Towards the end of 2016, Fender’s American Standard Series began to be heavily discounted at retailers, which could mean only one thing – new models were on the horizon.
For 2017, Fender has decided to rebrand the range entirely, and the new American Professional Series features a series of upgrades across the board, including new V-Mod pickups designed by in-house pickup guru Tim Shaw, treble-bleed circuits, a new ‘Modern Deep-C’ neck profile and impressive Elite moulded hardshell cases with TSA (Transportation Security Administration) approved latches. You’ll see various other American Pro models, including modern takes on the Jaguar and Jazzmaster in these pages in the coming months but, first, our attention turns to the benchmark Stratocaster and Telecaster models.
Bent-steel saddles and a two-point vibrato see vintage and modern features combine
We spoke to Tim Shaw to get the skinny on the new V-Mod pickups. “Justin Norvell asked me to start working on the Strat and Tele pickups for the American Pro series a bit over a year ago,” explains Shaw.
“We’d refreshed American Vintage and transformed American Deluxe into American Elite, and for 2017 we planned to update the American Standard models. Our general concept was that of refinement; nothing about American Standard as a concept was ‘broken’, but we knew it could be better, even if the changes were subtle. With the pickups, there was a challenge to improve them without sacrificing the broad appeal they already enjoyed.
Tim Shaw’s new V-Mod pickups use mixed magnet types for the Strat neck and middle units
“I do pickup design for several brands within FMIC, and I’d been working with most of the commonly available alnico magnet materials for various other projects. Each alnico alloy has its own tone due to the chemical composition of the magnets, and I decided to try mixing materials within individual pickups.
While this has been done on a limited scale in the past, I felt that it would be possible – and interesting – to mix and voice the pickups and their magnets as systems. We have various magnet combinations for different musical purposes on the Teles and Strats, and on the basses as well. On the Strats, for instance, it’s important to have each pickup sound good, but the unique character of positions two and four has to be preserved as well.
So the neck pickup has alnico II for the wound strings and alnico III for the trebles. The middle pickup has alnico II for the basses and alnico V for the trebles, and the bridge pickup has alnico V all the way across. We also adjusted and voiced the magnet wire on the individual coils so that the whole set worked well as a system, and added a model-specific treble-bleed circuit as well. We voiced the treble-bleed circuits individually for each model in the American Pro Series, based on the pickup combinations.
“The Tele pickups have alnico V magnets for the wound strings and alnico II magnets for the plain strings; this is different than what we used for the Strats. The neck pickup is based on the taller coil structure of the Twisted Tele, which is my favourite Tele neck single coil. In this case, the alnico combinations gave us the focused and punchy lows we’ve come to expect from Telecasters, while fattening up the treble strings.”
The R&D process took place in California and Tennessee, as Shaw is a Nashville resident: “I asked my colleagues in Corona R&D to have sets of Strat pickups and Tele single coils wound with the different magnet combinations I wanted to try,” says Shaw. “I wound all the prototype Shawbucker sets here in Nashville and shipped them to Corona to be installed in the test guitars we used.
“I then flew out to Corona and we spent several days listening to a lot of guitars! This would also involve swapping pickups from one guitar to another to insure that what we were hearing wasn’t influenced by a particular instrument. Since we already knew most of the structural changes we were making in the series, we’d have these present on the test guitars so we could hear what they’d sound like in production. We also did A/B testing with American Standard models.”
The level of construction is generally very high across both review instruments, although the curve that has been cut out of the Telecaster’s scratchplate to accommodate the end of the control plate has a rather rough edge, as does the area cut out for the bridge plate.
The Strat’s plastics are neater, but we found it impossible to align the bridge saddles in such a way that allows the high and low E strings to pass over the centre of the pole-pieces of the bridge and neck pickups simultaneously. In the interest of the strings not being too close to the fingerboard edges, we opted for a set-up that saw the E strings pass over the inside edge of their respective neck pickup pole-pieces.
The Stratocaster’s rosewood slab board has an attractive grain and is a smooth, easy-playing surface with a 9.5-inch radius and 22 narrow tall frets that are equivalent to Dunlop’s popular 6105 fretwork
Despite minor dimensional differences, both necks have near-identical neck profiles: Fender’s new ‘Modern Deep-C’ is actually a slim C profile that fills out a little as you approach the 12th fret. Aided by lightly rolled rosewood fingerboard edges, it quickly disappears in the hand, and we think it feels less generic and a little more considered than that of previous US Standard models. The Strat’s ’board in particular has a very attractive figure, but both slabs of rosewood appear to be of high quality.
The Telecaster is the weightier of the two guitars, but neither is a chore when strapped on, and both display promising levels of acoustic volume, sustain and resonance. Time to plug in…
American Professional Stratocaster & Telecaster in use
The Telecaster immediately has a lovely brightness and clarity that has enough supporting depth to avoid sounding thin or scratchy, unless that’s what you’re after and you force the issue with EQ. Its natural voice is bright and clear but well balanced with plenty of chime and sustain, bringing to mind everything from Bakersfield twang to Jeff Buckley.
