Ah, Vester. What a blast from the past that is! In the early 1990s, the Vester brand not only gave Fender (and in particular the Squier wing of the operation) absolute competitive hell – it also offered some pretty striking own-design guitars, and memorably, a Paul Reed Smith copy, priced below £400! But here I’m looking at Vester’s most potent weapon: a Korean-made Strat copy, known, primarily due to the the usual trademark limitations, as the FSM 320. As always, I’m relating this from the viewpoint of a UK-based guitarist with a keen interest in the market during the actual period. In Britain, the Vester guitars were distributed by Zildjian.
As soon as Squier shifted production to Korea and switched the solid alder body for plywood in 1987, the Fender company must have known it was opening the floodgates for rivals to compete as never before. The late ‘80s / early ‘90s Korean Squier was a generic instrument with very little potential for Fender to wax about its virtues. What, realistically, can you say about a plywood guitar with dirt-cheap electrics? It’s authorised by Fender and it’s cheap. That’s it. If you live by price, you risk dying by price, and there was certainly no shortage of brands queuing up to thrust the dagger into the back of Fender’s empire.
Marlin, Fenix, Encore… They’d all remorselessly bashed away at Squier’s Korean Strats in the ‘80s. But by the ‘90s, Marlin’s threat had been successfully neutralised, Young Chang had been ‘excommunicated’ from the inner sanctum of Squier, leaving Fenix showing signs of vulnerability, and Encore was resorting to drastic price reductions in order to maintain traction in the light of progressive Squier discounts. But Fender’s worries were far from over. They now had Vester to deal with, and Vester was, for a short time in the early '90s, a hardcore force in low-priced, high-value electric guitars.
THE VESTER FSM320
There was nothing that remarkable about Vester’s FSM320 low-end Strat clone per se. Plywood body typical of the era; single-ply, eight screw scratchplate; basic hardware; uninspiring electrics… So why the fuss? Well, two things… 1) There was a sense that the build and playability of the Vesters was as good as that of the best ‘80s Korean Squiers, and therefore better than the increasingly compromised Squier build of the early ‘90s. And 2) The price of the Vester FSM320 was, particularly after discounts in the real world, dramatically lower than the price of the ’91 Korean Squiers. It was fair to suggest that what you were getting with Vester, was an instrument comparable in quality to Squier MIK at its best, for a price significantly lower than Squier MIK at its worst. Boom! – as a down-with-the-kids marketing guru might say today.
Unsurprisingly, along with other Vester models, the FSM320 proved a highly attractive proposition, and as you can see in the impressively testamonial summer 1992 ad near the top of this post, Vester’s standard Strat copy won a Music Retailers Association ‘Best in Class’ vote, so the guitar didn’t just sell extremely well – it had the Zeitgeist.
Most of the ad speaks for itself, although it should be noted that the pro reviewer comments don’t all relate to the model depicted. Neville Marten was reviewing the VE112 Tele copy, and Gibson Keddie was reviewing the VB1435EQ bass (one of Vester’s ‘own-design’ models). I never bought Kerrang so I don’t know what Jerry Uwins was reviewing in the case listed.
Another thing worthy of mention re the Strat ad is the classic, early ‘90s ‘plywood sunburst’, with the black sprayed solid right across the forearm contour to hide the layers of ply. I always thought this drew far more attention to the fact that the guitar was made of plywood than spraying it a solid colour. But even at a glance you can see Vester have got the basics right. Ignore the ‘plywood sunburst’, and that body could be a Fender. The proportions look bang on the nail, and all Vesters I can remember had that same, reassuring appearance.
Finally, look at the font used for the Vester branding! Guaranteed to wind up Fender, even if the ruthlessly executed cloning and undercutting of a Squier Stratocaster didn’t - which it did, no doubt.
The presence of the Vester brand in the UK was extremely short-lived. In late 1992, Vester ads stopped appearing in the guitar press, and in early 1993, dealers who'd regularly advertised the Strat and Tele copies ceased doing so. By then, Squier had fought back with additional savings, Encore were still pressing extremely hard to control the Strat copy territory immediately beneath Squier, and in particular, Fenix were losing strength in the market, meaning that dealers could get better prices on their wares. As soon as Young Chang's excellent Fenix Strat copies were falling close to Vester's in price, it made an already hard life even harder for the FSM320.
There are one or two accounts online about what happened to Vester as a company and why they went out of business, but certainly in Britain, their demise looked like a straightforward failure to outmarket rivals over the long term. It was a very, very tough environment, and it wasn't just about making good value guitars - it was about wowing reviewers (Bad setup on a review sample? Unforgiveable!), staying in the public's face, and having an answer for every last development in the market. For an all-too-short period in 1991 and 1992, Vester was big on the UK guitar scene, but by the middle of the decade, it was just another one of the many names that had come, raised a smile, and gone.
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