1996 Squier Deluxe Telecaster (Korea)

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 5 November 2020 |

Squier MIK Telecaster black

If ever you find yourself staring at a seemingly bog-standard Korean Squier Telecaster with a CN5 or CN6 serial number, you may not realise it, but what you probably have in front of you, is the Squier Deluxe model.

And you're right. In terms of appointments, it is pretty standard. But this was the guitar that turned round the Korean Squier's reputation, heralding a new era of uncompromising build quality to rival that of the mid 1980s Japanese Squiers...

BACKGROUND


Between 1987 and 1995 the Squier brand was fraught with dilemma for Fender. Squier guitars had originally launched in 1982 as Fender's bid to see off a deluge of obsessively accurate vintage Stratocaster and Telecaster replicas, made without authorisation, in Japan. The Japanese copies - particularly those carrying the Tokai and Fernandes brand names - coupled very high quality with budget prices, and were devastating Fender's core sales.

As Fender's own, authorised Japanese replicas, the original '82 Squiers were designed to destroy Tokai and Fernandes, without further harming sales of Fender's premium output. They came out with all guns blazing, delivering incredibly high spec (including USA Vintage pickups) at very low prices. You could grab a sensationally accurate Squier '52 Telecaster replica, with ash body, beautiful translucent blonde finish and even the old cloth-insulated pickup wire, for two hundred quid. But this was extreme damage limitation - not sustainable business. The concept of metaphorically “giving away a £100 cheque with every guitar” could not last.

And it didn't. By 1985 those original Squier Vintage Reissues were a memory. And they hadn't even stopped the copyists in their tracks. But they had done something incredibly important. They'd given Fender a highly reputable sub-brand, steeped in kudos. By '85, guitarists trusted Squier almost as they would trust Fender. So Fender now had not one, but two highly marketable electric guitar brands. That meant they could compete aggressively in two completely separate arenas.

The Fender brand would compete against higher-priced guitars, whilst the Squier brand competed against budget offerings. But the problem came in determining where the lines were. How deep into budget territory could Fender plunge Squier, before the quality became so bad that it blew the brand reputation?

Forward from 1987, when Squier production was moved wholesale from Japan to Korea, and other cost-cutting measures were implemented, Squier's reputation began to fall at risk.

Fender actually had a ringfenced, lower budget 'Strat' called the Sunn Mustang, which initially fought against real cheapies from the likes of Encore. But Fender did not want its parent brand name associated with something as heavily compromised as the Sunn, and that meant virtually no one knew it was a Fender product. Which in turn meant it didn't have any inherent brand power. Without mincing words, in terms of sales, the Encore E76 kicked the Sunn's butt. Hard.

So over time, Fender began to consider that they needed to pitch the Squier brand into murkier waters in order to outsell decent beginners' instruments like the Encore, and steadily they pulled down the prices.

£275 for a standard Japanese Squier in 1986 became £199 for a Korean job in 1987. Then £169 by 1991. £149 by 1992... The basic Squiers were still coming out of Korea, but with each drop in price, the build quality worsened. To the point where you could see how bad it was even through a shop window.

The '92 revision - which was eventually discounted down to the Encore price point of £129 - had a reduced thickness, plywood body, ropey build... It wasn't a good guitar. Fender tried to preserve the Squier brand's rep by simultaneously producing high quality Squier Sliver Series options in Japan. But no matter how much simultaneous good you do, you cannot make bad guitars under a brand without negatively impacting that brand. And when the Silver Series became too costly to continue producing in late 1994, Squier had a mountain to climb.

China and Mexico came to the rescue in 1995. China baselining the Squier range at £129, but at decent quality. And Mexico producing the flagship, which had full Fender branding and only an add-on Squier ID. Korea was now left shipping the Squier II series, which had a recommended retail price of £159, but still featured the plywood bodies which had dogged Korean Squiers throughout the '87 to '95 period. Due to China's huge stocks of cheap timber, the lower-priced, Chinese Squier ironically had a solid, non-ply body. So was it not time that Korean Squiers finally dumped the plywood construction and reputational baggage?

ENTER THE SQUIER DELUXE


Whilst they were made by Cort in Korea, the Squier Deluxe models would not have been possible without China. The economy of Chinese manufacture finally allowed Squier to compete in the beginners' market at remarkably watertight standards, and that meant the Korean guitars could return to their economical comfort zone for the first time since 1988.

The Squier Deluxes first appeared in UK shops from February 1996, with CN5 serial numbers. And setting the tuners aside, they were, at the time, the best Squier Strats and Teles to have come out of Korea. They were the first Korean Squiers to officially carry a solid wood body spec, their build quality was extremely good, and they held up well in reviews. Early MIK Squiers from the late 1980s had considerably better tuners, hence my proviso.

No reference to the “Deluxe” prefix appeared on the guitars themselves, and that resulted in some reviews billing them simply as the Squier Strat and Tele. They were also increasingly referred to as the Squier “Standard” Strat and Tele - especially after the baseline Chinese Squiers became the original Affinity range in 1997.

