The First Fender Mexican Stratocasters

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 17 August 2012 |

Back in the mists of late 1991, a new listing began to appear among the Fender guitars in the UK guitar magazines. The Fender Special Stratocaster, or Standard Strat Special Edition, was priced above the Korean Squiers, but below the basic Fender Japan Standard Strats. The listings made no reference to the new Special Strat’s country of origin, but the price clearly indicated something new might be going on.

And indeed it was. The new Strat was in fact made in Mexico, but if you asked around, you soon heard a pretty unified line that whilst the assembly was taken care of in a Mexican facility, the necks and bodies for these guitars were USA-made. Was this a salesman’s tale, or were these early Mexican Fender Strats really American guitars, which just happened to be assembled off site?…

Well, it was soon officially confirmed by Fender’s John Page that the bodies and necks for the Mexican Special Strat were unequivocally from the US Corona plant. However, they were an entirely separate stream of production from the necks and bodies used on the US Stratocasters. You weren’t about to get a USA Standard Strat on the cheap…



The Mexican Strats’ bodies were normally made from poplar rather than the alder typically used on the USA Standard Strats of 1991, and both the necks and the bodies for the Special Strat were sent to the Mexican Ensenada plant in an unfinished state. The final stages of the shaping and smoothing had to be done in Mexico, along with the paint finishing.

Everything else used on these early Mexican Strats was imported, with Korea providing the bulk of the components. The pickups were ceramics, based loosely on the principle of the old DiMarzio SDS-1 as it existed in the 1980s, but not as ‘hot’. The Mexican Strat pickups differed from previous Squier ceramics in that the non-magnetic poles extended down below the base of the bobbin, and were magnetised not from beneath by a single fat ceramic bar, but from each side by a pair of slim bars. The tone of the pickups was quite obviously lacking in bite and definition – a fact openly admitted by Fender’s John Page, who even mentioned in relation to this, the potential for the pickups to be replaced!

But the real problems concerned the build quality, which, for any Fender-branded guitar at that time, was extremely poor, and pretty much unprecedented. The neck pockets were oversized in relation to the width of the necks. And the resultant poor fit, with a gap between the body and the sides (and sometimes even the end) of the neck, is apparent even from a distance away with some guitars. The Guitar Magazine (January 1992 edition) said during their excellent and very frank review of the Mexican Strat, that even after tightening the neck screws to excess, the join still wasn’t stable and the neck could be “easily moved”. They also alluded to poor body finishing, with the paintwork not properly buffed to a gloss and still showing evidence of the sanding process.

So this was not a good Strat, and despite its Fender USA neck and body, it was inferior in some ways to the Korean Squiers.

IN THE MARKET

The Mexican Strat was a replacement for the Fender Japan Standard Strat, which was being discontinued. Except it wasn’t. Not really. More accurately, the obviously superior Fender Japan Standard Strat was being slightly revised and rebranded as a new Squier model. With one or two small alterations, the Fender Japan Standard would now become the Squier Silver Series Strat – the first Japanese Squier since production was moved to Korea a few years earlier. The Squier Silver Series would have a different (cheaper) price point from the Fender Japan Standard, so whilst in real terms the former replaced the latter, in the market, the intention was for the Mexican Special Strat to replace the Fender Japan Standard, and for the Silver Series Squier to occupy new territory. Thus, Fender’s intention was this…
  • Fender (Mexico) Special Strat: £333
  • Squier (Japan) Silver Series Strat: £275
  • Squier (Korea) Strat: £245

Those were the RRPs in late ‘91. However, the way it actually turned out once the buyers had spoken and the retailers had organised their discounts, was…
  • Squier (Japan) Silver Series Strat: £245
  • Fender (Mexico) Special Strat: £245
  • Squier (Korea) Strat: £199

Clearly, the Mexican Special Strat was inferior to the Squier Silver Series Strat, and despite the recommended retail prices, buyers had quickly realised the fact. The Mexican Strat did subsequently establish a small price premium over the Silver Series Squier, but without the kudos of the Fender Logo, it almost certainly would have sunk down below the Japanese Squiers in market status.

IDENTIFICATION

Provided they haven’t been broken up into component parts and spread around (and a lot have, so keep your guard up), these early Mexican Strats should be pretty easy to spot. They have a silver ‘transition’-style Fender logo, and a serial number beginning with the letters ‘MN’. Underneath the word Stratocaster appears the ‘Made in Mexico’ denotation. The marker dots at the twelfth freth have the typical (for the time) narrow Amercian spacing, so there’s no way they can be confused with Japanese necks. See my MIJ ’57 Strat Reissue article for a pictorial comparison of the wide versus narrow dot spacing.

Even with the ‘Made in Mexico’ ID cunningly removed from the headstock, the early MIM necks are distinct from the old USA Standards as they have vintage-width narrow fretting (as opposed to the wider and smoother fretting fitted to the old USA Standards), and regular, rather than bi-flex truss rod adjustment. The necks on the old USA Standard Strats are also noticeably more comfortable to play, having as they do a completely different shape and profile from the Mexican Specials.

A poor neck/body join is also highly likely on a '91 Mexican, and under the scratchplate, if things have been left as is, you’ll find those distinctive pickups with two ceramic bars on the bases, rather than one.

The scratchplate screws are unusually spaced too. Compare the positions of the screws in the photo for this piece with those on the scratchplates of Fender’s Japanese or American Strats, and you’ll see they’re spaced differently. Some, but not all, Korean Squier Strats shared the Mexican screw spacing, but the feature did narrow down the possibilities very markedly, and no high quality Fender Strats I'm aware of had 11 screws spaced like these Mexicans. Because the screw holes also go through the body, the bodies from these poorer quality Strats should also be pretty straightforward to identify.

VERDICT

Whilst the Fender Mexican Strats were still at a pretty experimental phase in 1991, and therefore have some historical interest attached to them, they wouldn’t be the type of guitar I’d deem worthy of a big spend. Production was apparently averaging around 175 guitars per day in autumn 1991, with that total on the increase, so there’s a fair few of these Strats out there, and they’re really not very good. If there’s a clean one going very cheap, it might be worth having out of interest. But these are in no shape or form rivals for Japanese Fender or Japanese Squier Strats. When the US Fender guys first saw the quality of the Japanese Strats back in the early '80s, it’s said some were almost in tears. They probably had a similar reaction to these Mexican jobs… But for very different reasons.

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