1989 Young Chang Fenix ST-20 'Strat'

Bob Leggitt | Monday 23 July 2012
There’s no shortage of guitar brands which have made Fender seethe over the years, but this one takes some beating. Fenix can be thought of as a relatively short lived phenomenon in the history of rock and roll instruments, but the story of the brand’s entrance to the market is certainly an eye-opener to conjure with...

It starts back in the late 1980s, when the established South Korean musical instrument manufacturer Young Chang was awarded a contract to make Fender’s budget end Squier guitars. And Young Chang did indeed manufacture those Squier guitars. But that’s not all it did. At the end of July 1989, the British Music Fair was introduced to a new range of guitars from a brand new name: Fenix. And Fenix was, to all intents and purposes, Squier – but better, and cheaper. The Young Chang company had, among other things, taken its own, Fender-endorsed build of the best-selling Squier Stratocaster, replaced the plywood body with solid alder, tinkered slightly with the headstock, and pitched in with an ‘own brand’ price.

1989 Fenix ST-20 'Strat'
This is how the first incarnation of the Fenix ST-20 looked. It had single coil pickups with exposed poles, the MIK Squier's vintage type Strat vibrato with unbranded bridge saddles, and multiple headstock shapes. This shape, commonly seen on early guitars, was similar to a vintage Strat headstock but with a small, sharp 'lip'. The rosewood fingerboard variant had a three-ply scratchplate. The maple neck version had a single ply. Eight colours were originally available, including metallics. Later ST-20s were easily identified by their enclosed pickups, looking like Lace Sensors without the branding.

The result was an upgrade on the Korean Squier spec, for less money. The Fenix guitar even sounded better than the Squier, and guitar journalists were acknowledging the fact, so Fender already had problems. But cheekiest of all, Young Chang was fully intending to broadcast the fact that these ‘own brand’ guitars, were essentially upgraded Squiers on discount. One of the first Fenix ads even boasted: "We have really put the cat among the pigeons!", before going on to explain all about the 'own brand' concept. Subsequent ads, such as: "There's No Plys on a Fenix", would ruthlessly draw attention to the inferiority of Squier's (and other plywood guitars') spec. This was no surreptitious, weasel-worded marketing campaign, respectful of Fender's business and treading on eggshells. Young Chang was blatantly and antagonistically attacking Fender, in as high profile a manner as possible.

This was something new. When Young Chang came up with Fenix, Fender were no longer looking at a straightforward third party copyist. They were looking at their own budget-wing guitars, completely bypassing the company and going direct to the customer – with better spec than Fender themselves were offering, and a lower price. This had always been a hazard for any big name contracting out production to a third party, but Young Chang was going to exploit the situation like never before. Maybe Fender should have included a gagging order in that contract…

The Fenix ST-20, then, was an upgraded (solid wood) ’89 Squier Strat, with an RRP of £182 – undercutting the (plywood) Squier’s £198 by the grand sum of £16. After discounting, both guitars would be further reduced in price, but whether or not those discounts stayed proportional, on paper, the Fenix was the logical winner.

I should stress that whilst the ST-20 evolved over time into an individual and more upmarket product, with different features from the Squier Strat, the original version was just like the Squier, bar the body wood, a slight mod to the headstock, and the name. Rick Batey from Guitarist magazine said the pickups in the Fenix ST-20 sounded better to him than those in the standard Squier model, but also admitted they could be the same units, and that he hadn’t tested side-by-side.

A consensus emerged among those who’d assessed multiple samples of each brand, that Young Chang was also making the Fenix guitars to a higher standard of assembly than the Squiers. Quality was never going to be massively consistent on ranges of guitars in the sub £200 bracket, and without checking every instrument from each brand it would of course be impossible to get an accurate picture. But I personally saw more obvious build-gaffes on the Korean Squiers than I did on the Fenixes, and certainly over time as Fenix began to modify and re-budget the ST-20, there seemed no doubt that the Fenix Strat was in a higher category of build quality than the Korean Squier.

By the first half of 1990, the Fenix Strat had entered the top five best-selling electric guitars in Making Music’s dealer feedback chart. For a completely new name, competing against a huge array of playable, inexpensive Strat copies, that was an impressively rapid rise to prominence. The Fenix brand had arrived. The question now, was where it would end up.

