Guitar Review: Fender Total Tone Stratocaster
Review by Ian Garrett
The Guitar: Fender Total Tone ’57 Stratocaster in Daphne Blue, Relic
The Point: Authentic look and feel of an original 1957 Stratocaster with modern updates
The Damage: $3,699
Imagine being given the opportunity to pick out, for free, any Fender Custom Shop guitar in stock at ProGuitarShop. Would you choose a Telecaster? Maybe a Stratocaster? Perhaps you’re a Jazzmaster fan? Nearly three years ago, this was the “dilemma” I faced after winning the PGS 48 Hour Fender Custom Shop Giveaway. Yep, some tough choices were in order. But I found “the one” for me, a re-creation of a ’52 Telecaster with custom hand-wound Abigail Ybarra pickups with a heavy relic finish. I still love this guitar and pretty much compare everything to it. I know it wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice, but it spoke to me.
Now I’ve been given another opportunity to test drive the new Fender Total Tone series, and to give my thoughts on this unique Stratocaster. The guitar for this review is modeled after a classic ’57 Strat, with a maple neck and Daphne Blue finish. Although it has a relic finish, it’s not a “heavy” relic like my Telecaster. In other words, it has minimal intentional wear in only the most obvious areas where a nitro finish would wear naturally over time. The first thing that grabs you upon opening the custom black Tolex case is the beautiful retro Daphne Blue finish with a gorgeous maple neck. It just looks and feels like an original Strat from 1957 that is in very good, but not mint, condition. Not a closet queen, but not “beat to hell” either.
Despite being a Tele man first and foremost, I’ve owned a number of Strats over the years; both are great guitars, and I won’t argue which is better. They’re just different. I used a Fender Humboldt Blues Jr. amp to demo this guitar, with limited pedal use, sometimes just a little spring reverb. You don’t need much else.
How does it feel?
I don’t consider myself a “finish” snob, but I do love the look, feel and even the smell of a nitrocellulose finish. It just seems right to me. It would be out of place on an Ibanez shredder- type guitar. But on an “old” Strat? Yes, please! The beautiful one-piece V-shaped quarter-sawn maple neck has a really nice aged look to it, without appearing fake at all.
In fact, the neck is usually the first thing I have to figure out – does it feel right in my hands? Are the frets dressed properly without sharp edges? The answer to these questions this time was a resounding yes. Keep in mind it’s a fairly full-sized neck with a 9.5” radius and tall, jumbo 6105 fret wire. If you like a thinner neck, you might want to look at the ’62 Total Tone version that has a slimmer C- shaped neck profile.
Also notable is the hardware from the American Vintage series, including the Synchronized Tremolo system that worked well, and featured improved bent steel saddles for better tuning stability. The neck pocket was tight, and the alder body was light weight (total weight on my scale was just over 7 lbs.). Overall, I didn’t see any issues at all with this model, and it arrived perfectly set up for my needs. All in all, what you end up with is a package with an authentic looking vintage appearance, but with some modern updates that most players will appreciate.
Now let’s talk about the pickups, designed especially for this model, called the Fender Lineage Red Pickups (the Lineage Black series are for the 60’s models). They have a vintage vibe to them, but are still punchy and bright, a bit hotter I would guess than originals from the era, but still authentic sounding. I liked that the middle pickup is reverse wound so positions 2/4 are noise cancelling. Honestly, I found these pickups to be very quiet for single coils in any position.
How does it sound?
My favorite tone from a Strat is the neck pickup, and the Total Tone Strat sounds beautiful in this position. Clean, deep, bell- like tones rang out from my amp. Moving from the 5th to 4th position, you immediately notice a difference; the mids shift, becoming more pronounced, with the bass diminishing slightly. I liked this setting a lot, too, and it seemed to cut through the mix a bit better. Engaging the middle pickup on any of the 2-4 positions will give you that signature Strat squawk but punchy warm tone, reminiscent of those great ‘50’s vibe – yet another flavor to choose from.
The middle position alone, as you would expect, has a very present midrange, without the deepest lows or highest highs. It’s perfect for channeling that Stevie Ray Vaughn vibe. It also seems to have a bit more volume and kick to it than the other positions. The second position highlights the midrange with more punch coming from the bridge/treble pickup.
Finally, what I normally don’t like about Strats, but actually enjoyed with this one, was the bridge setting. Sure it was bright and cutting, but never too “ice picky” like. There wasn’t much bass, but enough upper midrange in this setting to make it enjoyable – much more so than I expected. I discovered quickly that all five settings yielded different but great tones with a wide range of versatility.
Expensive but worth it?
My wife told me I had better not bond with this guitar, because unlike my Telecaster, this one was only a loaner. I got that disapproving look when I told her it was too late. GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) can be a terrible thing sometimes.
Many folks might look at this guitar and wonder whether the price at almost $3,700 is justifiable. I think it is, but I believe that for several reasons. One, this is not a run-of-the-mill Strat. You can’t buy a Mexican, or even an American Standard, and make some “modifications” so that it looks or feels like an authentic ’57 Stratocaster. The neck is like a wonderful old pair of jeans, and not the ripped kind of jeans you find at Target, but the kind you’ve worn for years and are just right. No easy feat to pull off with a new instrument. Throw in the Lineage Red pickups and you begin to see why this Strat is truly something special.
There is a certain point where you just can’t add up the sum of the parts and say it should be “this price.” The finish on this guitar is not inexpensive to do correctly. And let’s be honest - you are paying for good American jobs, and we should understand and rejoice in that. I got to meet several of the folks from Fender’s Custom Shop when I won this contest nearly three years ago– and we still keep in touch via Facebook. They are passionate about making Fender guitars, and the work here shows it.
I believe it’s better to have a few guitars that are really great, than a lot of guitars that are simply good. In short, if you pick up a guitar like this Total Tone ’57 Strat and it just feels right, like it’s an extension of your musical thoughts, then it’s certainly worth it.
5 – Tremendous product; among the very best
4 – Great value overall; exceeds expectations
3 – Definite contender, but look closely at the competition too
2 – Average at best; probably better choices exist
1 – Not ready for prime time