The Birth of Squier Affinity

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 15 June 2020 |


Daphne Blue was one of three finishes available on the first Squier Affinity Teles to hit the UK market – the other two being Black, and what was described as Butterscotch Blonde, but looked more like deep honey sunburst dye without the rest of the burst. Very low pickup quality let down an otherwise exceptional bargain, and the trebly bridge pickup was partially de-slanted to take the treble poles further from the bridge and reduce overbrightness.

The Affinity range is one of several current series of Squier guitars, coming second only to the “Contemporary” sub-brand in terms of backward historical reach.

The Squier “Contemporary” sub-branding first appeared in the early 1980s, but it was not rigidly used in dealer marketing, and after the Japanese era its use was sporadic.

“Affinity”, on the other hand, has been a much more powerful marketing term for Squier since its inception in the 1990s, and as such it has the most solid history of all of the current Squier sub-brands. The Affinity marketing term came in with a very determined purpose, and I’m going to tell you all about that. But let’s first step from the present, into the past…

Affinities are no longer the entry level Squiers. They now serve as a sort of “beginner and beyond” option, as opposed to the lowly Bullet range, whose suitability definitely does not extend beyond beginner. But upon launch, the Squier Affinity range was the brand’s lowest-priced option – a Chinese-made instrument sitting beneath the Korean-made Squier Deluxes and Pro Tones.

Actually, “launch” was not really the right word for the introduction of the Affinities. They were a modest update on the existing Chinese Squiers, which had arrived on the UK market in 1995 with no sub-indentifier to verbally differentiate them from the other Squier price tiers.

BACKGROUND


After lobbing the Squier Made-in-China Strat aggressively in the direction of Encore’s E76, Fender knocked the pesky copy off its bestselling perch.

But they quickly found out that if you don’t tell the market what to call something, the market will find its own method of recognition. And the market may well pick a method of recognition that you don’t want it to use. In the case of the first Chinese Squiers, the market went route one and identified them by their country of origin. Given that there was still quite some qualitative stigma attached to Chinese manufacture at that time (although certainly unwarranted in the case of the Squiers), this was not what Fender wanted at all.


The first Chinese Squiers did not have a truss rod access hole on the front face of the headstock, but did feature the characteristic trait of abbreviating Stratocaster and Telecaster to "Strat" and Tele".

Whilst the first Chinese Squiers didn’t officially go live on the UK market until September ’95, they were doing the rounds with reviewers as early as June or July – although they were not identified as Chinese at that very early point. Guitarist magazine reviewed the MIC Squier Strat in their “Lost Hendrix Strat issue”, reaching the shops on 10th August ‘95, but they cited the country of manufacture as “unknown”. The guitar they reviewed was clearly a pre-market sample, which sounded from the review description like it had had its headstock transfer applied by Arbiter (UK Fender distributor).

It was a messy time for Fender. In the retail domain the Squier range still incorporated the farewell batches of the Japanese-made Silver Series, and the dying embers of the Korean Squier IIs. And Fender were also experimenting with Squier branding on their Mexican guitars. On the UK market the Mexican Squiers had come in as the official replacement for the Silver Series around the beginning of ’95. But since the Mexican Squiers had full Fender logos on the headstocks and only small “Squier Series” add-on transfers, people bought them in preference to the Japanese Silver Series – even though the Silver Series were both better and a bit cheaper. Result: some UK dealers still had new Japanese Squiers in stock until around the beginning of 1996.

In this climate, and certainly once the MIC Squier was identified as Chinese, the recognition of Squier guitars became very geographical. Fender had attempted to set the Chinese Squier apart by putting “Strat” rather than “Stratocaster” on its headstock. But since most dealers and buyers referred to Stratocasters as “Strats” anyway, that had little effect. It was hardly a surprise that with no other sub-branding (or sub-sub-branding, since Squier is already a sub-brand of Fender) to specifically identify the Chinese Squier, the market referred to it as… “the Chinese Squier”.

In early 1996, the Korean-made Squier “Deluxe” arrived holding the Squier II’s execution warrant. The intention was that, with the disappearance of the remaining Japanese stock, Squier price tiers would now simply be known as the Squier, the Squier Deluxe, and the Fender Squier. Respectively, those were the Chinese, the Korean, and the Mexican (with full Fender logo) models. But the plan didn’t work.

