REVIEW: Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster Reissue
The Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster Reissue taps into a magical point in Fender’s history, where the Stratocaster had grown and evolved from its 1954 roots. You can see this evolution by looking at the American Vintage ’57 Stratocaster Reissue. Earlier Strats had single-ply pickguards and maple fretboards. By ’62 the design had mutated to 3-ply pickguards and rosewood fretboards. The Strat still had only a 3-way pickup selector switch, although astute players had already realised they could access neck+middle and bridge+middle combinations by balancing the switch between the notched settings. Later the Stratocaster’s headstock grew, the number of screws in the neck joint reduced from 4 to 3, and the truss rod adjustment moved from the base of the neck to the headstock. Later still, the Strat (in the form of the current American Deluxe Stratocaster) adopted a 2-point fulcrum vibrato system, compound radius fretboard (a roundish 9.5″ at the neck end, progressing to a flatter and more shred-friendly 14″ at the noodly end), locking tuning machines and the S-1 switch for additional tonal options.
But back to the ’62 Reissue. Yes, the guitar that prompted me to give up my Ibanez Jem7VWH. This guitar features vintage-correct appointments to the finest degree. The body is alder, finished in nitrocellulose lacquer instead of the more modern polyurethane. Nitro is known for ageing gracefully and allowing the wood to breathe. The neck features 21 vintage-size frets (they’re quite small and relatively low), with white pearloid position markers including vintage-accurate further-spaced-than-usual twin 12th position dots. The rosewood slab fretboard’s radius is a curvaceous 7.25″ (184mm), which may present some ‘fretting out’ (more on this later) if you go nuts with your bends, especially if you prefer a lower action, but hey, it was good enough for Jimi so it should be good enough for the rest of us, right? The neck is also finished in nitro, has a nut width of 1.650″ (42mm), and is capped with vintage-style tuning machines.
Electronics consist of three Fender American Vintage ’57/’62 Strat single-coil pickups http://fender.com/products/search.php?partno=0992117000 with staggered, bevelled-edge pole pieces (Subtle point: the originals didn’t have bevelled edges). The pickups, which Fender says are reverse-engineered from a particularly coveted ’63 Stratocaster, are made of Formvar wire wound around Alnico 5 magnets. They have a DC resistance of 5.6K and inductance of 3 Henries, putting them at the very low output end of the spectrum compared to, say, the Texas Special Bridge Pickup which tops out at 7.10K or the ceramic magnet Hot Noiseless designed for Jeff Beck, which gets all the way up to 10.4K.
Controls include a master volume pot as well as tone controls for the neck and middle pickups. All three pickups share the same magnet polarity and winding direction. In later years, guitar companies grew hip to the idea of including a reverse-polarity, reverse-wound middle pickup that would serve to create a humbucking effect when that pickup is combined with one of the others, but since this is a vintage-accurate reissue, you have to deal with any extraneous buzz on all pickup settings. Speaking of which, the pickup switch is a vintage-accurate 3-way version – neck, middle or bridge only – but Fender thoughtfully includes a 5-way switch in the age so you can change it over yourself (or have a tech or guitar store do it for you). I chose to leave the 3-way switch as-is for a while, but will probably upgrade to the 5-way once I get tired of trying to balance it at those midway points for the combination settings. For now I’m enjoying the vintage accuracy of the 3-way switch.
By the way, in the interests of vintageness, Fender includes an original-style strap and cable as well as the ‘ashtray’ bridge cover (which everyone took off anyway). To fit the cover, place it over the bridge then push it back towards the rear strap pin. There’s no mechanism to actually lock it in place – it just sits there – so don’t stress too much if it pops off. Just consider it a cool historical curio and an extremely rare example of a Fender part that wasn’t perfectly engineered.
The workmanship is pristine, from the softer curves of the ’62 body to the intricately carved synthetic bone nut. The fretwork is great, and it seems that Fender took extra special care with this step in the knowledge that thin frets and round radii are out of step with many current players’ expectations. If you need something slightly more modern but still dig the ’62 vibe, there’s the American Vintage Hot Rod ’62 Strat, which differs from the basic Vintage ’62 spec by way of a satin-backed neck, flatter and more bend-friendly 9.5″ radius and medium-jumbo frets, slightly fatter neck, installed 5-way switch and a reverse-wound/reverse-polarity middle pickup.
