Thus begins the task of writing about what is probably the most purchased guitar in the last 10 years. Ever since Fender got their Mexico factory, allowing them to charge a lot less for what is almost the same instrument as its American cousin, people have been jumping at the chance to own one. It’s the closest you can get to playing the same guitar as Hendrix, Clapton, Gilmour and Beck(the Jeff one) without spending more than 500 dollars. And the price has gone up, mind you. I remember about 6 years ago when I wanted one that it was 299 new at Guitar Center. I probably have one of their leaflets that showed a picture of a dark blue Made in Mexico strat which costs 299.99. But I’ll get to the price trend later, lets get to it!
The Specs: 21 Medium Jumbo frets on a Maple or a Rosewood board. Most people get maple, and I would too. If you’re going to buy something called a Strat, you might as well keep it a strat with a maple board. The Body is made out of Alder, a tonewood that many companies are using for their lower end guitars or guitars they know will not have a transparent finish. Fender uses alder on their American strats too, but I have a feeling that they come from better stock. I’m making an assumption, so it could be completely false. Alder isn’t exactly the prettiest of woods, but it’s similar to higher ones so they might as well use it if they got it. I have no idea about the state of Alder trees, so if you’re interested in that, go do some research and send it my way too. Satin poly finish on the neck, so it’ll last awhile. Vintage trem, 3 single coils. I’m trying to limit myself here considering there isn’t much about the strat people don’t know. I’m trying to point out the minor differences between one of these and the expensive ones. A few of the obvious ones are the size of the fretwire, the truss rod access being in the headstock, and the type of Alder.
The Neck: When I pick up a guitar, this is the first thing I go for. I wrap my left hand around the neck and feel the profile. This is a modern C, which means it’s a nice C shaped curve which is thinner. Reading Dan Erlewine’s book explaining the differences in neck profiles was a very informative thing. Through the 80′s and 90′s necks got REALLY thin, and even the standard Strat got pulled into the trend. I’ve heard thin necks promote fatigue, but the Fender modern C shape isn’t that thin, so it still fills the hand. As I said, poly satin finish so that will stay on for a good amount of time. On the other hand, it probably hinders the resonance of the guitar in comparison to a thin coat of Nitrocellulose. Then again, I could just be falling into the tribe of purists who claim Nitro is a better finish. Judge for yourself, I think satin feels great play wise, but there is a certain feeling you get on a tinted poly finish.
The Body: The Alder thing is an interesting subject. Most of Fender’s guitars are made out of Alder with a few exceptions. They make special strats out of Ash, a wood near and dear to my heart, having spent time working with it. It’s a spectacular looking wood, and is a lighter colored, but more dense version of mahogany. Looks great with maple. Anyway, Alder is just another tonewood which people will try to describe with words like “poppy” or “warm” when in reality it doesn’t matter for the MIM strat. The polyurethane finish is so thick and there’s probably filler in some bad spots on the guitar, so the resonating properties one could associate with a thin finished Alder body are probably hindered by all of the coating. Personally, I can’t hear it, but i’m drawing conclusions from what I read and assume. It looks like a strat, and that’s probably why you bought one or are reading this. It’s made on a machine, every one of them is cut identically, but has different wood stocks. Minute differences which most people who would buy a MIM strat wouldn’t notice.
Electronics: If every strat guitar used the same electronics as the Eric Johnson signature strat, this would be a different paragraph and a different toned article. But since they use what they use, it’s merely a situation of “It sounds fine” and move on. 3 Single coils, volume and 2 tone knobs. I still dislike the wiring of the tone, to the middle and neck. I use middle pickups so infrequently, I would just rather have it wired to the bridge. I was going to say have a master tone knob, but once you find the joys of different tone settings, you never want to return. Maybe they treble change when doing a switch from Bridge to Mid to Neck is so annoying they’d rather keep it gradual? I don’t know why. Actually, come to think of it, a tone knob for the neck and mid, and one just for the bridge would be better. Or one for Mid and Bridge, and one for the neck. I’ve heard a lot of players modding their tone to just Neck and Bridge, so it’s something to think about when you want an easy modification for different sounds.