The “Deluxe” sub-branding was badly conceived, since there was nothing deluxe about the “Deluxes”, and the term did not appear on the guitars themselves. So they ended up being reviewed by Guitarist simply as the Squier Stratocaster and Squier Telecaster. And by late 1996, even major dealer ads, out of desperation, were using the country of manufacture to identify and even headline the different Squier guitars…


Exactly what Fender did not want to see dealers doing. Ads headlining lower budget Fenders by their country of origin were undoubtedly the reason why Fender’s marketing bods came up with the Affinity sub-brand.

ENTER THE SQUIER AFFINITY



This was how Fender wanted their range presented – with no reference to country of origin on the Japanese (’62 Custom Telecaster), Mexican (Standard Telecaster) or Chinese (Squier Affinity) guitars. Fender did not intend for anything made outside of America to be referenced in sales promotions by its manufacturing location. This was one of the first Fender ads in the UK to feature the Affinity sub-branding, in 1997. The blue Tele in the ad was not, however, an actual Affinity or even a Chinese model. It appears to be a Korean job with a modified headstock.

The Squier Affinity branding hit the UK market in late 1997, and the Affinities were new, updated Chinese models – not simply mid ‘90s Squier China jobs with “Affinity” on the headstock. In fact, they were technically cheaper than the earlier Chinese Squiers, since by the time the Affinities were introduced with an RRP of £129, the original design Squier China Strat and Tele’s RRP had risen from its launch figure of £129 to £148. In the ‘real world’, however, both models realistically retailed at £109 with the major discounters.


Even after the Affinity branding was introduced, dealers initially found the geographical headings hard to part with. The presence of the Tascam 424 in a retail ad definitely marks this out as a '90s ad. It's actually from December 1997.

“Affinity” was clearly a move by Fender to attach a positive term of reference to a guitar that was now almost invariably linked with a country. Even though the reputation of Chinese guitar manufacture had already improved very significantly, it was still in Fender’s interests to wean dealers off the geographical designations.

With geographically-independent references, Fender could, for example, switch manufacturer locations without taking a model’s rep back to square one. It was a much more resilient way of marketing products, and in truth, by the late 1990s, linking quality with a country of origin was a nonsense. The Fender California series was a shuttled US-Mex collaboration, and was no better in quality of assembly than a good Chinese Squier. The real issue by then was the budget point, and the spec / labour hours it permitted – not the assembly capability. So binning the geo refs made sense for the customer too.

The Squier Affinity was introduced as a novice range, and as sold in ‘97, its pickups ensured it could not realistically be used at band rehearsal or gig volume. Apart from the “by Fender” headstock adornment being moved beneath the black Squier logo so a new “Affinity Series” transfer could hop into its place, the most obvious difference between an Affinity and an original Chinese Squier was the appearance of a truss adjustment hole on the front face of the headstock.

Beyond that there was little change that would be discernible to the market the guitars were aimed at. Same, full-thickness, solid timber bodies of unspecified wood. Budget-looking, pallid, matt finish maple necks. Rosewood fingerboards. Singly-ply scratchplates. Cheap (but replaceable) “banshee” pickups that were highly prone to clanky basic tone and squealy misbehaviour. Good externally-observable build quality with everything fitting together snugly. Like the previous Chinese models, the Strats had 22 frets and the Teles had 21.


Initially, the Affinity range comprised only a Strat, a Tele, and a Precision Bass, and none were originally made in a left-hand orientation. But by the time of this ad in spring 2000, there was also a Duo Sonic and a Bronco Bass, plus a left-hand option for the Strat at least. Notice how closely in line with Fender’s non-geographical policy this dealer ad now is. Fender’s much more organised late 1990s branding and sub-branding had done its job.

There was no doubt that the Chinese Squiers absolutely smashed the market at their price point. They deserved an affectionate identity, and in the end they got one. Still exceptional value for money, the Affinities continue their journey through electric guitar history, and now you know how that journey started.

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Bob 'Interesting' Leggitt is a print-published writer, multi-instrumentalist and twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, Google-certified digital marketer, image manipulation expert, virtual musical instrument builder, "Twitter detective", and author of successful blogs such as Planet Botch, Twirpz and Tape Tardis. | [Twitter] | [Contact Details]