Fender Vintera II 70s Strat review: Big vintage tone, accessible price
The Made-in-Mexico Vintera line is only four years old, but Fender has overhauled it anyway. We've had the quirky 70s Strat for a week, and at less than half the cost of an American Vintage II, it plays beautifully and presses all the retro buttons.
Heaven help the young guitarist who wants a new Strat in 2023; searching the Fender USA website today gives you no less than 74 different options, some coming in as many as nine different colors. There are Player Strats and Player Plus Strats, Made in Japans and Japanese Vintage reissues. There are American Performers, American Professionals, American Ultras, American Vintage IIs and American Ultra Luxes.
That's not all, there are also dizzying arrays of artist signature and limited edition models. There are weird naked-looking Aerodyne Specials and semi-hollow Suona Thinlines that look like they were crafted on fireside rugs in log cabins. If you're really cashed up, you can go to the Custom Shop and buy brand-new hand-made dream machines that come out of the box looking like somebody's already belted the bejesus out of them for 30 years on stage.
And now, there are Vintera IIs, a reinvention of the Vintera range that first appeared in the before-times of 2019. Vintera, Fender announced at the time, was "a line of vintage-inspired electric guitar and bass models that embody a period-specific vibe."
These retro-styled pieces recreate famous models from the 50s, 60s and 70s – but do so in a relatively affordable way. Where the American Vintage II series is Fender's made-in-America old-school flagship range, Vintera – and now Vintera II – is made in Mexico, shipped in gig bags instead of fancy tweed hard cases, and less than half the price.
I've had my hands on a Surf Green Vintera II 70s Strat for about a week now, and frankly I'm a little disturbed by how well it compares in quality and finish to the American Vintage II '57 Strat I reviewed last year.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. What are we looking at here? The 1970s are a bit of a weird era for the Stratocaster; Leo Fender had completely cut ties with the company bearing his name after selling it to CBS in 1965, and was off working on his new Music Man and G&L companies. And Hendrix was dead, leaving the world's most iconic guitar bereft of its most electrifying proponent.
CBS didn't do anything too radical to the Strat design, but it did see fit to make the headstock bigger, in a way that might not be immediately obvious – but once you notice it, it's impossible to un-notice. The new owners also added a three-bolt neck joint with a micro-tilt screw for adjusting neck angle and making your guitar tech break out in hives. The company also finally adopted the five-way pickup switch in 1977, officially welcoming the Strat's gorgeous, out-of-phase position 2 and 4 sounds to the family – prior to that, you had to jam the old 3-position switch halfway between settings.
The Vintera series 70s Strat recreated these somewhat less-than-iconic CBS innovations in 2019, and the Vintera II 70s Strat does as well. What's changed in the latest update? Quite a bit. The old-new-old guitar had an ash body, a C-shaped maple neck, and either maple or Pau Ferro fingerboards with 21 medium-jumbo frets. The new-new-old guitar moves to an alder body, with a U-shaped maple neck, and either maple or – surprise – rosewood fingerboards, with higher, narrower "vintage tall" frets.
Where the American Vintage II series uses period-accurate nitrocellulose paint, the Vintera II gets a glossy urethane finish, which essentially means it doesn't smell quite as cool, and it'll be more durable, resisting cracking, scratching and plain old wearing off for much longer than the old nitro jobs.
This is of course bad, because a brand-new looking guitar is about as rock 'n' roll as a fresh, stiff pair of Levis with no holes or white in the knees. Fear not, the swing tag informs me the urethane paint job can still cause cancer and reproductive harm, so maybe there's some bad-boy rebel points available if you go around licking it or something.
Otherwise, the Vintera II furnishes vintage-style slotted tuners, which are just brilliant and no downgrade from lockers in my opinion. It's got a vintage-style six-screw tremolo bridge, with bent steel saddles. It runs a synthetic bone nut and a very rounded 7.25-inch fingerboard radius, which is beaut for thumb-over playing. And it sports three 70s-spec single-coil pickups, through a single volume knob with no treble bleed, and two tone knobs, one for the neck and middle, and one for the bridge pickup.
