Fender Vintera II ’50s Stratocaster review – the new benchmark for import Strats
With redesigned pickups and reshaped necks, the top end of Fender Mexico’s offerings promises a level of vintage accuracy only previously seen on USA guitars – but is that worth the significant price bump?
Fender Vintera II ’50s Stratocaster. Image: Adam Gasson
Fender’s factory in Ensenada, Mexico has long been the place where savvy guitar players turn if they want maximum bang for your buck in terms of sound, playability and looks. Indeed when Fender launched the original Vintera range back in 2019 there was an argument to be made that they offered the best cost/benefit proposition of any Fender instrument – with vintage-faithful sounds and playability mixed with some modern conveniences, all for a price that anyone would argue was extremely reasonable.
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Of course, 2019 was a long time ago both literally and culturally. Since then we’ve had a pandemic, a guitar sales boom, supply chain issues, war, a global energy crisis, a global inflation crisis, a guitar sales collapse, and we’re not even out of 2023 yet.
Which is to say, if you saw the price at the top of this article and wondered why Mexican Fenders now cost north of $1,000, all those factors above probably have a lot to do with it – as does Fender’s $100 million hole in its order book, let’s face it.
Still, spare a thought for UK buyers like me, who have all this to deal with, plus a uniquely terrible Brexit-induced economic situation that means a guitar that cost £750 in 2019 will now cost you a whopping £1,049 – a near 40% increase in four years. Ouch.
Anyway, as you probably already know, the Vintera II ’50s Strat is Fender’s latest attempt to offer guitarists a slice of vintage-feeling Fender for those of us who have absolutely no delusions of spending the $2,000-plus an American Vintage II 1957 Strat will cost you.
For roughly a grand less there are compromises of course – it’s made in Ensenada, not Corona, of course, and you don’t get a nitro finish, just good ol’ gloss poly. The pickups and hardware are not slavishly reproduced replicas of the originals made using the same machines.
But other than that? Well, they both have alder bodies and glossy maple necks, they both have vintage-style 7.25” radius boards with 21 ‘Vintage Tall’ frets, and both promise some variation on the ’50s V-shape neck profile.
The Vintera’s hardware and electronics might not be 100% vintage but it certainly has the right vibe – vintage-style tuners, classic six-screw tremolo with bent-steel saddles, and a trio of completely revoiced new ’50s vintage-style pickups. Certainly from a distance and in this black finish, it’s giving Clapton ‘Blackie’ in spades – but looks are only skin deep…
Now, the biggest headline with the Vintera II range is of course the introduction of rosewood boards to the range – correctly relegating the muted enthusiasm for the consistently paler and often streakier hues of pau ferro to Squier and the Player Series ranges where it will presumably remain. Good riddance.
This being a ’50s Strat, we don’t get any rosewood to talk about here, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing as it gives us a chance to focus more on the other enhancements and improvements made to the range that have slightly been buried under the rosewood fervour.
Removing it from its generic Fender gigbag (seriously, Fender, these guitars cost a thousand bucks and change – it’s time to start shipping them with the same semi-rigid bags you’re giving the Acoustasonic Player guitars) and the first thing that strikes me is the weight – it’s no Les Paul, but a quick consultation of my trusty luggage scale has the Vintera II nudging 8lbs, which seems to be just above average for alder US and Mexican Strats these days. Be warned. Last years’ recent Japanese JV Modified models were exceptions the norm thanks to their basswood bodies clocking in at a ballpark weight much closer to 7lbs.
Ballast accounted for and I’m immediately impressed with the new carve of the neck – while not specifically aping a specific model or year, there’s a definite sense that this guitar is aimed at the more accessible end of the ’50s when you’re talking about Strat necks. It’s not a baseball bat like an early model would be, but it doesn’t have the hard V of a ’57 either.
Instead it’s a nice palmful with a softer V that takes the edge off the thickness of the neck – it’s a more authentic and less generic experience than the Vintera I guitars, and it’s all the better for it.
So far, so ’50s – but the Vintera series has always been about not sticking slavishly to the script, and it’s on the electronics side that we get the most notable deviations. So a real ’50s Strat would have shipped with a three-way switch but doing that in 2023 would be silly (even the AVII doesn’t go this far). So instead we have a sensible five-way switch, but we also have another concession to modernity – a bridge-wired tone control, instead of the vintage middle-wiring.
This is of course the most common and tonally valid Strat mod that anyone can do, and practically every Strat player does it anyway, so it’s nice that Fender has saved us all the trouble here, no?
Fender’s Vintage-Style ’50s Pickups are all new for the Vintera II range, and have been completely revoiced from the 2019 versions – and upon plugging into a Princeton and giving it some chiming clean chords, it was clearly time well spent.
From spanky neck pickup sounds to twangsome bridge bite and everything in between, this is every bit the ’50s-vibed Strat – there’s Clapton here of course, and Hank that goes without saying, but also Nile Rodgers funk and Jeff Beck growl when you add some dirt.
It sounds like a really good Strat, and if that sounds like me damning it with faint praise, I’m really not – it’s just that Fender is so good at this now right from the cheapest Squier to the most expensive Custom Shop instrument, the differences we’re talking about here are fine and subjective.
Rest assured, all the sounds you want from a Strat are here – they might not have all the wonderful three-dimensional quality of the Pure Vintage pickups in the American Vintage II ’57 Strat, but it gets pretty damn close for a lot less money.
And that is basically the long and short of the Vintera ’50s Strat – and arguably the whole range – to offer a compelling vintage-focused instrument that’s not so great it makes you wonder why you’d bother paying twice as much for an AVII, and not so cheap that it renders the Squier Classic Vibe range a pointless exercise.
Does it all feel a bit like corporate calculated box-ticking when you look at it like that? Hey, that’s capitalism for ya.
And when the instruments being produced look, feel and sound as good as the Vintera II ’50s Stratocaster does, we’re not minded to worry too much about it – just plug in and enjoy.