Mexican Fender / Squier Strats: The Mid 1990s Boom

Bob Leggitt | Saturday, 11 July 2020 |


The aesthetically-pleasing Fender Contemporary Stratocaster, introduced in 1994, sat at the epicentre of Mexico’s bid to capture the Japanese stronghold in the middle of the brand’s price range.

After a pretty grim start, Fender’s Mexican guitar production initially remained somewhat muted within the overall range on the UK market. In the early ‘90s, when the first Mexican Fender Strats arrived in England, Japan was still very much an unassailable provider of the immediate sub-USA production tier...

Indeed there were many guitarists, me included, who considered the Made in Japan range typically better than the USA output in terms of feel and performance. And it was a poorly-kept secret that some highly knowledgeable retailers believed Fender’s Japanese Vintage Reissues were the best choice of new Fender Strat on the market. So the idea that the fledgling Fender Mexico could simply replace Fender Japan in 1991 or 1992 was unthinkable.

But moving into the mid 1990s, things were rapidly changing. The exchange rate on the Yen was rapidly worsening for importers, and Fender was having an extremely hard time keeping a lid on the prices within the Japanese range.

As an illustration of that, when the blonde MIJ Jaguar and Jazzmaster models were introduced in 1994, they came in with UK retail prices of £814 a piece. They did have gold-plated hardware, but even so, £814 was USA price territory in 1994 – too high for non-USA production. Meanwhile, the bog standard MIJ Vintage Reissue Strats had escalated from £386 to £555 in a two year period, and despite their lovely feel and sound potential, they were a lot cheaper to produce than the nitro-finish USA versions with accurate electrics and period hard case.

Due to the global economic conditions, Fender’s Japanese export guitars could no longer significantly undercut USA models with quality and spec like for like. The only way to make MIJ guitars significantly cheaper in Europe was to downgrade their spec and/or quality control. That could be done in any country, and indeed had already been done to these instruments in Japan.

Fender saw Mexico as its sub-USA production tier saviour. With marked improvements to the assembly quality of the Mexican guitars over their first two years of full availablity, there was a real prospect of the buying public accepting them in some new mid point areas of the price range. 1994 was a key time to implement a new production strategy as it was on forecast for (and did indeed eventually achieve) all-time record-breaking Fender Stratocaster sales.

But even more significantly, the increasingly prohibitive conditions re Japanese imports were also stopping long-time bellyaches Tokai and Fernandes from flooding their vintage reissues into the UK and European lower-mid price territory. All Fender had to do was fill out those price points with well-made instruments that didn’t say “Korea” or “Taiwan” on them, and they could turn an impending crisis into a party of epic proportions.

By the first half of 1994, Mexican products had only got as far as replacing the Japanese Fender “Standard” range. Namely, the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass and Jazz Bass in a single variant each. In fact if you counted left-handers, the Mexican builds hadn’t even ousted Japan from the Standard range. But Fender was about to bring Mexico into a much more central position.

THE PLAN


Part of the plan was to take some of the weight (and dependency) off the MIJ Vintage Reissue series within the immediate sub-USA production tier. With Japanese prices sharply escalating, too much reliance on these MIJ retro revivals could see the brand losing its grip on the mid and lower mid budget areas in the near-term future. Even though it wasn't a Strat copy per se, the Taiwanese Yamaha Pacifica 604 was already a very hot seller and was ready to give Fender a right battering at the first sign of a void around the £350 to £400 mark. Fender didn't just need Strats to deal with the Pacifica - they needed Strats with bridge humbuckers.

So a great way to weight the centre of gravity away from the Japanese reissues, whilst responding to the threat of the Pacifica at the same time, would be to return to something like the old pre-1988 Made in Japan structure. That structure had comprised multiple “Standard” and “Contemporary” Stratocaster options with a range of pickup and hardware permutations. It had collapsed in latter ’87 after full-scale Fender USA production restarted and the whole of the Squier output was reallocated to Korea. If the popular mid ‘eighties MIJ range could be revived with mid ‘nineties trends in mind, and with Mexican manufacture, it could render the ultimate fate of the MIJ reissues far less of a concern for Fender. And it would be a great weapon against rivals like Yamaha into the bargain.


