AF’s Weblog

February 28, 2011

Fender Blacktop Series Review

Instead of launching the umpteenth reissue of a catalog instrument, Fender decided to innovate by mounting high-output passive humbuckers on a new series called Black Top. This new product range includes a Telecaster, a Jaguar and a Stratocaster equipped with the same pickup combination based on two humbuckers. The Jazzmaster gets a more original pickup combination with one humbucker (Hot Vintage Alnico Bridge Humbucking Pickup) and one P-90 in the neck position.

The Sonic Boom!

Originally, the humbucker pickup was invented by Gibson’s engineers to suppress unwanted noise by electrically and magnetically linking two single-coil pickups in series and out of phase. From the “practical” standpoint, guitar players know the properties of such pickups: a powerful, round and warm sound. As a consequence, humbucker pickups are the best solution for distortion sounds. Fender has a strong personality due to its single-coil pickups that provide a crystal-clear sound (they can be heard on many legendary rock albums). However, they could never really take the lead in the humbucker market — controlled by Gibson since the 1950’s.

Design

 

Fender Blacktop Series

The series is entirely produced in Fender’s factory in Mexico. All bodies are made out of alder with bolt-on maple necks with 9.5″ fingerboards and 22 medium-jumbo frets (except for the Jazzmaster). By standardizing the design and finish Fender can actually lower the price to a MSRP of $450! Most models are available with two different fretboards: maple or rosewood. The latter gives a warmer, rounder and more precise tone. Considering the price, we guess that the bodies are not made out of premium-quality wood but rather out of two or three glued pieces of wood. Just being realistic: with such prices, you cannot expect to get the same resonance as from a massive-wood, one-piece body. All guitars have a perfect skin: a polyurethane varnish with a faultless glossy finish. The neck finish is the same as on the Classic Reissue Series. It is very thick and protects the wood perfectly, providing excellent grip and optimal playing comfort while allowing to quickly access every point of the neck. The truss rod adjustment is accessible on the top of the neck, which is a modern and very convenient feature. The nickel/chrome hardware and the tone and volume knobs on all models recall the look of Fender amps. We must admit that this is a very original idea but it won’t be everybody’s taste.

 

You’re In the Army Now!

Let’s take a look at all new recruits of the Black Top Series.

 

Fender Blacktop Series

The look and sound of the Stratocaster is pretty well accomplished. The combination of the Candy Apple Red finish and the three-ply Mind Green pickguard looks wonderful and make the guitar a real eye-catcher. Two other finishes are available: Sonic Blue or Black with rosewood or maple fingerboard. The guitar has two Hot Vintage Alnico Humbucking pickups with chrome covers, a volume control, a tone control, a vintage-style tremolo, and a five-way toggle switch.

Position 1: full bridge pickup The sound is powerful and rich. It’s perfect for aggressive but precise rhythm parts.

Position 2: inside coils of the the two humbuckers. The response is hollow in the mid frequencies, the sound is lusty but not too wide.

Position 3: bridge and neck pickups in series. The low-frequency band is softened so that the mid range seems to be boosted, resulting in a flat and massive character.

Position 4: outer neck pickup. The most interesting sound among the five available. You get that unique Stratocaster sound without the sharpness.

Position 5: full neck pickup This setting produces too many lows, which results in a very heavy timbre. The tone is too heavy for rhythm parts but interesting for lead guitar.

Now let’s have a closer listen…

Conclusion

 

With the Black Top Series, Fender offers a very wide range of sound variations and finishes. The four different guitars use surprising pickup combinations! And their playability is almost perfect! The jewel of the family is the Jazzmaster, which is a really nice guitar aesthetically speaking but also provides a spicy expressive sound. The price in stores ($450) is very appealing and will surely attract guitar players who want a Fender without going broke.

Advantages:

  • Finish quality
  • Originality
  • Unbeatable value for money!
  • The Jazzmaster is especially appealing
  • Versatility of the Stratocaster

Drawbacks:

  • No gig bag
  • The Telecaster is a bit disappointing
  • Jaguar without a tremolo bridge

To read the full detailed article of the series with all sound samples see:  Fender Blacktop Series Review

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January 26, 2010

[NAMM 2010] Fender Jim Root Stratocaster®

Watch this and other videos/news from NAMM 2010 here.

