Fender Elite Stratocaster Close Up Review

Fender's 'Elite' Stratocaster should be an improvement... but is this Strat worth the high cost? and does this guitar deliver what the name suggests?

Fender Elite Stratocaster Inside and Out Close Up Review

 fender-elite-stratocaster-review

Click for larger view

The Fender Elite Stratocaster when I first heard about this version in October 2016 conjured up visions of the early 80's 'Elite' Stratocaster and I remember at first liking the idea, but later decided that the early 80's 'thing' was not for me. Of course the originals are not that common... because I guess they were not particularly living up to the standard that the word 'Elite' makes you think about.

So with lots of trepidation out came the 2016 'Fender 'Elite' and here we go again... or do we? Is the new Elite really as awesome as the name suggests?

I had been to a Fender 'shindig' at a local guitar store (called Music Store Pro) and watched the demonstration just a week or two before the elite was available here in the UK. As the Fender guys went through the standard sort of things they do at these sort of things I listened intently. It struck me that Fender had probably stepped back, had taken a really good look at what they currently sold at the 'top end' of non custom shop strats and ended up with the elite design. In reality while this strat on the face of it looks like all the other 'S1' switching Stratocasters out there - that could be construed as if nothing has changed... it's still an old and familiar guitar... but nothing could be further than the truth about the Fender elite Stratocaster.

At the demo they had the usual 'special deal' going on and the dealer was offering the guitar for £1380 ($1695) but with a voucher for £100 ($140) to spend on anything you wanted to. Seemed like a good idea - getting the elite for £1280 so I ordered one - in 'antique cherry' with an 'ash' body and rosewood neck. But like all good things... I had to wait. It took a couple of weeks for the guitar to arrive. Indeed, in the mean time Fender in their wisdom increased the guitars list price to around £1709) ($2000) or thereabouts and I felt good that my £1280 was a good price.

I asked the dealer to NOT set up the guitar, but leave it exactly as it came from Fender. They did as I asked and did not even open the guitar's outer box - so I was guaranteed a fresh Fender but more importantly an elite EXACTLY as they ship them from the factory.

What you get...

On arrival as I said the guitar was sealed so I removed it from the box and opened the supplied 'plastic' type of case (a pretty nice inclusion but it should be for the current pricing that includes TSA locks) to see the antique cherry strat right there with its bits 'n' pieces. Included is a strap, tremolo arm, adjusting allen keys, a guitar lead and manual. The guitar I noticed immediately had those 'shaller' type strap locks on the guitar and included set in the case. Overall the guitar was presented in very nice condition and as pristine as it should be.

fender-elite

Click for larger view

What's changed?

At first view to the uninitiated it seems just like 'another strat' time! But in reality this guitar really is far from what say a 'Deluxe' was. A quick sum up I would list as:

  • New noiseless pickups
  • S1 switching still
  • Completely new truss rod adjuster
  • New neck profile
  • New neck/body joint
  • New one height locking tuners
  • New strap locks as standard
  • New string tree design
  • New colour range
  • Tremolo change
  • New style case

Now I might have missed the odd thing or two but anything missing will be in the in depth review video (in HD) at the foot of this in depth review.

So let's get down to business and examine some of these changes in far more depth.

New Noiseless Pickups

fender-v4-noiseless-pickups

Click for larger view

These as fitted are Fender's NEW 4th Generation of pickups and are only available currently on the Elite Stratocaster. While Fender harp on about vintage style and noiseless performance in reality they said that about the V3 noiseless pickups too. But hey, listen up... these pickups ARE nicer sounding than the V3's which could sometimes be a little harsh. The V4 sounds are all as I would expect them... almost 'Hi-fi' quality and all without that annoying noise from yesteryear... its true some guys love the hum but I'm not really one of them. Close examination of the pickups (check the video) shows them as having the 'same' part number, but actually with different coloured wires from each pickup so there is something going on around all of that. They don't tell much (and certainly not to a minion like me) but they are absolutely an improvement in my opinion.

S1 Switching

fender-s1-switching 

Most guys out there have seen the familiar S1 switching system on a Fender Stratocaster - it's certainly been around for a while. Some people dislike it intensely while some are non committal and yet others love it. It's a modification of a strat away from what Leo originally developed and make no mistake some guys HATE anything that errs away from the original classic designs that Leo invented.

In a nutshell, the newer pickups as on this and some other Fender guitars (e.g. like V3 etc.) can switch to combinations of pickup tones that are unobtainable (easily) on other strats without modding the wiring. So for me the S1 does have it's place and if you don't depress the volume knob as shown above then it has absolutely no effect on the original strat layout that has been there for an incredible amount of time.

Also note that the volume knob on this guitar is extremely slack (easy to turn) so it get's knocked all the time by me. I did make a fix for that which you can find on this website.

