Fender American Standard Stratocaster HH
Launched in late 2014, the twin-humbucker Standard Stratocaster HH expands the Fender American Standard line, offering a hot-rod vibe distinct from the more traditionally appointed Strats in the range.
Although Fender has resisted the temptation to 'do a Gibson' and ring dramatic changes for 2015, the company intends to make its American Standard instruments a major focus for the year ahead.
Why? Well, it's easy to imagine that the sheer value for money offered by the Mexican-made Classic Player series and the knock-out desirability of the Custom Shop models means that many Fender buyers bypass the middle ground offered by the company's US Standards entirely.
That would certainly chime with the experience of retailers in the industry as a whole over the last few years, too. While boutique and budget models continue to sell well, the mid-price market remains a struggle.
Whatever the motivation, it's clear that this new HH guitar offers the same blend of vintage and modern features that characterises the American Standard range, but throws in a different sonic flavour aimed at those with rockier leanings.
The HH Strat comes loaded with a pair of Fender's Twin Head Vintage humbuckers. Designed for Fender's top-tier production guitars - the Select Series - and first appearing in 2012, Twin Head humbuckers have been available in Vintage and Modern incarnations as standalone units for retrofit purposes since early 2014.
The Alnico V bridge unit has a pokey DC resistance of 10.5k ohms, with the Alnico II neck pickup weighing in at a more restrained 7.3k ohms. It may be Vintage by name, but the Twin Heads here are no slavish PAF clones; thick aluminium base plates are designed to reduce magnetic interference, while a solderless PCB hook-up at the rear is a nod towards modernity.
Like the rest of the American Standard electrics post-2012, the guitar here features staggered-height tuners that negate the need for a second string tree for the D and G strings. A reduction in friction usually equates to an increase in tuning stability, and the Strat HH is reliable in that regard, even though it's whammy-equipped.
Set up with 0.009-gauge strings at the factory, playability is as easy and fluid as you'd expect in combination with bend-friendly medium jumbo frets and a 241mm 'board radius.
One thing to watch out for in the heat of battle is that the relatively high string tree in combination with a light high E string means that there's not a huge amount of tension over the nut and, when strummed hard, the string can pop out from under the tree and out of the nut slot altogether as a result.
Those of us with a heavy right-hand technique are likely to prefer heavier-gauge strings - the extra tension of which should counteract this - but it's something to consider.
Finally, there's a satin-finished, slim modern C neck profile that's a fixture of the contemporary Fender catalogue.
When is a Stratocaster not a Stratocaster? Despite the decals on the headstocks and its body outline, there's very little tonal crossover here with Leo's original invention. That's not necessarily a criticism, of course; if you want a more traditionally appointed Strat you are hardly short on options.
That said, for players used to the explosive dynamics of single coils, even on the bridge pickup with the tone control wide open, there's a thick midrange and soft high end exhibited that even had this die-hard ES-335 user reaching for his amp's tone control to dial in more treble.
The Strat is slightly compressed-sounding, but the individual pickup volume controls allow for a degree of shades between the full-throated neck and bridge settings.
However, we'd argue that Fender has perhaps missed a trick by not including a five-way switch with coil-split options in the in-between settings on the HH model - especially when the likes of the Saint Blues Juke Joint Mississippi Bluesmaster reveals just how much range well-sorted coil-splits can bring to an HH guitar.
We certainly didn't expect a mahogany singlecut with a Gibson-style 628mm (24.7-inch) scale length to be capable of more Strat-like sounds than this Fender, but it is.
Given the Fender American Standard's reputation as everyman (or woman) guitars, it's a little surprising to get this instrument out of their cases at a rehearsal and find its tonal strengths so specific.
For fat rock, liquid lead and moody indie there's lots to love, but fans of twang, spank and jangle should look elsewhere in the American Standard range. It's more a smooth cruise than a rollercoaster ride, but for some players that's just the ticket...