Another year and another refreshed range of classic designs from Fender.
Last year we had the American Originals (and the Mexican-made Player Series), while 2017 introduced the more contemporary American Professionals. On to 2019, then, and we have the American Performer Series, which replaces and expands upon the previous ‘gateway’ American Specials. Along with the usual suspects, we get some neat additions, such as the Mustang guitar and bass - the first US-made Mustangs since anyone can remember - along with a Jazzmaster that drops in a Strat’s vibrato, and the cool, if oddly named, Telecaster Hum: a neck-humbucking version of the standard Performer Telecaster.
Like Fender’s Specials that came before them, the Performers come in gigbags, rather than hard cases. The maple necks with either maple or rosewood fingerboards and alder-only bodies are made in Corona, but many of the parts - including the Strats’ vibratos - are Asian, just like the outgoing American Specials, for example. Like the previous Specials, the Performers also stick with the ‘Modern C’ neck profile along with jumbo frets. The bodies here are finished in gloss polyurethane (with a smattering of satin options), while the necks, including the headstock faces, are all satin polyurethane. A simple identifier of the new models is the silver-coloured 70s-era Fender headstock logo; the Specials had a black logo.
So, what’s new? Quite a bit, such as ClassicGear tuners that combine a mainly Kluson-like vintage-style with split head posts (all the same height) but no rear-placed screws. They attach in modern style with a nut and washer and offer an improved, greater fine-tuning 18:1 gear ratio and will also be available as spares.
Then there are the pickups, designed by Tim Shaw. The Performers swap the American Special’s Atomic humbucker and Texas Special single coils for new Yosemite single coils and DoubleTap humbuckers. The Greasebucket tone controls are kept from the American Specials, but are used only on the bridge pickup of the Strats and as a master tone on the Teles. Many of the Performers also have expanded switching.
Typically, the Performer Stratocaster is offered in four colours dependent on the fingerboard’s wood. Rosewood comes in Honey Burst or Arctic White; maple in a satin Lake Placid Blue; or, as seen on the previous pages, a new copper metallic, Penny. Arctic White and Penny come with a three-ply black-faced scratchplate; the others feature a three-ply mint green version. All have aged white control knobs, pickup covers and switch tip.
The tuners look great, feel really smooth and would be an excellent upgrade to the American Professionals, for example. It’s a shame they didn’t include staggered height posts during the redesign, though.
The vibrato? Well, it’s a good unit with steel top plate and chrome-plated pressed steel saddles (with narrower-than-vintage 52.5mm spacing). The block is steel and deep drilled; we get three springs and an open-hole back cover plate. The chrome- plated arm screws in. With basic string stretching, tuning stability is okay - not for the Beck-ists, perhaps, but then the travel, as set, gives reasonable down-bend, just shy of an octave on the low E, and as the unit is tilted, approximately one tone up-bend on the G. It’s adequate, although the two American Standard-style string trees don’t have the smoothest pins holding the top four strings at a steeper angle behind the nut.
The Yosemite pickups use moulded plastic bobbins and flush pole 4.75mm (0.187-inch) diameter rod magnets: Alnico 2 for the bridge and Alnico 4 for the middle and neck. They also have a high DCR: our Strat measured 8.68kohms (bridge), 8.44k (middle) and 7.74k (neck), which suggests they use a thinner-than-standard wire as the coils don’t appear over-stuffed. More unusual is that (with the exception of the Tele’s bridge pickup), they feature “a shellac coating that lets the coil breathe while controlling feedback”, according to Fender. At launch, we’re told this “shellac-dipping has a profound effect: they are more open- sounding, broader with more overtones”.
The Strat’s control setup is also tweaked. Tone 1 works on the neck and middle (with a standard 0.022 microfarad capacitor); tone 2 uses Fender’s Greasebucket circuit just for the bridge pickup. By pulling up this lower tone control you add the neck pickup to the bridge (position 1) and to the bridge/middle mix (position 2). Any modders will know this as the ‘Seven Sound’ mod. Hardly new, but a nice inclusion here.
Changes aside, the Performers feel very familiar, very ‘modern Fender’ with quite a utilitarian vibe. We were sent four guitars from across the range (look out for forthcoming reviews) and we started listening to the Performers with the good ol’ Stratocaster. Some while later we were still playing it. It reminds us more of the Custom Shop EU Master Design ’69 Strat that we looked at a few months back, in that it almost emphasises the Strat-iness.
The neck pickup has chunky wood with that metallic smash to its percussive attack. The bridge veers on the bright side, but with its dedicated Greasebucket tone, you can tame it, as well as dialling in a thicker but not clouded voice on crunchier and gained amp voices. There’s a hint of Tele-like honk at the bridge, too, which adds a little gnarl to the bridge/middle mix, while the neck/middle is hollowed and bouncy. And while it may not be as sweet as some might like, these sounds really sit together well - it’s quintessential Strat with enough control to darken/thicken to taste.
The lower tone sits a little higher off the scratchplate here, which makes flipping it up much easier than on the HSS Strat, whose equivalent tone knob is nearly flush with the face of the scratchplate. Adding the neck to the bridge, Tele-style, is always useful, while adding the neck to the middle/bridge mix is subtler – but if you enjoy those classic ‘in between’ sounds, this offers another shade.
Onto the Yosemite’s flush poles and you don’t seem to get that drop in volume here. For example, the quieter B compares with a more dominant G, which - while frustrating for some - is an essential part of the Strat’s voice. These pickups certainly don’t sound ‘over-wound’ to these ears, nor do they appear microphonic or noisy in terms of pickup hum, plus the mix positions are hum-cancelling. Yet they don’t immediately shout ‘vintage’, either, just because of their shellac bath. They do, however, have plenty of presence - call it sparkle, if you like - it’s something that seems to help enhance their voice along with subtle compression.
Any new mainstream guitar launch - not least one by the big guns - gets many a player hot under the collar, and the American Performers will have garnered plenty of forum inches by the time you read this. At pretty much the same price (full retail) as the departing American Specials, these American Performers seem fairly priced with their numerous upgrades and there’s little to disappoint. Additional features such as the ClassicGear tuners are excellent additions, but it’s the new pickups that we suspect might be the main discussion points.
The problem here, of course, is that we all have a different idea of a ‘great’ Strat or Tele sound and one pickup or set simply won’t suit every player out there. How can it? The almost enhanced sparkle of the Yosemite single coils is rather addictive, especially if you’re the sort of player who’s using a more modern signal chain, not least one with programmable effects.
The last thing we thought we needed was another Strat, but this American Performer got under our skin and got the majority of our play time. Enough said.