Recalling the Fender Japan Floyd Rose “Hot Rod” Strat

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday 2 June 2021
Fender MIJ Hot Rod Floyd Rose Stratocaster

Yes, it's whammy time, as an early 1990s monster of rock pops its three-tone sunburst above the parapet for a heavily overdriven trip down memory lane. If you don't remember the first Fender Japan Floyd Rose “Hot Rod” Stratocaster of the early 1990s, don't be too quick to blame the old grey matter - it was short-lived and easy to miss, and I'd forgotten about it myself until very recently.

But it's an interesting subject for a blog post, because this was the guitar that paved the way for some better-known MIJ Squier and Fender Mexico spin-offs, which fared rather better in a very price-sensitive market.

It was late 1991 when I first became aware of what the UK market termed the Fender Hot Rod Strat. And this, the first Japanese incarnation of the guitar, had one of the shortest lifespans in the history of Fender Japan's exports.

In late '91, big revisions were afoot in the Fender range, as the first Mexican Stratocasters hit the UK shops, and Japanese Squier production restarted. Simultaneously, the first wave of nostalgia for the 1980s Fender Japan Contemporary range was emerging among the rock-but-not-necessarily-metal collective. As the early '90s ushered in a new penchant for vintage styling, some of the more outlandish '80s guitars were falling out of fashion. There was a door reopening for those souped-up classic Strats that the pre-1987 Fender Japan operation had made its speciality.

In the mid to late 'eighties, there was an emerging area of commercial rock which did not associate with the visual memes of heavy metal, but still required a lot of the technical capabilities from a guitar. The first wave of Fender MIJ Contemporary Strats had slotted nicely into this role, before they were overshadowed in the territory by Strat Pluses and early Clapton Strats with active gain.

Fender Japan's Contemporary Strats were scrapped in 1987, as the company ported the leading edge of modernisation over to their new Corona-built USA range. But whilst the new wave of USA Strats were fantastic instruments, they didn't do what their Japanese predecessors had done. That crazy whammy capability, which even the lowly System 1 Strat had covered, was right off the menu. And none of the late '80s Fender USA Strats had possessed a true humbucker at the bridge.

By 1990, a more recognisable “contemporary rock” Strat had returned to the Fender listings in the shape of the USA Strat Ultra. The Ultra had a pair of Red (hot Strat) Lace Sensors at the bridge - essentially selectable as a forces-joined single power-bucker - plus a Gold (classic Strat) Lace Sensor in the middle, and a Blue (warm/bluesy Strat) Lace Sensor at the neck.

So everyone's happy then? Not really. At a recommended retail price of £1163, the USA Strat Ultra was way out of the £300-£400 ballpark of the 1984-1987 Japanese Contemporaries. And the Ultra still didn't have a locking trem.

The Fender Japan Hot Rod Strat was an attempt to bring back the essence of the original Japanese Contemporary Stratocasters, whilst retaining the more vintage mores of the early 1990s. And the guitar sought to deliver this in what was very much a “best of” parcel. The basic appointments were...

  • Vintage-contoured poplar body with no veneering or “foto-finishing”.
  • Shallow, satin-finish neck with wide, flattish fretboard.
  • General “vintage” styling, derived from either '50s or early '60s templates. Maple neck for the '50s, rosewood fingerboard for the '60s, and a 'spaghetti' Fender logo on both. The tuners were vintage Kluson copies rather than the contemporary Gotohs that the '80s market would have expected. The necks did not, however, have the vintage honey tint. They had a paler finish in keeping with that of the American range of the time.
  • Floyd Rose Original tremolo unit with allen screw lock-nut on the headstock. Dive-bomb city.
  • Two flat-poled Fender Japan alnico V single coil pickups in the neck and middle positions, plus a DiMarzio S3 humbucker in the bridge position.

The recommended retail price cut the Strat Ultra's tag almost in half, weighing in at £630 - which would inevitably be subject to aggressive discounting once the mail order retailers entered the game. Certainly not bad for a very well-made Japanese Fender guitar with premium Floyd Rose and DiMarzio hardware, but was the “Hot Rod”s price low enough to recapture the '80s market?

The answer was a pretty simple “no”.

The market of 1991, going into '92, had very different conditions from those of 1986. Both Yamaha and Levinson were now specialising in the kind of feature sets that the old Fender Japan Contemporary range had set out to deliver - and were arguably providing more attractive deals. It was no longer enough for Fender to rehash a popular concept of the mid 'eighties - even if they had given it a more “vintage” personality and bigged it up with name-brand hardware. For the target buyers, that price needed to come down, and the Hot Rod Strat needed to entice a bit harder...

Fender addressed this with the slick and fairly rapid introduction of a Squier version. A Squier with a Floyd Rose sounded a bit contradictory in terms of budgeting, but it did work.

The Squier was made in Japan, like its immediate ancestor, but it was cheaper to build due to its revised spec. Gone were the alnico single coils and the DiMarzio S3, to be replaced by an unbranded humbucker and two MIJ ceramic single coils. And the lower tier Floyd Rose II trem system was subbed in for the Floyd Original. These changes, along with a less expensive basswood body and revised tuners - which were a hybrid of Kluson and contemporary styling - helped to considerably reduce the cost of the Squier version. And the extra enticement was provided by Fender's then new photo-finish process, which made a plain and inexpensive body look like a beautifully-flamed masterpiece.

The Squier actually carried a full Fender 'spaghetti' logo, but also a small “Floyd Rose Squier Series” identifier in place of the Fender Hot Rod version's “Original Contour Body” decal. The more affordable Squier Series Floyd Rose replaced the original MIJ Hot Rod version, so by 1993 the Squier was the only non-American Floyd Rose Strat on the Fender product list. But by 1994, Fender had reintroduced a more viable version of the poplar-bodied “Hot Rod” - this time made in Mexico, and sold as the Floyd Rose Standard Stratocaster.

These Floyd Rose-equipped Fender Strats proved very popular, with happening artists such as Gorky Park's Yan Yanenkov using the flagship American version, and Richie Sambora endorsing a signature model. Both the USA Floyd Rose Classic and the Richie Sambora Signature Model came with a PAF Pro pickup in the bridge position, and the Floyd Rose Original trem which had appeared on the '91 MIJ.

The short-lived Fender Japan version of the “Hot Rod” stands as a measure of the tight market tolerances that existed in the first half of the 1990s. It was, without question, destroyed by its £630 retail price, but the concept per se proved itself viable in two other non-USA formats. One a cost-cut Japanese variant, and the other more similar to the original in terms of materials, but made in Mexico where the production cost less.

Due to their limited time on the market, getting hold of an original Fender Japan Hot Rod Strat is quite a coup today. And they're very good guitars. Top quality hardware, lovely weight, exemplary build, great playability, and a time-honoured design which kicks just about as much ass sonically as it's possible to kick.