Below are the typical options when you use the S1 (or not) on the Fender elite:

  • Position five: neck pickup only - tone 1 only works
  • Position four: neck and middle pickups wired in parallel - tone 1 and tone 2 work
  • Position three: middle pickup only - tone 2 only works
  • Position two: middle and neck pickups wired in parallel - tone 2 only works
  • Position one: bridge pickup only

And with the S1 engaged:

  • Position five: all three pickups wired in series - tone 1 only
  • Position four: neck and middle pickups wired in series - tone 1 and tone 2 work
  • Position three: middle and bridge pickups wired in series - tone 2 only works
  • Position two: Neck pickup in parallel with middle & bridge pickups wired in series - tone 2 only works
  • Position one: bridge pickup in parallel with neck and middle pickups wired in series - tone 2 only works.

It's pretty clear to see that there are actually many compromises with the wiring and the S1 aspect mainly. On the one hand you change the guitar from 'standard' but on the other you can easily do stuff that you could not on a regular strat.

It's all a matter of what you want or need.

fender-s1-switching-large

Click for larger view - image (c) FMI.

New Truss Rod Adjuster 

fender-elite-truss-rod-adjustment

The truss rod adjuster has moved around over the years and for sure it has been down the bottom of the neck more than once... but more often seen at the headstock end. On the Fender Elite it has migrated down to the end of the neck nearest the pickups. The neck has been 'modified' to accommodate this all new truss rod design. The new truss rod can adjust relief of the neck either for more or for less and works either way. It's a fair old drive away from the 'standard' of a Fender strat for many guys and might put some off. I question why the big change because on the guitars I have once set rarely do I ever have to adjust the truss rod - seems just a tad overkill for something not used daily... but it certainly does work and improves the truss rod adjustment from being (on some strats) hard to easy.

New Neck Profile

The neck profile has been once again tweaked for todays players and I can confirm that this mod is one of the areas where the elite Stratocaster shines big time... most guitarists will love this profile. The neck profile goes from a compound back shape - a modern "C" to "D" and utilizes a 9.5"-14" compound radius (241 mm-355.6 mm) which feels extremely smooth and nice. It fits my hands like a glove. I like the 'rolling' of the fret ends too which make the guitar feel already 'worn in' in that respect - not dissimilar to a deluxe regarding those frets.

Not withstanding, the heel of the neck where it changes from body to neck profile has also been changed and now has a far more smoother and nicer feeling change to it.

fender-elite-heel

Click for larger view

As you can see from the image above, the neck profile at the body end change is quite dramatic compared to older Stratocaster necks and it makes things just that bit nicer in my opinion. Its one of those little tweaks that you don't notice until you swap back to a regular Stratocaster.

New Neck/Body Joint

fender-elite-neck-joint

Click for larger view

While this neck joint is sort of 'familiar' factually this is a different one than has been seen on other Stratocasters and one area that has been 'improved' for the elite. Well, I'm not entirely impressed with this joint although its an improvement over the regular square thing often found on other strats. I liked the 'Jeff Beck' neck joint myself and this one on the elite seems to be more of a miss mash of change for changes sake I think. Like I said an improvement over the original, but they could do so much better given a little more thought.

New Single Height Locking Tuners

fender-single-height-locking-tuners

Click for larger view

As many readers will know, Fender locking tuners have often been supplied 'staggered' so that the string height 'varies' between the nearest and furthest strings from the nut to help with tuning. Seems Fender decided that idea is a 'yesterday' approach and as you can see on the Fender elite the tuners have a uniform height from one end to the other. Rather like they used to be! But of course these are locking tuners so tuning is improved over non locking tuners. Honestly, to me it made absolutely no difference whatsoever to the tuning whether different heights or not. Maybe you like them as of old or you might like them as of on this elite, but hardly breaking new ground I do feel that most guys will have an indifference to these.

New Strap Locks

fender-strap-locks

Click for larger view

Fender in their ultimate wisdom have included what is basically a set of Schaller strap locks on the elite. It's about time. With these costing peanuts even at retail there is simply no excuse why Fender should not offer these as standard on all of their guitars. Dropping your guitar is really no joke as any musician will tell you if it's never happened to you but for the cost of these - come on Fender step up to the plate and offer these on all your guitars - you don't have to be an elitist to get them!

New String Tree

fender-elite-string-tree

Click for larger view

Aha the old string tree conundrum. Many say these are absolutely necessary to avoid the strings coming out of the nut etc. (I'm sure you can also think of loads of other things), but the originals were hard work! On the elite seems that one is enough. For me? I loved the nut found on the Jeff Beck neck that really did not need these things. Alas those nut's are not an option on the elite and you have what you have... complete with string tree(s) but in this enhanced form. Let's face it, they could not be worse than the originals no matter how they try.

New Colour Range

When you check out the Fender elite you will notice there are 'solid' colours and 'see through' colours like this antique cherry in this review. I like the see through stuff myself as it sets the Stratocaster off nicely. Colours include:

  • Three Tone Sunburst
  • Aged Cherry Burst as on this guitar
  • Autumn Blaze Metallic
  • Mystic Black
  • Olympic Pearl
  • Sky Burst Metallic
  • Tobacco Sunburst

One thing to note... it seems that the solid colour guitars are less cost than the see through finishes. Originally I thought that was purely due to the extra time for the finish... but in fact take note that see through finishes have an ASH body and non see through finishes have an ALDER body hence the extra cost. On this guitar the body comprised of more than one piece of ASH.

