Sound — 8
I've never owned a guitar with Texas specials before and I was surprised at how bright and punchy in the mid range these are. I play through a Fender Pro Reverb and I found myself dialing back the tone to compensate for the extra punch. The greasebucket tone circuit however seems to be everything that Fender claim it to be and the tone doesn't get mushy at you roll off the treble. Home base for me is usually in position one or two, I.e neck or neck/middle pickup selected. I've read reviews of American Special Strats saying that the middle pickups sounds great or whatever but umm... I've never really got a useable tone out of a middle pickup on a Strat yet and that doesn't change here either. In the middle position you're somewhere in the tonal twilight zone, flying with only the volume control to help you. But, tone of course is subjective so I'm sure someone out there will like that sound. I view that region more like an annoying stop along the way to the humbucker in the bridge! Of particular interest to me and I'm sure other guitarists out there is the Atomic humbucker. It does a pretty good job for both rock and metal tones with the tone rolled off a little. The voicing of this humbucker is naturally bright being in the bridge position but not so bright that it could cut glass. I like to use my Boss CS3 compressor and roll off the tone a little also and I can conjure up a ballsey, authentic Judas Priest or early era Metallica tone from the humbucker through a Boss MT2 Metalzone. Through an overdrive pedal I can achieve as close to a Zeppelin like tone that a Strat will ever get. Pleasing to note is the relative balance in output compared to the single coils in the neck and middle positions, it's louder for sure but not so much so that it sounds out of place. I have to say that before this guitar arrived in the delivery truck I was already looking at possible humbucker replacements on the internet but I think I will be leaving the Atomic humbucker right where it is for the time being. I play everything from blues to classic rock and old school metal and I have spent some considerable time dialing in my favourite tones through my pedal board with these pickups. I currently have an Okko Diablo (amazing!), T-Rex Mudhoney, MXR 78' Distortion and humble Boss Metalzone MT2 for the harder edge stuff. The first position (neck) with a little compression thrown into the mix gives an instant SRV tone. Second position (neck/middle)is noticeably 'quackier' that my Deluxe Strat and you'll find yourself rolling off the tone a little more than other positions. Again I think that might just be my previous inexperience with Texas Specials. Middle position should be avoided like dinner with your inlaws... Position four (middle/bridge) isn't too inspiring either but once you get to Position five and the humbucker goodness, odds are you've stomped on the distortion pedal and you're smiling again. I'm going to give sound overall an 8 only because of the Texas Specials being a bit hard to rein in. The humbucker has been brilliant so far though, which justifies the 8.
Overall Impression — 8
Couldn't be more pleased with this guitar. At $1075 AUD street price it's a bit of a no brainer. I would recommend this to anyone who is in that middle ground between single coil and humbucker as the greasebucket tone circuit is a real get out of jail free card. I've been playing for 10 years and owned probably a dozen or so guitars and this is a real 'does what it says on the box' guitar. If it were lost or stolen I'd definitely buy another one. There's always things that we'd change as guitarists to get our own little idea of perfection - for me that would be the tremolo being upgraded to the 2 point tremolo. You have to be careful when palm muting strings as you can cut yourself on these Vintage trems with the rough metal of the height adjustment screws. I may change the tuning machines to locking tuners in time to come but like I said I'm just being picky. Oh! And a case. (Did I mention a case would be nice?!) Aside from a little workmanship niggle and some parts that are perhaps not top of the line this guitar is a versatile, solid and good looking instrument. You have to look at any guitar in light of what you paid and I believe that the features packed into this instrument at a great price make it a great buy.
Reliability & Durability — 9
This guitar will definitely stand up to live playing, we all know and love the Stratocaster anyhow, they're so customizable and repairable that this section of review is hardly even neccesary. I will always have a backup for a gig but I'm betting on not needing it and the whole reason of this purchase was so I could do a whole gig/jam/practice with the one guitar. Although not technically an issue of durability, rather protection - I think it's a bit strange to market this guitar as a working musicians guitar and not sell it with a case? Obviously trying to keep costs down but that's my only niggle on an otherwise rock solid guitar. I already had a Fender case on order when I bought this guitar.