Early 1995 dealer ad showing how central to the Fender range the MIMs had become. The prices quoted were at the low end of the spectrum. The first digit - normally a zero - has been omitted from the model codes.

A comprehensive plan was thus developed and activated. It would mean a number of things for the Stratocaster…

1. Retention of the basic Mexican Fender Standard, realistically selling at around £330 - £340 (R/H). It should be noted, however, that the left-handed (non-USA) Standard Strat was still made in Japan in 1994, as had been the case right through the tenure of the Mexican Standard up until that point.

2. Replacement of the Japanese Squier Silver Series Stratocaster with a Mexican equivalent, to carry full Fender branding (plus a small “Squier Series” logo) and be known as the “Fender Squier”. The realistic price was expected to remain broadly in the same territory as the Silver Series, at around £250 in real world retail.

3. Migration of the manufacture of the Japanese Fender Squier Floyd Rose model (rosewood fingerboard only) across to two Mexican Fender Floyd Rose models – to cover both maple and rosewood neck spec. I say migration because there was a point in ‘94 at which both the MIJ and MIM Floyd Rose models were listed by Fender themselves. It was not a straightforward replacement.

The Japanese Fender Squier Floyd Rose Strat – model number 125-5000 – had a full Fender spaghetti logo and a small “Floyd Rose Squier Series” on its headstock. It also had a foto-flame finish.

Regardless of any tinkering or similarity to the subsequent MIM, this MIJ model could always be distinguished by its 12th fret marker dots, which had the wide FujiGen Gakki spacing and not the narrow USA spacing of the period. All Mexican Strats of the time had narrow USA fingerboard dot spacing. Also, typically, the Mexicans had poplar bodies whereas the Japanese had basswood or alder. Both the MIJ and MIM version had a humbucker at the bridge and single coils in the middle and neck positions. The MIJ neck was natural-finished, whereas the MIM had the new for ’94 Mexican vintage honey finish.

The Mexican Floyd Rose II-fitted Strats 113-1100 (rosewood board) and 113-1102 (maple neck) would realistically retail at around £375-£399, but could be found in adverts at anything between £363 and £435. £435 was the full MRSP.

4. Introduction of a more broadly targeted Contemporary Strat with a bridge humbucker and black plastic trim, but otherwise a vintage look. This guitar, available only as a right-hander, had an MRSP of £468 but could realistically sell at below £400. As part of the Mexican Contemporary feature set (which also applied to the Floyd Rose), it had a honey-tinted neck and headstock finish, and a Fender spaghetti logo. These Mexican spag logos differed from the USA and MIJ vintage reissue versions, in that they had a registered trademark circle after the word Fender. The body was poplar but veneer-treated front and back, for a presentable aesthetic on the sunbursts and the blonde variant. The veneering was officially specified as ash. Initially and very, very briefly, all the pickups were Korean. Then before the end of ’94, Mexico began producing their own single coils so only the bridge humbucker was Korean. Subsequently, production of the bridge humbucker was transferred to Mexico too.

As well as reviving the character and aura of the mid ‘eighties Contemporary Strats, the ‘94 Mexican Contemporary looked like a rigorously calculated attempt to diminish the importance of the Japanese Vintage Reissues. Fender Frontline erroneously billed this guitar as USA-made in 1994. For the benefit of anyone who has that famous Kurt Cobain issue, I can 100% confirm that the listing is wrong, and that Fender Contemporary Strat models 013-5600 and 013-5602 were always MIM. That said, the wood blanks were rough shaped in the Corona factory and there was some USA-made hardware. A multi-national effort then, but (unlike the later California Series) assembled in Mexico and therefore not eligibile for Made in USA status.