There had never been anything wrong with Korean manufacture per se. It was Fender's constant desperation to compete at lower and lower price points that took production way below its economical comfort zone in the early 1990s. When that happens, something has to give. If you tell your landscape gardener he's only getting 65% of the money, he's only gonna do 65% of the work. That doesn't mean he's no good. It just means he's not giving you any more than you pay for. And that summed up Korean Squiers in the early '90s.

The Squier Deluxes of 1996 brought an end to that era. They were not actually deluxe guitars - they had no deluxe features. But they were good guitars. They were a demonstration of what Korean manufacture could, and should have been all along.

The Deluxes are perhaps best considered the first Korean equivalent to the Japanese standard Squiers of 1986 and early 1987. They're not the same (the tuners are not as good, and neither are the pickups), but they're suitable for the same grade of player. 1980s Blues revisionist Jeff Healey famously used Japanese Squier Strats with a pickup upgrade, and got some phenomenal sounds out of them. There's no reason why you couldn't do the same with a 1996 Korean Squier Deluxe.

THE SQUIER DELUXE TELECASTER


The Deluxe Telecaster's playability was praised under review as “excellent”. As part of the same 1996 commentary in Guitarist magazine, the Tele's finish was described as flat and mirror-like, whilst the neck received plaudits for being “sleek, satin, very straight” and “fun to play”.

The pickups were different in sound from those on the original Young Chang Korean Teles. Brighter, clankier and less warm - which is not going to please everyone. But one of the Telecaster's most overlooked assets is its tone control, which I would routinely take down to half way on new or overly toppy Telecasters. That warms them up nicely, without taking away too much top. Over the years, as the Tele matures, I see less need to reduce the tone, and I've got one 1980s MIJ which has matured and mellowed so much that even with tone full up it's now a bit lacking in zing. It could ideally do with a brighter bridge pickup, but I've got other Teles so I'm not gonna mess with its all-original status.

However, when you have a Tele that's very bright in the first place, like this Squier Deluxe, you can tone it down to taste. And we shouldn't forget that these guitars are now of “vintage” age. Approaching a quarter of a century old, and made of proper wood, which should have deepened in tone through the years.

Old Squier bodies often mature more noticeably than those on higher-end guitars, and that's because, due to budgeting, they were not pre-seasoned. Cursory (if that) attention to drying out could leave them sounding quite hard when new, but since they were assembled with more of the drying out process remaining, they can be a lot more prone to tonal change over the years.

That's the theory, and I can confirm that for me, the theory has held up in practice. One of the fascinations of owning a range of guitars for more than two decades is seeing the different rates at which their tone changes. You can't reliably track the changes in one guitar, but you can compare two guitars. And if one starts out sounding harder than the other, but ends up sounding sweeter, you know that instrument has seen a lot more tonal evolution. Not very scientific, but it's indisputable.

IDENTIFICATION


Identifying the Korean Squier Deluxe Telecasters is pretty straightforward. They have...
  • A solid, full-thickness body. Normally quoted as basswood back in the day, but either alder or maple could sometimes be substituted.
  • A high quality maple neck (only - no rosewood board option) with pale, natural satin finish, and 21 frets. The fingerboard radius is 10 inches, so not super-flat, but flatter than the classic vintage Fender profile.
  • A gold Squier logo.
  • A CN5 or CN6 serial number.
  • Made in Korea” underneath the full model name (i.e. “Telecaster” and not “TELE”) on the headstock, registered “R” circles after both the Squier brand and the model name, and a black “by Fender” marque.
  • Dual string trees.
  • Dark-lined truss adjustment cavity on the headstock face.
  • 3-ply scratchplate with eight screws.
  • Wide-spaced marker dots at the twelfth fret.
  • A six-saddle bridge with strings terminating on the bridge plate and not running through the body.
  • Flat-top volume and tone knobs.
  • Chromed tuners with a budget feel.
  • Alnico pickups which were underwound in relation to vintage Tele spec. Underwinding was prevalent on the majority of '80s and '90s Telecasters (including many Japanese Fender vintage reissues), so this should not in itself be considered a problem.
In short, this was a classic incarnation of the post-1984 Squier Telecaster. And don't worry, I'm not going to leave you in suspense re the original price. It was £199 on the UK market in 1996 and 1997, and even the mail order dealers only managed to discount it down to £189, so there wasn't much headroom.

The Deluxe was also the guitar that paved the way for the Korean Pro-Tone series. It was a great improvement on the early 1990s MIK Squiers, for a relatively modest price increase. And I'm sure that improvement set Fender thinking about Korean value in general. Maybe Korea should not have been considered the place you go when you want the cheapest thing on the market. Maybe it should have been considered the place you go when you want a great deal on a high quality instrument. That notion was born with the Squier Deluxe, and the Pro-Tones consolidated on the theme. And unlike the way things were five years earlier, Squier could march towards the end of the Millennium with its head held high.

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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]