Hot on the heels of the new Corona-built American Standard Stratocaster, Fender introduced the Strat Plus. Arriving in 1987, the ‘Plus was essentially the same guitar as the American Standard, but with some special features, sure to appeal to the modern guitarist of the day. The 1987 Strat Plus’s RRP in the UK was £496, but after the initial, glowing industry reaction, many shops were already pricing up their stocks of the instrument slightly in excess of the Fender recommendation, at £499. This was obviously going to be a winner for Fender.
For the salient late '80s Amercian Standard appointments, you can get an overview in my 1988 USA Standard Stratocaster article. The Strat Plus shared most of those features, including the popular TBX Tone Control. But it differed in three main respects…
1) The Strat Plus was fitted with a set of Lace Sensors, as opposed to the regular plastic-bobbin alnico V pickups carried by the American Standard.
2) The Strat Plus featured a special Fender-Wilkinson metal roller nut system in place of the traditional bone nut.
3) Instead of the regular machine heads, the Strat Plus sported a set of Sperzel locking tuners.
To be clear about the meaning of the word ‘locking’, and to differentiate this instrument from Fender’s Japanese System I, II and III Strats of the same era, the Strat Plus did not lock the tuning of the strings in any way. At any time, the guitarist was free to retune in the conventional way, by turning the machine heads. That wasn’t the case with the aforementioned Japanese ‘locking trem’ Strats, which had string-clamping nuts that locked the tuning solid.
On the Strat Plus, what did lock was the grip of each string in the posts of the tuners. To restring, the guitarist would have to undo a knurled, twist-by-hand grip-nut on the back of each machine head, thus releasing the old string and opening up the hole in the tuner’s post for the new string to be fed through. After the guitarist had fed in the new string, the tuner’s grip-nut would be tightened. This gripped the end of the string tight in the post, eliminating the need for multiple wraps, and stopping any slippage.
The original design Wilkinson nut on the Strat Plus set out to drastically reduce detuning during trem use by terminating the fingerboard with a set of free-moving metal wheels rather than static nut slots. This, theoretically, put a friction-free expanse of string between the bridge saddles and the secure tuning posts. To dispense with the final tuning headache of running the higher strings under a string tree, the Wilkinson nut also featured secondary wheels behind the primary wheels, pulling the top three strings immediately downwards once they’d run over the main wheels.
Did the system work? Well it certainly wasn’t perfect. I had problems with the tuning stability and I’m aware of other guitarists who did too. Professional reviewers assessing the model shortly after its introduction, however, reported problem-free use. But however well it worked in the broader picture, the Wilkinson/Sperzel system undeniably prolonged the process of restringing the guitar. Worse still for some guitarists, the Wilkinson nut would not accept heavier string sets than .011 gauge, and that wasn’t really as widely recognised as it might have been. Anyone looking to emulate Stevie Ray Vaughan with a set of pitch-dropped .013s, would have been cheesed right off.
Here's how Fender advertised the Strat Plus and its American Series cohorts in 1989. The rather tongue in cheek New Kids On The Block header was surely used in conjunction with the five guitars as play on the then globally massive boy band of the same name. On the front row, there's a Torino Red Standard Strat Delxue (the same as a Standard Strat but with gold Lace Sensors instead of alnico pickups), and a Sea Foam Green Strat Plus. On the next step up there's a sunburst American Standard Strat next to an American Standard Tele in black. Finally, on the top row, a black Strat Plus Deluxe (the same as a Strat Plus but with one blue Lace Sensor in the bridge position, and a pair of silver Lace Sensors in the neck and middle). These full-page ads proved very eyecatching in their day, and the guitars were a great success in the UK.
Although multiple variants of the Lace Sensor emerged over time, when the Strat Plus first went to market, only the Gold version existed. It wasn’t even referred to as the Gold Lace Sensor then – it was just the Fender Lace Sensor. The Gold designation, incidentally, refers to the color of the branding on the top of the pickup casing, which was coloured gold. The tonal properties of the original (Gold) Lace Sensor were in keeping with a traditional alnico Stratocaster single coil pickup, and that was the intention. The (Gold) Lace Sensor sounded more hi-fi and clean than an alnico, but the output and general tonal balance were very similar, so the Strat Plus sounded squarely like a Strat.
The main advantages of the Lace Sensor were that it had a much less intrusive magnetic field than an alnico, and its signal to noise ratio was very noticeably better. The low-strength of the magnetic field allowed the strings to vibrate with far less interference, and that gave the guitar greater potential for sustain. Also, because the Lace Sensors could be be set a lot closer to the strings without distrurbing their natural vibration, the output volume of the Strat Plus in use would typically be higher than that of the American Standard. Whether the cleaner and very slightly ‘processed’ sound was an advantage depended on your personal taste, but in 1987, when contemporary music was still all about digital perfection and sophistication, for very many guitarists that glossy and hi-fi, yet still sweet tonal character was a big attraction.
