The Ultimate Stratocaster : Van Zandt Classic

 

It is well know that nothing in music stays the same for long. Indeed nothing associated with music stays the same for long. What is fashion today is yesterday's news tomorrow. What is in vogue now is out of vogue the next day. People came and go, super groups break up everyday, music styles lose popularity only to come back again years later, so on and so forth.

But in the music world, there one eternal image that is omnipresent, there is one image that seems to never go out of fashion and is always omnipotent : that is the Fender Stratocaster. This is one guitar that never seems to go out of fashion, this is one guitar that never seeems to grow old. With each successive new music generation, the Stratocaster seems to re-invent itself, the Stratocaster seems to retain its relevance in any genre of music in and every day and age. It is mind-baffling why this is the case. If you think about it, we have had quite a few generations of guitar amps and guitar effects. Digital recording has completely revolutionized recording technology. But when it comes to the electric guitar, it is still very much a case of Fender vs Gibson.

The Stratocaster was introduced in 1954. In 1965, Leo Fender decided to sell his business to CBS on account of ill-health. After CBS took over, they introduced the big head stock for Stratocasters. For twenty years CBS manufactured and sold Fender guitars before finally deciding to sell the business to the present owners. It is a well-know fact that the quality of the Fender guitars during the CBS years varied a great deal. I bought one of those and it wasn't quite the best guitar in the world, to put it mildly. For quite some time now, quite a few musicians have raised their eyebrows when they see the price tags on some of the Fenders guitars. As to myself, I did not have the best of experience with Fender Stratocasters. On account of the quality of some of the guitars I have come across, apart from owning a real vintage Strat it is probably not worth having one.

Since not everyone can afford a vintage Strat, the next best thing? You can get a Fender Masterbuilt. They normally come with a US$4,000 plus price tag second hand. Sometimes you see one on eBay asking for US$8,000. It is hard to justify that kind of price when you are talking about two pieces of wood bolt together with four screws. For long nothing seems to challenge the kingdom of the Stratocaster which is still the most popular electric guitar today and since day one of the history of electric guitars. That was so until the 1970's.

From the land of the rising sun, came guitar manufacturers who started to make Stratocaster and Telecaster copies. The first models on sale were laughable. No one raised an eye lid. But things began to change in the 1970's. The Japanese manufacturers were beginning to find the ropes for making electric guitars. Gradually, the quality improved and the improvement took such strident steps soon things came to a head. The guitars made by the Japanese manufacturers were becoming so good they were coming close to the real thing. In the second half of the 70's when I first arrived in London, many say the quality of these copy guitars actually surpassed the real thing. Only they cost less than 1/3 of the price of the real thing. I remember in the late 70's and early 80's, many music papers in England were extolling the virtues of these Japanese copy guitars and were predicting the demise of the real thing. One brand in particular was squarely in the limelight and that was Tokai. The quality of these Japanese copies was great it caused a big stir in the musical instruments scene in London. But it wasn't long before Fender started threatening law suits for passing off and all the rest of it. I am sure you don't want to know all about these nasty things. I certainly don't want to write about it. The long and short of it is that you will not see any of these Japanese made copies on sale in America and Europe. That, if anything, says all you need to say about the quality of these instruments.

 

The Van Zandt TLV R3

My first experience with these Japanese made guitars was in August 2009. I wanted to buy a Japanese made Telecaster to commemorate the death of the Japanese Blues guitar master Shinji Shiotshugi. Shinji san is known as the Blues Master in Japan and he was the veritable Blues Master. Combing top-notch technique and feel and an apparently endless reservoir of Blues riffs, it was also something special every time Shinji san walked on stage. Shinji san was really nice to me. He always invited me to join him on stage and I had played support band for his shows in Kyoto. I played with Shinji san in my summer Japan tour in 2008. But a few months after that, Shinji died in Tokyo. It was so sad, an unspeakable loss to the Blues scene in Japan.

To remember him by, I wanted a Telecaster style guitar made in Japan. I had the fortune of stumbling onto one on eBay. You rarely ever see them on eBay, I was so lucky. When the guitar arrived, I was stunned by the quality, workmanship and the sound of the guitar. You can say there is nothing special with the guitar, it is just a great-sounding guitar very comfortable to play. And this is something that you can rarely say about the guitars on the market these days. How many times have you picked up a guitar in a shop and say "But this is fantastic !" I rarely do. This Van Zandt really conjures up the image and sound of the vintage guitars : the experience of playing it is so different from the experience you play all other guitars.

