The Fender MIJ '57 Stratocaster Vintage Reissue

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 10 August 2012 |

Back when the Fender MIJ (Made in Japan) Vintage ’57 Stratocaster Reissues were at the peak of their affordability, I don’t think the average guitarist realised quite what a luxury they were. Made by the plant which had shocked Fender USA with the quality and accuracy of the first Japanese Fender Vintage Reissues in 1982, these attitude-drenched and irresistibly pretty bundles of joy could still be found brand new at sub-£300 prices ten years on in the early ‘90s. As big sellers, the MIJ ’57s were everywhere, and you did accordingly acquire a slight ‘reissue blindness’ when walking into a shop. But in the grand picture of electric guitar history, the Fender MIJ ’57 Strats would come to endure as lively and exciting products. They were players’ guitars of the highest order, and even in the early ‘90s, in terms of charm and magnetism, they were still putting the typical American Stratocaster to shame.

Fender MIJ '57 Reissue Stratocaster
A Candy Apple Red beauty like this would have cost £295 brand new in 1992 with the heaviest discounters, but by late 1993 prices would more typically be listed between £375 and £420.

A lot of people don’t really ‘get’ the progression of Fender’s Japanese Vintage ’57 Reissue Stratocasters on the UK market through the course of the 1980s and into the following decade. The picture is confused by a change in the guitars’ branding, a massive price increase, and a degree of evolution, but once you’ve budgeted for that, it’s very straightforward…
  • From 1982 (Fender Japan’s year of birth), Fender exported MIJ ’57 Reissue Strats, made in the highly regarded FujiGen Gakki factory, to the UK, for the rest of the decade, and the first half of the 1990s.
  • From 1982 to 1984, these MIJ ’57 Reissues were Squier guitars (known as the JV Series, because their serial numbers were prefixed with the letters ‘JV’, for Japanese Vintage).
  • Going into 1985, and solidly for over a decade until the latter part of 1995, Japanese ’57 Reissues from the same factory were Fender guitars (starting off with standard ‘E’-prefixed serial numbers). When the branding of the FujiGen ’57 Reissues was changed from Squier to Fender, there was a price increase of over 50% at the point of sale.
  • From the latter half of 1995, FujiGen’s MIJ ’57 Strat Reissue was replaced on the UK market by a ‘Vintage Reminiscent’ model, which could no longer be considered sufficiently authentic to be described as a reissue.
The progression described above relates only to MIJ (Made in Japan) Stratocasters, and not CIJ (Crafted in Japan). CIJ guitars were not made by FujiGen Gakki. The progression was, incidentally, exactly the same for Fender Japan’s ’62 Strat Reissue on the UK market.

Things do get slightly more complicated, in that through the years there was a steady effort to save money on production. This manifested itself in some subtle component downgrades, and a progressively more cavalier approach to the body finishing. I’ll come to that shortly, but I want to start with the details on how to identify a Fender MIJ ’57 Strat Reissue. It’s a question which comes up a lot…

IDENTIFYING A FENDER MIJ ’57 STRAT REISSUE

The details below relate to a Fender-branded model, made after 1984. For the earlier Squier-branded models, please mitigate the spec below with the information in my 1980s Squier Strats article, and take into account the fact that the range of finishes was slightly different on the Squiers…
  • A solid wood alder body with generous comfort contouring and typically, fairly light weight.
  • A poly finish on the body, in either Two-Tone Sunburst, Black, Olympic White, Candy Apple Red, or Sonic Blue. Other colours did appear in the UK, but were extremely unusual forward from 1985, and were not listed in UK dealer ads. Please see the Fiesta Red Strat Reissues post for more on 'non-standard' finishes. It should be noted that even though the finishes are poly, some are very highly prone to yellowing, so the white Strats can end up looking blonde and the Sonic blues can end up looking Sea Foam or Surf green. They often yellow even more under the scratchplate than on the exposed areas of the body, but you may find evidence of the original colour in the neck pocket. Please note that Sonic blue was not initially available, and that the first Fender 'E Series' catalogues only list the other four colours. Sonic blue was definitely, however, available by the late 1980s.

    In 1993, a major UK advertiser, who stocked these instruments in volume, ceased listing Candy Apple Red. Whether the colour became temporarily unavailable, wasn’t selling well enough, or whatever else, I don’t know. It could even have been due to qualitative issues specific to Fender Japan's Candy Apple finishes. But interestingly, the Candy Apple Red finish was the one which stood out most obviously as alien to a 1957 Stratocaster. In fact, the finish wasn’t developed until the early ‘60s, and so could never have been used on a real ’57 Strat. Other options from the standard MIJ colours were feasibly authentic, but since any opaque colour was rare on Stratocasters in 1957, Two-Tone Sunburst was the only finish which really epitomised the original.