THE OVERALL PACKAGE
As someone whose favourite new Strats in the late ‘80s were Japanese Fender ’62 reissues, I didn’t see the Strat Plus as the ultimate incarnation of the world’s most successful electric guitar.
The early Strat Pluses I played, and the Fiesta Red one I bought, were not particularly light in weight, despite their universal ‘swimming pool’ pickup cavity which shed extra wood from the body. I’m not very keen on that weighty feel for Fender guitars. And whilst the matt/satin finish on the neck was a practical boon for the player, I didn’t like its pallid, anaemic look at all. The neck made me think of budget guitars with cut-cost finishing processes. Without affecting the ‘drag’ on the playing area of the neck, Fender could still have put a nice gloss finish on the face of the headstock. I also preferred the look of the vintage Strat trem and open-poled pickup set to the Strat Plus’s more ‘modern’ arrangement with utilitarian bridge saddles and enclosed Lace Sensors.
Soundwise, the Strat Plus was exceedingly pretty, but it didn’t have the desirable gritty attack of a good Vintage Reissue. For fans of gritty attack, the Strat Plus wouldn’t even rival its cheaper stablemate the American Standard. Obviously, all this is a matter of personal taste, and there was a lot in 1987 and 1988 to persuade guitarists that the Strat Plus’s refined character was the future. I myself was taken in by the trends of the day, hence my decision to buy a Strat Plus, but I’ve never seen it as a guitar you could fall in love with. The Strat Pluses were practical, purposeful instruments, engineered to perform late 1980s music at the highest level. ‘Sex appeal’ never seemed high on the list of priorities.
Quality was in general extremely good, and Fender certainly seemed to have their eye on the ball when sending out review models. But as I mentioned, some original Strat Pluses did not hold their tuning during trem use as well as their owners had a right to expect. More worryingly still was what I saw when I bought my own Strat Plus in the ‘80s, and I and insisted on sifting through the shop’s entire warehouse stock to get the best looking example…
Remarkably, one of the guitars in the batch had actually been shipped without a final polish-cut on its body, and the finish as supplied was matt, with clear evidence of the fine-grade sanding process! I’m not even sure the paint job had all its coats. Clearly, if that instrument could get past the quality checks and leave the factory, you had to question what other blunders people ended up encountering. These were normally very, very well made guitars, but maybe those typically high standards lulled some quality control staff towards a notion that they didn’t need to do their job?
Most of what the Strat Plus represented, however, was overwhelmingly positive. In the context of its day it was indeed a victory for considered design, proving that the Stratocaster could be brought into the late 1980s without turning into some snakeskin-coated behemoth with luminous humbuckers and a trem marginally less subtle than a hammer-drill. The Strat Plus restored tasteful practicality to a market steeped in overkill, and without question won widespread praise, as well as the interest of many hugely important and influential guitarists.
Various debates have been held regarding the availability of colours on the original Strat Plus, but the range definitely wasn’t as small as some people suggest, and neither was it confined to what Fender advertised as being available. I never saw Fiesta Red listed anywhere, and some people on the web swear it was never available. It clearly was available though, because not only did I buy a Strat Plus in that colour myself, I also saw a Fiesta Red Strat Plus reviewed, and Steely Dan's 'Skunk' Baxter posed with one on the front cover of the Feb '89 edition of Guitarist magazine. As I mentioned, I looked through pretty much an entire stock of early Strat Pluses when buying mine, and the range of colours was pretty extensive from the start.
ORIGINAL SERIAL NUMBERS
Just to clarify for anyone who’s come across a Strat Plus with an E4xxxxx serial number, the first models (circa 1987) did indeed ship with 1984-series numbers – almost certainly to use up a remainder of old headstock transfers carried across to Corona from the Fullerton plant. The headstock transfers used on the 1987 American series guitars were no different from those used on early ‘80s Strats, and the Strat Plus had the same markings as the Standard. In literature, the Strat Plus was always a Strat Plus, but the actual guitar identified itself only as a Fender Stratocaster.
Whilst the Strat Plus is eminently comfortable to play, it just doesn’t, for me, have that excitement you get from a nice, springy pre-CBS type model. Technically, the Strat Plus was much closer to perfection than anything coming out of the Fender factory in the ‘50s or ‘60s. But with electric guitars, perfection can be the enemy of character. Discontinued back in the 1990s, the Strat Plus did have a character of sorts, but it was polite, and refined, and it didn’t sound like it was about to rip your speaker in two. Ultimately, it was a guitar of its time, and it made a collossal impact, easily allowing Fender to steadily and quite liberally increase its price in the months and years after introduction. But in the longer term, a guitar needs something more than technical prowess to survive the changing trends. In the late '80s we all thought we wanted to go to Heaven, and the Strat Plus was the very chap to take us there. But once we realised we wanted to go to Hell, there really wasn't a lot of room in the market for a guitar you'd probably select to entertain your parents. Well spoken, eminently capable... but ever so slightly boring.
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