The Fender Elite Tremolo

fender-elite-tremolo

Click for larger view

The tremolo unit is a two post affair similar to other recent Stratocasters. I liked the two post because of less tuning issues and when using locking tuners its all good news - it actually works! The tremolo arm itself no longer has a thread on the end as per older stuff, but now has a sort of 'snap in place' solution that really does do what it is supposed to... and there's a adjuster screw (with provided allen key) so that you can get the tightness of the arm just right for your style. I like it and the improvement is dramatic.

fender-tremolo-arm-adjuster

Click for larger view

While we're on the subject of the tremolo unit here's a shot of the tremolo block as supplied.

fender elite-tremolo-block 

Click for larger view 

Note that this tremolo block is the thinner type of block that might (just only might) improve the guitars tone from upgrading to a larger or brass unit. Personally I don't hear any difference when I have changed out these tremolo blocks for other third party offerings so that one has to come down to whether you have 'bat ears' or not... mine went less good years ago so the jury is out for that mod... maybe you should save yourself some money.

The Tremolo Hole

fender-elite-tremolo-hole

Click for larger view

Now then, occasionally I do find things that are rather out of the ordinary... or at least at first sight they are. Take a look at this 'hole' in the body just in front of where the tremolo arm fits (you can see it on other pictures above also). Looks like someone has been 'enthusiastic' with a router - or maybe setup the size of the tremolo route to be oversized. Now what is strange is that this 'hole' is not on all Stratocasters. Check yourself, and you will see that some models don't have that hole, some doo, some to a lesser extent etc. But you know what... its been there for some time. I have a 2008 American Strat and there's on that guitar. But strangely enough on some of even the elite Stratocasters with a solid colour there is no hole? Probably due to enthusiastic routing or maybe they simply got it wrong on the ones I have seen (after all these are the first batch right?).

In any case... make up your own mind and decide whether a guitar costing as much as £1700+ list price should really have that hole on display. I for one am less impressed with this aspect of the elite.

Score Rating

Now I'm not someone to shy away from rating any product. This one gets an 8 out of 10 which is a good score, but a couple of things threw it back a little. Overall its a pretty cool guitar but with the caveats that I have mentioned throughout this review.

Conclusions

While there are clearly some issues on the Fender elite guitar that could seriously 'irk' some people and there are clearly some quality issues (in my opinion), overall the Fender elite Stratocaster is a guitar to be reckoned with. Those new pickups are actually incredibly well made and sound just as good as any I have heard in a long time with nuances that are not the same as earlier revisions. They have the ability to rock - and if that's not enough there is a hum bucker version available too.

The neck is another amazing improvement in my view and although most of these small refinements don't really add up to that much overall taken together they really do make the elite a force to be reckoned with. The old deluxe was nice, but this guitar sings in a very pleasing way all around for sure.

The case is (or not depending on your view) an improvement over the earlier plastic case but to tell the truth I liked the chunkiness of the old case. Great that its included especially for the price of the elite.

Note that this guitar as supplied was not particularly well set up and I do feel that Fender might do well to maybe setup the guitar a little nicer than what I received. It came from the factory that way and as such I have taken it in to account. The action was not great and the bridge sett too high in my opinion, but after a quick setup it was all good to go.

And that's exactly where I have a problem with the Fender elite Stratocaster... price. There is no doubt that if you 'fish around' a little then you might get some discount but with Fender adopting (it seems) a MAP pricing policy it is hardly likely that you will see advertised prices low any time soon. And that's one of the issues of MAP pricing policies... the customer sees it all as 'price fixing' somehow. But that applies to many products and not just Fender.

Is this guitar worth the money? I don't think so. Is it a great guitar? Absolutely. Could you buy a better guitar for this price? Probably. But this is a USA made Fender guitar made in a sort of tradition (well almost) and it will probably keep a reasonable price if and when you sell it. Only time will tell.

So here are the things I liked:

  • The new V4 pickups
  • The neck profile
  • The body/neck mods
  • The tremolo arm adjuster
  • The truss rod adjuster
  • The finish
  • The locking tuners

And things I liked less:

  • The price
  • The slack volume knob
  • The hole for the tremolo in the body
  • The setup from the factory

Ultimately it is you that has to decide whether the elite is for you. I still have mine and will (or might) keep it for some time, but who knows. Always try a guitar and don't just buy it or you might be making a big mistake and keep an eye out for the sort of issues I have shown in this independent review because its independent there's absolutely no sales hype on here.

Below is the HD video review I made showing this guitar exactly as I found it with playing at the end.

Thanks for visiting tonymckenzie.com and just so you know all photos unless otherwise stated are (c) A B Mckenzie 2016 so please dont copy them without my written permission or you might get in to trouble. 

© A B Mckenzie 1997-2017. All Rights Reserved