I recently acquired a Fender Squier Vintage Modified Deluxe guitar for little over $200 on a Helo Music close out. I’d played one in a store when they came out last summer and made a mental note to look for one on sale some time. The guitar in the store seemed to play nice and sounded OK despite the skinny strings that felt dead to me. I actually liked it better than a MIM Fender version of the same guitar that was selling for twice as much money. Particularly when plugged in: after the Squier, the Fender one sounded dull. I liked the neck profile on the Indonesian made guitar and the workmanship was quite nice, with a precisely fitting neck pocket and nice-looking fret work. The Fender had the 3 bolt neck, which never made sense to me. The Fender was more of an accurate replica, but the Squier seemed like a real bargain.
For purposes of comparison, I’m going to use my modified SX STL50 parts guitar. It is equipped with Schaller Locking Tuners, Tonerider Vintage Plus Pickups, stainless steel saddles, CTS pots and a better quality switch. I’ve kept the stock nut, but re-cut the slots and leveled and dressed the frets. Just before SX changed the headstock shape, I started stockpiling necks people were then taking off SX guitars (and selling them on E-bay for $30) to replace them with necks with the Fender headstock shape. (I like the feel and tone of the chunky SX necks and still have a couple unused necks to play with.) I then bought the three piece alder body off E-bay. It’s a nice little guitar and reminds me of a Fender Tele I had in the late 90’s. The Tone Rider bridge pickup is a bit brighter than the pickup in my 63 Tele, and without quite as firm a bottom end, but it has such a sweet character to the tone, yet they are also very dynamic with some real snap to the attack when you hit the guitar hard. It’s a little more of a “country” guitar than the 63, which is what I was aiming for, and works great for chicken pickin’. The neck pickup is bright and very Strat like and has quite a bit of chime to it. Yet, you can roll off the treble a wee bit and do the Tele Faux-Jazz-Box thing. I was patient putting it together and assembled most of the parts over a one month period. I have around $250 or so into it, I think.
Picking up the Squier, the first thing you notice is the belly cut; the neck feels almost the same but the frets are slightly smaller and the radius slightly flatter (it’s hard to notice the difference, though.) The fretwork on both guitars is outstanding. I had a couple of (slightly) high frets on the SX but the Squier didn’t need any work to get it to play great save for a 1/4 turn of the truss rod after I installed the 52-10 strings I like on Teles. I am toying with the idea of replacing the stamped saddles on the Squier, but I will cut down the threaded height adjustment screws at the next string change; they stick up and dig in to my right hand while muting the strings after I adjusted the string height to my liking. A few of the screws holding the pickup were set at odd, sloppy angles, but this was easily corrected. That was about my only gripe about the guitar’s construction. At some point, I’ll pull of the pickguard and look at the wiring, as that’s often a weak link in inexpensive guitars.
Acoustically, the basswood Squier is a little louder than the SX, but that impression changes when you pug it in. The guitar has Fender Designed (but made in Korea) versions of the Fender Wide Range Humbucker pickups that were installed in the original. I think the pickups are more correct cosmetically than anything else; they don’t use magnets for pole pieces like the originals. Sonically, they are in a similar zone as the Selth Lover designed originals in that they are bright for humbuckers, and have a little more output than, say, the Toneriders. They don’t have the wallop of a set of DiMarzios, but have enough beef to produce some aggressive sounds with distortion.
The odd thing is it still has a Tele identity to it, especially when both pickups are on. I doubt you’ll see one in Brad Paisley’s hands anytime soon, but you can get some country tones out of this thing. The other thing that make this guitar interesting to me is the Gibson style volume and tone controls. The “both on” position has so much variety that can be accessed by altering the levels of the respective pickups with the volume pots: like you would do with a Les Paul or a 335. I’m surprised at how good it actually sounds, and how different it is in personality from any other guitar I own. I was expecting to replace the pickups before I even bought the guitar.
My plan was, intitially, to find a set of pickups from one of the MIM Fender re-issues of this guitar and purchase them. The next step was to send at least one of then to Curtis Novak to have magnetic pole pieces installed and have the pickup rewound to sound like the pickups in the original guitars from the 70’s. In case you’re wondering why I would go to all this trouble, I digress:
Back in the 70’s, when these came out, they were an answer to a question nobody was asking. Fender noted that people were taking Teles and putting humbuckers in the neck position. I did the same thing to my Tele back in the summer of 1970. I don’t think Fender understood why all of us were doing this.
