the new standard. One-piece maple was not retained as an option. The rosewood board was a blanket policy. Before ’59, all Strats had maple necks. After ’59, but for a handful of very rare exceptions (which in any case had fitted maple fretboards rather than one-piece maple necks), all Strats had rosewood boards until the Hendrix era. The one-piece maple neck on this guitar is thus another classic characteristic of the ’57 Stratocaster.
Fender have gone to considerable lengths to capture the authenticity of a genuine ’57 Strat with this reissue, from the body contouring and neck shape, to the placement of the correctly-scripted headstock transfers above, not beneath the lacquer coats. As I mentioned, the finish is old-school nitro-cellulose. This is a plant-based, organic finish, known for letting the wood ‘breathe’. Although I’ve never seen any evidence confirming that this is true, there’s also a perception in some quarters that wood finished in cellulose matures in tone more quickly and effectively than wood finished in more modern, plasticky coatings.
My Strats have matured at various rates, and if I was to attribute accelerated tonal maturity to anything specific, I’d say it was more likely linked with how much the guitars are played. Strats I’ve left untouched for years have been ‘overtaken’ in their tonal maturity by Strats I play all the time. Maybe it’s the vibration? But what isn’t in doubt, is that cellulose is an ideal finish for a guitar. To me, it looks more classy than polyester or polyeurethane finishes, and it certainly has much greater potential to make a guitar look vintage as the years pass.
Internally, attention to detail is just as rigorous. The wiring is of the correct vintage (cloth-coated) spec, the capacitor is of the authentic 0.1 microfarad value, and perhaps surprisingly for some, the switch as supplied is a three-way – not a five-way. The original Stratocaster didn’t acknowledge the dual pickup sounds (positions 2 and 4 on a five-way switch). It came with a three-way switch, with the option to select either the bridge, middle or neck pickup, but no combinations thereof. The dual pickup sounds were always ‘there’. It’s just that there were no notches for them on the selector, so players had to: a) spot the sounds in the first place – not easy when the switch flicked past them, and b) find a way to hold the switch between notches without it slipping one way or the other. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1970s, appropriately enough in the midst of the disco era, that Fender finally started fitting five-way switches to Strats. For anyone valuing functionality above authenticity, Fender did include a five-way-switch with this reissue. I’ve stuck with the original three-way though.
The pickups as supplied were vintage type staggered-pole units. Extremely well made using old-syle materials and construction, and sounding highly accurate. However, the versions in this ‘57 reissue were more early ‘60s than mid to late ‘50s, so I replaced them with a set of Seymour Duncan Alnico II 1950s-type jobs. The Seymours are better than the Fenders in my view. Firstly, they look (and should technically sound) more accurate because they have the thicker ‘50s-type insulation on the coil windings. In itself the insulation makes no difference to the sound, but its increased thickness pushes the outer windings further away from the magnets, and that does make a difference. And secondly, the Seymours’ magnets are of lower-strength (alnico II as opposed to Fender’s alnico V), and this better represents the kind of mellowness a well-aged guitar pickup has.
There are one or two minor divergences from the original ’57 Strat’s detailing. The only ones anyone is really likely to notice are the slightly narrower spacing of the dots at the twelfth fret (on the reissue), and the different font used for the numbers on the Volume and Tone knobs. Other than that, and perhaps a bit of ‘artistic licence’ on the pickups, this reissue is the spitting image of a real ’57 Strat.
In this close-up photo, from a certain angle, you can see how the nitro-cellulose finish is tentatively starting to check after over 18 years of exposure to the elements. This guitar is very well looked after, but not normally stored in a case.
But what matters the most is how the guitar plays and sounds, and I can honestly say that if you appreciate classic guitar designs, this is one of the best guitar playing experiences you can get. The expressiveness of this Strat is magnificent. A really deep ‘bloopiness’ on the neck pickup, which can instantly flick to the stinging, searing cut of the bridge pickup, but without ever losing its personality or body. With a cranked up Les Paul, it can feel like changing your level of attack doesn’t really have much impact. This Strat, conversely, responds to everything. Hit hard with a heavy pick – the listener can easily tell. Pluck with the tips of your fingers – the listener can easily tell. You can set the three-way switch in between positions for the funk sounds if you wish, and again the tone is fabulous. But to me this guitar is all about what Strats were, and what they typically did, before groups of ’70s players adopted the ‘out of phase’ sounds en masse, and to some extent homogenised the instrument's voice.
Over the years there’s been a lot of talk about copies being better than real American Fenders, and there have been times and instances in which that’s been true. However, I've never found a copy of a Strat to rival this genuine USA ’57 reissue. It’s an absolutely beautiful job, displaying manufacturing standards of the highest order. It couldn’t be easier to play, couldn’t look better, and I can’t imagine any Strat sounding better either. Okay, so Seymour Duncan has had a hand in the latter aspect, but I can do nothing but praise Fender for what, as a bog-standard (non-Custom Shop) reissue, was remarkable value. This is what Leo Fender meant the Stratocaster to be. Even though he’d passed on by the time this one was built, his standards and traditions had been faithfully upheld.
In the end, you can spend as much as you like on a mint early ‘80s copy. But as someone who's owned an ‘83 Squier ’57 Strat reissue, still owns an ’84 Tokai Strat, and has played numerous other revered copies, I’d take a pretty safe bet that there ain’t many wannabes, if any, as good as this Fender.
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