5. Introduction of a cost-cut Richie Sambora signature model, for players whose budget could not stretch to the £1,475 USA Sambora Strat. The MIM Sambora’s official, full retail price was £499, making it the most expensive Strat in the MIM line in 1994. It was another Floyd Rose model, but featured a DiMarzio PAF Pro humbucker in the bridge position, rather than the standard Korean or MIM pickups of the time. And purchasers did also get Richie Sambora’s signature on the headstock. The four colour options included black, white, metallic crimson and a rather unconvicing Lake Placid Blue.

So, this was a major opening up of the market, with an obvious intention to release the overall mid and lower-mid price point areas from the grip of Japanese production.

DID THE ’94 MEXICAN STRATS SUCCEED?


Influxing the range with MIM guitars was a plan that had to work, because even setting aside exchange rates, on the global market Fender Japan was eventually going to rise out of its price tier altogether, and Fender could not just abandon that price tier.

In reviews, the new for ‘94 Mexican Strats didn’t exactly set the world alight. There was no sign of those glowing, sometimes even drooling appraisals that had routinely greeted the MIJ Strats in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But the actual market took to the MIMs extremely well indeed – sometimes to the dramatic detriment of MIJ.

MIM FENDER SQUIER SERIES VS MIJ SQUIER SILVER SERIES


Perhaps the most obvious instance of this was the switch from Squier MIJ Silver Series to Fender MIM Squier Series. The full MRSPs in late 1994 were…

  • £295 for the incoming Fender branded MIM Squier Series Strat.
  • £285 for the outgoing MIJ Squier Silver Series Strat.

Before the MIMs arrived, the MIJs were hanging on at around £235 to £249 in real world retail. However, when the MIM replacement hit the market, selling for around £250, purchase of the MIJ Squiers ground to a sharp halt. Dealers had two options. Either take the MIJ Squiers down to the £199 ballpark, or simply watch them sit on the racks whilst everyone bought the MIM Fender Squiers. It took over a year for the remaining stocks of MIJ Squiers to finally sell out, and by the end of that period they were going for Korean prices.

We can spoil the fairytale and say that the preference here was down to branding. If you’ve got two identically priced new Strats on a shelf, and one headstock says “Squier Stratocaster” while the other says “Fender Stratocaster”, almost everyone is going to buy the one that says “Fender Stratocaster”. Even if it also says “Squier Series” in small print, and even if it’s marginally inferior as a product to the “Squier Stratocaster”, didn’t get such a good review, etc. Because that’s how branding works.

But the difference still has to be undetectable to the buyer. True, these were not guitars for connoisseurs or experts, but neither were they guitars for congenital idiots. They had to provide a playable and usable tool for the consumer. They had to be worth the money. If something is not worth the money, word soon gets around. So whilst the Fender branding did kickstart the success of the Mexican Squier Strats, they were good enough as a product to maintain that success.

And I know you’re going to ask because they looked virtually the same, so… Difference between the Mexican Fender Squier and the Mexican Fender Standard Strats?:

The Squiers had single-layer scratchplates as opposed to the Standards’ three-layer, and the electrics/pickups in the Standards were superior. Both the MIM Standard and the MIM Fender Squier had modern style pallid ‘satin’ neck finishes rather than the vintage honey finish found on the MIM Contemporaries of the time.

DIFFERENT LEAGUE


What was undeniable, was that the Mexican Fender and Squier Strats of late 1994 were in a different league from the first internationally available Mexican Fender models of 1991. The “Class of ‘94” can be considered the real architects of Fender Mexico’s rise in the public consciousness and regard. They would pave the way for more star-associated Strats like the Jimmie Vaughan-endorsed Tex-Mex. And after that, a clever system in which the Mexican facility could be used essentially as an outsource shop, contributing to a Corona-based production process while some end products, transported back to Corona for assembly, could legitimately be labelled “Made in USA”. That was the California Series.

Arriving in force to cater for a wide range of tastes, the Mexican Stratocasters may have wooed the pragmatist rather than the romantic, but they quickly won over their price points, and gave Fender’s rivals massive headaches in finding a suitable response.