Hands-on review: American Special Stratocaster HSS - an affordable American icon

(John Gorbe | Posted 2011-01-31)

Hands-on review: American Special Stratocaster HSS - an affordable American icon

When most people think of an electric guitar, the image of a double cutaway design usually pops into their head. When you see pictures and drawings of guitars on clothing in department stores you’ll notice the same familiar shape. All these guitars represent the legendary Fender Stratocaster. Over 50 years have gone by since the incarnation of Leo Fender’s design and not much has changed. This guitar was and still is a creative force of function, design and comfort.

New for 2011 is the American Special Stratocaster HSS. The model I took for a test drive was in a black finish with a rosewood fingerboard. I spent two days putting this Strat through its paces and in the end I was pleasantly surprised in all areas.

First, I want to point out that there’s not much difference between the American Standard Stratocaster and this American Special model except for a $200 difference in price. But with the climate of today’s economy, $200 can be significant for the average working man or woman.

The American Special HSS features an alder body, maple neck with a 9.5” radius fingerboard and jumbo frets on a rosewood fingerboard, Texas Special middle and neck pickups, Atomic humbucking bridge pickup, vintage style synchronized tremolo and a satin urethane finish. Available colors are Black and 3-color Sunburst.

The neck on this guitar is what Fender calls a “Modern C” shape. It’s very comfortable and accommodating for a variety of hand sizes, especially if you have average to smaller hands, like me. You can also play for many hours on this neck thanks to the non-high gloss neck. Shifting around the fingerboard is easily achieved after your left hand has perspired a little because the neck is smooth, without that high-gloss tacky feel. The size and shape of the neck coupled with the great feel and jumbo frets makes for a very enjoyable playing experience.

The electronics are straight forward and easy to use with a little more versatility due to the Atomic humbucker in the bridge position. You get a master volume, and a Fender "Greasebucket" tone circuit on the neck and bridge pickups. Having control over the bridge pickup is a nice feature and adds to the textures you can create with this American Special. I really appreciated the quality of the volume control as it provided me with a smooth, gradual taper as I rolled the knob from high to low. Lesser instruments treat the volume knob as an on/off switch with very little control between the 7-10 values. I was able to execute smooth volume swells and pedal-steel type effects with this volume knob. It’s also located in a nice, ergonomic position for my third finger to reach it.

The guitar sounds great. If you’re looking for that classic Strat tone but with a little versatility for more aggressive tones, you’ll love the American Special. The Atomic humbucker had a nice bite when I turned up the amplifier and achieving pinched harmonics with this humbucker was easily done with a Blues Junior amp turned up to the point of medium-heavy saturation.

Tuning stability is important to me because I’m a busy musician. Taking the time to tune my guitar every hour or so can be frustrating as it eats into the time I need to get work done. I found the tuning to be quite stable on the American Special HSS. I used it to teach/play with for 7 hours straight and found I only needed to tune it once during that time. The tuning machines felt as expected for a guitar of this quality - no complaints here.

Fender has nestled the American Special between the Highway 1 and the American Standard. Basically, this instrument is an upgraded Highway 1, but I believe that you’re getting more for your money with this “Special” model.

I’m including below the specs that are different between the American Standard and the American Special:

American Standard American Special
•Med. Jumbo Frets •Jumbo Frets
•Gloss headstock •Non-gloss headstock
•Standard headstock •Large 70’s headstock
•Micro-tilt neck plate •Standard neck plate
•2-point Tremolo •Vintage Tremolo
•Std cast staggered tuning machines •Std. cast tuning machines

You receive a hardshell case with the American Standard and a gigbag with the Special and slightly different pickup combinations, given the 5-blade switch positions on the Standard American model. However if you really observe the differences here, your decision to buy one over the other is purely subjective. If you already own a case I think the decision is made for you!

The American Special Stratocaster lists for $799.99 for the Black finish and $849.99 for the 3-color Sunburst. If you are in the market for a Strat, try this model as well as the traditional 3-singlecoil version at your local music store and decide which one you like for your needs. You won’t be disappointed.

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