So between late 1984 and the start of 1987, Fender’s entire reputation depended on the quality of the Made in Japan (MIJ) range of guitars – 17 of which on the UK market were different models of Stratocaster. Fender Japan couldn’t afford to mess up, and they certainly didn’t. From the basic Squiers up to the Limited Editions, Fender Japan were outshopping instruments with exemplary build quality, which easily rivalled that of the ‘80s Fender USA guitars.
The 1984-1987 period for Fender Japan, then, was different from the post ’87 period. From ’87 onward, American Fender Strats once again became widely available, and the Japanese range was revamped, and repositioned in the market. Cost-cutting measures were applied to most if not all Fender Japan export guitars during that ’87 revamp, in order that the MIJ models could be slotted into new commercial territory, generally undercutting the prices of the new American output. But during 1985 and 1986, when the Japanese factory provided the sole option for regular guitar shoppers in the market for Fender guitars, MIJ Strats had to satisfy amateurs, semi-pros, and full-blown professionals alike. The mid ‘80s MIJ Strats were inevitably going to be used on albums, on live tours, and on TV. The Fender-branded MIJ stuff was quite literally standing in for Fender USA, and it had to be at least as good, if not better.
Whilst Fender Japan did keep a strong commitment to traditional and vintage designs during this critical period, they also chose to cater for the demand among rock players for locking tremolo systems, humbucking pickups, flat neck profiles with 22 as opposed to 21 frets, etc. Guitars featuring any of these ‘80s rock-orientated updates fell into what was known as the Contemporary Series. And one very popular Contemporary MIJ Strat was the ‘System I’.
The System I (or System One) Strat with three single coil pickups (there were other pickup options, but 3xS/C was by far the most popular in the UK) came as a fully Fender-branded model, or a Squier. There was little difference between the two, although the retail price of the full Fender was significantly higher. ‘System I’ referred to the type of tremolo fitted, which was one of three Fender-branded locking trems (in other words, not a Kahler or a Floyd Rose). The Fender ‘System II’ and ‘System III’ were respectively more sophisticated and expensive, and added more to the cost of the finished guitars. So ‘System I’ was the cheapest and most basic locking trem on any Fender guitar of the period, but it was not, in my experience, in any way flawed operationally. You tuned the guitar, then used an allen key to clamp the strings in the lock behind the nut, and then simply used the small micro-tuners on the bridge to correct for temperature or climate-induced tuning anomalies. The ‘System I’ locking trem fitted to the Squier version was exactly the same as the one fitted to the Fender, and it never gave me any tuning problems either at home, in rehearsals, or during gigs.
FENDER vs SQUIER - WHAT WAS THE DIFFERENCE?
The differences between the Squier System I Strat and the Fender version were in the electrics and the neck. The Fender had flat-pole-profile alnico pickups, whereas the Squier had flat-profile ceramics, with non-magnetic chromed poles and single slab bar magnets on each base. The sound of the ceramic pickups on the Squier was not at all bad in my opinion. I put a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails in the bridge position on my Squier, but left the other two ceramics in place and gigged the guitar in that format. There was no problem whatsoever with the two original pickups which remained in situ. They had a thicker and more middly sound than the original pickups in my Tokai TST-60, which, although more authentic for a Strat, were a bit on the brittle side. I know the Squier System I had an enclosed plastic five way selector switch, and I believe (but can’t verify) that the Fender came with an open DM-50 selector, of higher quality.
As regards the neck, the Fender System I had 22 jumbo-wire frets, and small fingerboard dots not typical of Fender, whereas the Squier had 21 standard-gauge (slim) Fender frets and the larger, standard Fender dot markers.
That aside, the defining points for the System I Strat were as follows…
- Generously (vintage) contoured, hardwood body. As regards the body wood, I always assumed my Squier was alder, but someone online said recently he believed the spec for the System I was poplar. Despite much ferreting through old printed matter I haven’t found any official line on the issue.
- System I trem bridge and string lock above the nut.
- Flat, twelve-inch radius fingerboard in line with ‘80s contemporary prefs.
- Choice of maple neck or ‘slab’ rosewood fingerboard.
- ‘80s style trem backplate with large rectangular cut-out for re-stringing, rather than small, individual holes per string.
- Truss rod adjustment at the body end of the neck.
- Fender-branded tuners looking exactly like adjustable ‘80s Gotohs.
- 3-ply white/black/white plastic scratchplate with 11 screws.
But be in no doubt that the build quality of the Squier System I Strat was superb, and even given the cost-cutting under the scratchplate the guitar was extremely good value at under £300. I found my Squier thoroughly reliable, really comfortable to play, and ideal for the kind of rock music I was playing back in the late ‘80s.
These System I Contemporary Strats were dropped from the range in 1987 at the point of the big MIJ revamp. At this time, Fender seemed to want a clearer divide between their classic instruments and their out-and-out rock guitars, which were epitomised in the new, late ‘80s Heavy Metal (HM) Strats.
The middle ground (in between the classic Fender and the focused hard rock Strat) which had been served by these System I models, would now be covered by the American range. Fender were moving towards new and more stylish ways of achieving trem stability with the concepts used on the Strat Plus, as introduced in ’87. The Lace Sensor pickup design used on the Strat Plus also had plenty of potential for thicker, humbucking type tones, and indeed progressed in that direction as more variants of Sensor were introduced. Essentially, the Strat Plus family guitars would serve the same applications as hybrid Contemporary Series models like System I, but without losing the aura of a Fender guitar.
Things have changed a lot since the 1980s, and guitarists not particularly orientated towards hard rock and metal styles may be a bit reticent to look at guitars with locking trem systems. But I didn't find the System I locking trem intrusive or over-engineered, and from what I've seen recently these Japanese Strats from the real heyday of MIJ manufacture can still be bought on the secondhand market for reasonable rates. Whereas the System I trem system was a huge selling point in 1986, over a quarter if a century later it's probably more of a negotiating tool for the buyer... "Well, yeah, it's an '80s MIJ Strat, but I don't like the look of that trem system one bit... Couldn't knock another fifty quid off it could you?..."
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