The latest generation of American Stratocasters, dubbed the Ultra series, herald two overarching statements with their arrival. Firstly, that Fender are endlessly aiming to improve their instruments, and the second – the lift of the CITES rosewood ban on musical instruments. Rosewood’s back, baby.
The American Ultra series posits to dethrone the current king of the Fender line up – the American Elite Series – and looks to do it in style. However, vintage purists be warned. While these Stratocasters look seemingly innocent enough, there’s a plethora of changes and modern appointments under the hood that personalise these guitars as contemporary beasts.
The first thing that’s inherently new for the Ultra Series are their body finishes. The review units sent to us consisted of a classic triple single-coiled Stratocaster in Cobra Blue, and an SSH configuration finished in Texas Tea – and in accordance with the modus operandi of the Ultra series, there’s always more to see on closer inspection. The deep sapphire hues of the Cobra Blue explode into a shimmering sparkle finish when viewed up close, whereas the Texas Tea finish amorphously transforms from solid black to a mocha brown under differing light conditions. To match these gorgeous paint jobs, the Texas Tea model comes equipped with an anodized gold pickguard, while the Cobra Blue Stratocaster sports a traditional aged-white guard.
Apart from their finishes, pickup configuration and body wood, these Strats bear identical hardware and craftsmanship. Of particular note is a secondary contour located on the rear of the bottom horn – it’s a subtle bevel, but ultimately increases playing comfort without detracting too far from its original design. As with many of Fender’s latest guitar offerings, playability was absolutely spot on right out of the box. The Ultra Series boasts a unique modern “D” neck carve, an excellent choice for players who crave a little more heft from Fender’s usual “C” shapes. They’re finished in a slick, gloss-free satin urethane, which allows a smooth ride across all 22 medium-jumbo frets. Additionally, fingerboard edges are dextrously rolled for unparalleled comfort.
The guitars were set up with a low, slinky action, but performed admirably without a trace of buzz or unnatural sonic artefacts. This is further augmented by a compound radius fretboard, which begins at a comfy 10” at the nut and eventually flattens out to 14” at the tail end. While slightly flatter than a vintage 7.25” or a traditional 9.5” radius, chording still remained comfortable and natural. Similarly, there were no troubles up the other end of the neck. Even with the most abusive of bends, I simply couldn’t get any notes to fret out. One absolute game changer is the new tapered neck heel: the neck joint now gradually slopes inwards to allow more breathing room for the palm of your hand. I can’t put into words how brilliant this new feature is – it may very well be my favourite feature of the Ultra series. Strings are fed through a chrome two-point floating bridge and subsequently tampered down with locking tuners at the headstock. There’s a generous amount of relief while operating the convenient pop-in whammy bar, allowing you to achieve subtle vibrato to ear-splitting divebombs with fluid ease.
Let’s talk tones. The SSS comes loaded with three Ultra Noiseless Vintage Strat pickups, which attempt to mix classic Stratocaster flavours with new school technology. While they’re well within the sonic ballpark of vintage tones, they bear some EQ tweaks that set them apart. All pickup positions generally sound warmer and fuller-bodied, with a slightly added emphasis on the midrange. While seemingly favourable for rhythm guitar and solo performances, a fraction of that trademark quack from the in-between positions and glassy chime from the neck pickup is somewhat lacking. While not sounding terrible by any means, it may take some getting used to if you’re a Stratocaster traditionalist. Fender’s proprietary S-1 switching system also makes a welcome reappearance, allowing the neck pickup to be added to positions one through three. Some of the best tones this guitar had to offer were found in the neck and bridge pickups combined, ironically reminiscent of a bridge pickup in a Telecaster.
On the other hand, the SSH model features two Ultra Noiseless Hot Strat pickups, and an Ultra Double Tap Humbucker. As aptly named, the pair of single coils are wound slightly hotter to better match the output level of the punchy humbucker in the bridge. The single coils atop this axe constantly beg to be pushed with some overdrive, boasting slightly more output and warmth than the Noiseless Vintage pickups of the SSS model. The pair of single coils place more emphasis on the mid and lower-midrange and are definitely geared towards a more modern player-base. This added smoothness effectively tames the quacks and quirks of the in-between positions, resulting in slightly less definition and pop than what you may be used to. However, keep this in mind: these don’t sound better or worse than traditional single coils. They’re simply different, and you should definitely head to your nearest music store to decide for yourself.
On the other hand, the Double Tap Humbucker proudly bears the torch passed on by Fender’s excellent Shawbucker pickups, and similarly performs to an exemplary standard. Clean tones are surprisingly versatile – they’re well-rounded and jangly with the tone control wide open, but when rolled back, you can find a selection of gloriously lush jazz/neo-soul tones on offer. Also exclusive to this particular humbucker is Fender’s new “Double Tap” feature, which permits coil tapping without any severe tone and/or volume loss. Gone are the special capacitor and overly complicated S-1 wiring from the Elite Strats; depressing the S-1 switch now simply splits the humbucker into a bona fide single coil bridge pickup. Sometimes, less is more – especially when it’s done well.
All in all, these guitars are another excellent showing from Fender, and are tailored for maximum playability and comfort. The Ultra Series of Stratocasters can be equivalently compared to a flashy sports car: they’re chic, stylish, and feature all the latest bells and whistles Fender has to offer.
Hits and Misses
Stellar build quality
SSH’s Double Tap Humbucker
Pickup voicing may not be for everyone