July 6, 2009

Fender Road Worn Series: Well-worn or Worn-out?

Introduction

What’s an impatient guitarist to do when looking for a guitar that’s been worn and aged through years of playing and gigging, but who doesn’t want to wait for time to do its thing? Two options: buying an old used guitar or a “Relic” which, like some jeans, is new, but artificially worn-down. Like the series Worn Road that we are testing today …


Guitarists such as Rory Gallagher, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joe Strummer have embedded in our minds images of used and abused guitars with faded and worn-down varnish, oxidized hardware, and rusty pickups. It’s not surprising therefore that many guitarists have come to seek out old looking models such as these, and having a Stratocaster with numerous chips and dents and worn-down varnish has become very “hip”. Objectively, however, the main reason why many artists in the past sought out these beaten-up guitars was the price. Often bought second hand in pawnshops for a few dollars due to their condition, they were a good choice for “great sound” at a lower cost.


Like pre-worn and torn jeans it has become all the rage to have a guitar bearing the marks of time. And because beat-up 60’s Stratocasters have become scarce and/or unaffordable, Fender is now offering, through its custom shop, “Relic” reissues, which come fresh out of the factory with that beaten-up look. The Relic series provides you with a new quality custom shop guitar, but with a look of having been around on the scene for years.


Before trying out one of these “relics” from Fender’s custom shop, I was very skeptical about the whole concept: Factory made chips and dents on the body?…, I can do it very well myself, thank you. Yet when by chance I came across a 60′ Relic Stratocaster, it became clear that the guitar was more than just a gimmick! It’s very subjective of course, and will vary from one guitarist to another, but I found that this guitar seemed to have a little extra something to it, and provided the “feeling” of a vintage guitar, although in this case the “vintage” part was illusory. The aging process seemed so successful that I wondered for a few minutes if it was a reissue or an original before learning that it was a Custom Shop model recently issued. Custom Shop models nevertheless come at a price: sailing blithely in 2500 € / 3000 € for these models, all hand-made by the Custom Shop.

Fender then decided to make the “relics” more accessible by launching the Worn Road series. The concept is simple: made in the Mexican Fender factory, they’re put through a “Relic” phase, but still done hand during construction, and all at a price around 1000 euros. Let’s see if the feeling of playing on a museum piece is still present on theses Road worn relics?

Conclusion

To tell the truth, I’m undecided. These Road Worn guitars are somewhat more expensive than similar models with a standard Mexican finish (classic series or classic player). The “relic” finish will cost a few hundred dollars more, which is logical since it calls for additional work. However, this treatment is only about the visual aesthetic and doesn’t influence the sound, where there is, of course, no objection, since it’s the classic “Tex-Mex” sauce. All that’s left is the look and feel.

The finish is really excellent and made with attention to detail. Nothing is left to chance, either in the varnish, hardware or plastic, you get the impression of playing on a 30 year old axe! Moreover, one of the advantages of these guitars is that the worn aspect brings out a different attitude when compared to a new guitar. Even if the instrument is, in fact, new, you’re less liable to treat it like you’re afraid of scratching it and will therefore feel more comfortable with it from the start.

For those of you who have never had one of these artificially aged guitars in your hands, I suggest testing one in a store, but try and leave your preconceived notions at the door; you might be surprised!
Positives:

  • Quality of Relic finish
  • Tex Mex Pickups
  • Workmanship
  • Affordable
  • The feel

Drawback:

  • Relic finishes very similar models tested

To read the full detailed article see Fender Road Worn Series Review

December 10, 2008

Test: Squire STC-Shaped Guitars review

Squier has been making low-cost guitars based on Fender designs since 1982. Because their early guitars have now become collector items for some, Squier is seeking to regain some of that magic with their Classic Vibe Series. This latest series was launched to capture the “vibe” of classic Fender designs as opposed to trying to be exact reproductions of vintage models.

