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Squier, Fender’s more affordable brand, has come light years from where it was three decades ago. In the ’80s and ’90s, most serious guitarists would’ve balked at the idea of owning, let alone gigging,with a Squier. They were for beginners on a budget—beginners no one expected to keep at it for long. At the time, the brand’s only prominent endorsee was the late blues-rocker Jeff Healey—and the fact that he was blind inspired no end of speculation about whether he played Fenders with Squier headstock decals, and/or jokes about the company putting one over on him.
I used to be one of those scoffers, but then Squier’s Classic Vibe line came along, drawing much attention for its vintage-style aesthetics, as well as specs and tones that have much of the flavor of Fender’s most iconic models. More recently, the Vintage Modified line has earned similar reactions, pairing classic looks and features with the sorts of tweaks DIY-inclined players might make to the tried-and-true designs. The latest in this line is the new Vintage Modified Cabronita Telecaster with a Bigsby.
During my time at Premier Guitar, I’ve made no secret of my regard for recent Squiers. I’ve purchased two Teles—a ’50s Classic Vibe I found on Craigslist, and a Vintage Modified Telecaster Custom. The former I modified with Fender Custom Shop pickups, and the latter was part of our March 2013 “Mod Madness” cover story, which chronicled (among other things) the process of adding a Bigsby vibrato. I’ve recorded with these Teles, used them with my band, and pitted them against more costly T-style instruments from a variety of manufacturers—and I always come away completely satisfied with what I’ve got.
Months prior to my Mod Madness project, I’d been lamenting the dearth of both Bigsby-outfitted production Teles—Fender or Squier—and more affordable versions of the La Cabronita Telecaster, a sharp-looking Custom Shop guitar outfitted with TV Jones Classic pickups. So imagine my excitement upon hearing about the new Bigsby-fied Squier Cab, which features aspects of both ideas: It’s the first FMIC-built Tele in several years to have a Bigsby B5 Telecaster vibrato kit factory-installed, and its neck pickup is a Fideli’Tron humbucker, Fender’s take on the Gretsch Filter’Tron-style pickup that TV Jones Classics are based on. It also has a traditionally voiced single-coil in the bridge position. Other specs: a polyurethane-finished basswood body (in black only), a modern C-profile maple neck with a 9.5"-radius fretboard, a master volume, and a sturdy-feeling 3-way pickup selector.
Like many guitars these days, Squiers don’t come with a case or gigbag. When I removed the VM Cab from its double-boxed shipping carton, I found that the vibrato arm had been positioned fully clockwise, which made it extend an inch or so past the butt end of the guitar. It appeared to have taken the brunt of many impacts during shipping, because the arm had cut a little bit into the raised edge near the hinge, creating a jagged edge I had to watch out for. Otherwise, the VM Cab looked like a million bucks, and felt and played wonderfully. Hopefully Squier has since found a way to avoid similar damage during shipping.
Twang ’n’ Warble
I tested the Cabronita with a Fender 1965 Twin Reverb reissue and a Goodsell Valpreaux 21, at times engaging a Pigtronix Fat Drive and/or a Keeley Compressor. Through the Twin’s vibrato channel with the EQ knobs at 5 and bright switch engaged, the Fideli’Tron sounded gloriously fat, yet crystal clear and even across the frequency spectrum. Truth be told, I was shocked, especially considering the price of this instrument. A pick conjured bell-toned blues, and thumb and fingers summoned jazzy lines with an impeccable mix of thump and articulation—dynamics for days. The Supro-esque Valpreaux, with its gain, volume, and tone knobs at 3 o’clock, yielded similar results, though with a swampier, more vintage vibe. The neck pickup produced warm, corpulent flavors with more grit and attitude, sounding like a guitar costing many times the entrance fee.
I happen to think a Tele without a Tele bridge pickup is hardly a Tele—that single-coil is key to the snap and twang that made the guitar legendary. Thankfully, the VM Cab’s single-coil agrees: Paired with the neck pickup and the Twin, it delivers a spanky, compressed sound that’s great for squeaky-clean rhythms, though this setting did reveal the bridge unit’s lean, less-refined tendencies. Soloed through the Twin, the single-coil sounded a bit anemic and brash. But when I engaged my Pigtronix Fat Drive in its higher-gain mode, it transformed the bridge unit into a scrappy punk with tons of attitude for spitting riffs and leads.
Switching back to the Goodsell, I set the Fat Drive to my preferred low-gain mode, which lets me goose the amp with a clean boost for a more organic feel. Soloing the bridge pickup again, I found bristling rudeness with fantastic clarity. It’s a little rough around the edges, but not in the way I anticipated. Tele-modding dude I am, I expected to think it would sound better with an aftermarket bridge pickup. But I promptly got carried away with the ratty-in-a-good-way riffs that the bridge unit made possible. It sounds badass for stanky funk lines—think Nile Rodgers in a pissy mood. Engaging analog repeats from my Ibanez Echo Shifter reminded me of crystalline early U2 tones. And with or without a compressor, you get fantastic chicken-pickin’ tones of the sort traditional Tele fans require.
My only real complaint was that, while the guitar stayed in tune even under heavy Bigsby use, the B5 vibrato-kit’s bridge suffers from the same issues as vintage and vintage-style Jazzmasters: The multi-grooved saddles don’t hold strings well under heavy attack, and—far more annoying—the high E- and B-string height-adjustment screws seem to have minds of their own. If there’s one mod you’ll want to do on the Cab, it’ll be opting for a Mastery bridge or one of the more affordable home remedies adopted by Jazzmaster aficionados.
Squier has done a lot to improve its image over the last decade, but the brand still doesn’t get the respect it deserves. That opinion became more ensconced after playing the Vintage Modified Cabronita Tele. Sure, plenty of players grudgingly admit Squier Classic Vibes are nice enough to own, but they quickly qualify the admission with a list of their “real” Fenders, implying that Squiers can’t cut it for serious playing. Frankly, it all smacks of pretension and refusal to confront current-day reality.
Of course, there are real differences between the two brands—the lower prices come from somewhere. For one, Squiers’ pickups, pots, jacks, and wiring often aren’t as robust or high-spec as Fender parts. You’re also pretty limited in terms of color options, and naturally the finishes aren’t nitrocellulose. However, Squier necks, bodies, fretwork, and attention to detail are on par with Fenders and other quality brands. If you’re looking for a Tele with some delectable twists, you owe it to yourself to try this guitar.