Saturday, May 23, 2009
Guitar Pron 5: the Squier Super-Sonic
Back around 1998, the Fender factory in Japan was making Squier-labeled guitars from the Vista series that were better, apparently, than Fender HQ was comfortable with. Sold as lower-priced instruments, the workmanship on these instruments rivaled the Fender USA instruments and certainly beat their other overseas-built guitars, although some of the parts, particularly the electronics, are somewhat sub-standard. The Squier Super-Sonic is one of the best of this series, although I also own a Jagmaster and have played a Venus and both also are pretty well-made guitars that outshine most instruments built in their price range.
The Super-Sonic is a short-scale instrument, with a 24" scale. It's got a belly cut (which comes in handy, in my case) as well as the forearm contour. That makes it is a very nostalgic-feeling instrument for me because my first electric guitar was a Fender Mustang, a Competition model in red with the racing stripe and painted headstock, which had a similar body shape. With a 24" scale length, the Mustang fit my relatively small hands nicely. (I can play a Stratocaster-scale instrument, but it always just feels slightly awkward to me, even decades later). I'm not sure why short scales are always aimed at the low end of the market, as student or entry-level instruments; I think some experienced and even professional guitarists would also appreciate short-scales, if they were as finely made as this one.
Anyway, the Super-Sonics can be had at pretty low prices, or at least they could; I haven't seen very many go by on eBay recently. They were made in black, white, silver sparkle, and blue sparkle. For a year or so I stalked eBay looking for the instruments in excellent condition and good prices. I watched a number of them go buy without bidding on them, and bid on a few and watched the price go up past my comfort zone. But after some careful bidding I own three of them, two in silver sparkle and one in blue sparkle.
This silver one is in the best shape: the body and hardware are nearly perfect. The poly finish has yellowed very slightly, which gives the whole thing a slightly gold look. The blue one is in second-best condition; the finish is excellent, a brilliant blue yellowing slightly to aqua, but it has needed some bridge parts replaced and has more troubles with the knobs and electronics.
As a young teenager I didn't really appreciate what a finely-built instrument the Fender Mustang was, although it was sold as a student model. And I never could get the tone I wanted out of it. Now I understand that with its low-voltage single-coil pickups, the Mustang was built for twang and surf, not emulating Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It was a hand-me down from my stepbrother, and since it came cheap, I didn't really understand its value. I'm trying not to make that mistake again. A word of advice for guitarists: if you have a guitar and you don't like its tone, after experimenting with different amplifiers, don't modify the guitar by replacing the pickups; it could ruin whatever collectible or resale value it may have had. Find another guitar that comes closer to the sound you want. If you do decide you must change out the pickups, find exact physical replacements so you don't have to do any routing or drilling, find pickups that give you similar but better-quality tone, and save the original pickups in case a future owner wants to put the instrument back to stock. And remember: most of the tone you get from an electric guitar is in your fingers and your amplifier, not the wood. I'm not joking when I say this, although some gearheads may think I am.
The Super-Sonic has an interesting design: it looks like a left-handed guitar played right-handed. The word is that it was inspired by Jimi Hendrix's use of right-handed guitars left-handed.
The body is basswood and the neck is maple, with a "skunk stripe." The truss rod is the bullet style, which adjusts at the headstock. It is a godsend to be able to adjust a truss rod without removing the neck.
An aside: I also have a Jagmaster which needed truss rod adjustment and it had a poorly-fitting neck pocket, and also a shim, which fell out when I loosened the neck to adjust the truss rod; it still isn't right. The neck pocket on these Super-Sonics seem tighter, by comparison. And another quick aside: I'm still keeping an eye out for one of the Japanese Jagmasters with the bullet truss rod; apparently a few were made, but they are scarce. I'll do a photo spread on the Jagmaster at some point, although it is not quite as pretty.
These instruments are much easier to maintain. They have vintage frets -- tall, narrow fret-wire. The frets wear pretty quickly. The silver one needs to have the frets leveled and crowned, but they aren't too bad -- I don't think any frets need to be replaced. I'm planning to run it up to Elderly Instruments and see what they can do with it.
The electronics of the Super-Sonic have an odd layout: it has no tone controls. Those are both volume controls. And oddly, the one closer to the bridge controls the neck pickup, and vice-versa. The only rationale I can think of for this odd arrangement is that if you're playing a solo on the bridge pickup, you can use your pinky to do volume fades.
The last oddity to comment on is the strap peg. The one on the butt end of the guitar is normal, but the other one is actually mounted on the neck plate. I think the idea might have been that you could move it to either horn and play the guitar right or left handed -- one of mine has been modified like that. But I actually kind of like it where it is.
There really is a lot to like about these guitars, but a few things not to like. The tuners are a bit flimsy, so I've considered replacing them with drop-in replacement vintage locking tuners from Gotoh, but I haven't done it yet. For some reason the headstock holes in the Vista series guitars tended to be drilled just slightly too large, which means that when you go to change the strings, the tuner bushings sometimes fall out. That's sloppy. The string trees tend to bind up on the strings and tuning these instruments is a little tricky; despite my best efforts at nailing down the tremolo, with extra springs and tightening down the tremolo screws, heavy bends still tend to pull the other strings out of tune a bit; if I were to use them live, I'd probably have to re-tune quite a bit during a set, where some of my other instruments -- the Ovation acoustic, the Peavey T-60s, the Steinberger basses, and the Parker Fly -- hold their tuning much more securely. I may see if I can get Elderly to block the trem on one of them, for the sake of tuning stability, although it affects the tone a bit.
I've got these two set up with 11s, with the truss rods and tremolos adjusted accordingly. I adjusted the intonation with a Peterson virtual strobe tuner, and they sound great. The only problem is that the bridge saddles don't slide far enough to intonate the low E and A strings perfectly. So I might wind up going back to 10s. I think they may have been set up for 10s in the factory.
Despite these minor quibbles, I love these instruments. They are a blast to play -- low action, short scale, tone out the wazoo, easy string bending, and a really striking look! If you can still find one in good condition for a decent price, I recommend you give it a try.
Oh, how do they sound? Well, a couple of my YouTube videos feature me playing the Super-Sonics, but I'm not really happy with the sound quality that results after YouTube gets done compressing my video files. When I get a little more free time -- hah! -- I will try to record something a little higher-quality for you to listen to -- mabye just audio, or maybe my first-ever video clip on Vimeo, which claims to provide better video and sound quality.