Advertisement
Advertisement

Fender American Ultra Stratocaster review: An exquisite top-end guitar for performers with deep pockets

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
1,899
inc VAT

The American Ultra Stratocaster is a joy to hold and play but the cost is hard to justify compared with other Fender models

Pros 
Top-of-the-line hardware and components
Strident, attention-grabbing sound
Improved contouring for high-fret access
Cons 
Very expensive
Incisive tone will suit some styles better than others
Advertisement

Fender’s American Ultra series is the manufacturer’s latest and greatest family of instruments. Replacing the old American Elite line, it comprises new, upgraded versions of some of the world’s most popular guitar designs – namely the Stratocaster, Telecaster and Jazzmaster plus the Jazz Bass and Precision Bass.

There’s a reason those guitars are so popular, though: they’re already very good. That applies especially to the iconic Stratocaster, which has been the guitarist’s workhorse of choice for more than 60 years. So the question is, what makes it worth paying extra for an “Ultra” model?

READ NEXT: Fender American Performer Stratocaster (2019) review


Fender American Ultra Stratocaster review: Price and competition

All the new American Ultra guitars sit at the top of their respective line-ups, leaving aside custom models, so it’s no surprise that the Ultra Stratocaster isn’t cheap. Both SSS and HSS configurations have a street price of £1,739.

If you’re not eager to spend that much, the company has plenty of other Stratocasters to tempt you with. The American Professional range can be had online for £1,349, while the American Performer series goes for £959, Mexican-made Vintera models retail at as little as £689 and the regular Player edition comes in at around £559. Entry-level Strats are also sold under the Squier brand from as little as £109, although we’d suggest you steer clear of the cheapest models.

Factor in competing lookalikes such as the G&L Legacy (from £449 to £1,299) and it’s safe to say that if you’re in the market for a Stratocaster you’ve no shortage of options. In terms of price and premium cachet, however, there’s very little in the same class as the American Ultra: probably the closest you’ll get is something from Fender’s catalogue of Stratocasters endorsed or inspired by notable players, which range from the £799 Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix models up to the £2,259 Yngwie Malmsteen edition.

Buy now from Fender


Fender American Ultra Stratocaster review: Design

As you’d expect, the American Ultra Stratocaster sticks very closely to the classic Strat design. Indeed, onlookers almost certainly won’t recognise what they’re looking at, which might be a bit disappointing after all the money you’ve paid for it. From the front, the only real giveaway is the gold-foil Fender logo applied to the headstock.

Conceivably, real guitar nerds might also recognise the finish, since the Ultra Stratocaster comes in some unique colourways. The Texas Tea option has a black body with a mottled gold scratchplate, while Mocha Burst and Plasma Burst are brown and red takes on the traditional sunburst design. Personally I don’t much care for any of these but if you want a guitar that stands out from the crowd then their unusualness may appeal.

For us more conservative types, the Ultra also comes in tasteful Arctic Pearl and Aged Natural finishes, with retro tortoiseshell scratchplates, while “Ultraburst” looks an awful lot like a regular three-colour sunburst. Probably my favourite colour option is the one I tried, namely Cobra Blue. Although it may not be obvious from the photos, this has a subtle 1950s-style sparkle; the cream scratchplate I’m not so sure about but it’s easy enough to swap for a different one.

Buy now from Fender


All Ultra Stratocasters also come with cream pickup covers, save for the humbucking pairs in HSS models, which are housed in contrasting cream and black. Look closely and you’ll see the words “Fender” and “Noiseless” printed on the neck and middle covers, the import of which I’ll discuss below.

Another subtle feature you might notice is the push-button set into the middle of the Volume knob. This does the same job as the push-pull tone pot on the American Performer series: on SSS models it adds the neck pickup to whichever pickup is currently selected, allowing you to create rich, Gretsch-style tones, while on HSS variants it splits the Double Tap humbucker into single-coil mode. I always liked this extra bit of circuitry on the Performer but not the way the push-pull mechanism stuck out from the body of the guitar, so the Ultra’s push-button is a welcome refinement.

