I think I may be in love with Fender Guitars. Back when I first started guitar fever, I really didn’t want one because they just weren’t “Metal” enough. But now that I am learning some blues, I am pretty excited to try new things and get new sounds.
In the last month the GAS has hit me hard. GAS, of course is Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. I have done a lot of research about what to buy, where to buy them and what to do once you buy them. So here is my knowledge dump for you based on buying 2 guitars and trying a bunch of others.
American vs. Mexican
This is the first big question that people seem to wonder about. Is a Mexican Strat crap? Should I just save and buy the American Made ones? First let me say that according to most people every part of the American Fenders are higher quality. Every component in the American Fender costs more money and is installed here in the USA where labor costs more. So to get an American Standard Strat with no frills, you’re looking to shell out about $1000 new. To get some with some cool upgrades, you’ll be looking at $1200 easily. If you want a custom shop Fender, you’ll be paying anywhere upwards of $2000.
So, many people will say: Just buy a used American Strat. You’ll pay $600 and get all of the features and frills of a great American Strat. My advice is: BE CAREFUL. Stories of people who have put together junk guitars along with a Fender USA neck are all over the place.
My rule of thumb for buying a USA strat would be: You’d better know exactly what you are looking for and exactly how you want it to sound.
I will freely admit that I am not in need of the highest quality components. Nor would I know the difference between a cool sound that costs $2000 versus a sound that I simply think is “cool.”
From what I have experienced and learned, Mexican strats are a very good quality guitar. I am also going to tell that if you blindfold a large percentage of people who consider themselves guitar snobs and make them play a well set up Mexico Strat versus a USA Strat you will find that many of them will be fooled as to which is which. The reason for this is that the Mexican strat has all of the components to make it sound amazing. I honestly believe that if you stripped the Fender logo off of the headstock and made up a new brand name on a MIM strat that is well set up and handed it to Clapton, to do a commercial, you would have thousands clamoring for this new brand.
The problem with Mexican guitars is that the hardware is not as high of quality, there is more variation in the pickups (ie. the pups on one can sound waaay better than the pickups on another.) This can due to lower quality control standards in the Mexico factory. You will also notice routing mistakes in the body. The frets might not be exactly consistently placed and you might feel their edges sticking out on the side. (You may also feel this on some USA strats if you play one in a store that is too dry, the wood on the fretboard can expand due to humidity. These can also easily be filed down.
I have purchased two Mexico strats and stripped them down to the components. Here is what I found:
On my 2000 Sunburst Strat, bought for $250 used from Guitar Center. It felt very solid. The neck feels great and comfortable, and the pickups had the right Fender sound that I was hoping for. I could only inspect it so far before changing everything because the strings were rusty and dead. It was flawless with no dings or scratches. When we pulled it apart, we could see that the routing job under the neck was messed up, twice. However, the neck fit very snuggly into the compartment and when screwed back in, hardly needed any tweaking to be perfectly set up. The trem block (large piece of metal that you put your strings though that balances your tremolo) was very small and not heavy at all. This will make the guitar brighter sounding, but should lower the amount of sustain. The electronics were mounted neatly, but there were some pretty big globs of solder holding it together. This can create more resistance and can interfere with tone. When we reassembled it, I put some lighter gauge strings on it 9-42 gauge. The tone is very bright, but can certainly be adjusted with the tone knobs. This guitar has an amazing bright, aggressive sound to it. I am personally shocked at how much I love the sound of this guitar. It was kind of purchased on a whim, but it is really cool sounding.
My 2008 Fat Strat. I still am having trouble finding this exact guitar in a Fender Catalog. According to the catalog, the Sienna finish was not offered in the 2008 Mexico Models. I picked it up at a pawn shop for $350. It looked in great shape, although it smelled like cigarettes. The reason I bought it was due to the feel of the neck. It has a very cool feeling neck. The action was high, and it was not the finish that I would have chosen. When we plugged it in, the pickups all sounded really cool. Pulling it apart, we found that this has much nicer hardware than the 2000 model. The pickups were a higher quality. The trem block is a much heavier piece of metal. The entire pickguard is shielded, and the solder is more accurately done. When we put it back together, the neck sat so low that we had to have a little shem put under the base of the neck to raise it to the right level to get the action just right. (This should be included in the price of a pro set up, which I paid $40 for. When this guitar got back from being set up, it sounded amazing.
My advice on buying one…
If you are ok with taking it apart or switching out components yourself. Find one that has the neck you like and good sounding pickups. Everything else can be changed. I found one that sounds great for a great price but has frets that are too small and just don’t feel right to me. I had to pass, and bought one for a hundred dollars more.
If you are not ok with this… Go and try a million of them. Pick your favorite one. Your best bet is to go to a store that carries used ones and gives them a professional set up before they put them on the floor. Play it through a similar amp to yours. If you find one at a pawn shop, it will likely have horribly dead strings on it, and you might have to have it professionally set up. So if you find a good deal, add about $50ish to the price, because that it was a good set up costs.
Don’t buy one on ebay. Ebay is the best place for scammers to sell you their guitar that feels awful or is just plain counterfeit.
If you buy a Mexico strat online at a reputable dealer, know that it might not feel as good as some others. There is a high amount of variance. You’d be better off paying a little more to get one in town.