Fender 1954 Heavy Relic Strat Review
This high-end Custom Shop model aspires to be an exact replica of a sexagenarian Strat. How close does it get?
There’s just something special about old guitars. Even painstaking reconstructions that use the original materials and methods can’t quite duplicate the complex character of a well-worn vintage instrument.
A common perception, but is it true? Maybe it’s time to reconsider. Recent high-end historic replicas from Gibson and Fender manage to provide astoundingly realistic “old guitar” experiences. One example is the “Dutchburst” 1960 Les Paul replica from Gibson’s Collector’s Choice series, an $8,000 beauty that genuinely feels 54 years old. Another is this 1954 Heavy Relic Stratocaster, created by the Fender Custom Shop in honor of the iconic axe’s big six-oh. It’s not as pricy as the Dutchburst, though it still commands a daunting $4,720 street price.
Artificially aging instruments with scratches, dings, and tarnish is always controversial—just scan our readers’ comments after a relic guitar review! Some players love the faux finishes, while others consider them silly, if not moronic, and this particular relic job may be more controversial than most. (More on that in a moment.) But at risk of spoiling the suspense, let’s tackle the big question first: Does this feel and sound like a fine sexagenarian Strat? Oh my, yes.
The Start of the Strat
The most remarkable thing about the original Strat may be how little it’s changed since the year Elvis recorded his first crude demo, Eisenhower introduced the phrase “domino theory,” and From Here to Eternity nabbed the Best Picture Oscar. Despite all subsequent revisions, wise and otherwise, the original Strat stands as a masterpiece of midcentury modernism.
Naturally, the reissue resurrects most of the original details. The ash body, with its period-perfect two-tone burst finish, feels dry, light, resonant, and responsive—and every bit as “old” as my original ’63 Strat. Other “primitive” details include the single-ply pickguard with its eight screws and the 21-fret maple fingerboard. The light nitro-cellulose lacquer finish never dampens the bright, resonant body. The most obvious departure from the original spec is a 5-way pickup selector switch in lieu of the original 3-way. Another is the use of modern 6105 “narrow/tall” frets. Less authentic, perhaps, but hey—most players prefer things this way.
There’s nothing tricky about the three vintage-style pickups—no overwound bridge pickup for added Texas testosterone, no extra-quacky middle pickup. These generate tonal variation the old-fashioned way: by location. The straightforward approach underscores the brilliance of the original Strat scheme. The neck tone is luscious and warm, but with lots of subtle high-end animation. The bridge setting is unapologetically wiry and bright, but with enough compelling EQ nooks and crannies to keep it from becoming overbearing. And I’m all for the “cheat” of incorporating a 5-way switch, because those iconic mixed-pickup settings never sounded sweeter. (It helps that the guitar arrived with an absolutely perfect factory setup.) Everything feels substantial, lively, and nuanced. You can practically hear Dr. Frankenstein shriek, “It’s alive!”
The neck, with its substantial and period-accurate U shape, is stunning. The builders did an amazing job distressing the back of the neck to make it feel as if it’s endured tens of thousands of hours of spirited playing. I’d defy any blindfolded guitarist to differentiate this artful replica from the real deal. But please note the use of the word “blindfolded.”
It’s hard to imagine many players objecting to the relic treatment of the guitar’s primary contact surface: the back of the neck. The wear and tear just feels right—and practically indistinguishable from the feel of my battered old Strat. Gripping it is like slipping into your softest old slippers.
But other relic job details are more debatable. For example, every player who glimpsed this guitar remarked on the contrast between the pitted/scratched/corroded surfaces and the pristine white of the pickguard. Now, every guitar ages differently, and a review of old Strat photos reveals that some really do have shiny white pickguards. But I’ve never seen a specimen with absolutely pristine pickup covers and snow-white knobs. It looks even odder when you screw in the whammy bar—the trem arm button has a yellowed, antique ivory look that clashes with the squeaky-clean knobs.
The body’s divots, scratches, and punctures appear quite authentic, but there’s a layer of varnish applied over these factory-inflicted wounds. It’s easy to understand why—who wants a splinter in a sensitive body part? But it looks odd to me. Same with the artificial fretboard wear: The highest-traffic frets are worn through to the wood, as on an old instrument. For example, the 10th, 11th, and 12th frets display deep wear only beneath the treble strings. But the contrast between, say, the worn-to-the-bone appearance beneath the third string at the 12th fret and the shiny-as-new surface beneath the adjacent 4th string strikes me as strange. For all I know, Fender based this instrument on a specific model that had aged in exactly this fashion. Yet I suspect that even players who dig modern relic jobs may question some cosmetic choices here.
But again, in the places that really count—the back of the neck, and to a lesser extent, the upper bout—the antiquing is stellar. Same for the chrome saddles and tuners, whose patinas are indistinguishable from those on my ’63. The bridge looks and feels old, but not crusty-rusty. It’s as comfy as the splendid neck.
There’s bonus bling too: The purchase includes a nice strap, cable, maintenance kit, and a plush, padded tweed case.
This superb guitar feels and sounds as good as any Strat I’ve played. Its creators have done a remarkable job mimicking the sensual surfaces and nuanced tone of a fine antique axe. The price may seem steep, but you can tell this guitar received many hours of workbench detail work. Personally, I’d have preferred a bit less relic work, and I can’t help wondering how much lower the price might be if the builders had antiqued only the all-important back of the neck. But opinions, like wear patterns on old guitars, differ. For some players, this may be a 1954 dream come true.