Guitars as a breed are highly unusual in that they have a habit of subverting technological progress. In other words, whereas your general household products improve as technology advances (i.e. you’d much prefer watching a 2012 television to a 1962 television), technological and industrial progress often has a negative effect on guitar production. A guitar is primarily a mechanical device, and a lot of people would describe it in quite spiritual terms. It’s man-made, but it also draws very heavily on nature for its character and soul. If you mess too much with nature, you start to lose that character and soul. Older guitar production processes were more natural; newer processes are more technological. So before you even start to take design changes into account, you get a sense as to why a guitar produced using early 1960s standards might have more character and soul than an updated version.
This Fender USA ’62 Strat Reissue turns its back on many technological ‘advancements’ and recaptures the more organic aura of an early ‘sixties instrument. Much of the modern plastic in the electrical setup is eliminated in favour of old materials. The wiring is insulated with cloth, and the pickups use the old vulcanised fibre construction. This traditional style of pickup composition sees the coil sitting directly against the alnico pole-pieces rather than against a plastic divider, and it also allows the coil to be hot-wax-solidified for more reliable performance at high volume.
The finish, meanwhile, is built up with old-style cellulose lacquer (as opposed to polyester or polyeurethane) on both body and neck. Not only does this produce what’s widely accepted as a more visually attractive (less ‘plasticky’) finish, it’s also a more natural coating for the wood. This original type of finish ages more attractively, and the consensus is that it also allows the wood to mature more quickly, helping to improve the guitar’s tone as the years pass. The woods used are in keeping with those on a 1962 Strat. Alder for the body, maple for the neck, and the much-lauded thick rosewood slab for the fingerboard.
It should be kept in mind that these Fender USA Vintage Reissues were and still are very accurate replicas of the original instruments. Elements like the traditional lacquer finish, the cloth wiring and the wax-potted, fibre-construction pickups did not stretch to the majority of Fender’s Japanese replicas. The closer attention to detail and adherence to traditional methods explains why, aside from nation-to-nation economics, the Fender USA Vintage Reissues have typically been noticeably more expensive than the Japanese versions.
Of course, without dismatling the guitar or trying to assess the type of finish, you need to know how the features of the Stratocaster changed over the years in order to work out whether or not you’re looking at a vintage reissue. That’s complicated. Vintage reissues used to stand out much more clearly than they do today, because new Strats were easily defined and had distinct differences from old ones. But these days there’s a baffling array of brand new Fender Stratocasters, and quite a number of them are close to being vintage reissues even when they’re not billed as such. The Mark Knopfler Strat, for example, is essentially a pre-CBS replica, with a bit of licence taken on the precise year of the component parts. The guitar doesn’t precisely nail one specific year of production, but it is going to feel, sound and look like a 50-year-old Strat did when it was new, because it’s made and finished in the traditional way.
Returning to the subject of this retrospective, though, I can cite some of the features which applied to old Strats, and which, when combined, start to set the period around 1962…
- A thick slab rosewood fretboard. This feature dates an original, pre-CBS Strat between mid 1959 and mid 1962. The rosewood fretboard replaced a ‘one-piece’ maple neck from 1959. It wasn’t a choice back then. As standard, all Strats had maple necks until the middle of ’59, afterwhich they all (bar one or two ultra-rare exceptions) had rosewood boards until the late ‘60s. However, in mid 1962 the type of fretboard was changed from the original ‘slab’ board (a thick, chunky piece of rosewood – literally a slab with a flat bottom), to what was essentially a veneer, albeit a substantially thick one. With the ‘veneer’ fingerboard, the maple underneath was profiled into an arc rather than left flat. This major change in production methods means that an early 1962 Strat could in no way be mistaken for a post-’62.
- Heavy, deep contouring on the body. Contouring got progressively lighter, with less and less wood being removed as the years went on, so that by the late ‘70s, contouring was typically very shallow – meaning weightier, less comfortable guitars.
- ‘Spaghetti’-script Fender logo. This original style of logo was dropped in 1964.
- Truss rod adjustment at the body end of the neck (and not on the headstock). This continued as standard until 1971 when the ‘bullet’ truss adjustment arrived on the headstock face. The better practicality of having access to the truss rod on the headstock face means that typically, only vintage reissue or vintage-focused Strats now have their necks built the original way.
- Honey-tinted maple on the neck. The maple part of the neck was lacquered with a honey colouring until the late 1960s – a sort of ‘fake tan’ for pale wood.
- Staggered-height poles on the pickups. Staggered pole-pieces were changed for a flush, uniform-height arrangement in the run-up to 1975.
- A small headstock. This original design of Strat headstcock was replaced with an enlarged version in late 1965. The large headstock was phased out from the beginning of the 1980s.
