I should start this review by saying that I first noticed this guitar because of its looks. This is one of the coolest looking guitars that I have ever seen. That’s how I was drawn to take a peek at it.
I love black guitars, and I love the Hot Rod kind of flare that the stripes give this guitar. It’s not some crazy fiery paint job. Just simple, but very cool.
I saw this guitar from across the store at at Guitar Center in Seattle. I went over and checked out the price and was baffled. It has the American Strat Graph-tec saddles as well as the cool look and signature series, but it was priced at $869. I know that Fender Signature Strats are usually $1300-$2500 guitars. A Stevie Ray Vaughn is about $1400 as is the John Mayer Signature, Clapton Signatures can break the bank easily over $2000. So I was a little confused as to why an American Signature was priced so low. I also had recently fallen in love with some Kenny Wayne Shepherd music.
I happened to have some money in my guitar savings and Kim urged me to pick it up. But, of course, I am always super reluctant to make a big purchase without first doing my research.
Here’s what I found in my research…
1. This strat was made in Mexico. I had no idea that any Signature Strat was made in Mexico.
2. It has some HUGE upgrades from Mexican Strats…
3. It has a bigger neck. The neck is deeper and wider on the bottom. Has a huge feel compared to a Standard Strat neck.
4. This neck has Jumbo frets. The frets are big and wide and smooth. These are presumably so big so that bends happen easily and accurately.
5. Graph Tec Saddles. The saddles are the same as what most American Strats feature. The Graph tec saddles reduce string wear and tear and add tone and sustain to the guitar.
6. The pickups are specially designed by the Fender Shop with Kenny Wayne’s Input. These pickups are supposed to be a big upgrade, but also unique to any other set.
7. The neck has a Satin Finish and not a poly gloss on it. I had to work hard to sand the poly off of my current mexi strat to make it feel like this neck feels out of the box.
8. The bottom tone knob also controls the bridge pickup. This is an easy upgrade that I still don’t understand why it is not standard.
If I wanted to take a mexi strat and add these upgrades, it would cost easily $250 to buy a warmoth neck that matches these specs. The Saddles are about a $50 upgrade. The pickups are unique so there is no price equivalent, but, a good set of texas blues pickups from guitar fetish is going to cost at least $80ish. Including labor, it would take at least $600 to turn a regular strat into this signature Kenny Wayne. The parts themselves would be more than $400.
What I also found by talking to a friend that works at Guitar Center is that this guitar is on clearance. I was able to pick this guitar up for hundreds less than the retail price and much less than Guitar Center’s posted price.
I basically got this guitar for barely more than I would pay for a new Mexi Strat off of the rack.
Here is how I feel about it:
I certainly do love it! No question.
The Feel: This guitar it comfy. Don’t get worried about the bigger neck. It is not too big. I have small hands, and this neck feels not only fast, but very comfortable. I personally feel that the extra depth and size of the neck gives you a bit more to hold on to while you are bending notes. For a comparison, try pretending to bend a string on the back of your remote control, and now bend an imaginary string on the back of your forearm. A little extra depth gives you leverage and helps you use your big muscles to bend rather than your finger and wrist muscles. I notice that bends feel so dang easy and smooth on this guitar.
The jumbo frets only help. They help you hit the note with less effort and bend the note smoothly. The 12 inch radius neck also feels like you are bending on a flatter surface rather than bending “uphill” on a smaller radius neck.
The Sound: I could tell by playing it without plugging it in that it has a very pleasing amount of sustain compared to any other Mexi Strat that I have tried. You can also hear a thick and full sound.
What I noted from the pickups is that these are unique. They are not super “quacky” they have a rounder sound than you would expect from a Texas style pickup. But when I play them into my Blackheart Handsome Devil amp, with or without a Boss Blues Driver. it is a very satisfying bluesy sound with a lot of tone. A couple of reviews that I read say that the mids are “scooped.” I guess this is true compared to normal Mexi pickups that are all mids. But the sound is bold. There is a lot of character to the sound of the guitar even without overdrive. It sounds bluesy and full when amplified at all, but add some overdrive and DANG! With the sustain already in the guitar and the cool pickups you can really drive an amp. It can sing beautifully or it can get an extremely thick blues Stevie Ray type sound. I like light gauge strings, and feel like Audley Freed or Warren Haynes might really love this type of tone.
As far as tone goes, since I use light gauges I tend to have a trebly sound, but it was very warm compared to the last mexi strat I played with. I noticed that I had a larger range of tone in the tone knobs than any guitar I have ever used. You can back off of the tone and still get some really cool sounds. Most guitars that I have used, I normally leave the tone knob on 10, this guitar actually gives me some very interesting choices. I would tone it down and crank my amp to get a SRV sound, but if you tone it up, you can make it scream.
The Construction: My only semi grip about this guitar is the construction. I have noticed that the high e string is a little closer to the edge of the fret wire and neck than any guitar I have ever played. When I am sloppy, I push the string off of the neck. I don’t like that feel and believe that the nut was slotted a bit weird. I will want to get this replaced. I also noticed that the hole for the trem bar was not well aligned with the hole in the trem block. Seems like a couple of quality control issues.
ALL IN ALL: I can’t say enough about this guitar. I have only had it for a weekend, but I can’t stop touching it or looking at it. It is exactly what I wanted it to be. An amazing guitar for the blues. I don’t think that this guitar would be a good sounding metal guitar without a lot of silly amp and pedal choices, but I bought it for the blues.
I have heard lately that the Mexican Stratocasters are far higher quality than they used to be. I love my 2008 Mexi Strat that I have been playing the last month and a half. But this guitar is on another level. The upgrades were a huge value at the price I paid. It is comfortable and sounds amazing. I truly feel like I have a custom shop guitar in my hands. I truly feel that if I could do a blind feel and listening test with custom shop fenders and American fenders, I would rate this guitar super high and would certainly choose this guitar over guitars that cost 4-5x as much as I paid. I played some American strats only a few weeks ago, and none of them felt of sounded as cool as this guitar does.
In my opinion, this is money well spent. Very well spent.
I saw a youtube clip where Kenny Wayne Shepherd talked about why he designed it the way he did. I feel like he accomplished what he was trying to do, and I am thrilled to own it. Check out the video: