America, forever the spiritual and economic home of the guitar, was for the first time under legitimate siege, as a sea of Japanese knock-offs of beloved US classics began to flood the local market. The Lead series was Fender’s attempt to regain some of this ground by providing an American made, entry-level option for the beginner and budget conscious alike; a nimble, diminuitively sized offering, with a fresh aesthetic that took its visual cues from both the Strat and the Tele in equal measure, but with a personality all of its own. It didn’t take long for the Lead series to become much more than just an option for entry-level playing, but rather a statement of mood, aesthetic and freedom in on-stage performance
While the Lead series never quite saw the kind of mainstream popularity that made household names of its higher-spec forebears, they did manage to develop something of a cult following (particularly in the more angular, artsier end of town) and as the chords got smaller and the neckties got skinnier, a preference for the nimble, slightly esoteric guitar followed suite. This led to Fender rolling out three different incarnations of the Lead model: the Lead I, featuring a single split humbucker, the dual single coil Lead II, and the dual humbucking Lead III, before putting the line to bed in 1982.
After a couple of decades of popping up on the vintage market (as well as in the hands of some of the coolest names in underground guitar music), Fender have finally decided to give these obscure little gems their due and with the new Mexican made Player Lead Series, it’s easy to see how from humble origins the Lead series has managed to cultivate such a devoted and engaged fan base.
Out of the aforementioned three models of the original Lead series line-up, the Lead II is the single coil option and on paper, probably the one with the highest translatability into the modern era and the current state of guitar music. Before we go any further, it must be stated that the zany, era-appropriate neon green finish on the new Player Lead II was not actually part of the original ’80s line-up, but one can only speculate that it might be a nod to the modified gaudy green vintage Lead II guitarist St. Vincent has been sporting over the last couple of years.
As a finish, it’s a perfect fit for a guitar that behind the subtle hipster irony is equal parts reliable workhorse, fast, nimble player and Fender deep cut all rolled into one. It’s a guitar that is equally as functional as anything in the broader Fender line-up, but with an aesthetic that gleefully thumbs it’s nose at the kind of machismo often associated with broader guitar culture-and suffice to say, its more than a breath of fresh air.
This neon, slime-like, green only adds to the surreal aesthetic already created by what could only be described as a Frankenstein mash up of Telecaster and a Stratocaster body types. But by shaving an inch here and there, this idiosyncratic and distinctly petite body shape has all kinds upside tom a Player’s perspective. This body type combined with the Lead II’s slightly more symmetrical horns and slightly smaller headstock (especially when you compare it to your typical ’70s Strat) make for a guitar that is both refreshingly mobile, yet reassuringly familiar. The choice of the 3-ply black pickguard is a subtle but conscious choice and that middle white layer really pops against the overpowering green. It’s just the right amount of ‘edgy’ and as a looker, Fender have really nailed it in matching the new finish and hardware choices to the overall silhouette of the Lead II.
Like its name would suggest, the Player Lead II proves more than just a striking aesthetic. It’s a player through and through, and its gorgeous gloss polyester maple fingerboard, (complete with satin finish) result in a guitar with a very considerate and economic touch. The ease in which you can manoeuvre up and down the glassy ‘C’ profile neck, combined with the lightness and overall manuverability of the smaller body, definitely make for a liberating playing experience – especially when compared to some of the heavier, full-bodied offerings out there. It’s definitely one of the Lead II’s strong suits and is an absolute joy in the hand, both in the speed of the neck and the overall nimbleness of the body.
The neck has also been extended from the 21 medium frets found on the original Lead II, to 22 medium jumbo frets on the new Player series, in turn allowing for an extra six notes and plenty of real estate for easier bends and extended passages. It’s a win-win situation, whilst having the feel of the satin finish on the back, it will still age like an original with the right wear and usage within its polyester lacquer.
Another welcome modification from the original is the 9.5″ radius board (with 4-bolt ‘F’ stamped back , when plate) compared to the 7.25” with 3-bolt found on the original. This change in fingerboard radius definitely opens up the fretboard, in turn making the Player Lead II even more of a natural fit for ummmmm…..Lead players. The nut on the new Player Lead series has also been upgraded from the original plastic, to a standard Fender synthetic bone nut, bringing with it the increased strength and durability that comes with this modern Fender build.
The phase switching capabilities can be a real hit and miss for some people, but for those who really understand how to use them and can really appreciate the flexibility they provide (especially in recording situations), it’s definitely a big plus for this guitar. The phase cancellation is activated only when selecting both pickups, and when the pickups are out of phase, it really gives another tonal palate to what may initially appear like just another single-coil solid body electric. This option caters particularly well to both experimental tone questing as well as more dry, practical applications in the studio, where the phase and pickup selectors allow for a plethora of different combinations, which can then be A/B’d to taste to find the best harmonic fit, thus ensuring a balance amongst a sea of competing frequencies in a typical band setup.
With its slanted Alnico 5 Player Series pickups, this thing begs to be overdriven. It suits gritty tones so incredibly well, I was compelled to play some psych-rock whilst on it, but at the same time equally drawn to the open, bell, like voicings on the neck pickup. Don’t be too nervous around the toggle switch placement – another standout feature is the fact that they are rather sturdy and a lot harder to dislodge. I find this to be a very useful feature as, if you’re a loose or wild strummer, getting lost in the moment of performance, you won’t be accidentally knocking these switches.
Overall, the Fender Player Lead II is a modern update on an underrated classic, and in this new unique neon green colour-way, adds even more personality to what is undeniably one of the more idiosyncratic releases in Fender’s long and esteemed history. Being made in Mexico, the build quality is solid and combined with some excellent pickups, tonal customisation by way of a secondary toggle switch and a dinky aesthetic that is simultaneously ’80s nerd-fest and modern art school chic, the Player Lead II is an awesome prospect and a welcome counterpoint to so many of the traditionalist releases getting around at the moment. In short, the perfect mid-point between functional and fashionable.