Fender American Elite Series review

The new Elite Series guitars feature redesigned pickups, compound neck profiles and refined body contours. Are these the best production Fenders ever? Simon Bradley finds out…

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Modern companies need to grow and evolve in order to remain not only current, but solvent too. Imagine, then, being part of the never-ending search for new and improved versions of what are widely regarded as perfect designs – Leo Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster. Needless to say, the crop of designers and tinkerers who are currently plying their trade at Fender MIC rarely fail to come up with an innovation or two that are subsequently incorporated in new instruments – but it can’t be an easy task.

Mere production models tend to be outshone by the sumptuous morsels issued by Fender’s Custom Shop facility, and while we’re certainly not averse to the wonders of a Masterbuilt Heavy Relic Strat, instruments hailing from the regular production line in Corona continue to deserve attention. We consider guitars from both the American Standard and Vintage series to be as good as ever and, what’s more, a few minutes spent searching online can unearth some incredible deals for what are pro-standard instruments.

However, after spending a couple of weeks in the company of these Elites, we’re struggling to think of an instance where a similarly extensive crop of what Fender calls high-performance enhancements has been corralled into a single series. Fender, for its part, regards the Elites as the very pinnacle of its current production line – which is no small statement.

The range comprises the Stratocaster, Stratocaster HSS Shawbucker and Telecaster, examples of which we have here, plus the Thinline Tele, a limited edition Strat in two-colour sunburst and a left-handed version of the Strat. It’s a little deflating to note that bass players have been overlooked, at least for now, but we can’t help thinking that there must be plans for an Elite Precision or Jazz secreted somewhere at Fender HQ.

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Many of the new features we’ll be describing are common to all models, but we’d agree with Fender that top of the list of refinements are the Elites’ single-coil pickups. They’re 4th Generation Noiseless units and Fender has, in a nutshell, aimed for keeping the classic single-coil feel and tone whilst removing any pesky noise. “We’re always chasing that perfect combo of a classic Fender sound with no hum,” says Fender’s Justin Norvell.

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“We believe our Noiseless pickups are the best out there, but we also felt that we could make them even better, so we’re always playing with the formula. Also, rather than comparing them to and voicing them from the past three generations of Noiseless pickups, we used our American Vintage series pickups and voiced a more classic tone.”

(Justin’s referring to 60s style as a base for the 4th Gen Strat pickups and the ’52 style for the Tele – Ed).

“The 4th Generation pickups are an entirely new design,” Norvell continues. “We spent two years in development and produced dozens of versions to get it right. There’s a bit of a secret to the formula, but we used separate pole magnet sets in the coils and then experimented with different wire gauges between the coils and different gauss strengths in the magnets until we achieved the optimal combination. They’re all-new; new bobbins, magnets, everything.

“We also made sure to voice them to be musical and smooth with high gain. We joke that these are cold fusion pickups, that we’ve finally cracked what people have been trying to do for 50 years.”

S-1 switching

In addition, the Elites include the innovative S-1 switching system, which allows you to combine the pickups in all sorts of different ways, yielding contrasting sounds. Switched in and out via a push/push indent built into the volume knob of each guitar, we’ll describe some of the resulting sounds in due course.

Fender has produced more humbuckers than you may have assumed over the years, including the classic Wide Range and, more recently, the ultra-powerful Enforcer, the latter based around ceramic 8 magnets and capable of seismically leveling buildings. You can take your pick from the Twin Head and Diamondback ‘buckers too, but Fender has loaded the bridge position of the Elite HSS Strat with a Shawbucker – a PAF-a-like designed by lauded pickup veteran Tim Shaw.

The HSS Strat also features a Passing Lane button that nestles between the duo of tone pots. First introduced in 2010 on the US Deluxe HSS Strat, this, like Yamaha’s Pure Direct button – as fitted to the RGX420DZ rocker – or John Suhr’s Blower switch, gives a shortcut straight to the bridge pickup,  regardless of how any of the other selectors may be set. In doing so, it bypasses all controls to give as pure a signal as practical.

All Strat controls are topped with soft-touch knobs, so called due to a strip of soft rubber set around the cylindrical section intended to provide extra grip when pulling off the most minimal of level adjustments. No such lily-livered tomfoolery for the Tele, however: its pair of knurled flat-top knobs remain traditional in design.

In amongst the impressive selection of finishes available across the range are two brand new hues exclusive to the Elite Series. These comprise Autumn Blaze Metallic, which, to our eyes, is somewhere between Arizona Sun and Johnny Marr’s Metallic KO in shade, and is available across all models, and Sky Burst Metallic, which is restricted to the Strats.

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And before Tele players begin composing tear-stained missives to Fender in protest, the classic singlecut has two colours all of its own, namely Butterscotch Blonde and, for the Thinline, Mystic Ice Blue. Up-close, the finishing of our three examples is flawless and, while we love the appearance of both Strats, the Mystic Black Tele, reflective flakes within its finish twinkling subtly under lights like a blanket of star-strewn black velvet, is truly out of this world.