Vue générale

The Classic Vibe series is composed of: a 50’s Telecaster, a 50’s & 60’s Stratocaster, a 50’s Duo-Sonic, a 50’s Jazz Bass, and a 50’s & 60’s Precision Bass. In this review we’ll be taking a look at the 60’s Stratocaster, 50’s Telecaster, 50’s Duo-Sonic, and the 50’s Precision Bass. All have MSRP’s at around $499 and street prices of around $299 (the Duo-Sonic is slightly less expensive with a MSRP/Street of $479/$279).

The first thing you’ll notice is that the instruments are all carefully packaged. Once out of the box you’ll get struck by the beauty of the finishes. They certainly look classic. But not only do the models in this review have impeccable finishes, they feel great too. And with the exception of the hardware (Squier’s constant weak point) everything else seems to be right on the money. Here the choice of less expensive hardware is justified as being “vintage” or “classic”. And while some “classic” hardware choices seem to be appropriate (or at least not an issue), some less “vintage” hardware (like enclosed tuning machines) would have been most welcome. But of course that would have jacked up the cost, and considering the price of these models, and their many other strong points, we’re ready to overlook most hardware choices.

The main hardware flaw was found on two of the models (Telecaster & Precision) both of whom had side mounted input jacks. These jacks were very loose regardless of how much I tightened the screws. This problem affected only those instruments with side mounted jacks. The other models tested (Strat & Duo-Sonic) had more or less solid input jacks. Another curious detail is that they all had rather tight knobs compared to their Fender counterparts. I myself like looser knobs to be able to adjust them with my pinky as I’m playing, but this isn’t necessarily a problem for others, and even denotes a certain solidity.

Let’s take a closer look…

Conclusion

Crafted in China but backed by Fender, these guitars and basses have the possibility of being inexpensive quality instruments “IF” Fender/Squier quality control does its job. Nevertheless, as anybody who has bought Chinese made instruments knows, it’s largely hit or miss. To be sure you’re getting a well made instrument (and yes it is possible to get some real quality stuff from China) you need to test the instruments yourself (or at least make sure the store you’re buying it from has a return policy). This is key because only then will you see if there are any flaws. So go to your nearest guitar store and check these Classic Vibe instruments out. When well made, they are really great inexpensive quality instruments. There will still be one or two hardware issues but they are easily changed, and considering the price of these instruments (average MSRP/street of $499/$299), you won’t feel scared or hesitant about making modifications. But do yourself a favor, go check this series out!

Beautiful Finishes
Sound
Workmanship
Price
Duo-Sonic ultra quiet
Intonation on the Telecaster

Duo-Sonic: intonation and neck issues (probably a bad test model)
A few hardware issues: side mounted input jacks on Tele & Precision
A little noisy (Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision)
Only 3 saddles on the Telecaster & Duo-Sonic

Read the full Squire STC-Shaped Guitars review here.

August 27, 2008

Fender New American Standard Telecaster review

Fender has added some new features to a few of its classic instruments and announced the New American Standard series. Here’s a great occasion to come face to face (or body to body) with two of rock’s oldest and dearest friends: the Stratocaster and Telecaster.

Fender Telecaster New American Standard

For those few who don’t know, the Stratocaster and the Telecaster are kind of the mothers of all electric guitars, with their Gibson cousin, the Les Paul. Created in the beginning of the 50’s by the master Leo Fender, these guitars kick-started the solid body concept (bodies without sound chambers, and therefore solving the feedback problem of amplified acoustic guitars ) and establishing the principles of electric guitar building; to the point where 50 years later, these very same principles are still used by electric guitar builders.

As far as deciding whether these New American Standards are worth it, the answer is a 200% yes. Of course, if you bought an older model a few months ago, don’t worry:, the new features, though all valid, aren’t major. So if you’re thinking about getting yourself a Strat or a Tele, you can rest assured: The Fender sound is there.

Two legendary guitars with classic sound and playability
Nice new cases that are both light and rugged
Sustain Improvements
Neck varnish gives it a nice feel

Nothing really revolutionary, but we weren’t expecting it anway

Read the full Fender New American Standard Telecaster review on Audiofanzine.

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