Action, Fit & Finish — 7
This is the only area that I have any real criticism to direct Fender's way. Again I should reiterate that this is a well priced guitar and I can't expect the world but I'll try and run through my observations here anyhow. I originally asked the store to setup the guitar with.10's for me because the stock standard.09's are a far too light. I also asked them to basically hard tail the tremolo as I've never been one for whammy bar theatrics and I believe there are benefits in sustain also. When I took the guitar out of the box I was disappointed to see that the setup work had not been done but I won't mark Fender down for that - obviously that was a customer service issue with the store. Anyways the trem was well and truly floating, probably half an inch off the body. I took the cover off the back of the guitar and was surprised to see wood dust in there from when they drilled the holes for the trem cover. Once I restrung the guitar with the correct gauge I play, balanced the trem flush with the body and replaced the trem cover I noticed oddly that I can no longer see the string slot holes through the 'window' in the plastic cover - basically when I restring I will have to take this cover off again! It seems that the slot wholes line up fine when the tremolo is floating but not when flush. I'm not sure if this has always been an issue with Vintage tremolos or not, as my deluxe has the 2 point tremolo system. The next issue that gets me every time with Fender, is removing the plastic shrink wrap on the pickguard. How silly is it that you have to pop the Volume and tone knobs off to successfully remove the thin plastic film? Even then there is still residual around screws etc and on a black guitar it looks a bit stooopid! That's the negatives out of the way though. I'm really pleased with the neck profile, fretwork, pickup height and pole piece staggering. The bridge seems to be intonated and radiused well. Aside from the tremolo height mentioned before the action was great at what I'd describe as medium height, just how I like it. The overall paint finish is good, strap buttons were replaced immediately with strap lock buttons but the originals looked sturdy enough. I love the cool Vintage headstock and the jumbo frets make bending and vibrato a breeze. The string spacing and neck profile are wider than my Deluxe but somehow still very comfortable. The tuning machines do the job and the nut looks to be cut well with no string grabbing etc. I've read that these necks are Highway One upgrades left over from a few years back with Jumbo frets but even if they are, doesn't worry me! Feels great! It might sound weird but you could sum the action, fit and finish of this guitar up as a workman who is good at his job. He doesn't care if he looks pretty or not, he just gets the job done with minimum fuss. As I've mentioned I have had a high end American Deluxe Strat for years and this guitar is under half what I paid for that yet it is put together solidly in terms of hardware, joins, tolerances etc. Only reason I'm giving a 7 here is the negatives mentioned above but even they should again be viewed relative to the price point of the guitar.
Features — 9
2011 Model American Special HSS Stratocaster in Black on Black finish. Before I go any further in this review I should state that I'm writing and rating this review relative to the guitars price point in the market. I also own an American Deluxe Strat so that serves as a good contrast to this Fender offering. Anyways... Features of the American Special HSS: - Made in USA. - 2 x Texas Special Single Coils in Neck and Middle position. - 'Atomic' humbucker in the Bridge position - Greasebucket tone circuit that removes treble frequency without adding bass. - 22 Jumbo Frets. - Maple neck with Rosewood fingerboard. - Fender branded non-locking tuning machines. - Regular (vintage/conventional) truss rod. - Modern 'C' shape neck profile with 9.5 inch radius. - Satin feel neck. - Vintage style 70's large headstock. - 5 position pickup selector. - Vintage style tremolo with screw in tremolo arm. - Solid black lacquer finish. - Gig bag, polishing cloth and Allens keys. I'm very pleased with the features of this guitar for it's price point in the market, I specifically ordered this model, in this colour because I was looking for a solid workhorse guitar that can be a 'go-to' guitar for jamming and gigging. Usually I will have my American Deluxe Strat (2001 pre the S1 switching models) and my Gibson Les Paul Standard on hand at band practice and switch between those two in order to get the tone that the song dictates. My hope with this guitar is that I can just take one guitar along with me, use the humbucker with the tone rolled off a bit to try and bluff a Les Paul like tone. Across the board the features of this guitar might not be top of the line but Fender has done a reasonable job of reaching into the parts bin and putting together a USA made guitar at a cheap price. I will leave fit and finish comments until later in this review but feature wise the only small niggles include not offering a case and the older style Vintage Tremolo but hey! Like I said earlier, at this price point you can't hope for the world and my rating reflects that. Interestingly - and not something I ever remember reading anywhere before (and no bearing on the rating) - the truss rod in this neck is the older style non bi-flex rod unlike the other Strat necks I'm accustomed to in Deluxe's and American Standards etc. I thought Fender had bi-flex rods in everything but I'm not an expert on the topic I must admit.