Have you priced ’57 or ’62 reissue Strats recently? The pride of the Fender line ran about $750 when it was introduced in 1982, but today you’d be hard-pressed to find a used one for that price.
However, you can find an assembled-in-America Strat that feels just like a ’62 reissue for less than $475. That guitar is the Fender California Strat, and it’s one excellent value.
We’ve covered various Stratocasters here, and for good reason – the Strat works. After gigging for almost 30 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that a Strat is probably the single most versatile electric guitar you can own. I’ve played rock, country, blues, funk, jazz and more on a Strat, and it sounds great on all styles. If you’ve never tried jazz on a Strat, use the front pickup, dial the tone knob on the guitar back to three or four, and pick lightly. You’re in for a treat!
In my opinion, the best Strats made were the early-’60s models with rosewood fretboards and three-ply pickguards. The louder volumes favored by ’60s Strat players resulted in a metal shield being installed on many guitars that helped diminish electrical interference, thus reducing noise.
The California Strat is identical to the ’62 reissue in most respects. The C-shaped neck (my personal favorite) is mated to a thick rosewood slab board for ultimate stability. The three-ply pickguard is there, as are the traditional single-coil pickups, joined to that desirable five-way switch. Little details, like Kluson-style slotted tuners and mouth-watering colors like Candy Apple Red, Lake Placid Blue, and Black, make this guitar all but impossible to differentiate from a regular ’62 reissue.
The story goes that the California series guitars were instruments that came to life stateside, were shipped to Mexico for painting, then returned to the U.S. for final assembly. In fact, unofficial word is that this guitar was so good it was taking away sales from the regular American Standard series as well as the ’57 and ’62 reissues. Whatever Fender’s rationale, the California series guitars are no longer available. Too bad, because this is an excellent Strat.
I borrowed one from a friend for a recent trio gig, where I ran it into my Digitech RP-200, then straight to the P.A. The Strat sounded great – clean and punchy, like any good Strat should. I don’t know how the pickups are different, but they seemed to have a bit more high-end than the Mexican Strat I used to play. I installed a set of Super Bullet .010s, and it sounded and played in tune all night long.
I enjoyed the rounder neck profile; when playing barre chords up the neck, a V profile can, if played long enough, cramp one’s thumb. This is critical for guitarists who keep their fret-hand thumb in the correct position – three-fourths of the way up the back of the neck behind the second finger.
Re-stringing the guitar is pure pleasure with the old-school slotted Kluson tuners; just bring the neck string through the bridge, cut it off about 1″ to 11/2″ past the tuner, and push the cut end into the center of the tuner slot. Bend it down, and start winding. While a bit unwieldy at first, this is part of the reason so many veterans love old Fenders. That and the tone, of course!
There are some things about any Strat that can become frustrating. It takes time and careful adjustments to make the whammy bar flexible enough to stay in tune under heavy use. The three single-coils are quite noisy by themselves, especially in high gain/high volume settings. This means many players end up using positions two and four to eliminate the hum. The trem arm on the guitar I borrowed sat higher than I was accustomed to, sometimes making it a challenge to play.
If you need a vintage Strat at a reasonable price, you should seriously consider the California Strat. I’ve long wondered why guitars like Teles, Strats, Les Pauls, and 335s are the most popular instruments for gigging guitarists. When I mentioned this to my friend recently, he provided stunning rationale: “When an instrument becomes the pinnacle of the art, it ceases to evolve.”
A perfect explanation why most of us love the classics!
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March 2003 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.