The American Standard Strat might just be one of the best bargains on the used guitar market. You can find used U.S. Standards for $450 to $550 all day long. And for a quality American-made Strat with great sound and features, this is 100 percent Gigmeister!
Every company wants to improve its product, and Fender is no different. The early ’80s found the company back under private ownership and wanting to create new classics. But the ’57 and ’62 reissue Strats were selling well and the powers that be felt the need to address problems inherent on the old guitars. For example, the vibrato system – Strat whammys feel good, but if played hard they go out of tune. Young players often criticize Hendrix, who spent considerable time tuning his guitar. The Floyd Rose system worked well, but sacrificed bass response and was difficult to adjust. Many repairmen performed a mod to older Strats, which involved cutting four of the six top bolts short, leaving the two end bolts intact. The American Standard used a new trem fastened to the guitar top with just two bolts instead of the six used on the original. This finally made standard a hip feature on older Strats. The small, easily rusted saddle on the original were replaced with heavier, smoother saddles that made palm muting easier and more comfortable. Even the backplate routing was changed to allow easier string changing.
The electronics were modded, as well. The five-way pickup select was finally standard equipment, and the pots were also wired differently. The volume pot stayed the same, while the middle tone knob only affected the neck pickup. Fender’s TBX control works on the middle and back pickups, allowing you to shear off or (seemingly) add highs to the middle and back positions. Actually, the TBX control has a center detent position and moving it counterclockwise cuts highs. This makes lead playing smoother, especially when using distortion. Eric Johnson uses this approach on “Cliffs of Dover.” Turning the TBX clockwise bypasses the tone knob altogether, giving the impression of more treble. Finally, the middle pickup was reverse-wound and reverse-phased, eliminating hum in positions two and four. This makes the American Standard a great recording guitar and, in fact, the stock pickups on my early-’90s AS Strat sound wonderful. Giggers will appreciate the lack of hum in noisy bars, near fluorescent lights, when playing loud, etc.
The feel is different, too. Fender added a 22nd fret, more conducive to expansive lead playing. Access to the truss rod is now at the headstock, but without the tacky ’70s bullet. This makes truss rod adjustments a snap and allows you to do so with the guitar strung to pitch – an impossible feat on the old Strats with truss rod access under the pickguard. The fretboard radius was changed to 9.5 degrees, making string bending easier, and larger fret wire was also employed, and the Standard comes from the factory with .009-.042 gauge strings. Properly set up, this is one easy-playing guitar! The neck feels a bit bigger, with a subtly squared, yet rounded shape. A nut width of 1.6875″ seems to be a great average size – not too narrow or wide. Fender uses a pair of string trees to maintain good sustain across the nut.
My current Strat is an early-’90s Standard with maple neck, finished in a mouthwatering Teal Green metallic that looks superb! It’s an excellent guitar for many things. The American Standard Strat does all the great tones you expect from a Strat. With a properly adjusted nut, you can indulge in fairly serious whammyotomies without going out of tune. The extra fret makes lead work more fun, as do the flatter fretboard and bigger frets. Strats excel at so many kinds of music – rock, country, funk, blues, etc. that it’s hard not to love ’em.
What’s wrong with this guitar? Not much. It would be nice for all five positions to be hum-canceling while retaining that famous Fender sound. I wish the whammy returned to pitch better, and a repairman might adjust the nut on any trem-equipped guitar for better tuning stability. Finally, not everyone is going to love the neck shape. These are such small quibbles that shouldn’t deter you from getting your own American Standard.
This review originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’98 issue.