At the top of the guitar, locking tuners ensure you won’t suffer from frustrating slippage when changing strings in a hurry – something that’s always bothered me about the classic slotted pegs found on some other models. In use, I’ve found the Ultra holds its tuning remarkably well, even after a whammy-bar workout.

Buy now from Fender


At the rear, the Ultra not only inherits the curved neckplate of the old Elite series – designed to make it easier to access the highest frets – it goes further with a new cutaway body contour. I found that, when I ventured above fret 17, the rear of the heel still nudged against the palm of my left hand but it’s a definite improvement on the regular Strat design, where the entire block gets in the way.

The American Ultra Stratocaster also retains the Elite’s unique Modern D neck profile, with rounded fingerboard edges; this gives it a particular feel that’s quite different to the Deep C shape of the American Professional or the Modern C used on the Player and Performer models. To me, the Ultra’s fingerboard seemed broader and flatter than I’m used to but I rapidly acclimatised and found it neither easier nor harder to play. Your mileage will, of course, depend on your hand size, playing style and so forth – a good reason, as if you needed one, to try out the Ultra before you spend the money.


Fender American Ultra Stratocaster review: Tone

Like all Strats (more or less), the American Ultra is easy and addictive to play but it has a definite character of its own, thanks to an unusual set of pickups. For a start, as I’ve mentioned, they proudly bear the Fender Noiseless brand: if you mostly play in studios where everything is properly grounded and shielded then that might be moot, but for gigging it’s reassuring to know that you can rock up at soundcheck and not have to worry about unexpected hum and buzz.

These aren’t the standard Noiseless models, either, but the Hot Noiseless versions, as found on the Jeff Beck Signature Stratocaster. “Hot” in this case doesn’t mean louder, but rather more forward and excitable: I found both neck and middle pickups clearly had more top-end attack than regular Stratocaster pickups, while the mid-range was more restrained. The result is a tone that cuts through the mix with great clarity and gives chords a pleasingly transparent texture.

READ NEXT: Fender American Performer Stratocaster (2019) review

The humbucker on the HSS model has a thicker character, as you’d expect – but since it’s in the bridge position the sound is still quite top-heavy, with an aggressive edge that’s more CBGBs than Beale Street. Predictably, splitting the coil yields a colder, twangier version of the middle pickup tone.

It’s also worth noting that the Ultra Stratocaster features a treble bleed circuit, which keeps the tone pretty much constant even when you turn the volume down. This is great for quickly situating your guitar in the mix, but if you’re in the habit of using the volume control to roll off the high end, it might take a little getting used to.

Buy now from Fender


Fender American Ultra Stratocaster review: Verdict

No doubt about it, the American Ultra Stratocaster is an exceptional guitar. From its sparkly finish to its outspoken tone, it’s an instrument that radiates confidence and musicality. At the same time, it’s one of the most practical Stratocasters around, with its locking tuners, low-key push-button control and unparalleled fret access. It feels great to hold and play and, naturally, the fit and finish are impeccable.

The Ultra may not be everyone’s dream Strat, however. Fans of Clapton or Knopfler may prefer to seek out a warmer, more soulful variant – or consider switching out the pickups after purchase. There’s also no getting around the fact that the regular Player Stratocaster looks, feels and sounds somewhat similar for less than a third of the price. Step up to the American Performer and you’ll get the same pickup blending and splitting options as on the Ultra, plus upgraded Yosemite pickups – and you’ll still have £800 left in the bank.

Clearly, though, this particular Stratocaster isn’t intended as a value proposition. Choosing a musical instrument is a matter for the heart as much as the head and the very exclusivity of the American Ultra Stratocaster is part of what makes it exciting and inspiring to own. I can’t say it’s a smart buy, but what I can say with confidence is that if you do splash out, you will never, ever find yourself thinking “I wish I were playing a cheaper guitar right now”.

Read more

Reviews