The Stratocaster Shortlist: 2 down……2 to go.

The Challenge: With a budget of just £500, our intrepid Hero (of Switzerland) has to find a good used Fender Stratocaster or S-type guitar with modern pickup voicings and high build quality to use onstage and in the studio.

I went to Denmark Street on Thursday and had a couple of hours wandering about drooling and gurning to myself. Along the way I managed to play 2 guitars off my Stratocaster shortlist with suprising results.

First off Music Ground had an 1989 Fender Eric Clapton Strat in stock for £895, this is the mark 1 version with Lace Sensor pickups and TBX tone/boost controls. Although American made, the only difference I can see between this guitar and the current Fender J Craft (domestic model)ST54-100LS (unofficial) Clapton guitar is that the modern Japanese one has a 3 piece alder body as opposed to the American’s 2 piece alder body. Neck, frets, hardware, pickups, materials and colours all seem identical.

The supposed 1 piece maple hard ‘V’ neck was not as extreme as I’d heard. Comfy in the hand and very playable. My only niggle is I would prefer Jumbo frets as I’ve got used to them on my Kotzen Tele and I think they make the guitar more expressive to play. The Claptons vintage style small frets will soon wear down with the kinda punishment I give a guitar. So a refret may become a priority.

The scratchplate was 1 ply and nasty, and I’d replace that for a modern 3 ply in black. But the Fender Gold Lace Sensors are superb. The pickup tones were modern, clear and sparkly…..crystalline even. A hard on blues guy might prefer a set of Kinman AV100n’s or Fender’s own Texas Specials, but for the style of music I play, they really fit. Back in the late 80′s Lace Sensors were the archetypal competitor to things like EMG’s and although some may find them too much… almost brimming with fidellity. I really liked both the tone and the harmonic response, running through the test amp, a Hi-Watt 50 combo, every note felt warm fat and fluid.

Niggles? Well aside from that scratchplate and perhaps the small 50′s style frets…..its perfect. Definetly at the top of my list. However…not this one at £895. I can buy a new Japanese Clapton for around £500. I love Denmark Street, but I accept they have to price guitars a certain way. But blowing a grand on this when I can have a new one made by a bloke called Yuko as opposed to a bloke called Hank is meaningless.

I have, however, crossed off the Levinson Blade RH-4. It looks great….but….

World Guitars in Denmark Street kindly let me try theirs. Resplendent in Strawberry Red, it was a lovely colour. As I’ve been watching a used Blade RH-4 on Ebay which eventually went for just £410.00 used, I really saw the Levinson Blade as a very strong contender.

Essentially an upspecked high performance stratocaster. With 2 single coils & 1 Humbucker, VSC active electronics, Locking Sperzel machine heads and a fulcrum type trem. This would be a hell of a lot of guitar for the money.

Back in the late 1980′s Designer Gary Levinsons original marketing schtick was that as a Swiss industrial designer, he’d designed watches and cars and furniture and other machinery and so sorted out the few niggles in Leo Fenders original design, and so what remained was the ultimate S-type guitar, one that oozed pure performance. The adverts would read

“Blade, Original Concepts by Gary Levinson, Switzerland”.

Accompanyed with a picture of Gary in his trendy architects glasses holding his Swiss designed guitar. So people thought of Swiss Watches, even though all his original guitars were made under contract by the same people who make J-Craft Ibanez’s and Japanese Fenders. But as guitar makers are now brand management companies, he charged pretty high prices for them.

As expected I found this Japanese built example I tried to be of faultless construction and very tidy in fit and finish. There were 2….well 3 very very big issues…

1: The weight – The 2 piece Sen Ash body looked grainy and great under its strawberry finish but weighed about 9lbs, thats fine on a Les Paul, but on a Strat? Maybe if your sitting in the pit orchestra in the London Palladium, counting bars and waiting for your takeaway to arrive before the interval….. you can get away with it, but on a strap onstage for 90 mins? I think not!

2: The Neck – Characterless it perhaps the best description. A slim, but wide ‘D’ profile, it felt less “stratocaster” like than one could imagine a strat type guitar to be. If I closed my eyes I felt like I was playing a mid 80′s Japanese Charvel/Jackson clone like a Washburn Mercury or Aria Pro II. Y’know a cheap 80′s pointy headstock widdly widdly guitar. Fast maybe…..but not nice. It was well put together, but the weighty Sen Ash body just reminded me of a very bad 70′s Strat.

3 :The Electronics – They seemed confusing at first, versatile yes, but I’d sooner have 5 useable tones than 24 crap ones. A 5 way pickup selector with 1 volume, 1 tone and a 3 way mini toggle with a choice of cut/boost or standard. Some of the glassy clean tones were nice, but as soon as I changed to an overdriven sound the guitar lost it big time.

All the rumours I’d heard about the pickups being crap were spot on. They lacked bite and for high gain work failed to overdrive the test amp, the shops Orange AD30 combo. They really sounded too bright and again characterless. Normally with a humbucker in the bridge I would expect a big Fat strident sound….nothing of the sort here. I’d seen quite a few used Blades retrofitted with EMG’s, but even if I changed the pickups, the neck felt horrible and it was way too heavy. It looks beautiful….but like a pretty dress and good makeup on an ugly girl, the truth came to the surface after a very short time together.

With a new price tag of £1225.00 I was dissapointed. What surprised me was that Blade do a cheaper Korean made range of guitars. The korean made S-type on display next to the RH-4 looked as though it had the same electronics and pickups for just £500 new, so why on earth you’d pay any extra for the RH-4 is beyond me. The new style headstock is ugly too. Like a kitchenknife gone wrong.

Looks like Fullerton are ahead of Switzerland on this one. To be continued…

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