The Fender MIJ Photofinish / 'Foto Flame' Stratocaster Reissues

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 1 October 2014 |

I feel that despite the numerous interesting points about this instrument, its dedicated post should begin with an old anecdote. It’s a quote from Fender’s Dan Smith, who said, when talking to Guitarist magazine about the Fender MIJ (Made in Japan) Photofinish Strat Reissue in 1994… “I’ve got three or four hanging in my office. When real guitar experts walk in they’ll say: ‘God, where did you get that beautiful piece of maple?’ They’ll pick it up and wax enthusiastically about it for 20 minutes before I have to break their bubble!


The '62 Reissue version of the Photofinish Strat was the first to be unveiled (at least in the UK), and had 'aged parts' - a celluloid green scratchplate plus creamy-brown pickup covers and knobs. The 'aged parts' were standard on the regular MIJ '62 Strat Reissue forward from 1992, and produced what in my view was the most visually interesting 'Foto Flame' model.

The bubble, is the fact that the Fender Japan Stratocaster Flame ’57 or '62 Reissue, as it was officially designated in the UK, had absolutely nothing to do with premium maple facing, and everything to do with premium maple faking. The front and rear of the body were not veneered with genuine, highly-figured wood, but overlaid with a type of transfer, created on film with the involvement of imaging specialists Fujifilm, and intended to avoid the ‘static’ look of a mere picture. The idea was revolutionary at the time, and few could deny that the process did deliver a very spectacular appearance, at what was, in aesthetic terms at least, a disproportionately low price.

The fake-flame MIJ ’62 Strat Reissue was the first model to be unveiled, at the British Music Fair in mid ’93, but subsequently, the fake-flame finishes were also extended to the ’57 Strat Reissue, the ‘50s Tele Reissue, and the Precision Bass Reissue – all emanating from the same, FujiGen Gakki factory. The guitars were often sold under the trademarked branding of Photofinish in the UK, but have also been dubbed ‘Foto Flame’.

ON THE MARKET

Other than the fact that the Flame ’57 and ’62 Stratocaster Reissues had maverick, custom finishes, they were just the same as the regular MIJ ’57 and ’62 Reissues. They were built the same, they felt the same, and they sounded the same. They even cost the same… sort of…

The PhotoFinish Reissues were announced as retailing at “no extra cost over a normal reissue” upon launch in 1993, but establishing what the list price actually was could prove difficult, as supposed RRPs cited in literature of the period could vary by over £100. However, when reviewed by Guitarist magazine in ’94, the Flame '62 Strat Reissue was documented with a list price of £381. That seemed about right, given that the guitars were available in the shops for moderately less. But Fender’s UK list prices were pretty meaningless in the early to mid ‘90s anyway, as many bore no relation to dealer prices. It often seemed that what Fender thought the guitars were worth, and what customers thought they were worth, was an entirely different matter – and the customer was always right.

It should also be noted that just three months before the Flame ‘62 review, Guitarist had billed the regular MIJ ’62 Strat Reissue as having a full retail price of £555! This was most unlikely to have been a misprint, as the magazine was making a deliberate point of showing how much the price had inflated in the past two years. So was it the case that by 1994, Fender were already feeling that the Photofinish was worth LESS to customers than the regular model?

In the shops, some dealers had in the first instance added a premium to the price of the ‘Foto Flames’. Or at least, they hadn’t discounted so heavily on them as they had with the regular models. But prices quickly levelled out, and by 1995 some dealers were aggressively advertising the Photofinish at lower prices than the regular models. Musical Exchanges were heavily plugging the Photofinish MIJs at only £299 in ’95, as a limited offer with just a few available. Months later, however, they were still pushing the guitars and the price had dropped to £289. For any MIJ reissue (excluding Squiers) £289 was rockbottom, at any time in history. Draw your own conclusions…

Assuming your conclusion is the same as mine, what was the problem with the Flame Reissues, and why did they become so hard to sell? Well it certainly wasn’t their looks per se. They were strikingly attractive guitars. But was Fender’s decision to implement a non-authentic fake wood effect on a vintage reissue – a guitar devised as a replica of celebrated, historic instruments – really wise? I think that was the root of the problem. This was not the mid ‘70s – it was the mid ‘90s, and guitar buyers were: a) a lot more aware of the detail differences on electric guitars, and b) a lot more trainspotter-esque regarding spec.

If something had the ‘wrong’ pickups, they’d literally pull all the pickups out and replace them. If the scratchplate was made of the ‘wrong’ type of plastic, they’d switch it for one made with the right type of plastic. This rather nerdy behaviour (to which I was myself a subscriber) was a fact of life by the mid ‘90s. But what did you do with a vintage replica with the wrong finish? Refinish it, or just get one with the right finish in the first place? Given that the list prices were technically the same, the choice seemed obvious. An MIJ ’62 Strat Reissue in Sonic Blue might seem a lot plainer, but it looked like a vintage Strat, and that was the difference.

Whilst I bought MIJ Strat Reissues in every regular colour available, I never myself bought a single ‘Foto Flame’ – even at the stupidly low price of £289. I could see at a glance where the objections lay, because I had those objections myself.

But let’s not underplay the innovation of the finishing process, and the desirability of these Fender MIJ Vintage Reissues as true players’ instruments. If you see one of these knocking about on the secondhand market in good, original condition, there’s very little doubt that it’ll provide an extremely good, exciting playing experience, whilst looking very fetching into the bargain. Okay, so it’s not going to fool anyone into thinking it’s a real ’57 or ’62 Strat, but in truth neither will the regular finish models. If, like me, you’re a vintage guitar ‘trainspotter’, you probably won’t want one. But if you’re a bit more open minded and don’t mind a bit of artistic licence on aesthetic spec, these were belting Strats, which eventually sold at an amazing price.

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