New Fender guitars excite every guitarist, or at least they should. Having been making them since the 1940s, Fender continues to move guitar crafting forward in meaningful ways almost eighty years later. They know a thing or two about how to do it.
With their new American Ultra series announced November 5th 2019, Fender says they’ve set “a new industry standard for precision, performance and feel.”
The trouble is, these are not cheap instruments, so if you want to get your foot in the door for a new Fender American Ultra guitar, you’re going to shell out around $2,000. As independent, DIY musicians, ourselves, we can’t afford that. And since you’re reading this, we feel it’s safe to assume you can’t, either.
And that’s OK! We love figuring out ways to do things, right? Right.
So since we can’t go to Fender.com and buy one of these beautiful works of art, we’ll need a different approach. We’re going to take apart Fender’s American Ultra Stratocaster to see if we can’t make something similar for much less money. We think we can. Let’s go.
New Fender Guitars, American Ultra Stratocaster
New Fender guitars typically have some pretty glossy English on their webpages, and why not? These are fine, fine instruments, so they deserve to be described as beautifully as they look, feel and sound. Fender’s pitch for the new Strat goes like this:
“American Ultra is our most advanced series of guitars and basses for discerning players who demand the ultimate in precision, performance and tone. The American Ultra Stratocaster features a new, unique “Modern D” neck profile with Ultra rolled fingerboard edges for hours of playing comfort, and the tapered neck heel allows easy access to the highest register.
“A speedy 10”-14” compound-radius fingerboard with 22 medium-jumbo frets means effortless and accurate soloing, while the Ultra Noiseless™ Vintage pickups and advanced wiring options provide endless tonal possibilities – without hum.
“The sculpted rear body contours are as beautiful as they are functional and the S-1 switch adds the neck pickup in to any switch position. This versatile, state-of-the-art instrument will inspire you to push your playing to new heights. Other features include sealed locking tuning machines, chrome hardware and bone nut.”
What we’re going to do is go piece by piece and see what we really care about. Then we’re going to figure out how we can assemble those pieces into a comparable instrument we can afford.
The new Fender Guitar American Ultra Series: What’s It Made of?
The new Fender Guitar American Ultra Series is comprised of three new bass designs and four guitars. As we said, we’re going to focus on the Stratocaster, but the specifics of each design are fairly similar. The point is that artists who can’t afford a new American Ultra do have options. A little research and elbow grease and you’ll be rocking.
As quoted above, the new Fender American Ultra Stratocaster boasts:
- A new, unique “Modern D” neck profile
- “Ultra rolled” fingerboard edges
- A tapered neck heel
- A speedy 10”-14” compound-radius fingerboard
- 22 medium-jumbo frets
- Ultra Noiseless™ Vintage pickups
- S-1 Switch
- Sculpted rear body contours
- Sealed locking tuning machines
- Chrome hardware
- Bone nut
Can we put together this 2,000-dollar music maker for much less? With some confidence and a little help from online shopping, we think we can, so let’s find out.
New Fender Guitars, American Ultra: How to Copy One
New Fender guitars can be too expensive for the average player. That’s why it falls to us and the independent musician community to somehow get something comparable without having the bankroll.
Therefore, what we’re going to do is take a guitar we like and modify it so it shares many traits with the new Fender guitars, the American Ultra. DIY musicians are encouraged to start with a guitar they don’t care much about because it’s best to learn on one and then do a better job on another.
DISCLAIMER: NEITHER THIS ARTICLE, NOR THE AUTHOR, NOR WEBSITE OWNERS HOSTING THIS INFORMATION ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR CHANGES TO YOUR INSTRUMENT. BY MODIFYING YOUR INSTRUMENT YOU ACCEPT SOLE RESPONSIBILITY FOR ALL CONSEQUENCES OCCURRING THEREFROM.
Okay! Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about guitars.
“Modern D” Neck Profile with Ultra-Rolled Fingerboard Edges
“The American Ultra Stratocaster features a new, unique ‘Modern D’ neck profile with Ultra rolled fingerboard edges for hours of playing comfort, and the tapered neck heel allows easy access to the highest register.”
As the above image shows, the D profile is something every guitarist has seen before. Finding a guitar with a neck similar enough to the American Ultra’s Modern D to make you happy should not be hard. In fact, many DIY artists are likely to have one close enough, already. If not, removing the finish and sanding down the neck to get what you want isn’t hard and probably doesn’t need a how-to. There are videos to help if you want them, though. (And ee below about that finish).
Rolled Fingerboard Edges
But what about those rolled fingerboard edges?
Turns out this is something you can do yourself, too. Watch Cosmic Groove Machine (Roman Rist of Rist Guitars) do it quite easily here. He’s a master. And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is something guitarists do. A quick search online brings you all sorts of forums where people are talking about how to do it, having done it, and the benefits of doing so.
