Published On: Mon, Sep 22nd, 2014

Fender Custom Shop ’60s Heavy Relic Stratocaster Review

Fender’s Relic project is just a year shy of 20 years old. So now we’re used to them, how do the latest ones stack up? Review by Richard Purvis

Description: Solidbody guitar. Made in USA
Price: £3098
Contact:Fender GB&I – 01342 331700 –

If you go to see the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux, you don’t actually see the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux – you see modern facsimiles painted in the cave next door. It’s unfortunate, you might even say slightly ridiculous, but the originals are in such a fragile state that this was the best solution they could think of to protect them, short of closing the whole site down. Now, if you apply the same reasoning to vintage guitars – beautiful and precious but too delicate for life on the road – then ‘relics’ make perfect sense: these instruments are simply the accessible replicas in the cave next door. Still, though… in a world awash with fakery, from knock-off iPhones to miming pop idols, do we honestly need new guitars that pretend to be old guitars?

If you saw last month’s issue you’ll surely have read Huw Price’s analysis of this very question, a well-argued call for hissy huffers like me to chill a bit and accept relics as a fun and harmless addition to the pickers’ pantheon. Maybe he has a point – and maybe spending some time with the outrageously battered Stratocaster that illustrated that article is just what’s required to plunge the point home. The Strat’s here, so let’s find out.

It’s a product of the Fender Custom Shop, which would normally mean a gleaming artefact of such immaculate refinement that you’d want someone with silk gloves to lift it out of the case for you. But when Fender’s own experts have spent a fair while bumping, scuffing and scratching away at an instrument to simulate half a century of use and abuse, it’s hard to know whether you should be careful with it or not. We’ll avoid lobbing it down the stairs, just to be on the safe side.

This Strat comes in a hard case the colour of Dairy Milk with plenty of candy inside: chunky strap, cotton-covered lead, toolkit, Custom Shop certificate of authenticity (shouldn’t that be inauthenticity?), and even a bridge cover. There’s also a polishing cloth, to keep your relic, er, good as new.

The body is two-piece alder with a near-invisible centre join, the scratchplate is a murky shade of mint green and the other plastic parts are more cream than off-white. Blackened polepieces contrast dramatically with the pickup covers, while the saddles and screws are also heavily tarnished, but it’s on the timber that Fender has really got medieval.

The ‘sloppy strummer’ gouge above the scratchplate is the most obvious mark but there’s a bigger explosion of wood-deep buckle rash on the back, plus lots of scratches around the sides and subtle checking to the nitro finish all over the body. There are dark patches behind the decals on the front of the headstock; there’s also a bit of rust on the tuners, next to a Fender Custom Shop logo that ensures nobody’s going to think this really is a ’60s Strat. The lacquer on the back of the neck has been worn to a slight roughness that feels agreeable in the hand and, in both look and texture, is an excellent match for the real thing. Have they missed anything? Maybe: the gold characters on the volume and tone knobs look too shiny and new to me.

Even more pristine is the front of the neck, but this is for the best – few would have thanked Fender for simulated fret-wear and finger-grime. The medium jumbo frets are fairly low-profile and have been fitted perfectly, with nicely rounded ends; combine that with a thoroughly modern 9.5″ radius to the rosewood fingerboard, on a neck that’s quite shallow, particularly towards the nut, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a guitar that plays like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Well, you’d be disappointed if it didn’t at this price.

The spec list reveals that three different pickup types from Fender’s Strat collection have been selected for this model: a Custom ’69 in the neck position, a Fat ’50s in the middle and a Texas Special at the bridge. The five-way switch is not something you’d find on a real 50-year-old guitar, but that’s another understandable victory for practicality over authenticity.

Unplugged this Stratocaster is full and ringy, with impressive sustain, and you can really feel open chords resonating through your chest when playing seated. It feels like quality. And plugging into a Fender amp that really is 50 years old it’s apparent that, while the pickups may not be a set, they’re well-matched for sprightliness.

The guitar’s core voice is taut and punchy, with just enough solidity in the bottom end and plenty of kick at the top. The neck pickup is extremely clear and characterful, the middle has more edge and cluck but is equally bluesy at heart, and the bridge is the place to go for trouser-biting snarly stuff – although, as so often with traditionally-wired Strats, there’s no way of rolling off a bit of the spikiness because only the other two pickups have tone controls. All three pickups respond eagerly to overdrive, just as you’d expect them to, and both middle and bridge are great for greasy-toned slide work.

That just leaves the two in-between positions. Both have plenty of that ’80s quack that makes some people think of Knopfler and Robert Cray, and others think of buying a gun. Use them wisely, though, and you will find some sweet and only slightly mallard-like tones that just about everyone can enjoy.

Thoughtlessly, Fender neglected to send us a vanload of real ’60s Strats for comparison, but no matter what you’re judging it against, this is a supremely well-made guitar with a balanced tone and lots of perky character, and the neck is a speedy joy. On performance alone, there’s no denying it’s a very fine Stratocaster. It doesn’t quite feel like a vintage guitar to me, but that’s such a vague and almost subconscious judgement that it’s hard to be sure it’s fair – after all, we probably wouldn’t analyse the damage on a genuine old-timer half as closely.

Anyway, bash it around enough and in a decade or two you won’t be able to tell the real damage from the relicing. All in all, this is one £3000 guitar that you’ve no excuse to mollycoddle.

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