Review: Fender turns back the clock with American Vintage II 57 Strat
Fender has dug deep into its storied history to recreate 12 of its most famous guitars and basses of the 50s, 60s and 70s with a new American Vintage II production lineup. We've spent the last month getting to know a Buddy Holly-era '57 Stratocaster.
Leo Fender might not have been a guitarist, but he was a hell of an inventor, and the guitars he designed in the early 50s have resonated through the years in ways that are hard to imagine happening in any other business. Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision Bass, Jazz Bass – these legendary instruments are still in production nearly seven decades after their original debut – and not only that, they remain some of the best-selling designs on the market.
And while technologies have evolved, and the Fender company has continued to innovate, there's still something magical about the early guitars. Leo Fender got these iconic designs so right, so quickly that antique instruments are now insanely expensive and sought-after. Not just by collectors, either, but by musicians searching for that elusive vintage mojo, an itch that cutting-edge designs don't quite seem to scratch.
With genuine antique gear now so rare and pricey, Fender's Custom Shop has been getting more and more requests in recent years to build brand new guitars as close to the vintage specs as possible, Fender CEO Andy Mooney told a group of journos over a Zoom presentation. But even Custom Shop guitars are priced out of reach for most folk. So the company felt it was time to go back in time, again, with a new series of "American Vintage II" production guitars, built as closely as possible to the originals, and designed to be a cut above the Vintera range, so the rest of us get to see what the fuss is about.
Not going by halves, Fender has chosen no less than 12 models to recreate: the 1951 and 1963 Telecaster, the 1954 and 1960 P-Bass, the 1957, 1961 and 1973 Strats, the Jazz Bass and Jazzmaster from 1966, the '72 Thinline Tele, the '75 Deluxe Tele and the '77 Custom Tele. In some respects, the company has gone to extraordinary lengths to make them authentic – going back to the original factory tooling for certain parts, or even spinning up a new factory to produce the CuNiFe magnets used in the '72 Thinline Tele's humbucker pickups.
In other regards, the company has quietly modernized certain bits where it made sense. For example, on the 1957-spec Strat Fender sent us out for review, the original pickup switch would've been a three-way design – and if you wanted to get those iconic Stratocaster double-coil in-between sounds, you'd have had to find the sweet spots in between switch positions to get them. The five-way switch you find on today's Strats didn't appear until 1977, but Fender's fitted it to this '57 model because these things are built first and foremost to be played, and a 5-way switch takes nothing away in that respect.
This was an educational test for me; I haven't had the chance to play the original vintage gear, and probably never will. What's more, I happen to have just got hold of an ultra-modern Strat to compare it with: a 2021 Fender Made in Japan Modern HSS, specified pretty closely to Fender's current top-shelf Ultra-series flagships, but for far less money – hence my interest in it. So let's see where the big differences lie.
First and foremost, the neck. The 57 is famous for its "v-neck" shape, the HSS runs a compound modern C to D shape. The 57 runs a very rounded 7.25-in radius on a maple fretboard, the Modern uses a rosewood fretboard with a compound radius that starts at 9.5 in at the nut, and flattens out to 14 in by the time it reaches the body.
There's no doubt to me, the 57's rounder neck is more comfortable to play, most of the time – especially if you like wrapping your thumb around onto the low E string, Hendrix-style. I can see why John Mayer wanted this radius on his signature PRS Silver Sky. But the modern compound neck shows its advantage when you move up the board and start bending notes. With a nice low action setup, the 57 chokes out if I bend much further than a whole tone, but only on the high E string. Vibrato feels a bit easier on the modern neck too, although whether that's a good thing to you or not will be entirely personal, some folk like to really lay into a guitar and there's something to be said about the 57's way of making you work a little harder.
Looking at the tuners, the 57 runs a set designed to mimic the look and feel of the original Klusen "single line" units from back in the day. They work great. The modern guitar gives you a sweet set of locking tuners, but the 57 uses Fender's slot-and-hole-style vintage tuning pegs, and I have to say, once you figure out how to use them, they're every bit as quick, easy and secure as the locking ones. Both stay in tune.
