I have long been a dedicated fan of the Fender Stratocaster. My first electric guitar was a USA Standard Strat in 1988 and it is that guitar on which I taught myself to play. The Strat just fits me and I find it to be the most comfortable, ergonomic and natural-feeling guitar in existence.
I am not a purist when it comes to the tone of the Strat. I can equally appreciate a traditional Strat tone or something that sounds very unlike a typical Strat, which is why I now have 3 Strats that span a very wide range of tones from that of a traditional 50s Strat through a later, more aggressive one (think Hendrix for example) to something closer to a Gibson SG tone.
As long as it comes in the package of a Strat body and neck – lightweight, ready to rock – I’m happy.
So the latest addition to my Strat family is the Squier Vintage Modified 70s Strat. Here is a detailed breakdown of what it has delivered so far, what I have subjected it too and the verdict.
Build Quality & Finish
This is a bone of contention among many players, that these budget instruments can be a let-down because of the cheaper hardware installed being determined by lower costs of manufacture. I guess this is true depending on the kind of player you are and how fussy you are about certain details.
I have a Custom Shop Fender and have played mostly USA made and real vintage guitars most of my playing life (26 years to date) and I do not feel that the current Squier range are a let down in any way. I would never put it as dramatically as that.
Yes, the vibrato block under the bridge is of far less mass than an Original Fender and of a cheap alloy rather than solid steel, which does play some part in the quality of the tone, but tone is subjective anyway. Also it is possible to buy a solid steel block and fit to the existing bridge, or a whole new bridge assembly for relatively little money.
The tuning stability out of the box may not be as good if you use the vibrato more than a little, but again, a setup by somebody who knows what they’re doing and that imbalance can be accounted for too.
So that leaves the inferior electronics… really? Are they that much worse though? In my experience with two Squier Strats now, that is not the case. The stock pickups are good and the pots and switches all perform as they should. I am a tweaker, so I have already rewired my Vintage Modified Strat because I like to play around with switching options.
The finish of this guitar is excellent. The only visible flaws I can detect are two, tiny black specks on the neck: One on the headstock and one on the last fret, near the neck pickup. They appear to be small splashes of black paint that must have got onto the neck before finishing, because they are under the lacquer. Not a big deal really, unless this was $2000 custom shop guitar!
The frets are all finished perfectly, no sharp edges. The setup was perfect out of the box and I have not needed to adjust the setup yet. It is a bit heavier than my Classic Vibe, which I was a little disappointed by. I love lightweight guitars and I was under the impression that Basswood (which this Vintage Modified Strat is made of) was lighter than the Alder that the Classic Vibe is made of. In any event, it’s not a heavy guitar.
The body finish is beautiful – glossy black with a black pickguard. One cosmetic modification I will make will be to add a single-ply. black pickguard as I prefer the simpler lines of that compared to the 3-ply black-white-black format.
So all in all. This Indonesian-manufactured guitar is very-well made and has no function-inhibiting issues. You could walk out of the store with this guitar and take it straight to a gig, no problem.
After a few weeks of playing this guitar and with the novelty of having a new guitar lessened, it’s time to objectively assess how this guitar plays.
Right now the Vintage Modified 70s Strat is the nicest guitar to play of the three Strats I have.
Well to be fair, my USA Custom Shop Strat needs a bit of work. The vintage-size frets are getting worn so it isn’t at it’s absolute best. The classic vibe has been extensively modified too, by me and I am not a luthier by trade. It could probably feel better than it does if I got a professional to take care of it. However, the setup VM Strat remains untouched since I took it out of the box on delivery day, so that is testament to how this guitar comes as standard. It is a joy to play.
The neck is similar to the Classic Vibe profile, but I wonder if it feels just a tiny bit fatter. I have stripped the original lacquer off the Classic Vibe and it was very thick, so maybe that is the difference I am sensing! The maple fingerboard is great (I prefer maple to rosewood for feel). It’s nimble, smooth to play and the whole guitar feels like it’s working with me rather than against me. The best style tuning pegs ever invented (in my opinion) make this a breeze to change strings and holds tuning properly. The nut seems to be cut to perfection and there is no binding on any of the strings.
My initial expectation before the guitar arrived would be that the nut would need replacing with something like a Graphtech, but so far I see no need to change it – If it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it” as they say.
Before I go into the sounds from this guitar I will mention again that I rewired this thing almost as soon as I got it; not because I was unhappy with it, but because I am not a big fan of some of the typical Strat sounds – namely the neck+middle (my least favourite) and the middle by itself (I don’t mind it, but hardly ever use it). I do, however love the neck+bridge together, using that for most of my clean tones and spending almost the rest of any given performance on the bridge pickup.
