The Fender Custom Shop American ‘50s Stratocaster pickups originated in the mid 1990s, and were subsequently rebranded Custom ‘54s (also widely known as CS54s). I’m going to write this review as a retrospective on the original 1990s American ‘50s set, but the evaluation, albeit based on personal taste, can be assumed to apply to the Custom ’54 / CS54 pickups also.
The photo below shows the original box for the American ‘50s pickups (which would contain a matched set of three), sitting on top of a 1994 Fender advert for the company’s Japanese (MIJ) Vintage Reissue guitars. Note the 099-2112-000 model/reference number on the pickups box – the same number used to denote Fender’s CS54 Strat pickups. The Custom Shop Texas Specials also originally came in a box of this same design. The retail prices in the mid ‘90s were £165 for the American ‘50s, and £147 for the Texas Specials. That’s as they were priced in my local guitar shop – not the RRPs, although I doubt there was much difference.
‘Matched set’ referred to the fact that there were differences in the spec of the pickups from one position to the next. Or, more accurately, the bridge pickup was different from the neck and middle, but the neck and middle were exactly the same. Rather than change the colours of the connection wires for ease of identification (as with the Texas Specials), Fender gave the American ‘50s bridge pickup a red splodge on the underside, whilst leaving the neck/middle units without any colour coding.
Given that this set was intended to replicate three pickups from (in Fender’s words) a 1954-1959 Fender Strat, it’s interesting that the manufacturer chose to wind only up to a resistance of 5.9 kilo-ohms for the neck and middle units. That’s low for a 1950s Strat pickup, and is a reading I’d associate much more with the brittle pickups of the 1970s. Indeed, with their strong alnico V magnets and ‘thin’ coils, the neck and middle position American ‘50s pickups do sound brittle. They’re much more like 1970s Strat pickups in basic tone than something from the Buddy Holly era.
The bridge unit is more in keeping with old, pre-CBS spec, with a 6.5K resistance. I really don’t get why Fender didn’t just use something close to that spec for the whole set. If they’d weakened the magnets a little, and gone for, say, 6.3K on the neck and middle, and 6.5K for the bridge, they’d have been in business. But I think they made a mistake with the specifications they settled upon. Realistically, regardless of whether you stagger the poles, use formvar insulation and pot with black wax (as Fender did on the American ‘50s set), if you wind the coil under 6K and use full-strength alnico V magnets, the pickup’s gonna sound bright and glassy. That's not the kind of tone people generally associate with a ‘50s Strat. The biggest tragedy of the spec issue was that the quality of manufacture was otherwise superb. You couldn’t have asked for a more impressive standard of build.
As to why the number of coil windings was so low on the neck and middle pickups, I’m not really sure. But one likely explanation was that Fender were offering a variety of Strat pickups by this time, with both the '57 & '62 Vintage model (not the same as the current '57/'62) and the Texas Specials on the market as replacements as well as shipping in guitars. Obviously, Fender couldn’t just make all the pickups with the same or similar spec. What would be the point of that? So maybe winding to a lower resistance was a way of clearly differentiating the American ‘50s from the existing Texas Specials, which were wound warm-to-hot. In other words, had Fender not ‘underwound’ the American ‘50s neck/middle unit, there may not have been sufficient tonal difference between that and the Texas Special neck or middle unit. Bridge pickup aside, the two sets would have sounded almost identical. I suspect that this, at least in part, is why the neck/middle CS54s ended up sounding like 1977 ‘clankers’.
In all honesty I wasn’t a fan of Fender’s American ‘50s Strat set, and I wouldn’t recommend the CS54s to someone seeking an accurate 1950s Strat sound. They’re alright if you want a hi-fi glassiness with a bit of extra midrange at the bridge, but I don’t envisage someone who wants that type of sound looking at ‘50s-style pickups.
If you’ve got a nice, resonant Strat with a strong acoustic tone, the Texas Specials would give a ballsy, vintage type output. However, the magnets would still be full-strength, and that means there’d still be the bright and potentially quite nasal top end of a newish guitar. To get a more rounded sound, like that of a 1950s Strat after some ageing, the Seymour Duncan APS-1, with its weaker magnets, would be a great choice. Failing that, you’re really into the pricey territory of custom, aged or relic’d pickups. But I’ve never personally been convinced that they can do anything soundwise which is more reminiscent of a ‘50s Strat pickup than an APS-1. You may of course really like the Custom '54s, but don't expect them to give a 1950s Strat tone, because in my experience, they don't.
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