If your guitar has a finish and you really want rolled edges, you can remove the finish with directions from Strange Guitar Works here. Then you can roll the edges and reapply the finish with directions from Brad Angove here.
So far, so good.
Tapered Neck Heel
The neck heel is the area shown above. It’s tapered (which means it gets smaller on one side) to make room for your hand.
Of all the comforts the new Fender American Ultras come with, this is one of the best. It means that you can work the strings way up high without fighting with the body or neck of the guitar. You won’t even feel like there’s any guitar there except for the strings and fingerboard.
Unfortunately, this is probably the most work-intensive job on this list and one nobody without some woodworking skills should attempt. However, people have been modifying their guitar bodies for many years. You can find people who will help you do it on forums like the Telecaster Discussion Page Re-Issue. If you’re polite, you’d be surprised how helpful talented guitar makers can be.
So yes, it can be done. But for most players, this is likely one of the traits of the new Fender American Ultras they’ll miss out on rather than attempt themselves. The easiest thing to do would be to buy a cheaper guitar that already has a tapered neck heel, then customize it with everything else on this list.
And of course, you could always just skip it.
The rest is far easier, anyhow.
10”-14” Compound-Radius Fingerboard and 22 Frets
“A speedy 10”-14” compound-radius fingerboard with 22 medium-jumbo frets means effortless and accurate soloing.”
A little bit of research tells us that the craftsmanship needed to get that compound-radius fingerboard is very high for sure. It’d be really hard to do a comparable job ourselves. That same research also tells us, though, that it’s mostly for show.
According to the Guitar Tech at Diamond Guitars:
“You’re talking about a variation in radius of the fretboard that is so small, it can’t be measured unless you have a very particular ruler that can give you, at minimum, hundredths of an inch. Most rulers will give you 1/16, or maybe 1/32. This is 1/100. You’re talking about a distance less than the difference between a 9 and 10 gauge string. While we can feel the difference between them, it’s not the string size we’re really feeling, it’s more the tension of the string.
“So here’s my thought. While it’s fine in theory, the reality of you feeling it, or particularly feeling any effect of it, is slim at best and none in reality. What it is, is complicated to make and expensive, for little benefit at best. And we’re talking about wood here, not precision machinery. And we’re talking about fractions so small, they’re nearly imperceptible.”
So what can you do instead?
G. Tech says:
“What does make a difference is something most people ignore or forget about. When is the last time you had the height of the bridge saddles checked? Oh yes, more likely your issue. The height of the bridge saddles should match the radius of your neck. Have that adjusted and your guitar will feel a ton better!”
That’s something you can do yourself, too. For free. Easily. With instructions here.
22 Medium-Jumbo Frets
As for the 22 medium-jumbo frets, almost all guitars have between 21 and 24 frets, so that’s no real thing. A 24-fret guitar would be a small improvement on the American Ultra’s 22, though.
A 24-fret guitar means you can play two octaves on each string because there’s an octave at the 12th and another one at the 24th. But that’s serious guitaring, of course — hardly anyone really needs the complete second octave. However, if frets are your selling point for some reason, you can go better than the American Ultra for about 200 dollars at American Musical Supply or pretty much anywhere. It’s something you could consider if you were already going to change out the neck for that tapered heel from before.
Ultra Noiseless™ Vintage Pickups
“The Ultra Noiseless™ Vintage pickups and advanced wiring options provide endless tonal possibilities – without hum.”
The first and maybe most obvious point is that it doesn’t matter if your pickups hum. Remember in Back to the Future when Marty plugs in his guitar and right away there’s that satisfying, slightly scary hum? What would electric guitar be without that? Regardless, as soon as you start playing, that hum is gone, baby, gone. So this is arguably a moot point altogether. It’s really cool that Fender found a way to do it, but honestly did we really need it? Probably not. And do we really even want it?
If your answer is yes, you can change your pickups out to Fender’s Noiseless Vintage pickups for around 130 USD. And can you do that yourself? Yes, you can, as described in simple detail by the UK’s Dave Barlow. (There are plenty of other people willing to show you how on YouTube, too. We simply like Dave’s friendly demeanor).
Sculpted Rear Body Contours and S-1 Switch
“The sculpted rear body contours are as beautiful as they are functional and the S-1 switch adds the neck pickup in to any switch position. This versatile, state-of-the-art instrument will inspire you to push your playing to new heights.”
Sculpted Body Contour
New Fender guitars have sculpted bodies, and they are not to be underestimated. Your playing can change immensely because a guitar is half-an-inch thinner in the right place or thicker in the wrong place. But sculpted bodies aren’t impossible to find at reasonable prices, either. So the real question is, what shape has the luthier (guitar maker) sculpted?
Guitar bodies may be sculpted for comfort while you play, but they’re often shaped just to look cool. That’s why you want to make sure you know not only that the body has been sculpted, but also why. If the maker shaped the body specifically for comfort, they’ll tell you so. If the listing online only says “Sculpted body!” it’s probably just for looks.