- A three-ply, 11-screw scratchplate, with one screw midway between the neck and middle pickup on the plate’s upper edge. That screw was moved almost above the middle pickup in 1963. The scratchplates had been single-ply with just eight screws until mid 1959.
|The Fender USA '62 Reissue Stratocaster, made in 1990, and sporting a stunning Ocean Turquoise finish - as it looked brand new in the early 'nineties.|
Today’s Fender USA ’62 Strat Reissue differs from this one in a few respects. For instance, the pickups were redesigned in the late ‘90s, and the current version has aged-look plastic parts rather than the bright white plastic used on the early '90s reissues. Neither model is fully accurate, but they both recapture the early '60s vibe, and they're both very desirable guitars indeed.
As you may have noticed in the photo above, this 1990 creation was blessed with an Ocean Turquoise (metallic) body finish, which looks very faithful to the original Fender custom colour. It's significantly darker than the ‘Ocean Turquoise’ seen on some of the cheaper Strats – notably the low end Squiers. Fender added this finish to the options chart in 1965, which means that there's about three years’ disparity between the intended year of this replica and the introduction of the colour – there was no Ocean Turquoise Strat in 1962. But you can’t begrudge Fender a bit of licence on finish, and the look is unquestionably gorgeous. Not overly shiny or plasticky. Just a thoroughly convincing, traditional Fender finish. The colour options on the current USA '62 Reissue appear very limited in comparison to the range available in 1990. You don't get the inaccuracy these days, but neither do you get the choice.
Whilst on the subject of inaccuracy, I should mention that this guitar doesn't have any patent numbers on the headstock. An original 1962 Strat would have had at least two patent numbers. It's only a tiny piece of writing, but if you're obsessed with detail, this is an issue. Also, on an original '62 Strat, the spacing of the 12th fret dots was slightly wider than is the case on this reissue, and the dots themselves were originally made from a much rougher fibre material (usually known as 'clay'). But these are very small points, and they don't affect the overall ambience.
This tag dates the guitar as having been inspected at the factory on 2nd March 1990.
Notably, these American ‘62s were and still are shipped with a three-way pickup selector switch fitted, but a replacement five-way included in the case for those who wanted/want a click-stop for the two-pickup combinations. The five-way switch didn’t appear on Fender Strats until 1977, so the three-way is correct for a ’62 model.
But given the huge increase in importance of those ‘out of phase’ combination sounds in all music from the disco era onward, Fender must have been faced with a major dilemma when deciding whether to go for authenticity (three-way) or versatility (five-way) in the standard option. There is some ‘drag’ built into this guitar's three-way switch, so it will stay put if you manoeuvre it into the right place in-between notches. But a five-way switch is something you quickly get used to, and if you commonly use the two-pickup sounds, reverting from a five-way switch back to a three-way when you buy a new Strat is a pain. Including a replacement five-way is not a solution for some players either. A lot would not be comfortable taking on the modification, whilst others would not want to interfere with the factory wiring for fear of diminishing the guitar’s value. The factory wiring, incidentally, is an exemplary job. Not a dab of solder out of place. I’ve always found American Fender Strats to be most impressive in this respect.
I like Strats to be light in weight, and unfortunately this one is fairly heavy. Certainly not as heavy as a late ‘70s ash job with hardly any body contouring, but noticeably heavier than the typical Fender Japan '62 Strat Reissue, and very clearly heavier than my subsequent USA ’57 Reissue, which, ironically, is made of ash – a wood associated with substantial weight.
The sound is well balanced, with the cutting treble for which Fender’s (old version) ‘57 & ’62 model pickups were renowned, a sweet midrange, and definitely more bass end than you’d get with an early ‘90s MIJ Reissue. However, there isn’t much ‘attitude’. When you picked up the average MIJ ’62 it would, for want of a better expression, thoroughly kick ass, and there was normally a bounciness and vitality there. Technically, the sound wasn’t as well balanced in the MIJs, but as a rule they had the X-factor. This USA ’62 is more subdued in its personality. The tone per se is perfect, but the notes don't leap out of the amp with the same attack and fire.
It could be considered that this makes a mockery of what I was saying about the organic nature of old Strats, and the traditional production methods equating to more character and soul. In a way I suppose it does. But if you seek out ten pre-CBS Fender Strats and try them all side by side, you'll quickly see than no two are the same. Some have a very balanced and measured attitude, whilst others are rougher and more aggressive. The MIJ '62 Reissues, with their highly predictable methods of manufacture and use of more modern materials, would by nature be fairly predictable guitars. I feel these American versions followed the unpredictability of the original '50s and '60s Strats, varying considerably in personality from one to the next. The difference between this impeccably behaved but reserved US '62 Reissue, and my irrepressibly lively US '57 Reissue seems to bear that out.
It really just depends who you are as a person as to what you'll value. You may favour a guitar with perfect manners and may indeed not want one that 'kicks ass'. But what's for certain is that the Fender USA '62 Stratocaster Vintage Reissue is and always was an expertly crafted instrument. It is an 'organic' product, and you may not meet your perfect match with the first one you try. But try a few, and if you have any appreciation at all for the traditional Fender Stratocaster, you're likely to be completely bowled over by at least one.
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