In terms of quality, setup and finish, I'm trying hard to pick nits. In certain lighting conditions, I can just see a few slight dimples in the glossed-over sides of the rosewood fretboard if I really squint. There's maybe half a millimeter of neck hanging over the lower edge of the neck pocket. And the edges of the nut and the frets aren't butter-smooth, they wouldn't pass the stocking test.
Otherwise, it's really nicely built, right down to little things like the pinstriped pickguard, which mates perfectly with the body all the way around. I've heard around the traps that Made-in-Mexico isn't a four-letter word any more, and if this guitar is any indication, the gap between this more affordable Vintera II series and the American Vintage II series is much narrower than the price tags might suggest.
Sure, it'll lose its resale value faster than an American, but for those who are more interested in how they play, the Vintera II Strat is just a joy to wail on. It arrives set up really nicely: low action, not too much fret buzz, workable intonation and the trem set up floating a few mil off the body. I haven't touched a thing. Tuning this thing is relatively pleasant thanks to a nice precise gear ratio on the tuners, and it stays in tune pretty well, provided you don't go too bananas on the trem bar. Mind you, I haven't spent much time breaking that in.
The pickups offer bright, shimmery, chimey top end, but with considerably higher output and more beef than the ones in the 1957 American Vintage II, and thus a greater tendency to push a preamp. I'm particularly entranced with the way they work dynamically, giving you crystalline bell tones under a light pick but encouraging you to dig in deep and get physical for the reward of hearing how they take off when you play them hard.
Here are some people who really know what they're doing playing it, alongside the 50s and 60s models:
All the classic Strat tones are here in spades; the neck coil is round, punchy, warm and hollow. Neck/middle is pointed, articulate, bottly and squealy. Middle introduces a sizzling top end, middle/bridge is quacky, funky and nasal, and the bridge alone packs enough searing trebles to go full country/blues twang – and once you've had your fun, you can easily tame it by rolling off that dedicated tone knob. I couldn't ask much more from a Strat in terms of tone.
I'd perhaps criticise the main volume knob for making too much of a difference between 10 and 8, and the tone knobs for making too little of a difference in the same range, but whatever; you figure it out, and this guitar really sings, with impressive sustain and well-balanced volume across the strings. And those vintage-tall frets place the strings far enough off the fretboard that you can bend 'em til your fingers are ragged, even on this 7.25-inch board, before they choke out. A great choice.
This is a killer guitar, with vintage feel and panache and great big dollops of tone, that's priced to be within reach of younger players looking to step up to a pro-level instrument. That doesn't mean it's cheap, though – and prices have crept up some over the older Vintera models. It carries a retail price of US$1,149 in the USA, or AU$1,899 in Australia.
That places it an uncomfortable few hundred bucks dearer than the Indonesian-made PRS Silver Sky SE, which topped Reverb's list of the best-selling guitar models of 2022, for whatever that's worth. I haven't spent a great deal of time with one of those, but while they do deliver spectacular tone, I don't remember them feeling nearly as good in the hands as this Vintera II. I imagine there'll be comparison videos all over YouTube within minutes.
But these things are personal, and while Fender makes it easy to buy guitars online from wherever you live, I still reckon you're robbing yourself of wonderful experiences and great surprises if you don't get down to your local music store, let the most grizzled-looking salesperson in the shop talk your ear off, and play every damn thing on the rack while you still can! That includes some of the more unusual instruments in this new Vintera II collection – notably the Cobain-tastic Competition Mustang and the very odd six-string Bass VI, complete with a 30-inch scale, Jazzmaster-style trem system and three hot single-coil pickups.
70s-era Strats might be overshadowed by their early 60s and late 50s counterparts in pop culture, but I've had a terrific time so far with this one. I can't tell you whether the rumors about that oversized headstock increasing sustain are true, but I can definitely tell you I dig the hell out of the sound.