I wired a 4-way switch to give me the following selections:
- Bridge & Middle
- Bridge & Neck
Before I changed the wiring, what I can say about the pickup combinations that I sacrificed were that they won’t disappoint any player who is in the market for this guitar and likes to use those settings.
These Pickups were the biggest surprise of all to me. I assumed they would be adequate at best before I took delivery of the guitar, so I was quite impressed when I first plugged it in and it sounded pretty good. After having used the guitar in most situations now: Home playing, rehearsal and live performance with my band I can honestly say that the stock, Duncan Design SC101 pickups are fantastic. Maybe I’m just lucky in that they speak to my inner tone freak! I imagine they won’t be for everybody because as we all know – tone is subjective.
What I find with these pickups is that they are quite bright, but not ice-pick harsh at all. The neck pickup retains clarity with heavy overdrive playing chords, which I haven’t really experienced before with any Strat I’ve played.
The Positions of my 4-Way Wiring:
- Neck: The neck pickup seems to be quite hot in this guitar and seems substantially louder than the bridge pickup, so I lowered the neck pickup a fair amount to compensate. It has a very woody type of tone, very articulate as explained already with the clarity thing going on and is nice for blues licks and lead phrases from clean to light overdrive. With the tone rolled off (I also replaced the stock tone cap with a 0.01 value cap), the tone gets very throaty and honky (which I like) retaining the clarity. With the lower value tone cap, the smaller amount of high frequencies attenuated have the effect of the tone becoming more mid-rangey rather than less trebley. This is what I like about that value of tone cap.
- Neck & Bridge: This one is to die for! For cleans, funky stuff, picking and for light overdriven (think cranked Blackface amp) settings, this combination is a winner. It sounds reminiscent of a jazzmaster in this position. Lots of character, lots of jangle, but still plenty of low end, but no mud! I have the tone pots inactive on this setting as it’s just perfect as it is with the tone up.
- Bridge & Middle: Not as useable as the neck and bridge, but comes in useful for times when I’m straight strumming with a sound that is somewhere in between clean and just starting to breakup. It adds some character to a clean sound and just keeps the tone from ever getting too thin. It is the position of this 4-way setup most likely to get muddy if the tone isn’t dialled in perfectly though, which is why it is a lesser used mode for me.
- Bridge: My all-time favourite position regardless of guitar or situation. I spend a majority of all my gigs on the bridge pickup. If I was only allowed one pickup on any guitar it would always be the bridge pickup. I’m even one of those guys who doesn’t feel the need for a tone control on the bridge pickup either. I just love the fact that if you ever need to cut through the mix on stage then the bridge pickup will rescue you every time.This bridge pickup is no exception. This is the crowning glory of this guitar’s pickup set. It’s hotter than my Custom Shop 50’s voiced pickups, but not as high output as the SP90 in the bridge of my Crazy Vibe. It’s bright and clear with enough bottom end to have some guts, but not enough to ever get mushy. The sound to my ears is tight, focused and smooth, whilst being as bright as you’ll ever need to get.
I produce music and in general I like a warm, rounded overall sound reminiscent of the days of vinyl. the 70s especially. However when it comes to my guitar I like it to be bright. it’s easier to take treble away than to add it and a guitar needs to have a certain amount of twang in order to convey it’s rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Too warm and it’s jazz, which is nice if you’re a jazz player, but I am no jazz player!
I’m considering putting noiseless pickups in this guitar to overcome bad-grounding and other noise issues in most venues that I get to play. I’m afraid that I might lose the mojo that these pickups have if I do though. It’s not worth spending too much on new pickups. I’m sure if I were to get Kinman Woodstocks I’d be very happy, but they cost as much, if not more than the guitar itself!
However, these pickups haven’t caused me a problem yet in terms of hum, so they may stay. I’ll certainly be keeping them in case I miss them later on down the road. They are absolutely fantastic sounding pickups to my ears. I prefer them to the pickups that came stock in my Classic Vibe 60s Strat.
In terms of the amount of guitar for the money spent, this is probably the best guitar I’ve ever owned. It looks beautiful, it sounds world-class and it plays like a guitar that I would expect to cost at least 3 times as much. It compares favourably to my Custom Shop Strat, although the Custom Shop Strat is in a class of it’s own in terms of the actual finish: nitro lacquer, hardware etc. In terms of function though it is equally as good. In my opinion, the main difference between the expensive guitars and the budget ones nowadays is the wow factor of the finish, not even the finish itself – but more a question how expensive it actually looks and feels.
The Squiers, don’t look as expensive or feel as expensive, but once recorded or coming through a PA, they sound like equally adept guitars, because the end result is that if a guitar is playable and inspires you to play your best, it’ll sound great.
I love all my Strats, but presently the Vintage Modified 70s Strat is my favourite as it is the easiest to play well and sound good on!