Shaw’s Telecaster pickups can get greasy and Stones-y when you wind up the gain a little, too, and the neck unit has a nicely flutey, slightly nasal quality in conjunction with drive.
You can hear the springy, Strat-flavoured heritage of the Twisted Tele unit from which Shaw drew inspiration and – dare we say it – it’s a lot more interesting than many genuine vintage and vintage-inspired Telecaster neck pickups we’ve tried. In a direct A/B comparison, it’s arguably slightly zestier than the Strat’s neck unit, although the latter’s smooth vibrato action (which returns to pitch perfectly even with the rather light .009-gauge supplied strings and a three-spring set-up) does allow for more dramatic, Jimi-esque histrionics.
In all five positions, the Strat is incredibly percussive and dynamic – it’ll take a heavier set of strings to take the tone all the way down to Texas, but even as supplied, into a clean American valve amplifier, there’s an explosive range of tones under your fingers from the outset that reminds you that in 2017, just as in 1954, there’s no more expressive and lyrical platform available to a soloist than a good Stratocaster.
Make no mistake – this is a good Stratocaster, and it’s no slouch for rhythm either, whether you are chasing Jimi or Biffy Clyro tones, or almost anything in between in the wide-ranging musical kaleidoscope created by Strat players over the years. Sure, this is a bright-sounding example, but turning our 6V6-powered combo up into the realms of overdrive proves that it’s smooth and sophisticated, too, and not overly shrill or brittle.
Both treble bleed circuits are well voiced, and once again we find ourselves plugging directly into a tweedy combo with a smidgen of reverb and finding that a good guitar with a variety of great tones onboard and a volume control that doesn’t make things muddy when it’s backed off is all the pedalboard we need.
As reinventions go, American Professional is perhaps not the most dramatic we’ve ever seen, but there’s definitely something about the considered combination of new features and well-chosen materials here that elevates these instruments from ‘standard’ workhorses into slightly more luxurious territory. Pro tools indeed.
Key features – Fender American Professional Stratocaster
• PRICE £1,399 (inc Elite hardshell case)
• DESCRIPTION Double-cutaway, bolt-on neck electric. Made in USA
• BUILD Alder body, ‘Modern Deep C’ maple neck with 9.5” radius rosewood fingerboard, 22 narrow tall frets, bone nut
• HARDWARE 2-point Synchronized vibrato bridge with bent steel saddles and pop-in arm, Fender Standard cast/sealed staggered tuners
• ELECTRICS 3x V-Mod single-coil Stratocaster pickups, 5-position blade pickup selector switch, master volume with treble-bleed circuit, neck tone, bridge/middle tone
• SCALE LENGTH 25.5”/647mm
• NECK WIDTH 42.4mm at nut, 51.4mm at 12th fret
• NECK DEPTH 20.8mm at first fret, 24mm at 12th fret
• STRING SPACING 34.6mm at nut, 52mm at bridge
• WEIGHT 7.6lbs/3.4kg
• FINISHES Sonic Gray (as reviewed), 3-Color Sunburst, Antique Olive, Black, Olympic White, Sienna Sunburst gloss polyurethane. Sienna Sunburst model features an ash body. Maple and rosewood fingerboard options available in all colours. Necks feature satin urethane finishes with gloss urethane headstock faces (rosewood and maple) and fingerboards (maple only)
• CONTACT Fender EMEA 01342 331700 www.fender.com
Key features – Fender American Professional Telecaster
• PRICE £1,399 (inc Elite hardshell case)
• DESCRIPTION Single-cutaway, bolt-on neck electric. Made in USA
• BUILD Ash body, ‘Modern Deep C’ maple neck with 9.5” radius rosewood fingerboard, 22 narrow tall frets, bone nut
• HARDWARE 3x compensated brass saddle string-through-body Tele bridge with modern ‘ashtray’ cover, Fender Standard cast/sealed staggered tuners
• ELECTRICS 2x V-Mod single-coil Telecaster pickups, 3-position blade pickup selector switch, master volume with treble-bleed circuit, master tone
• SCALE LENGTH 25.5”/647mm
• NECK WIDTH 42.7mm at nut, 51.5mm at 12th fret
• NECK DEPTH 20.9mm at first fret, 23.5mm at 12th fret
• STRING SPACING 34.5mm at nut, 53.2mm at bridge
• WEIGHT 7.9lbs/3.6kg
• FINISHES Natural (as reviewed or maple fingerboard), 2-Color Sunburst (ash body, maple ’board only), 3-Color Sunburst (alder body, maple or rosewood ’board), Black (maple ’board only, alder body), Butterscotch Blonde (maple ’board only, ash body), Crimson Red Transparent (rosewood ’board only, ash body), Mystic Seafoam (maple ’board only, alder body), Olympic White (alder body, rosewood ’board only), Sonic Gray (alder body, rosewood ’board only). Necks feature satin urethane finishes with gloss urethane headstock faces (rosewood and maple) and fingerboards (maple only)