So! Sound! Back in the day, it didn’t occur to anyone to design different pickups for different positions. Simply placing the pickups at different points on the body and providing a few tone controls was considered enough. The bridge pickup here has a chewy, grindy quality with subdued bass and vibrant midrange. At lower gain levels it’s thin but not particularly brittle, while various levels of overdrive bring out successive layers of fatness and chunk while masking some of the treble. Some players wire the bridge pickup to one of the tone controls to tame its edge a little, but I feel that in this case the pickup is perfectly voiced. The harder you play, the brighter it sounds. It’s a very interactive experience.
The middle pickup has a slightly hollow voice with more bass and less treble than the bridge pickup. While most players tend to think of the bridge pickup as the ‘main’ pickup for their guitars, I can’t help but feel that my Strat’s default position is this middle pickup. Need more treble? Flip to the bridge. Need something rounder and juicier? Switch to the neck. I find the middle pickup especially good for Hendrix tones, both clean and driven, and it seems to especially favour complex chords between the 5th and 12th frets. It also seems to love legato techniques like hammer-ons and slides, which tend to lose power slightly through the bridge pickup or be too muffled through the neck unit.
Now. The neck pickup. Remember what I said about the middle pickup being like the default? Well as much as I believe that to be true, I simply can’t get enough of the neck pickup. It has that great lively Stevie Ray Vaughan tone: fat, loud, articulate, and with a great growl which is really emphasised with some light overdrive. Much like the interactivity of the bridge pickup, dig in hard here and you’ll hear that classic noodly Strat sound, or reign it in for a softer, rounder voice that sounds great when played fingerstyle.
The neck can take a little getting used to. That rounded 7.25″ fretboard radius isn’t for everyone. If you’re used to jumbo frets and flatter radii like on an Ibanez RG or the like, you might even find it a bit confronting. Yes, it’s true that if you bend too far with a rounder radius the string will ‘fret out.’ If the action is too low this will completely choke out the note, but in this particular Strat’s case the strings are just high enough that instead of the note getting killed on the spot as soon as you get two semitones up, it undergoes an almost wah-like tonal shift. The bass and treble drop out and the upper midrange is emphasised. It’s actually a pretty cool effect that you can use to really hammer a note home.
Is there 60 cycle hum? Yep. Is it bad? Not really. Also you’ll notice that the control cavity is very well screened. The pickguard is actually entirely backed with a pickguard-shaped sheet of metal (actually it kinda looks like it could be two) to block out extraneous interference. If the noise is a problem you could always upgrade the pickups, but I kinda like that subtle background hiss for what it represents: the early days of electric guitar, when rock and roll was dangerous, cars had big freakin’ fins and malt shops were full of cute chicks in polka dot skirts. Your mileage may vary, of course.
The twin-pickup combinations – bridge/middle and neck/middle – can still be achieved by balancing the switch midway between the notches for the respective pickups. They sound fatter and louder than most players are probably used to: because the middle pickup is not reverse-wound/reverse-polarity, it won’t cancel out hum, nor will it cancel out frequencies in the same way as such a pickup, so you’ll still get the same buzz as the other pickup positions.
My Strat’s bridge is set to float (although it’s easy enough to adjust the spring claw and/or add the two extra springs if you want to set it flat against the body). On the low E string, the bar can drop the pitch down about a Bb – certainly nothing like the ‘so loose the strings hang off the neck’ depths reached by double locking Floyd Rose type trems. My Strat is set up so that an open G can be bent up just over 3 semitones to – again – a Bb. Weird! I must work that into a song some time. The bar is actually quite smooth in operation, and you can use it for everything from delicate Bigsby-like shimmer to crazy, pitch-accurate Jeff Beck melody lines. Sure, occasionally your tuning will drift, but not by much, and probably not as often as you’d expect if you’re a lifelong Floyd user who’s never trusted an old-school vintage 6-screw trem. It’s interesting: Floyd Roses can hit so many more notes due to their extended range of motion, but the Strat’s vintage trem can be much more accurate, precisely because it’s relatively limited compared to a Floyd. It’s easier to use the bar to hit specific pitches, and you can use it David Gilmour-style to add gentle or wild vibrato to bent notes.
I think it’s pretty clear at this point that I’m pretty infatuated with this guitar. I could try to reign in my praise for the sake of being objective, but dude, I am being objective: I just really dig this guitar! So all I can do is accurately describe what it sounds like, what it plays like and how it’s built. If the hum, the limited whammy bar travel, the rounded fretboard radius and the fact that nitro finishes age more rapidly (and attractively!) than polyurethane ones bother you, look elsewhere. If the tone, vibe, construction, nuance, responsiveness and it-fights-you-back-just-a-little playability are as cool and enticing to you as they are to me, give the American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster Reissue a try.