The bodies of both the Strats and Teles are constructed from either alder or ash, with the latter being available with just the transparent finishes, and the vast majority of all permutations can be fitted with either a rosewood or maple ‘board to the maple necks.

Exceptions include the Butterscotch Tele, which has only maple in its arsenal for that ever-popular ’52 vibe, and the choice of Thinlines, which lack the rosewood option altogether. If all this wasn’t sufficient, the body contours have also been addressed to now present a finer sculpt on the belly and forearm areas for extra comfort.

The Strats feature Fender’s two-point Deluxe Synchronized Tremolo bridge, which includes a pop-in bar and chrome block-style saddles rather than the bent steel options fitted to the US Standard, while the Tele’s bridge array features a sextet of chromed brass saddles. It’s also worth mentioning that the Elite Thinline includes the new Suspension Bridge, which combines a screwless mounting with three modern brass saddles.

All six Elites feature the same neck – one that has also seen its fair share of refinement. With the needs of the modern player in mind, the neck offers a 241mm-355.6mm/9.5-14-inch compound radius alongside a compound profile that transforms from a modern C-shape at the nut to a flatter D towards the dusty end. The satin urethane finish gives the neck maple a luxuriously smooth feel and all three of the guitars are eminently playable straight out of the box.

If, like us, you prefer meatier strings to the factory-fitted 9-42s, and subsequently find you need to tweak the neck, you’ll discover something else that’s new: a truss-rod adjustment wheel that nestles just beyond the 22nd fret.

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This does make fine-tuning the rod tension somewhat easier than gingerly inserting an allen key into a more traditional port situated up behind the nut, or indeed removing the neck. A lovely touch is the wheel’s colour too; it’s black for a rosewood fingerboard or gold for a maple. OK, so it’s a small detail but one that, for us, demonstrates Fender’s desire to ensure the Elites are truly special.

Perhaps most drastic of all is the new four-bolt heel design. Again present on both the Strats and Teles, the corner closest to the fingerboard has been rounded off to give more comfortable access to the highest frets. Some players may find the lack of a micro tilt aperture concerning, but the heel merges with the neck maple and fingerboard very nicely indeed and, when you’re actually playing, you don’t notice anything untoward – which is just as it should be.

The gloss-finished headstocks sport not only a 50s-style spaghetti foil logo and a redesigned string tree but also a set of Fender’s new short-post locking tuners, which give an improved break angle over the synthetic bone nut.

In conclusion, before we shut up and play, all of the guitars – including the Teles – feature 22 medium jumbo frets and come snug in a substantial moulded Fender ABS hardcase.

In use

Upon plugging in, we can at once confirm that there’s not even a hint of pickup hum and, as we flick through the settings of the HSS Strat, we’re struck by just how natural the tones are. Position two of the five-way combines both humbucker coils with the middle pickup in parallel, which is a good option for rhythm work; and the full humbucker, whilst certainly powerful, demonstrates the ideal combination of depth and high-end spank.

The S-1 system provides a selection of settings in series, with several providing some wonderfully fat tones – especially with higher-gain amp settings. The central position, which combines the HB and middle together in series with the neck in parallel, is super-syrupy and has an ear-catching middly character that can be tempered to taste by the volume pot. Think Billy Gibbons meets Brian May and you’ll have an idea of how good this is.

The duration of sustain is impressive too and, for genuinely emotive solos, this may well become a go-to option. Cleanly, we found that position two, which simply removes the neck pickup from this setting, was clearer and therefore more musical but, as ever, we’d advise that you try out everything to see which is best for you. There are certainly a whole lot of tones to savour.

The Shawbucker, too, ticks all the boxes and is to our ears a little more trebly than a classic PAF, which is to be expected. For rock and modern blues, it’s rounded and strident, and flicking to the Passing Lane adds more high end and harmonics. Remember that this bypasses all controls, including the volume pot, so you’ll need to disengage in order to grab back the reins. We did find that the button was difficult to see from a standing position, though: maybe a location closer to the five-way could have been a consideration?

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The SSS Strat holds few unexpected surprises, which is fine by us. In a nutshell, it sounds great, with the S-1 options simply adding more strings to your tonal bow. We’d heartily recommend either position two, which combines the neck and middle in series with the bridge in parallel, or position five – which gives a huge tone with all three pickups in series.

The Tele, due to its dual single-coil configuration, has only one realistic S-1 setting, switching the middle position’s combination of the pickups from parallel to series. This, though, gives the guitar a truly lovely tonal option whenever you need it. In series, the tone thickens exponentially and has an unusual yet wholly usable honk to it, too. Whilst still possessing a modicum of twang, the tone is louder and rounder than, for example, the neck pickup and would be the perfect choice for a soulful bluesy solo.

It can get a little too muddy for chords if you’re not careful, but experimenting with the amp gain or switching in a subtle overdrive stompbox does aid the cut-through. Played clean, though, this selection is lovely and complements the perfectly defined twang that’s available from the remaining settings.

