Established in the post punk era of the late 1970s, the Encore brand of guitars has, over the years, stood for value in beginners’ instruments. Back when Encore first hit the market, the likes of Columbus, Satellite and Kay were the go-to brands for novices on a tight budget, or of course youngsters who could manage to persuade their parents that they really, honestly, weren’t intending to get the family evicted.
But as the ‘70s morphed into the ‘80s, a lot changed in the world of budget guitars. It became clear that obvious compromise was no longer acceptable, and that cheap guitars didn’t just have to be cheap – they had to be seriously usable. As the 1980s progressed, that fact became evermore entrenched in the market.
Tokai, Fernandes and Fender (under the brand of Squier) put professional quality guitars into revolutionary price territory, and once it was possible for a player to go out and get the superb quality of Tokai or early Squier for £150 – albeit secondhand, there was no longer any way that entry level manufacturers could get away with offering rubbish – even in sub-£100 instruments. The fact alone that Encore endured through that exceptionally tough 1980s decade, when so many other budget brands barely made it past the starting line, was a testament to the guitars’ eminent fitness for purpose. Market-busting cheapies like the Marlins and the Korean Squiers presented the ultimate, unprecedented challenge to Encore, but Encore undercut them, and did so without losing playability or appeal.
The mid 1990s saw massive amounts of jostling in the market, with every last measure taken to bring guitarists previously unimaginable value. Plywood construction, which had driven down costs in the ‘80s, was now widely being deemed an unacceptable compromise in guitar building, and buyers had been made very wary of it. So even the low budget guitar ranges were reverting back to solid wood, tending to save the money by shifting production somewhere less expensive instead.
Made in India, and featuring solid ash bodies, the Encore Vintage Standard, Vintage Custom and Vintage Custom Deluxe guitars conformed to the above. But rather than pare the savings off the retail price for a truly rockbottom deal, the instruments took a different route, maintaining a moderate rather than extreme low budget price, and throwing in luxury features. In essence, these models were a Strat Plus for the price-conscious buyer.
The idea of marrying high quality parts with reduced labour costs wasn’t new when the Encore Vintage range launched in autumn 1995. Fenix had memorably upped the hardware quality on their Korean-made instruments earlier in the decade, in an attempt to reposition the brand into different market territory. But it hadn’t appeared to work for Fenix, and frankly, they hadn’t done it as cleverly as Encore. The Encore Vintage guitars were not just using generic parts of better quality – they were using real Don Lace pickups, a real Wilkinson vibrato unit, and Grover machineheads. Name brands, some established as such by the Fender Strat Plus itself, and therefore almost a double-take inclusion on guitars starting at just £199 (for the Vintage Standard).
The neck on the Vintages was different from the typical Encore Strat copy offering, and featured a more Gibsonesque fretting style, along with a wider fingerboard profile, better suited to lead playing. But otherwise the Encore Vintage had a classic contemporary Fender Strat look. A very attractive instrument indeed – especially in the £249 Custom Deluxe version, with gold parts, figured veneer back and front on the body, and a sunburst finish. The at-a-glance visual aura was more high end Schecter than Encore. Very 'boutique' - and that was always going to do the instrument big favours in the shops. There was a Vintage Custom in between the Standard and the Custom Deluxe, which was basically just a Standard with gold hardware.
Naturally, once you did reach £249, there was A LOT else you could do with your money. Mexican Squiers could be found £20 cheaper than that in the shops, and it was certainly, at the time, a rather strange concept to be evaluating a Mexican-made instrument built under the auspices of Fender as a cheaper relation to an Indian-made Encore. But the Encore Vintage was a better guitar than the Mexican Squiers. It had better parts, a better look, and it sounded better. Whether you’d find it easier to play was down to personal taste and your own physical needs, but the Encore Vintage epitomised value for money, and shows exactly why the brand repetitively and consistently brushed off competition over the decades.
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