Fender had Seth Lover, who had designed Gibson’s Humbucking pickups back in the 50’s, design a new pickup for it’s guitars that would be noiseless like a humbucking pickup: but still sounding like a Fender. Guitarists didn’t know what to make of it; they were putting humbuckers in Tele so they could get both a Fender sound AND a Gibson like tone. That humbuckers were quiet was a nice bonus, but it wasn’t why players were motivated to take a router to a Tele. Fender missed the mark. They only made them for a few years before they quietly stopped. I only knew one guitar player who bought one, and he always played it through a solid state Peavey with a phase shifter on, all the time.
Flash forward 15 years or so, and I wandered into Ace guitar on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica to nose around through the used guitars. I spotted a natural finish Telecaster Deluxe that looked like it had lost a fight with a belt sander; like someone wanted it to look like a “punk” guitar. Strangely, the rest of guitar looked like it hadn’t been played, the frets looked brand new. Curious, I plugged it in and instantly fell in love with the neck pickup. It had a siren-like edge to it like Albert Collins’ tone, but on the neck pickup! I knew I had to have it. The store was about to close, so I figured I’d check my bank account and come back the next day and buy myself a birthday present. They only wanted something like $329 for it. That night I got hit by a car, along with a friend of mine, while we were crossing Santa Monica Blvd. My friend was in a coma, I had a broken leg and a concussion, and I forgot all about the guitar. Completely.
Years later, (at least a dozen or so) I watched a Johnny Lang video on TV. I’m not particularly a fan, but the kid sure can play and he was getting the tone I fell in love with out of that guitar. The sound triggered something and I remembered that guitar in Ace’s shop. This was a bit of a shock to me as I hadn’t given this any though for ages.
The next thing I know, Fender has reissued them. I was a little crestfallen when I actually played a couple of them, and none of them made “that sound”. I then read on the Internet about them and found out the pickups were not the same at all. My particular guitar makes some cool sounds in it’s own right, but it’s not quite there. The highs don’t have that edge to them and the attack isn’t the same. I stated reading there were a number of replicas about and most of them were going for $400 a set. Original Wide Range pickups are going for $350 to $400 EACH!! A little rich for my blood, but I have a $150 Jay Turser SG with $300 worth of Jason Lollar P-90’s in it (Which I love the sound of) so maybe it’s not that crazy.
I did find a pair of the re-issue pickups (Evidently no one is rewinding the Fender Designed ones made in Korea) on Ebay for a very good price, so now I have a couple of “cores” to rewind. I’ll probably send one off in the spring, after I clear out some unused stuff to replenish my guitar fund. I’ll let you know how the project progresses.
This isn’t a “shootout”, so there’s no “winner” here. I really like both guitars. I’ve got a lot more “sweat equity” in to the the SX. All I’ve done to the Squier is do a little work on the nut, change the strings, set the intonation and take a little sandpaper to the back of the neck to take a little of the glossy feel away. It seems to hold a tune quite well despite having string trees, so I’m not worrying about that. I’ve used it at band practice and the unique tone sits in the band’s mix quite well. The guitar is bright enough to be a great rhythm guitar while having a robust enough mid-range to compress my 5E3 into singing without forcing me to hit a pedal, like the SX does. I used the Squier to play Folsom Prison Blues and it added a unique twist to the tune that usually requires a traditional Tele. It’s versatile enough to cover quite a few bases while adding a unique sounding touch at the same time. It’s earned a place in the rotation.
UPDATE January 26 2013
I’m playing the Squier as much as any of my guitars at this point and find it to be an amazinlgy versatile instrument. I still have the stock pickups in it and am not in major hurry to swap them out at this point. I love the way the guitar works with a 5E3 and it produces a liquid sounding sustain that goes on for an amazingly long time, and I often leave the pickup selector in the center position and change the tone with the relative levels of the volume pots, much like you’d do with a Les Paul or 335.
The unique tone the pickups have results in many unique tones when blending the two pickups and I find this appealing. I’ve found myself rolling off the bridge pickup volume pot and then slowly adding it back in as I progress through a solo and changing both the volume an timbre as I build to a climax. The two pickups basic timbre’s are similar so the change form one to another seems relatively seamless. If you’ve ever messed around with one of those DeArmond pickups that slides along a rod, this observation will make more sense to you. I also like the “both pickups on” position more than I do with most guitars: usully I find something missing that I can’t quite figure out; like some frequencies are somhow being filtered out and I can’t push the amp into overdrive as easily with both pickups on. It must have something to do with the position of the pickups in the body and the the way those two blend.