 

The Secret Of The Vintage Fender

Anyone with more than a passing interest in guitars would have come across the legend of the vintage Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters. More so than vintage wine, these guitars have taken on a mystic status, they are synonymous with the holy grail, the ultimate crown of all guitars, the biggest jewel in the crown : these guitars were suppose to sound like no other, play like no other, holding one in your hands would give you unlimited power and you can work magic just like that. But are they really that great? Do they really sound so good? And if they do, why? Let me tell you what I think. This is to me the secret of the vintage guitars.

The first Fenders were manufactured in the 50's and the first ones were Telecasters. The body of the Telecaster was design by by Leo Fender. The shape of the guitar was very down to earth. The guitar has a workmanlike feel, a workhorse if you like. Then came the Stratocasters, designed with a musician (I cannot now remember his name) with the musician in mind. The Stratocaster was well ahead of its time. The body of the guitar was contoured to make playing it very comfortable (unlike playing a Telecaster), it had a tremolo which was ground breaking and a bolt on neck. The design of the Stratocaster is so successful that it had withstood the test of time. Even in today's digital age, the Stratocaster design is still the preferred style for many musicians. The Fender Stratocaster is the best-selling guitar of all times and will remain so for at least another century, if not longer.

Whilst the design of the guitar was revolutionary in many aspects, the guitar was not meant to be an expensive guitar. Unlike a Gibson Les Paul, putting the neck on a Stratocaster involves simply drilling 4 holes and putting in 4 screws. Guitars with bolt-on necks are much easier to make, it involves fewer work procedures, it is much quicker to make and does not involved so much skilled labour. On top of tall this, there is no binding on the neck and body of the guitar which makes things a lot simpler. Hence it is a much cheaper instrument to make and you can turn them out in real factory production line style. Production costs and how easy they can be made were two major considerations in the design and marketing of the guitar. If you compare a Stratocaster with a Gibson Les Paul, you are comparing economy with luxury. It takes so much more time to make a Les Paul : the neck and body joint, the tilted headstock, the contoured face, the body and neck binding. Undoubtedly the manufacturing of a Stratocaster involves a lot less work, a lot less skilled labour and a lot less time and is much better suited to mass manufacturing. I have come across many articles about the early history of Fender guitars and many say semi-skilled cheap Mexican labour was employed to make these guitars in the 50's and 60's. I don't know if that is true, but one thing you can be sure. When Fender started making these guitars in the '50s and '60's they did not set out to make guitars the best guitars in the world. They did not set out to make guitars that would be the most sought-after guitar in the years to come, that they were makings guitars that were to become legends and attain mythical status. These guitars were made in the way they were made because they were easier to make, cheaper to make and took a lot less time to make. Now if that is the case this is the million dollar question :-

Why are they such fantastic instruments ?

Not a lot of people would have played not to mention owning a Strat or a Tele from the 50's and 60's. So it is all rumours and myth that these guitars are so great. Let us, however, assume that these guitars are reallyas good as people say they are. The question to ask thne is why are they so fantastic? To me that is the wrong way of look at the question, it is like look at a gun from its barrel. The reason why these 'vintage' guitars sound so much better is because the quality of successive guitar generations have gone down progressively. Remember the whole thing about the Tele and Stratocaster was they were cheap guitars that can be mass-manufactured much easily. These guitars were made by cheap and semi-skilled labour. The difference between these vintage guitars and the guitars of the latter years is, I think, this : in the 50's and 60's, workman took more time and pay a lot more attention to the making of these instruments. Even though these guitars were not meant to be the best in the world, their standard and workmanship are so much better than the guitar of latter years. Better wood was used, more time was spent on the fretboard, more care was taken when joining the neck to the body, more work was done on dressing up the frets. In the end, everything small thing came into play and we ended up with a guitar that has a nice fretboard, a good neck joint, nice frets and hence a good guitar. And this minimum standard, if you will, has become the standard to you don't see anymore these days unless you pay a lot of money. For this kind of minimum standard you are talking about a Fender Masterbuilt. And we are talking about a price tag of around U$7,000.00.

