The Fender Tex-Mex Strat 1996 to 1997

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 27 August 2012 |

Shortly after the first Fender Mexican Strats hit the scene, both Jimmie Vaughan and Nile Rodgers tried them out whilst recording together. Feeling that the guitars were good value, and identifying with Mexico’s history in guitar making, Jimmie Vaughan later brought up the Mexican Strats in a discussion with Fender’s Mike Lewis, about a possible signature model. In the first instance, the talks led to an endorsement deal rather than a Jimmie Vaughan signature guitar, but the association between Vaughan and the pre-signature guitar – the original Fender Tex-Mex Strat – was strong.

The short-lived Fender Tex-Mex Strat eventually appeared in 1996. Costing a substantial £542, the Tex-Mex might have looked very ordinary, but it was an interesting beast, with some rather converse properties. At one end of the scale, a calibrated pickup set with individual outputs and tonalities. At the other, laminate body construction with veneering to hide the nature of the composition on sunburst models. The laminate was a multi-block arrangement comprising poplar ‘struts’ rather than plywood, but on a £542 guitar, you had to question a body spec like that. The bodies and necks for these Tex-Mex Strats were created in Corona, America, but as usual with the Made in Mexico (MIM) Strats, sanded smooth and finished at the Ensenada plant. I suppose it could be said the American origin of the body and neck would justify a more extravagant price, but the early MIM Strats of a few years prior proved it was really all about the finishing, and that American parts didn't necessarily equate to a great build.

Even though the Tex-Mex Strats had three single coil pickups, the body cavities were cut for a humbucker in the bridge position. The truss rod adjustment access was via the headstock, and, in keeping with Jimmie Vaughan’s suggestion, the frets were cut from jumbo wire, rather than the slim, traditional stock. Other than that, though, these guitars were patterned very similarly to Vintage Reissues. Vintage type vibrato bridge – looking suspiciously like an MIA component (because of the converse double-stamping of the word ‘FENDER’ on the saddles), pre-CBS style Kluson copy tuners, staggered alnico poles poking out above the pickup covers… Apart from the lack of honey tint on the neck, and the rear cut neck fillet, this could, from a distance, have been mistaken for a ‘60s replica – assuming it had a rosewood fingerboard, of course. A ‘one-piece’ maple neck was also available.

Finish options incorporated brown sunburst, vintage white (more blonde than white – but that was the description), black, Candy Apple red, and Sonic blue.

PERFORMANCE

One of the key factors influencing the performance of this guitar was the pickup set, which, as I mentioned, comprised three calibrated units. In keeping with the guitar, the pickups were identified with a set name of Tex-Mex. Broadly, the principle was similar to that of Fender’s pre-existing Custom Shop Texas Specials. All three pickups overwound to varying degrees, and a hotter-still unit at the bridge to compensate for that notoriously weak string vibration up close to the saddles. But the Tex-Mex set was no rival for the Texas Specials in terms of vintage authenticity. Whereas the Texas Specials had vulcanised fibre top and bottom plates, old style dark maroon plain enamel coil wire and thorough wax potting, the Tex-Mex set had plastic one-piece bobbins, modern coil wire, no potting, and a less impressive standard of build. The Tex-Mexes looked almost identical to Fender Japan’s lowish budget staggered alnicos, but with fatter coils, because the number of windings was greater. In essence, that’s exactly what they were.

The extra coil windings on the Tex-Mex pickups bolstered the upper midrange, but on a new Strat that can sound less attractive than a standard pickup. It shifts the tone away from sweetness and into the realms of hardness, and with the body hardly being the ultimate in tap-toned Custom Shop finery, the chances of any redress to that were minimal. The Tex-Mex Strat sounded big, and in ya face, but not pretty.

In terms of playability, the Tex-Mexes were pretty much what you’d expect from a Fender Strat. The flattish fingerboard and jumbo frets gave a more modern rendition of the familiar feel, but with the guitar set up properly, I can’t imagine many regular Strat players complaining.

MODEL IDENTITY

At this time in the mid to late 1990s, the Fender and Squier ranges were going through change after change, and it’s fair to say that many players were losing track of what was what. In the light of that, any given model had to stand out in some way. Whether that was through an improbably low price, a stunning appearance, vintage accuracy, an obvious quirk, or a suitability to particular genres, there had to be something to grab the guitarist's attention. The Tex-Mex struggled in that department. Without constant reference to Jimmie Vaughan, the Tex-Mex was just another hybrid guitar with a slightly brash tone and compromises in build which didn’t really seem justified at the price.

In 1997, the relationship between Jimmie Vaughan and the Tex-Mex Strat was thus made official, and after some minor changes the guitar became a Jimmie Vaughan signature model. It made sense to properly link the Strat to Vaughan. The signature finally gave the instrument an identity within the mass of products. An identity without which it probably wouldn’t have survived.

The Tex-Mexes looked as a breed to be much better made than the earliest Mexican Strats, and as a model only in production from 1996 to 1997, a well kept example would make an interesting acquisition on the secondhand market. However, I find the body spec offputting, and the Tex-Mex pickups should not be considered ‘high-end’, or very sweet sounding, despite their calibrated nature. They were very basic alnico pickups, and fans of very ‘pretty’ Strat pickups such as CS69s will probably find them overly nasal. I’d never swap one of my Fender Japan Vintage Reissues for a Tex-Mex, but that’s just personal taste. On a wider level, though, the sheer complexity of the Fender range has made models like the Tex-Mex less important in the overall picture of what might be described as semi-vintage guitars. If it was just 'the one and only 1996 Fender Strat', it would be historically exciting. But there were so many different options, a lot of them more appealing than this one, that the Tex-Mex might as well be a copy. With no definitive Fender features to characterise 'the real thing', it was really only the Fender logo which gave these hybrids any sense of belonging. Somehow, that didn't seem enough, and for me, it still doesn't.

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