The Fender/Gibson dichotomy has never been stranger than in 2019 -- with Gibson filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May of last year the brand’s focus has been financial restructuring. Fender have won the battle of the icons for now, but where do they go from here? A dizzying stream of rebrands of their signature models has arrived over the past year -- think Parallel Universe, Alternate Universe, Professional and Player series -- and now we can count the Performer series amongst their midst. Taking a look at the Stratocaster, it’s hard to know if this is a triumph or just a victory lap.
As you might expect, the Performer series’ modus operandi is playability. The stratocaster is historically the most playable of the Big Two’s flagship guitars and this incarnation, I will happily report, is its best yet in this respect. The Performer Strat boasts a handsome maple neck in a modern “C” shape and a glossy satin finish that is as easy to play as it is to look at. The 22 jumbo frets and the balanced 9.5” rosewood fretboard are set for particularly expressive playing -- the effect was so unexpectedly profound that other guitars played afterward felt obstructionist in design. It evoked the philosophy of Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s modded guitars - lightweight and unintrusive instruments made for intense performance. The addition of ClassicGear machine heads on the oversized headstock are a nice touch also; their 18:1 fine-tuning ratio provides a finesse that goes a long way in high-pressure live or recording situations. Elsewhere, Fender continue their vintage kick with the double-cutaway alder body -- a very 60’s shape.
The Performer Strat has a spritely, dynamic tone with plenty of warmth from its brand new three single-coil Yosemite pickups. It’s the result of genuinely new tech designed by in-house pickup whiz Tim Shaw. They’re new alnico-magnets - Alnico 4 - reverse winding the middle pickup with reverse polarity, while using push/pull tone pot to add the neck pickup in parallel, producing a greater span of tones in positions one and two. Using the five-tone pickup switch is as much of a joy as it ever has been -- with the bridge selected, plenty of low-end snarl can be conjured while the neck pickup in isolation has a buoyant twang, bolder than previous editions. Pushing the five-tone pickup switch to giddy new heights is the Greasebucket circuitry - in testing, it heightened tonal control in the upper registers and kept the sound clear. For soloing, this is fairly indispensable (Try Funkadelic’s ‘Maggot Brain’ on this one, or any Frusciante solo). The push/pull tone pot added some welcome versatility, particularly in a live funk-band setting where the blend in of the neck pickup at will is useful for soulful tones.
Every purchase of the Performer Series Stratocaster arrives with a fairly superfluous certificate of authenticity and a padded soft gig bag. The bag has a cool guitar-pick zip, however you’re likely going to want a hard case to hold an instrument of this calibre.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Performer Strat is now the cheapest American-made Strat on the market, almost without sacrifice of prestige. To serious collectors and players this means little at the $2000 price mark, though to prospective beginners looking to make their dream guitar purchase, it’s a gift-in-waiting. It’s not a bold new step forward in the guitar market, but the Performer series makes market sense; there is growth in the emerging market, and this forms part of a shift away from the gear nuts who’ve seen it all.
Hits and Misses
- Ultra-playable with the 22 jumbo frets and wide neck - New Yosemite pickups are versatile and bright, pairing with the Greasebucket technology to offer tonal control in higher registers - Enviable finish, beautiful 60s construction
- A superfluous case, however honestly, at the lower price point it’s hard to fault a new edition of an improved classic