There must have been some pretty frantic soul-searching at Fender in the mid 1990s, especially in relation to the low and mid point areas of their price range. In the hands of the renowned FujiGen Gakki facility in Japan, prices of the mid point electric guitars had spiralled skyward, and the market was far too competitive to tolerate that. Japan, once a country with everything to prove in the guitar market, was now a big power, and prices were finally reflecting that fact across the board. By 1995, Fender Japan had literally moved up a tier in terms of budget.
Mexico had come in to fill the territory Fender Japan had formerly occupied, but the guitars were not as good as the Japanese greats (or the best of the Korean stuff in some respects), so Fender were accordingly facing a squeeze in the middle, whilst rivals’ guitars made in India and China attacked them from below. Fender’s Squier guitars would have been a real headache in 1995. The brand was known to be extremely powerful, and had the potential to hammer other names in the sub-£130 war zone. But no brand is invincible, and cutting the wrong corners could have created the kind of negative association that ‘plywoodgate’ had already done.
Fender were in fact already competing at the low end of the market with Chinese-made guitars, but they were sub-branded with the Sunn label, and Sunn was a very different proposition from Squier. Sunn had little to lose in terms of reputation, and Fender had not connected itself with Sunn in such a loud and public fashion as with Squier. Fender really needed a Squier price point within a cat’s whisker of the Sunn. Chinese manufacture was technically the answer, but Fender had to get it right.
One of the steps Fender took in order to get it right was to use a separate factory from the one producing the Sunns. When Squier moved Strat production to China it wasn’t just some half-baked outsourcing of the production. It was a new operation, with manufacturing equipment provided by Fender themselves, and a proper overseeing of the tech setup, by Fender experts. The result, for an initial RRP of £129 – just four quid more than the Sunn Mustang – was another irresistible, bargain basement competition-destroyer. Solid basswood body, classic Strat visuals, and if you didn’t mind shelling out an extra fiver, even (brace yourself)… a sunburst finish! Pick that one out of the net, Encore!
Of course, this was never going to be the best Strat in the world, and the original Chinese Squier’s budget dictated what was, in truth, an unremarkable tone, along with the expected compromises in electrics and overall feel. Off-the-shelf setups on these instruments could be decidedly grim too. It was a long, long, long way down from the first Squier JV series Stratocasters of 1982 – truly professional instruments – to this obvious beginner’s tool of some thirteen plus years later.
BUT, the Chinese Squier (introduced to the UK market in September 1995) was in unprecedented budget territory for its brand, and given the ropey quality of the worst of the plywood Korean Squiers – all of them with higher RRPs than this Chinese offering – it could be considered a step in the right direction. The mid ‘90s did seem to be a watershed in the budget guitar market. It was a viciously competitive environment. If buyers couldn’t see the flaws in an instrument, a rival manufacturer would be only too quick, and only too pleased, to point them out. It was all about making gear that could not be broadly criticised by the competition, so knowing which corners to cut was the difference between success and failure. These original Chinese Squiers did cut exactly the right corners, given the mindset of the market at the time.
Fender were always cautious to semi-ringfence low-budget merchandise with alternative branding, and if you look carefully, you’ll see that this wasn’t even a Stratocaster. It was just branded Squier Strat, and I suspect that was a very deliberate attempt to distance the model from the more expensive Korean and Mexican Squier Stratocaster of the time. The 1995 Chinese Squier serial numbers also had their own prefix, beginning with the letters ‘NC’.
The move to China did its job, and predictably, this meticulously repositioned low-end weapon from Fender almost immediately hit the number one spot in the UK dealer sales stats chart. As the UK's best selling electric guitar before Squier moved to China, the Encore E76 was the direct rival the Chinese Squier Strat was developed to attack. The Encore continued to sell very well. But as only the number 5 bestseller by autumn '96, the E76 was being convincingly outsold by the Chinese Squier, and you can't argue with members of the public, who are prepared to put their money where their mouth is. Squier China: mission accomplished.
More Guitar Reviews and Retrospectives