Hardware: The tuners are decent tuners. They work pretty well. I would like the ones with a center post just because they look coolers and have better string locking ability, but they are probably a little complicated for changing strings if you’re just a casual player. The current tuners however, are standard ones which are easy to tune with. The output jack is fine, but there needs to be a standard solution for those things loosening and weakening. It’s a 5 dollar solution, and i’d pay that much to never have to open up that cavity for any reason. The bridge, same deal. There needs to be some type of thread locking mechanism. Small set screws so the height of the saddles doesn’t change over time. A bigger sustain block on the bridge would be nice too. Just a little extra sustain isn’t too much to ask for?
The Whole She-bang: You’re spending 400 dollars on a guitar which is outsourced for labor purposes. You’re going to get what you pay for. It will play, it will sound like a strat, and you’ll tell people you have a Fender strat. It’s true, you have one. But the guitar as an entity runs on pedigree, not on quality. You’re getting the name, the look and the label, not the playability. The frets and nut are created for all of the guitars, not just yours, so variation is common. The neck pocket is done on a machine, but it doesn’t account for the thickness that the painter applies finish or color, so the pocket isn’t really exact. It’s good, but it’s not amazing. The neck will shift in that pocket with the right force. The action is going to be alright, but you’ll never get it as low as you really want it. Playing a guitar which can have mind bogglingly low action is something few guitarists experience. That book I referenced before, he sets his high E string to be .009 inches off of the first fret. That’s ALMOST enough room to fit another high E under that. You could blow on that string and the note would go sharp. You won’t find that on the strat. Everything will be fine. It’s something that will work. The Fender MIM strat is like the Ikea furniture of guitars. You get it because it looks good and works, but it’s never going to be monetarily worth more than what you bought it for unless you become the next Stevie Ray Vaughn or it’s signed by a celebrity. We live in a mass production world, and there are a LOT of MIM strats out there. They are gifts, beginner guitars, backups, projects, parts, and played until the strings dissolve.
Also, from a perspective of upgrades, it’s THE guitar. It’s the standard, and there are more parts for it than any other guitar. Broken neck? Get a new one. Want to replace the pickups? Do it. Some guitars out there, you’re stuck with what you got unless you do some major repairs. Every single part on the strat has ten to hundreds of options for replacement. Warmoth, Allparts, Dimarzio, Seymour Duncan, Planet Waves, Schaller. All companies that make new parts for the guitar you want to upgrade. Also, it’s the guitar that repair people have the most experience with, so chances are if you want a fret recrown, the repair guy is going to be able to do it quickly, cheaply, and well.
Thinking about it, the Fender Standard Made in Mexico strat is not a great guitar. Looking at it from a workmans perspective, it’s fine. The ones on the shelf are fine guitars, and even sitting on the shelves I’m not a big fan. But for something to work on, it’s amazing. I’m thinking about getting one just to Frankenstein it. And looking at it for what it symbolizes, it’s absolute perfection. It’s what gets people to start playing guitar. Priced just low enough to tempt people, and named perfectly so people will want one. Someone will as, “What kind of Guitar do you have?” “A Fender strat”, they say. It’s a guitar people want and are proud to talk about. And for that, it’s perfect.
Never played guitar? Buy one. Screw the value and the depreciation, it’s your first guitar, and it’s a Fender Strat.
Have a bunch of expensive guitars? Buy one. Tear it to bits, learn about guitar, mod it, paint it, crank it.
I usually grade guitars on the guitar itself, but you can’t do it to this. Someday, I’ll rate an American strat like every other one i’ve reviewed, but this one is special and I don’t even own one.
The Pros: It’s a Fender strat. It’s just fine. It’ll work and play.
The Cons: That it’s just fine. Machinery is so fast and advanced now that even the lowest models of companies should be able to play as good or better than the cheap guitars of yesteryear.