There was a time when Fenders had single-coil pickups and Gibsons had humbuckers, and people were okay with that. You paid your money, took your choice. Then hard rock happened and suddenly everyone wanted more power from their pickups.
By the early 1970s, the chisels were out and humbuckers were in, no matter what you played. Fender got the message and released the twin humbucker- equipped Tele Deluxe and Thinline in 1972.
Later in the decade, tinkerer extraordinaire Edward Van Halen drove the point home by forcing a humbucker into the bridge position of a 'Strat-style' body and, well, the rest is history.
The legacy of that early tonal cross-fertilisation can be seen in these new Fender Blacktop guitars. The range consists of four classic Fender models - Telecaster, Stratocaster, Jazzmaster and Jaguar - each modified with humbucking pickups and a bunch of other features that include bolt-on maple necks with a gloss urethane finish, a 241mm (9.5- inch) fingerboard radius, medium jumbo frets and 'skirted' amp-style knobs.
The fact that the Blacktop Series is being marketed with downloads of sticker designs and stencils is a good clue to the type of player Fender is hoping to snare with this range. Young punk, metal and indie guitarists who wouldn't have considered a Fender as 'their thing' but might be tempted by the extra firepower on offer.
But where does that leave the rest of us?
We understand Fender has to tie the four models in theBlacktop Series together with some unifying features.That said, there may be those of you who would prefer open-coil 'buckers and a set of regular knobs instead of nickel pickup covers and skirted controlknobs.
All good - these guitars are priced keenly, so mod away!
The humbuckers are hooked up to a five-way switch. In position one, the bridge pickup is firing on all cylinders. Position two activates each humbucker's inside coil. Position three has both 'buckers on full, while the next click on the switch selects the inside coil only on the neck pickup. The final selection is the neck pickup running at full throttle.
The Strat is available with either a maple or rosewood fingerboard. We mentioned before that all the models in the range have gloss urethane-finished necks - it's an unusual choice given that satin-finished necks have become the norm these days.
The gloss finish certainly adds a cool vintage vibe to the guitars, but the trade-off is that the going could get a bit sticky if you get sweaty mitts when you play.
The Strat's old school vibe is completed with a classic 'synchronized' vibrato. Ike Turner, Hank Marvin and Jimi Hendrix made their bones with a Strat vibrato and it still cuts the mustard today, provided it's set up correctly.
The guitar was set up perfectly straight from the box. Heavier strings would be good, but that's a personal choice. Playability is uniformly excellent, with a comfortable action and easy string bending right up to the top frets.
It covers a lot of ground tonally. The neck 'bucker on both guitars offers a warm jazz tone with bags of clarity and little evidence of the muddiness that can afflict similar spec guitars.
It's also versatile, given that it has an extra two notches on its selector switch, and the vibrato adds a top- end sizzle we can hear.
We also love the Strat's second position (the outside coils of both humbuckers). It's great for blues noodling on both clean and slightly distorted sounds.
It reacts well to heavy-duty filth, too - if you think you need a pointy rock guitar to make eardrums bleed, think again. It would be great to see a hardtail version of the Strat added to the Blacktop range - we reckon it would be pretty special.
Some will see the Blacktop Series as a cynical marketing ploy designed to squeeze a bit more juice out of some very well-established designs. We did wonder about that, but what we discovered was an excellent guitar: the Strat represents one of the best instruments to come out of the Fender factory in Ensenada, Mexico. The build quality, playability and tone on offer is fantastic for the asking price.
There's no doubt that Fender is hoping to win some new fans with the Blacktop Series. That may or may not happen, but there's also something here for existing Fender fanatics.
The addition of humbuckers hasn't diluted what makes this classic Fender design great; instead, it's thrown up a bunch of great new tones.
The gene-splicing experiments that tone fiends inflicted on innocent guitars back in the day are now available as standard. And that means the chisel can stay in the toolbox where it belongs.