REVIEW: Fender Highway One Stratocaster ('06 Upgrade)

Fender-Highway-One-StratocasterModel Fender Highway One Stratocaster

Intro Introduced in July of 2006, the upgraded Highway One Stratocaster is Fender’s least expensive American Made Strat, and as such has been highly touted as the obvious answer for those guitar players longing for American Made quality at a reasonable price.

The guitar sports some nice amenities––including a set of suped-up “hot” singlecoil pickups (reverse wound/reverse polarity in the middle position,) a satin nitro lacquer finish, and Fender’s Greasebucket Tone Circuit––though to my mind there are some downsides to the design as well.

While the Highway One Stratocaster will undoubtedly be a perfect fit for many guitar players, especially those prone to high-gain mayhem (these pickups sounds phenomenal with a little overdrive,) I do have to say that the three guitars I played for this review weren’t particularly comfortable in the neck department.

Of course, your experience may vary.

Specs

  • Alder body
  • Maple neck (modern C-shape)
  • Rosewood or Maple fretboard w/22 jumbo frets (9.5” radius)
  • A trio of Hot singlecoil Strat pickups w/Alnico 3 magnets
  • Greasebucket Tone Circuit on bridge & neck pickups
  • Master volume knob and 5-way pickup switching
  • Vintage style synchronized tremolo and Fender/Ping Standard tuners
  • 3-ply parchment pickguard, fat ‘70s-style headstock, and original body shape
  • H/S/H pickup routing and a deluxe gig bag

The guitar’s Satin Nitrocellulose Lacquer Finish (no poly here!) comes in Honey Blonde (shown,) Flat Black, Wine Transparent, Daphne Blue, and 3-Color Sunburst.

What I Liked Nice, nice finish… OK, it’s not for everyone, and it certainly brings a unique look to the Highway One, but if you’re at all enamored of a satin finish, and if you’ve been looking to get into a guitar that doesn’t look like it’s been dipped in a vat of gooey varnish, well, this one’s a no-brainer.

In my experience people who’ve never played a Strat with a true nitrocellulose finish tend to underestimate its effect on tone and sustain, but to my ears a nitro-finished guitar sounds richer, with more sonic subtleties, and with just a little more oomph. Of course, that delicate finish tends to scratch easily, but the upside is that you get an instrument that should age beautifully––kind of like a nice bottle of wine.

I also really liked the electronics in the Highway One Strat, though once again, this really comes down to personal preference, and what exactly you want to do with your guitar.

For instance, while the hot Alnico 3 single-coils absolutely pop, and they sound great pushing a tube-amp or pumped through a nice high-gain distortion pedal, I found that clean tones lacked the warmth of a vintage-style single-coil––not a big deal for someone who wants to push their Strat into the heavy shred zone, but a possible deal breaker for those who prefer that old-school Stratocaster squawk.

Another plus is Fender’s Greasebucket Tone Circuit, which modifies the traditional Strat wiring by providing tone control for the bridge pickup instead of the middle, and helps to ease back on the high-end without adding weighty low-end bass into the mix. While I didn’t mess around with this feature a whole lot during my testing (that’s just the kind of player I am… I tend to dial in a nice tone and then stay put,) I can definitely see its uses, and it makes for a great extra touch.

The Highway One’s tremolo worked as advertised, and while I’m not a huge user of this feature I did find the whole thing to stay in tune quite nicely even after judicious use. Tuners work well, too, and of course the Highway One sports a ’70s style oversized headstock––a feature you may love or hate, though I could personally go either way. It would undoubtedly look a lot better (and not so out of place,) in an aged-yellow finish instead of Fender’s current lackluster greyish tint.

What I Didn’t Like Having read rave reviews about this guitar, and considering the sheer number of readers who’ve written me about their much-loved Highway One Stratocasters, I was surprised to find that I personally didn’t like the necks on these instruments at all.

Now don’t get me wrong––as I always emphasize in my reviews, neck shape and comfort is highly subjective, and every guitarist has a different hand size, different neck-profile preference, and a different style of playing––but all that said, the maple modern C-shaped neck on the Highway One Strat (2006 version) is one of the more uncomfortable that I’ve come across… and if you follow this blog you know I’ve been playing a lot of Strats lately.

To be honest with you, I’m pretty sure it’s not the neck shape itself that’s to blame, but more than likely just a rather unfortunate combination of modern C-shape profile, satin finish on the back of the neck (definitely an acquired taste,) a decidedly sticky fretboard (could go away over time, but maybe not) and a set of very large Jumbo-sized frets.

I know, I know––there are folks out there who love huge frets, and believe me, I’m not a fan of those extra-skinny vintage wires either––but I found the frets on the Highway One to be so oversized as to make the whole fretboard feel clunky and almost toyish. Of course, if this is your style of fret then I say more power to ya’, but it’s definitely not my bag, and something you might want to be aware of; particularly if you’re considering purchasing one sight unseen.

In an attempt to be perfectly fair, I actually played three of these guitars during the review process (just to be sure I hadn’t stumbled onto a lemon,) but my over all take on the Highway One Strat’s neck/fretboard/fret combination was basically this: slow, sticky, and a bit difficult to play.

Final Word All griping aside however, the Highway One Stratocaster offers a number of excellent plusses for the guitar player searching for an American Made Strat at a reasonable price, though there are some trade-offs that need to be considered.

Fans of mega-sized frets and big, fat necks may well fall in love with this instrument, as will those who tend to travel in high-gain territory.

The Highway One Stratocaster does some things very well, but it most certainly is not your father’s Strat, so while I always recommend actually playing a guitar before you purchase it (now there’s a statement that would’ve sounded strange ten years ago,) with the Highway One Stratocaster I think it’s a true necessity–– that way you can better judge how this neck works for your hands and fretting style. :: Updated 10-22-2009.