 

The Van Zandt Classic Series 2

The Van Zandt Classic is living proof that you can make a guitar that has the same quality of those guitars from the 'vintage' years. The Van Zandt Classic is a limited edition model, its production is limited to 30 pieces. My Van Zandt Classic is actually one of the Series 2 guitars. The ClassicsSeries 1 are Stratocaster style guitars with maple necks. Mine is of course with a rosewood neck. When you pick up this guitar, you feel immediately that something is different about this guitar. The fretboard, the body, the feel of it is exquisite. It is difficult to explain why this guitar is so different, you just feel that it is something sublime, it is a work or art, it is something precious. On careful examination, you can see the fantastic workmanship and craftsmanship that has gone into this guitar. The fret dressing is perfect (it is even better than that on my friend's Fender Masterbuilt : that is the two tone guitar behind my Strat in the picture above). The fretboard is so great playing on it is like skiing on snow. String bending effortless over the U shape neck. The specifications of the guitar is based on a 1954 Stratocaster. And the sound is so good it is almost beyond words : it is warm yet it has a bell-like quality and it is just mesmerizing. There are no words to describe this guitar, you just have to try it and experience it yourself. This guitar is almost perfect except one thing : the finishing.

 

The neck joint is heavenly perfect.

Fantastic workmanship

Nitro-cellulose Lacquer

 

Fenders are turing out what they call 'Relic' Series guitars. They make a new guitar and then set out to put in all the wear and tear that a guitar would only sustain in the hands of a full time working musician over a period of 50 years on the road. It is so sad to see these new guitars battered and savaged to try and pass off as guitars made 50 years ago. This is just fast food culture. You buy a guitar new and it already looks like it has been played for 50 years. It is all about making something pass off as something that it isn't. Some people like it, I don't. I will never buy a pair of old shoes with the price of a new pair. I don't want to pass off my guitar as 50 year old instrument when I have only just bought it and have been playing on for only two weeks.

The reason why I talked about the Relic Series guitar is because Van Zandt used Nitro-cellulose lacquer on the vintage guitars. To remain faithful to the early instruments, a very thin layer of Nitro-cellulose lacquer is sprayed on their instruments. It is so thin you could almost touch the wood. Now the lacquer comes off with slightest of touch. I put my Van Zandt on a guitar stand, and when when I pick it up 5 minutes later, the lacquer and paint had come off at the points of contact between the guitar and guitar stand. When I took the guitar out of the softcase, it brushed light across the zip of the softcase and a chunk of lacquer and paint had come off. Incredible. Now all this is to mimic the finishing of the instruments of the '50s. But Fender stopped using this kind of finishing because it is just not practical. And this is a very good reason. It is not good to have lacquer coming off all over the place all the time.

The cut I get after leaving the guitar on a guitar stand for 5 minutes. It borders on the ridiculous really.
A cut I get when the body scraped past the zip of the softcase.
A cut I don't even know where and when it came from. The finishing is just like putty.

I don't believe a guitar can only sound good if it looks beaten, savaged and run over by a truck. And I don't like bits of paint coming off like snow flakes in a winter sky. I don't see why a guitar I bought brand new two weeks ago should look like 50 years old guitar. I don't want to pass off my guitar for something it isn't, or for that matter, anything in life. But then and again, nothing is perfect. Apart from this issue, I would have given this guitar 10 out of 10. This is truly an amazing guitar. Apart from the Stratocaster shaped body, this guitar has nothing to do with Fender. But this guitar is every bit as good as the best guitar Fender can make. And to me the workmanship, materials and craftsmanship are even better.

Price

Now we come to a very decisive aspect of the guitar : the price. The limited edition Classic Series has a price tag of 399,00 yen which is around US$4,200 or HK$33,000. A regular production model will cost you 294,000 yen which is around or US$3,100 HK$24,000. You can immediately see the Van Zandt guitars are competing with the Fenders guitars head to head. No longer is the low price tag the attraction of a Japanese made guitar. Now it is quality that is the main attraction. To me, I will go for a Van Zandt any day.

Last words. This is not a guitar for anyone. And I don't mean that because it has a high price tag. This guitar is for players who appreciate a good instrument, it is for matured players who can enjoy the exquisiteness of a beautiful piece of art. Some people drink whisky to get drunk. So long as they get drunk that is fine, they are happy. Some people drink whisky because they enjoy the aroma and the fine taste of Johnny Walker Blue Label. Well, maybe it makes no difference after all if we all got drunk.