The most successful electric guitar of all time evolves subtly, but substantially.
Comfortable neck. Super-sweet neck pickup tones. Combination neck/bridge setting. High-quality build. Sensitive tremolo.
Combination neck/bridge tones can sound muddy in chord settings.
$1,599 street (with pine body, $1,499 with alder body)
Fender American Professional II Stratocaster
Fender designers tasked with a Stratocaster re-design probably veer between ecstasy and terror on some days. Such are the thrills and pitfalls that go with the responsibility of rethinking an icon.
But as most modification enthusiasts know, the Stratocaster’s elegant simplicity leaves plenty of room for refinement and adaptation to personal taste. Indeed, that’s one of the most beautiful facets of its solidbody, bolt-on-neck design—you can drill, rout, shim, sand, and shave to your heart’s content and retain much of the guitar’s essence.
On the surface, the new American Professional II Stratocaster doesn’t look like a radical overhaul. Instead, Fender added incremental but sometimes quite substantial refinements that subtract little in the way of classic Stratocaster-ness. Fender originalists may balk at changes like a carved heel and flatter fretboard radius, but the American Pro II Stratocaster’s component parts add up to an instrument that still feels, looks, and sounds very much like a Stratocaster should.
In the Pines
One of the most interesting deviations from tradition in the American Pro II series is the use of what Fender calls roasted pine for the body—a move we’re likely to see more often as Fender pivots away from swamp ash, which is now threatened by boring beetles and flooding associated with climate change. Roasted pine is available in only two of the finishes in the American Pro II Stratocaster line—sienna sunburst and the natural roasted pine of our review model, both of which will set you back an extra hundred bucks. Superficially, the natural roasted pine and maple-neck version is reminiscent of the walnut-finished, black-pickguard-and-maple-neck Strats from the early-to mid-’70s. But if you, ahem, pine for a more ’50s or ’60s-style Strat, you can opt for the alder-bodied version—which is used for seven of the nine finishes. Several finishes can also be offered with rosewood necks.
The neck itself is a delight. A Stratocaster is the essence of balance. But it always seems to me that a Strat feels extra-well-balanced when the neck is a little bit on the thicker side. The deep C profile featured on this iteration does a very nice job of straddling the divide between the chunkier profiles of ’50s and early-’60s Strats, and thinner contemporary necks. But the comfort is really compounded by the rolled edges, which create the tactile illusion of making the bend-facilitating 9.5"radius feel like a more curvaceous and vintage-styled 7.25" radius.
The extra sense of comfort is compounded by the carved heel, which is beveled on the treble side in line with the 17th fret. Play a full-step bend at the 18th fret and you’ll definitely notice the absence of the hard edges on a blocky old-style heel. It makes it much easier to put extra muscle and nuance into string bends and vibrato at these higher reaches of the neck. Players with smaller hands will almost certainly appreciate the extra reach and room to move
While it’s hard to determine with certainty what specific effects the pine body might have on the overall tone, you perceive extra warmth and detail in many settings. The bridge pickup feels extra quick, responsive, and spanky, even by Strat standards, but exhibits excellent string-to-string balance. The real star is the neck pickup, which, to my ears, delivers a little extra size and low-mid glow, particularly from the bottom end. Drop tunings sound fantastic on this pickup—especially that thumping 6th string. And while I didn’t change the .009–.042 set the guitar ships with, it was hard not to be tantalized by the thought of using heavier strings on the bottom to add mass to the already tantalizingly rich low end.
Fender’s treble bleed circuit (which preserves high end as you roll back the volume) becomes a real asset in these settings. The push/push switch on the second tone knob is another cool addition to the Strat’s usual bag of tricks—enabling selection of the lovely neck pickup from both the bridge and bridge/middle positions. The sound is fat, complex, and can feel harmonically cluttered in some chord-centric situations. But leads, especially slow, chord-melody passages, sound balanced and pretty in these positions and make great use of the extra low-end ballast from the neck pickup. This is certainly a Stratocaster soul and jazz players can love.
The American Professional II Stratocaster is a positive evolution of a guitar that was pretty close to perfect in its original incarnation. Refinements like the fluid, bouncy, and precise vibrato, carved heel, and 9.5" radius fretboard with rolled edges manage to represent true improvements without sacrificing what you might call vintage integrity. The wide grain of the pine body on our review specimen may deviate a touch too much from the figuring in natural ash finishes to please hardcore vintage purists. But this particular guitar aligns nicely with Fender’s underappreciated ’70s instruments in stylistic terms, and there are many more vintage-style finishes available in its alder incarnation—along with some very modern ones, if that’s your fancy. In short, the American Professional II bridges the gap between vintage familiarity and a more expansive, modern tone vocabulary with grace. And the effort Fender put into these enhancements clearly has paid real dividends.
Watch our Fender American Professional II Stratocaster First Look demo: