The 1996 Squier (Korea) Deluxe Strat

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday 29 August 2012
One of the lessons Fender had learned by 1995 was: if you want to make a cheap Strat, you can put in microphonic pickups, fit grim tuners, and set the thing up so it’s virtually unplayable… but if you want to persuade people it’s good, what you definitely can’t do, is make the body out of plywood. That’s not to say that Fender actually did ship virtually unplayable guitars – just that they knew the easiest way to damage a Strat’s image was to use any construction which could be described by competitors as “ply”.

Plywood body construction had characterised the Squier Strat between 1987 and the end of 1991, but the very word “plywood” had come to grate on the ear, and many players, by the early '90s, refused to touch Squier as a result. For the next few years, plywood was made ‘optional’ on Squiers, with the reintroduced Japanese models featuring hardwood bodies, whilst the cheaper models made in Korea and elsewhere retained the laminated body. I suppose the idea was that buyers who knew the difference and cared, could get the Japanese Squier, and those who just thought a Squier guitar was a Squier guitar, could get the cheaper, plywood one.

Ouch! In 1995, Yamaha’s highly negative marketing drew masses of attention to the ‘horrors’ of plywood guitar bodies. Stripping the paint off a plywood Strat was a clear attempt to highlight the inferiority of the Korean Squier guitars from arch rivals Fender. Yamaha were far from the first to have a pop at Squier’s plywood construction, but they certainly did it in the most dramatic and visually-impactive fashion.

Through the course of the early to mid '90s, plywood – already an easy target for rival advertisers, and exploited on that basis since the end of the ‘80s – came in for a commercial hammering of hammerings. The Yamaha Pacifica ad you see to the left was right at the forefront of the mid ‘90s plywood-mocking trend. The ad, which in rather shocking fashion showed a paint-stripped plywood Strat body, drummed home the message with:
“Before you shell out up to £200 of your hard earned cash, take a closer look at what you’re buying. Solid wood? Or plywood!… Now plywood has its uses. It makes fine flooring and terrific tea chests. But if you want a guitar that really sings, it has to be real wood. Just like the Yamaha Pacifica 112… Oh, and there’s no need to take a sheet of sandpaper into your favourite music store. Just ask if it’s available in a natural finish.”
It was no good. Ply had become untenable as a serious spec for Squier guitars. The Korean models, and even the ultra-budget Chinese range-proppers, would now have to default to a solid, hardwood body.

Enter the Korean-made Squier Deluxe Strat, released alongside a Squier Deluxe Telecaster, steadily replaced the plywood-bodied Squier II, and hit the UK market in February 1996 at an RRP of £199. Interestingly, the same price that the first Korean plywood Squiers had been allotted nearly nine years earlier. The basswood body was clearly an upgrade, but surely something had to give in order to preserve that 1987 retail value?

Fender Squier Strat Deluxe

If Yamaha had played dirty with their plywood-mocking Pacifica ads, Fender returned the 'favour' with this seethingly vengeful 1996 response. Not only did this ad mark out the new Squier Deluxe Stratocaster as a solid, hardwood creation – it also poked fun at the likely resale value of what Fender referred to as a “Yumijoko” Strat copy. A mock for-sale listing read: “Yumijoko TS317GLS electric guitar, cost £350, take £99 or swap for pushbike.” Fender then went on the explain…“A recent survey of music dealers shows that the ‘Also Ran’ guitar brands can lose up to 70% of their value on resale, whilst a genuine Strat holds most of its value, and, if you wait a few years, will probably appreciate.” But interestingly, whilst the Yamaha ad had focused on a tangible superiority in the Pacifica’s quality, the Squier ad merely used the Fender brand to justify a purchase. It didn’t actually say why a Squier was better – other than that it was a ‘real Strat’.

Anyone who remembers the first Korean Squiers will recall that their necks were jolly well-made and well-finished. I said in my Early Korean Squier Strats article that profiles aside, the ’87 MIK necks were not noticeably inferior to the excellent MIJs which had preceded them. Good necks, with good hardware. This is where the 1996 Squier Deluxe Strat made savings over (or under) the ’87 models. The Squier Deluxe came with a cheaper looking and feeling neck, which sported poor machineheads. It also seemed that the setups on the Squier Deluxes were much less consistent than those on the early Koreans, and this only served to highlight any issues with the necks - fret buzz and what have you.

The body came in a choice of five colours: Sunburst, white, black, Midnight blue and Midnight wine. For thirty quid extra, there were left hand models in sunburst or black only. All variants, whether the necks were ‘one-piece’ maple or fitted with a rosewood fingerboard, had a three ply white/black/white plastic scratchplate, attached with eleven screws. Body finishing was good, and the poor scratchplate alignments which first came to notice around the end of the ‘eighties, looked to have been stamped out.

The Squier Deluxe Strats were made by more than one Korean manufacturer, with both Cort (CN serial numbers) and Sunghan (VN serial numbers) involved in churning out the production runs. The first model I saw, in winter 1996, had a Cort CN serial number. Due to the spread of manufacture across multiple plants, it’s difficult to generalise on a precise standard of production for all of these guitars. I know the 1996 Cort Strat Deluxes had staggered-pole ceramic pickups with non-magnetic pole-pieces and two bar magnets on the bases, ‘energising’ the otherwise dead poles from either side.

Whether the pickups fitted by other manufacturers were of precisely the same design I don’t know. In many ways, the guitars look outwardly very consistent indeed, but Cort seemed to use different machineheads from Sunghan (neither very impressive), so who knows what other variations there were. For ID purposes, the Squier logos on these instruments are full sized in gold 'transition' styling, with a black outline. There's a small black 'Fender' or 'BY Fender' logo (either or) where the 'Original Contour Body' logo would be on a vintage Strat headstock.

On balance, the Squier Strat Deluxe of the mid to late 1990s was a cheap guitar, which despite its solid basswood body had a thin sound and to me, slightly less appeal than a plywood Young Chang Squier from ’87 or ’88. The Deluxe didn’t do particularly well in reviews, and was soon dramatically overshadowed by the Pro Tone Squiers, which were far more upmarket, not to mention much more pricey instruments. A Pro Tone Strat would cost at least £100 extra in the shops over and above a Deluxe – usually more like £150 extra. I suppose it was good that solid wood had finally ousted plywood good and proper on Squier Strats, but was a piece of low-end and over-heavy basswood, adorned with tinny pickups and a decidedly uninspiring neck going to save the day? Well, given that TGM (The Guitar Magazine)'s budget Strat shootout review of 1996 ranked the Squier Deluxe last, it certainly didn't seem to have greatly impressed those in the know.