The short-post tuners aid in the successful performance of Jerry Donahue-style behind-the-nut bends and, needless to say, the pickups are as quiet as the grave as far as hum and extraneous noises are concerned. What’s more, the neck dimensions and medium jumbo frets make this Tele extremely comfortable to play and, as much as we love a good ’52, we never found ourselves cramped ± as we have occasionally when grappling with reissues of originals from that period.

All three guitars play wonderfully well and certainly differ sufficiently from their counterparts in the US Standard ranges to represent a worthwhile addition to your collection, irrespective of how many more of Leo’s finest already reside there. They’re priced well, and if we had to pick one as our favourite, we’d probably go for the Tele simply because of the quality of tones it offers. That said, the HSS Strat could probably cover just about any gig or session you may have in your diary. Choices, choices…

It can be difficult to see the wood for the trees when you’re in the market for a new Strat or Tele, due simply to the sheer breadth of choice that’s available today. With the Elites, Fender has made it easy: these might well be the best new models to come from Corona for quite some time, and we can’t recommend them highly enough.

Key Features

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Fender American Elite Series Stratocaster
• Description Solidbody six-string guitar with a gloss polyurethane finish, manufactured in USA
Price £1,389-£1,439 with Fender Elite ABS moulded hardcase
Build Alder (as reviewed) or ash body with gloss polyurethane finish; maple neck with satin urethane finish; rosewood (as reviewed) or maple fingerboard with compound C and D-profile and 241mm-355.6mm/9.5-14” compound radius; 22 medium jumbo frets; Deluxe Synchronized vibrato; synthetic bone nut; locking Fender tuners
Electrics 3x Fender 4th Generation Noiseless single coils
• Controls Five-way blade selector, volume and two tone pots; S-1 push/push switch on volume pot
Left-handers Yes, at £1,509 in three-colour sunburst only
• Finish Olympic Pearl (as reviewed), Mystic Black, Autumn Blaze Metallic, 3-Colour Sunburst, Aged Cherry Burst, Tobacco Sunburst, Sky Burst Metallic; limited edition 2-Colour Sunburst
• Scale Length 648mm/25.5”
• Neck Width 42.8mm at nut, 51mm at 12th fret
Neck depth 22.5mm at first fret, 24mm at 12th fret
• String Spacing 36mm at nut, 53mm at bridge
• Weight 3.76kg/8.3lbs
• Contact Fender GB&I 01342 331700
www.fender.com

0114110796_gtr_frt_001_rr( copy

Fender American Elite Series Stratocaster HSS Shawbucker
• Description Solidbody six-string guitar with a gloss polyurethane finish, manufactured in USA
• Price £1,389-£1,439 with Fender Elite ABS moulded hardcase
• Build Alder (as reviewed) or ash body with gloss polyurethane finish; maple neck with satin urethane finish; rosewood (as reviewed) or maple fingerboard with compound C and D-profile and 241mm-355.6mm/9.5-14-inch compound radius; 22 medium jumbo frets; Deluxe Synchronized vibrato; synthetic bone nut; locking Fender tuners
• Electrics 1x Fender Shawbucker, 2x Fender 4th Generation Noiseless single coils
• Controls Five-way blade selector, volume and two tone pots; S-1 push/push switch on volume pot; push/push Passing Lane switch
Left-handers No
• Finish Autumn Blaze Metallic (as reviewed), Mystic Black, Olympic Pearl, 3-Colour Sunburst
• Scale Length 648mm/25.5”
Neck Width 42.8mm at nut; 51mm at 12th fret
• Neck depth 22.5mm at first fret, 24mm at 12th fret
• String Spacing 36mm at nut, 53mm at bridge
• Weight 3.76kg/8.3lbs
www.fender.com

0114212710_gtr_frt_001_rr copy
Fender American Elite Series Telecaster
Description Solidbody six-string guitar with a gloss polyurethane finish, manufactured in USA
• Price £1,389-£1,439 with Fender Elite ABS moulded hardcase
• Build Alder body with gloss polyurethane finish; maple neck with satin urethane finish; rosewood or maple (as reviewed) fingerboard with compound C and D-profile, and 241mm-355.6mm/9.5-14-inch compound radius; 22 medium jumbo frets; USA Tele bridge; synthetic bone nut; locking Fender tuners
• Electrics 2x Fender 4th Generation Noiseless single coils
• Controls Three-way blade selector, volume and tone pots; S-1 push/push switch on volume pot
• Left-handers No
• Finish Mystic Black (as reviewed), Autumn Blaze Metallic, 3-Colour Sunburst, Aged Cherry Burst, Butterscotch Blonde, Tobacco Sunburst
• Scale Length 648mm/25.5”
• Neck Width 42.8mm at nut, 51mm at 12th fret
• Neck depth 22.5mm at first fret, 24mm at 12th fret
• String Spacing 36mm at nut, 53mm at bridge
• Weight 3.58kg/7.9lbs
www.fender.com

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