Cast your mind back to when we reviewed the Fender’s Player Series. There we charted the line of Fender's aspirational progression: players start on a Squier, get serious with a Mexican-made model like the Player, then they go pro and pick up an American-built electric guitar.
As the most affordable entry point to bona fide USA Fenders, the American Performer Series is a big deal because it represents that first serious step, and it also brings it a little bit closer to the Player Series, to the point where we are asking if it is really worth that extra outlay?
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Fender has never been one to gamble with aesthetics that they got right in the first place, so there’s not much new here – at least not on first inspection. Take a closer look and you will notice that the Stratocaster we’re reviewing here comes in the all-new Penny finish – a copper bronze metallic that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and yet, paired with the black scratchplate, we reckon it is pretty cool.
The biggest changes are found with pickups that were newly wound for all models in the range: the Yosemite single coils and DoubleTap humbuckers, and with the circuits that control them.
Many of the electrics in the American Performer Series have a dedicated push-pull tone pot to tease some additional sounds out of a familiar format. On the humbucker-equipped electrics, that typically manifests itself in a coil-split. On our review Strat, the setup is a little different.
First off, pull up on the bridge tone control and you engage the neck pickup along with the bridge and middle pickups, making for two additional tones – while a reverse-wound, reverse-polarity middle pickup allows for hum cancellation when you are in positions two and four.
As for the tone controls, Fender has performed one of our favourite after-market Strat mods in-house; one tone control adjusts the neck and middle pickup, while the second tweaks the bridge. It's nice to see that here. That goes for the bridge’s Greasebucket tone circuit, too, which stops your tone getting muddy or losing gain as you roll back the tone.
As for the feel and the playability, the American Performer is the quintessential Strat. But there's a nice contemporary edge here, with Fender’s applying its one-size-fits-all ‘modern C’ neck profile and giving it an imperceptible satin finish that gives this Strat a sleek, modern playing feel.
The Penny and Satin Lake Placid Blue finishes are only available with maple fretboards. You can get a rosewood 'board on the Honey Burst and Arctic White versions – an upgrade on the pau ferro used on the Mexican-made models.
The Yosemite single coils are stunning. They have that trademark Strat compression, with that snap and sizzle in spades. The attack is pronounced and will cut through any amount of dirt, and all the while there’s a glassiness in its tone that capably straddles vintage and modern voices. They are up there with the best Strat pickups we’ve ever heard, with a beautiful sense of compression that gives them the edge over cheaper models.
The neck pickup is nice and warm, the middle all light and air, while your in-between positions give you that Jimi tone so well – also, with the push/pull engaged and the neck mixed in, too, there's a lovely quack to play around with. Fender’s Strats of late have had plenty low-end on the bridge pickup to ensure a little body in the bite. Introduce the neck pickup into the mix and you get a fat, wide-range tone that’s hugely addictive and very musical.
There's no questions: a blendable neck pickup is very welcome addition on a Strat, expanding its tonal arsenal and making it even more versatile. Okay, we might argue that the age-old plastic tone knob doesn’t lend itself to quick and easy tugging but the look will please traditionalists.
It's unlikely you'll find this upgraded Strat perfect, because personal preference plays such a big role here. The bent steel saddles, for instance, won’t be to everyone’s tastes – they tend to be uncomfortable for heavy palm muting. While some players would prefer noiseless single coils over the Yosemites’ old-school hum.
But all things considered. If you seek a trusty workhorse Strat with a full complement of excellent tones, top-quality hardware and a super-smooth neck, the American Performer is just the ticket.
MusicRadar Verdict: The American Performer has just enough playability and extra tonal options to make it worth spending that little bit more on a US-model over its Mexican-built rivals.