I first wrote this review on October 3, 2009. I’ve had a few of these for short periods of time since then. I now have a burgundy SSS model – it’s become a bit of a Frankenstein, with a 50’s reissue V neck, vintage tuners, and such: but still the excellent body and pickguard and electronics I’ve come to love and respect from a Highway One USA Stratocaster…/h3>
2007 Fender Highway One USA Stratocaster Review
No matter how many instruments I own or play, there’s always a need and a feel for a Strat. The sound is unmistakable. The feel is just right. The overall experience playing a nice Stratocaster is really an eye, feel, sound thing (and sometimes, a smell thing).
Strats have changed over the years, from the simpleness of the 50s to the big-hair rock of the eighties to the current array of models. We have so many from which to choose… Made in Mexico, made in Japan, and made in the United States of America. Maple, SSS, HSS, HH, rosewood, alder, ash, mahogany, big frets, skinny frets, vintage headstock, “Jimi” headstock (would that be a Woodheadstock?), gypsy bridge, AlNiCo, ceramic, samarium cobalt, noiseless, noisy, Greasebucket, S1, roadworn… There are so many different Strats and so many different things about those Strats. For every season, for every reason, for every musical decade, there are Strats for them since the 50s. They’re a part of music’s fabric now – and are one of the greatest easy-to-customize guitars on the market…
I was looking for a USA Stratocaster. I didn’t quite have the change available for an American Standard or an American Deluxe – so I looked at and fell in love with the Highway One. I’ve had Highway One Fenders before, and have always been pleased.
This particular Stratocaster is a complete joy and has absolutely no disappointments. The sound is unmistakable, remarkable, and pure Strat. It plays and looks like a dream.
Quick Opinion: The 2007 and later Highway One Strats are great (previous ones were fine, but for this conversation…). They play well, are affordable, and they sound just like I wanted to hear. They really are well made, and are very comfortable to play for one recording or a whole set of gigs. If you’d like a nice big-fret USA-made Stratocaster, you owe it to yourself to try one of these.
Features: Where do I start? They’re genius simple and complex-wonderful all at the same time. They sound and play in a rich experience that leaves the player (and the listener) grinning.
My particular Highway One is, if I am correct, a short-run guitar. I purchased this one when all that was available was rosewood-fretboard Highway Ones. Now, Fender makes a version of these as a standard offering. I’m really glad they did. I like the old HSS Highway Ones just fine, but this was my alternative to an SSS American Standard – and I LOVE maple fretboards on Fenders. (To be honest, I’m reviewing a Gibson SG Raw Power with a maple body, neck, and fretboard – and I love it there too… stay tuned.)
A short list of what the Highway One has:
Excellent post-vintage AlNiCo III magnet pickups with staggered poles and excellent output balance – not too hot, not too thin
A thin-skinned nitrocellulose finish – the more you play it, the smoother and shinier it gets, the more it feels and looks like an old friend…
An excellent mid-size maple neck and fretboard with that 70s “Jimi” headstock and lettering
A comfortable lightweight body
The excellent vintage-style tremolo
The always cool Fender Greasebucket tone circuit
Standard tuners and buttons
Decent mass to the trem block
Great-feeling jumbo-style frets
Quality: This particular Highway 1 is an extremely well-made instrument. The craftsmanship is careful and is an extremely good example of what American guitar builders can do.
The fit and finish are flawless. The pickups are wound wonderfully well. The feel, finish, and wood chosen for the neck are just right for the satin variety necks.
Screw holes are lined up right, the action was just perfect for .009 Fender Bullets right out of the box. Easy and buttery to play, without any issues or not-normal buzzes. The frets are level and are nicely polished from the factory (see my wants and desires section of this review…)
I was extremely impressed with the consistency of the matte nitro finish. Nitro is not easy to apply in any stretch of the imagination – and matte finishes show every little flaw or inconsistency. This Strat was loved by the person who made it. Period. The lacquer finish feel is great and is a pleasure to have against your skin. I do like gloss finishes as a personal preference. However, the finish on these doesn’t grab when you get sweaty…
I also felt the new Fender gig bag is a major improvement. Highway Ones come with the new super-thick, super-strong-fabric gig bag. Very nice. As gig bags go, these are definitely among the very best.