Clearly, Fender would not have been happy about Young Chang’s antics, but I can’t find any evidence to support the claims made online about Fender actually halting production of the Fenix brand. I don't think they'd have been able to in a legal sense. Indeed, by winter ’92, the ST-20 was no longer a direct competitor with the standard Squier Strat. It now housed single-coil-sized humbuckers (looking like Lace Sensors), and the trem system was of the two-pin ‘fulcrum’ type, sitting indented into a re-cut scratchplate. The RRP had progressively risen to £299, so this guitar was now out of direct competition with the much cheaper Korean Squier on price too. So Fender may well have terminated Young Chang's contract to make Squier guitars earlier than planned, but I don't see how Fender could have directly stopped Young Chang manufacturing Fenixes.

Probably the most powerful measure Fender did take in the quest to dismantle Fenix's grip on the market, was their introduction of the early ‘90s Squier Silver Series – produced in Japan, nothing whatsoever to do with Young Chang, and automatically carrying greater kudos purely on account of Japan’s reputation for superb quality. Ironically, by 1992 the Korean Fenix ST-20 was technically (in my view) a better guitar than a Japanese Silver Series Squier Strat, but that wasn’t the perception on the street. Reputation is a powerful thing, and given a choice between MIJ and MIK, most guitarists would automatically take MIJ – especially if it was cheaper.

So the tables had turned on Young Chang, and my sense is that this counter-measure from Fender was the beginning of a more barren spell for Fenix. It’s tough at the top, and companies as big and well established as Fender don’t take commercial batterings lying down. If you mess with them, you’re gonna end up getting a taste of your own medicine, and that’s pretty much the situation Fenix was in by ’92. I don’t doubt that Fender had strong words with Young Chang, but in the end it always comes down to commercial power. Young Chang obviously wanted to take Fenix out of the rockbottom cheapie market where the going was toughest, and into the echelons of higher quality instruments where, if the price was right, there was more breathing space. Their problem? Having the factory situated in Korea. At that time, it didn't matter how good a Korean guitar was, it would always lose out to a similarly priced equivalent from Japan. So as soon as Young Chang got into 'Japanese' price territory with their Fenix guitars, as good as they were, they were inevitably going to struggle.

As regards the progression of Fenix after 1992, well, things certainly looked to go quiet in the UK after those first three years. Sound Control in Scotland notably took a massive consignment of precisely 1,000 Fenixes in summer 1993 and sold them on the cheap (like, really cheap - which in itself was a sign of poor saleability), but other than that there didn't seem to be much going on. In fact, I was very surprised recently to find a reference to Fenix in a magazine from the year 2000, because I didn't think the brand lasted that long. The ST-20 was a memory by that time, though, and things had at least in part moved way upmarket with prices ranging as high as £745. I think that must have been pretty close to the end of the line for Fenix, because there's virtually nothing relating to the brand on the Web. The guitars were distributed by Barnes and Mullins at that time (Fenix seemed to go through distributors like no one's biz), but their site brings up nothing.

So what about the Fenix ST-20 on the secondhand market? A guitar which started out better than the MIK Squier Strat, and got progressively better still throughout its tenure? That has to be worth a look, doesn’t it? Well, it’s worth a look, but don’t forget that late ‘80s MIK Squier Strats were poor guitars (often very poor indeed), so purely being superior to a late '80s MIK Squier Strat is no great accolade in itself. Also, Young Chang built some of those poor Squier Strats, so the manufacturer’s rep is hardly what you’d call flawless.

The earliest Fenix ST-20s (the ones most like the Squiers in terms of spec) would be the least desirable ones in a musical sense. Historically, though, they might attract more interest than the later ones. These early models, if they’re all original, will have exposed pole-pieces and a vintage type Strat trem. You could feasibly customise an early Fenix ST-20, adding new pickups, pots, switch, etc, and given the solid body wood it might prove a fruitful exercise – more so than with a plywood Squier anyway. But then of course you’d lose the historical value. I don’t mean monetary value, by the way. As far as I’m aware, no one’s paying much for Fenix guitars at present.

The later ST-20 (circa 1992, with s/c sized humbuckers, no exposed poles, and two-pin trem) was a more expensive instrument and would be pretty capable without modification. The pickups sounded like small humbuckers though. They didn’t have the treble response of a classic Strat pickup or anything like it. They might have looked like Lace Sensors, but that’s where the similarity ended. Incidentally, these Fenix pickups were also sold as a retrofit, and stocked/advertised by dealers, at £35 for a set of three!

What’s absolutely undeniable as I write this retrospective, though, is that you’re likely to get a much better bargain on a Fenix ST-20 than on an MIK ‘80s Squier Strat. If the prices I've seen advertised from time to time are anything to go by, you’ll be getting a better guitar with Fenix, at a considerably lower price. If that area of the market interests you, you now know which one to go for, and you'll also have a nice little story to go with your guitar.