Hot Strat and Tele-single coils feature on this Strat
Greasebucket tone controls breathes new life into this Fenders
Originally conceived as an affordable players' Fender Stratocaster, the Highway One upgrade concentrates on sound: "It's function over looks: performance," says Justin Norvell, Fender Electrics marketing manager.
Arguably at the top of the upgrades is the finish. It remains satin to the touch but, instead of the thin acrylic of the original models, it's now nitro-cellulose, offering a much more palpable vintage vibe.
It's still a thin coating and there's no getting away from the fact that it's very likely to mark much more readily than a thick layer of high-gloss poly.
But that's the point, Fender wants it to show the battle scars. A huge advantage is that the finish, tonally, will allow maximum resonance too.
If you default to disliking the overly shiny new look of some guitars, this is the perfect remedy and in the flesh, the Strat's Daphne blue shade benefits from the satin finish possibly more than the sunburst of the Tele.
Neither Closet Classic nor brand new in the literal sense, a restrained vibrancy seems to be the order of the day as far as the look of both is concerned.
Another notable change is with the overall livery, which has changed from a fifties-style to an unashamedly seventies feel. So, this equates to a big headstock for the Strat (also providing more mass) with black outlined gold Fender logos, parchment pickguards and 22 enormo-frets for both.
Electronically Fender has gone back to the drawing board too with the power of the guitar's pickups being increased.
Replacing the vintage-style single-coils are what Fender describes as Hot Strat single-coils that are all based around an Alnico III magnet foundation, a mid-strength magnet that should provide a slightly enhanced, hotter performance when compared to an Alnico II.
Additionally, the guitar offers Fender's increasingly popular Greasebucket tone circuit that was developed in the Custom Shop as a way of rolling off the high-end without the usual low-end woomph of a standard passive tone control circuit.
Didn't this have something to do with a certain Billy Gibbons? "We designed with him in mind," states Fender's Mike Eldred, "and he was the testing guy. I actually named it myself after the can of used bacon grease that used to sit on our stove at home when I was a kid." So now you know!
The Strat's neck and bridge pickups (there's no tone control on the middle pickup) benefit from their own greased-up tone pots.
Any electricians among you will appreciate the information that each Greasebucket tone control wiring includes two ceramic disk capacitors alongside a 4.7k ohm metal film resistor.
The Strat's middle pickup is also reverse-wound with reverse polarity, so positions two and four on the five-way pickup selector should be devoid of hum pickup.
The vibrato block has been changed from zinc to more vintage-accurate steel and the string spacing at the bridge is slightly narrower - with the bigger frets and smoother playability, it's clear Fender didn't want us slipping off the edges.
Elsewhere everything remains within the ballparks that made the 1950s originals of these designs so compelling. The cast and sealed tuners are made by the far eastern Ping hardware factory.
The guitar features a single-piece neck of a lightly flecked maple and both come with a padded Fender Deluxe gigbag.
Niggles? Well, there are a couple of shoddy points. The Strat's bridge is just off-centre sufficiently to stop you from being able to get the vibrato arm in place without using excessive force. This problem is certainly irritating and hopefully this is an isolated incident.
A conundrum with reviewing such iconic guitars is exactly what to plug into, let alone what to play. Time to opt for a Rivera Clubster 45 and set to work.
There's little doubt that the influence of the Greasebucket circuit is best experienced with quite a fat overdrive tone - not unlike that of ZZ Top in effect. With tone one up full the bridge pickup, unsurprisingly, is brash, in your face and great fun to play with.
Roll tone control one back to around seven and the edges of the sound round off to give an almost Gibson SG-style honk that's perfect for old school-style finger snaps and half-chords.
Performing a similar action with the neck pickup and employing tone control two, proceedings range from a nicely mellow yet vibrant sound to an almost classic Clapton-esque ooze.
Remember that the entire system remains passive yet, because Greasebucket doesn't overload the bass end and muffle the tone, it seems as if there's almost a mid-range hike.
Cleanly all five settings sparkle like a frosty lawn, with positions two and four, although unavoidably quieter than the solo'd pickups, sounding both smooth and rich and showing why Strats are so much fun to begin with!
Aside from purely aesthetic changes like the logo font, most of these Highway One upgrades are all about sound and performance, even the bigger Strat head is designed to add more mass.
Many 'upgrades' dictate gold-plated hardware, fancy inlays and colours. Not here. The rejuvenated pickups and the associated Greasebucket tone controls breathe more modern life, giving what would have already been an extensive tonal pallet even more colours to play with.
Construction concerns aside, the big frets, thin nitro finish and no-nonsense approach make this guitar extremely alluring.