Block inlays may not be the first cosmetic feature that springs to mind when one thinks of a Fender Stratocaster, but they are certainly not unprecedented in the company's catalogue.
Although undoubtedly a guitar that polarises opinion in the same fashion as Marmite, it's hard to think of anything cooler than a late sixties Jazzmaster with block inlays in Lake Placid Blue.
Bang up to date though, one of Fender's latest variations on a theme is the new Big Block series Stratocaster. It certainly isn't the fist time that Fender has taken its most iconic guitar design and made some cosmetic and sonic modifications, and initially the Big Block echoes the moody black aesthetic of the Aerodyne series as well as the Iron Maiden and John 5 Signature Fenders.
Along with block-inlaid fretboard, the Big Block instrument features a striking chrome mirror scratchplate, complemented by chrome dome knobs and even chrome-tipped pickup selector switches. The black and chrome combination with matching painted headstocks works effectively, despite the increased susceptibility to fingerprints and smears.
Some players may feel that the guitar looks a little too 'metal', but equally, those of you who think that a standard Strat looks rather weedy next to more out-and-out rock machines might be won over by the more rock aesthetic.
The construction standard is high. The block inlay itself has been neatly installed on both fretboard with minimal visible filler, while the 21 medium jumbo frets themselves are also tidy and free from any protruding sharp ends.
The neck profile has a modern 'C' shape and feels satisfyingly chubby, with an inviting, spacious playing surface. It is immediately player friendly, with a woody acoustic tone that suggests plenty of amplified authority.
The vintage-style synchronised vibrato is the same unit that features on the Mexican Classic Series Stratocasters.
Perhaps not the most sophisticated vibrato unit out there, with the right set-up the old-school Strat bridge is a resilient beast that can cope with everything from subtle fifties shimmers to more dramatic Jimi-style (ab)use before the strings fail to return to pitch with the bar at rest.
At the headstock end, the strings are anchored by vintage-style machine heads rather than the modern standard units specified - in truth a more elegant solution that looks much smarter in combination with the painted headstock fascias and fifties-style 'spaghetti' Fender logo decal.
This instrument marks a clear departure from standard Stratocaster configurations. It features a new, ominously named Enforcer humbucker in the bridge position and a pair of Alnico magnet single-coils.
The Enforcer is Fender's highest output, currently manufactured humbucker, so there are no prizes for guessing that this is a pickup built to handle swathes of dirt, although the Alnico single-coils should prove just the ticket should you want to tame proceedings a little.
Contrary to Fender's somewhat sketchy online specifications - always accompanied by the 'may be subject to change' caveat - for the Big Block Series, when selected individually, the Enforcer bridge humbucker doesn't bypass the tone control as promised.
This is a pity as bridge humbuckers often benefit from an edgier tonality with this kind of wiring, but in use there's no shortage of bluster from the pickup.
While the Enforcer handles extreme metal levels of saturation and chunky palm mutes with ease, some of the better sounds came with a drier, JCM800-style drive sound for raunchy Rage Against The Machine-style chordal riffs.
As is often the case, cleaner sounds aren't exactly where the high output Enforcer's greatest strengths lie, but the pickup copes better than some.
The single-coils cover more familiar Strat territory comfortably, and the woody spank of the neck pickup is particularly pleasing. That said, with such a loud bridge pickup, a little adjustment of the pickup heights is required in order to balance the level disparity.
Also, having just the single global tone control limits overall flexibility a little, but the basic pickup voicings don't require much, if any, taming once their optimum heights are set.
Due in part to its rosewood fretboard, the Big Block Series Stratocaster isn't as naturally tonally brittle as all-maple necked Fenders can be, so it doesn't get too shrill unless you sculpt the EQ as such.