At the bridge, the 57 runs a period-accurate six-point tremolo with bent steel saddles and a screw-in arm, and the Modern runs block saddles on a 2-point trem with a pop-in arm that I think I prefer for its lack of play. A spring and a ball bearing is all you need to firm up the vintage style trem bar, and frankly I'm rubbish at using one, so they both feel fine and sound awful to me when I use them. Both give you easy adjustment of individual string action provided you haven't lost your tiny hex keys. The 57's neck looks like it's got a truss rod adjuster up behind the nut, but it ain't; truss rod adjustments are a neck-off job – not that you want to be doing those too often anyway.
In terms of looks, well, the 57 is curvier and our test guitar is a nitrocellulose "sea foam green," which reminds me of my grandma's old bathroom sink, rest her soul. It comes in a legit-looking tweed hardcase, with a plushy velvet interior, in which you can forever store a helpfully-supplied "ashtray" bridge cover that stuffs up your palm muting. The Modern, on the other hand, is sharp-edged in shiny piano black with a sacrilegious binding around the top. It's not for everyone.
When it comes to sound, the differences are fascinating. The 57 runs "Pure Vintage '57 single-coil Strat" pickups, and the Modern runs a pair of Fender's latest generation IV noiseless single-coils up front and a coil-splittable humbucker at the bridge. The vintage pickups have a lot more top-end bite and sparkle – getting a similar clarity out of the Modern requires a pre-EQ boost of about 3-4 dB from around 4 kHz upward. The vintage pickups also seem to be more dynamic, putting bigger transient spikes through an amp than the more compressed-looking waveforms that come out of the Modern.
The volume balance between the pickups is pretty even on the 57, where the Modern gets a fair bit louder as you head to the bridge pickup – even with the coil split active. Run the full humbucker on the Modern and the signal gets huge and warm, as expected, but that's a whole different thing. In terms of noise, yes, the "noiseless" pickups on the MIJ Modern very effectively tamp down 60-cycle hum, although that really only becomes an issue when you plug into a high-gain amp. So if high-gain is your style, this American Vintage Strat is gonna be buzzy, and I don't think anyone's gonna be too surprised by that.
You can get most sounds out of most guitars if you're good with an EQ pedal, but the top-end clarity of the 57, as well as its slightly more dynamic, dare I say analog feel, make it no contest to me. Obviously, you set your amps and EQs to suit the guitar you're using, and the Modern is a terrific instrument in its own right. But if you define a good Strat sound by its bottly, hollow neck sound, chimey position 4 bell tones and quacky position 2 spank, well, the 57 sounds bottlier, chimier, quackier and spankier to me. These pickups are fantastic.
All of which is to say that the last month or so I've spent with the 57 has been lovely. Picking it up has always been a pleasure, never a chore, and I've even enjoyed playing it unplugged, just enjoying the supreme resonance of its curvy alder wood body against my belly. I find myself cursing other guitars now when I go to wrap a thumb around, and I've found myself becoming a pretty quick convert to the old-school V-neck and 7.25-inch radius. If this is the vintage guitar experience at production guitar prices, then sure, count me in. But make mine a sunburst, I don't think I can pull off Nanna-sink green.
The American Vintage II line is available now through Fender dealers. The 1957 Stratocaster we tested retails for US$2,099.99 (€2,349, AU$4,099), putting it at the high end of what you'll pay for production Fenders, but still coming in substantially below a Custom Shop guitar – or for that matter, the tens of thousands you'd pay for a well-kept original 57 Strat. If it's a little rich for you, Fender makes a 50s-era Vintera model with a very similar look and specification for less than half the price – although it's made in Mexico with substantially different pickups, and it's missing a few other touches too.
Check out a video below – in which Fender wisely gives the guitar plenty of space to make its own case. There are similar videos for the other 11 guitars in the American Vintage II series, accessible through this playlist. Enjoy!