Playability: Here’s where I start getting warm fuzzies about the Highway One I have: the physical experience of playing the guitar is fantastic. Everything about it from the way the trem works to the feel of the frets to the balance of the body and neck is just a pleasure. That’s the operative term for these: a pleasure. Not every Strat is a pleasure to play, even when they’re correctly and professionally set up.
The balance on my shoulder (with a nice 2.5″ faux-suede, thick black strap)is superb. I don’t know if this is something factual, but here’s something nicely subjective: the big headstock makes the balance unique. I felt that the way this guitar is assembled and planned and sourced is ideal for someone looking for their guitar to feel almost transparent to their playing.
Simply put, it becomes an extension of my mind and heart – without getting in the way and demanding my attention. I’ve made some nice progressive rock instrumentals with this instrument, and I couldn’t be more happy with the way the guitar felt standing or sitting.
Action is subjective, and is really a personal thing. My son Kennon (of the N.C. band InterTwyneD) likes his strings low but off the frets a good bit – he likes to dig under the string a little when he bends. Me? I like it low enough that the strings buzz a little when they’re struck or plucked with vigor. This Strat has been set both ways, and in both instances, it STILL played like buttery joy. Smooth, effortless, and just awesome. This thing plays .010s just fine, but it really feels effortless with .009s. (Incidentally, I tried this guitar with Carlos Santana Big Core 10.5 pure , nickel strings and was very happy with the result.)
Sound: OK… this is a place where you’ll either think I’m a genius or a charlatan – Strat players are funny about their sound. Malmsteen, Beck, Hendrix, Clapton, Guy (and the list goes on in a BIG way)… all these folks get (or got) different sounds out of their Strats, and contemporary amateur and pro Strat players are no different. That’s my disclaimer… and I’m stickin’ with it.
I REALLY like the Jimmie Vaughan, SRV, and Tex-Mex based Roadworn Strat sounds. They make me giddy with distortion, clean, blues, chorus, wah, phaser, crunchy, reverby, vibe-y, and more. BUT these AlNiCo III USA pickups are a great way to have vintage sounds without the truly vintage thin-ness.
Bell tones. Bell tones. Bell tones. Bell tones. (Did I tell you Bell Tones?) The 2 and 4 position sounds on this guitar are just fantastic.
The neck position sound is a little too bright for me. I really wanted something warmer out of this guitar. Even with unique wiring, this guitar didn’t quite give me the smooth rich neck pickup experience I was expecting.
The bridge sounds great in overdrive, as does the middle (3rd position). I use an http://www.buyanalogman.com (opens new window) SD1 Silver when playing some of my more adventurous Strat stuff – and the two are MADE FOR EACH OTHER. Wow. Just, WOW.
Value: These days, guitars have gone up in price to reflect the US Dollar, and the cost of everything… but when you look at the Highway One’s street price compared to the US Standard street price and the MIM Strat street price, this guitar is really priced just right. It’s not a bargain. But at the same time, I don’t see it as overpriced, either. The Highway One Stratocaster is an extreme bargain when compared to MIJ Strats.
You get A LOT of guitar for your money. The craftsmanship, features, and components are well worth every cent these cost. Both in the new market and the used/secondary market they are worth the money.
They hold their value more than the MIM Strats, and in some selling environments, better than the depreciation of the USA Standard Stratocasters.
When times get better, I will buy another to replace this one once it is sold.
Wishes: I’m not really too hung up about anything on this particular Strat. But I do have some wishes:
Do a better job with the fret-ends.
Really, the rest of the craftsmanship is worthy of rolled-edge fretboards. The lack of rolled edges feels strange on a guitar this nice.
Tuners: they need to hold tune better. They’re nice and they’re smooth, but could do a better job on this particular instrument. The vintage string-in-post tuners on the Jimmie Vaughan and Roadworn Strats hold much better.
Honestly, bring back the honey blonde with the maple fretboard! Or at least, some type of white/tan/blonde. Black and sunburst are so very commonplace these days…