You can get highly sculpted axes for less than 200 dollars, then change out the pickups as described above. There are lesser-known name brands, too, such as Cort in Korea, who can sell you a beautifully sculpted axe for around 300. That’s much better than the two grand Fender wants. Additionally, if you’re gonna buy a new guitar to mod it in the spirit of the American Ultra, don’t forget to watch for 24 frets and a tapered heel, if you can manage it.
Dirk Wacker at ModGarage describes the S-1 like this:
“The S-1 was meant to be used with Fender’s Super Switch, a special 5-way pickup-selector switch with four independent switching stages (instead of the standard two). Combining these two devices allows virtually unlimited switching possibilities with any given pickup configuration.
“An example of what it can do:
- Position one: bridge pickup only
- Position two: bridge and middle pickups wired in parallel
- Position three: middle pickup only
- Position four: middle and neck pickups wired in parallel
- Position five: neck pickup only
“When you engage the S-1 switch … you have even more tone alternatives that you don’t get to hear every day.
- Position one: all three pickups wired in series
- Position two: bridge and middle pickups wired in series
- Position three: middle and neck pickups wired in series
- Position four: bridge and neck pickups wired out of phase, with a special tone capacitor
- Position five: bridge and middle pickups wired in series and out of phase, in parallel with neck pickup”
Does the S-1 really matter?
That’s totally up to you. You can see people discussing switches all over the Internet, like at Strat-Talk, here. If you want to be able to hear your guitar in several different tones with the flick of a switch, then yeah, go for it. Or if you really want to be able to say, “I made my own American Ultra copy,” then again, yeah, you’ll want to do this.
But wait, aren’t there tons of players who never use the switch on their guitars at all because they like one tone way more than the others? Of course there are, so it’s totally up to you. The point is that you can do it if you want to.
Like lots of these things, the S-1 isn’t expensive to install, and you can buy the switch itself on Amazon for around 20 bucks. Not too shabby.
It is a little more complicated than some of the other operations we’ve talked about, though, so you’ll want to consider the work involved. It requires plenty of soldering and such, but hey, it’s an electric guitar we’re building, right? So it’s only fair to expect some electrical work.
Do people do it? Sure they do, and they even help one another to do so at the official Fender forums.
The choice is yours. You have the power.
New Fender guitars: American Ultra Basses and the HiMass bridge
New Fender guitars also include basses in the American Ultra series. If you’re interested in the American Ultra bass, you may be interested in their HiMass bridge. Fender proudly claims it “delivers serious sustain, precise intonation and rock-solid tuning stability.”
BestBassGear asked bassists if it seemed to make a difference, and they said yes. But again, this is something you can add to any bass yourself. They’re easily found online for around 60 USD. One guy in the BBG comments thread says he found one for 20. So if your selling point for a 2000-dollar bass is that bridge, it probably shouldn’t be.
Other Features: Tuning Keys, Chrome Hardware and Bone Nut
“Other features include sealed locking tuning machines, chrome hardware and bone nut.”
This is all easy stuff, so we’re not going to spend much time on it.
As of the time of writing, Fender sealed locking tuners are about 50% off at Amazon and probably don’t often sell for more.
The chrome hardware is not unlike putting chrome on your car. You just buy the pieces you want and throw them on. So you want a pick guard? No problem. A strap button? No problem. A little embellishment for the headstock? Whatever. All that stuff’s available.
What about that bone nut, though? Does that make a difference?
Bone’s a traditional material for the guitar nut, so it’s not hard to find if your guitar doesn’t already have one, and not expensive, either. You can read all about them if you like at Guitar Player here, and if you want one you can get one online without any trouble. HearGear will show you how to put it on your axe here.
New Fender Guitars, American Ultra: Marvelous, but Not Inimitable
New Fender guitars, American Ultra series are clearly the envy of every serious guitarist today. When Fender said they intended to make a new industry standard, the results seem to point at success. Nevertheless, if a guitarist were to want a guitar with everything suggested here, the shopping list would look like this:
- Cort guitar from Korea — 300
- New guitar neck — 200
- Noiseless Vintage pickups — 130
- Sealed tuning machines — 50
- S-1 Switch — 20
- Bone nut — 17
- Rolled fingerboard edges — (free)
That’s about 700 USD — way less than half the $2000 asking price for a real American Ultra — but clearly most DIY artists won’t need or even want all these things. If you just modify the axe you’ve got, you’re down to 400 bucks. Don’t need a new guitar neck? That’s 200. At that point pretty much everyone can afford to upgrade their instrument to something comparable to the new Fender line.
However, we didn’t talk about the finish, and those American Ultras sure are purty.
So in the end, unless you’re a serious craftsman already, you’re probably still going to wish you could afford the real thing. But hey, the freedom to sound like the real thing’s definitely there.
And isn’t the electric guitar kind-of all about freedom? Yeah. Yeah it kind-of is.
Good luck! And happy modding!