    I haven't listed the 'foto-flame' finishes introduced to the UK in mid 1993 and lasting until 1995. Whilst the '57 feature set was otherwise observed in full on 'foto-flame' guitars, the range of maverick-coloured bursts, over stick-on images of highly-figured maple, made the bodies look decidedly un-Fender. I thus feel that to regard those instruments as true Vintage Reissues would be stretching the definition a little too far.
  • A ‘one piece’ maple neck with truss rod adjustment at the body end. The truss was inserted from the rear, so there’s a walnut ‘skunk’ filler stripe up the back of the neck, and a small walnut ‘teardrop’ blob above the nut on the face of the headstock. Like the Squier '57s before them, the MIJ '57 Reissues were available with a '57-type 'V' profile to the neck. This has applied to all of the examples I've owned/played. However, this wasn't the only profile available on Fender MIJ '57 Strat Reissues. Fender Japan catalogues listed a 'C' type alternative, but whether this was shipped to the UK or not I'm not sure.
  • It's easy to tell a Fender MIJ '57 Strat neck from a same-period USA version at the twelfth fret. The American neck is on the left. The Japanese wider dot spacing is the one which was period correct for 1957. Current American reissues have the authentic positioning, like the old MIJs.  
  • A honey tinted poly finish on the neck. A sort of golden, ‘fake tan’ for pale maple. These MIJ ‘57 necks are easily distinguished from the USA ones from the same period. On the Japanese Strats, the A and B strings pass right above the centre of the black dot markers at the twelfth fret. On the USA necks, the A and B strings sit near or on the outer edge of the twelfth fret dots. It’s the Japanese dot positioning, not the USA, which was correct for a real ’57 Strat. Also, the USA ’57 Reissue headstocks had the Fender logo and ‘Original Contour Body’ transfers applied on top of the finish, whereas the Japanese versions had their transfers sealed beneath the finish. This is pretty obvious on close inspection. As regards the fitting of the transfers, it’s the USA Reissue which correctly mimics a real ’57 Strat. The Fender logo is in vintage-correct ‘spaghetti’ script on both the Japanese and the USA models. Finally, as a general observation, the headstock string tree is noticeably closer to the nut on a Japanese Reissue than on the American version.
  • Three single coil pickups with moulded plastic bobbins and staggered-height alnico (mid-greyish), unchamfered pole-pieces. The pickup itself is explored in this article.
  • A five-way pickup selector switch of the open (vintage type) variety in 1985, changing to an enclosed plastic YM-50 five way selector of much poorer quality in the course of the late 1980s.
  • Thick and sturdy black/white plastic-coated wiring in 1985, changing to a thin and not at all reassuring black/white plastic-coated wiring in the course of the late 1980s.
  • A single-ply white plastic scratcplate, held to the body with eight screws.
  • A vintage tremolo/vibrato bridge held to the body with six crosshead, dome-top screws, and featuring Fender-branded saddles.
  • Vintage type pickup routings and wiring channels in the body. Separate cavities for each pickup, meaning that, unless modified, the body would be unable to accept any pickups other than Strat-sized single-coils.
  • Kluson-style vintage machine heads with nickel plating, oval pegs, and no branding.
  • A blank or 'FENDER' branded neckplate, with both 'Made in Japan' and the serial number on the back of the neck just above its join with the body.
  • A single, nickel-plated, rectangular 'butterfly' (as opposed to round) string tree on the headstock.
If your MIJ Strat conforms to all of the above, and it's all original, it's a ‘57 reissue.


The headstock markings and adornments on a Fender MIJ '57 Reissue Stratocaster. The Kluson type tuning keys with oval heads and the rectangular bent nickel string tree represent the original features, as the guitars were shipped. Note also the distinctive walnut filler blob above the nut. There's no serial number or 'Made in Japan' denotation on the headstock. Those details appear on the back of the neck above the body join. The 'Original Contour Body' logo is stuck on separately from the main 'Fender Stratocaster' transfer, and will vary in terms of its relative position and angle.

QUALITY

There’s little question that in 1985, when FujiGen’s ’57 Strats first appeared on the export market with full Fender branding and no Squier markings, they were of blindingly good quality. Other than the swap from separate top/bottom plate pickups to moulded bobbins, and the use of high quality plastic wire insulation rather than cloth, these were basically the same guitars which had been shipping as Squier JV Series ’57 Reissues. However, with point-of-sale prices having rocketed up from approximately £220 (Squier JV) to around £350 (Fender MIJ), the manufacturers had to justify a hell of an extra spend on the part of the consumer, and any deficiencies in quality would have resulted in a hammering for the reputation of the newly rebranded model. In 1985, then, Fender Japan were maintaining excellent quality, because they had everything to prove on what was now a premium, as opposed to budget, product.

But as discounting got heavier and pressure fell upon Fender to avoid further price increases, quality did become less predictable. The downgradings in the electrical department were in themselves a reduction in quality, but other issues also cropped up from the late 1980s. I personally never found any problems with the necks. They were always in my experience well fretted and well finished, and the Kluson copy machineheads seemed consistently good and stable.

However, the bodies were a different story, and I first started to see serious finishing defects in 1988. Over the course of the next seven years these defects could encompass anything from bad applications of the three-stage Candy Apple Red finish, which looked blotchy and unattractive, to inefficient sanding of the wood around the body edges, leaving perceptible corners on what should have been smoothly contoured guitars. The problems certainly didn’t affect every guitar, and the problems’ ubiquity was greater at some times than others. It wasn’t like all finishes up to ’88 were brilliant, and after that they were poor. I’m sure you could find some ’90s Strats which have better finishes than some ’85s or ’86s. But as a general picture, the incidence of ‘mingers’ did appear to increase from the late ‘80s, and you had to check things more carefully before buying.

Additionally, there arose a tendency towards rather hapzard-looking soldering (although it looked worse than it was because I’ve never had a solder join on an MIJ Fender go dud). Other than that, at the risk of getting into extreme nitpicking, in the ‘90s, some of the pilot holes seemed to have been drilled slightly too wide for the scratchplate and/or backplate screws. Some of these holes will strip their thread very easily so you have to be incredibly cautious when tightening a scratchplate or backplate screw.

But don’t be misled by any of the above. The important elements of the guitars’ general assembly remained superb, with scratchplates always placed bang-on-the-nail and pickups nicely seated, neck joins as snug as you’ll find, and good body wood which matures out for a great tone. The vibrato bridges never seemed in any way troublesome, and served, in my experience, to further underline the precision of the build. I’ve played a mind-boggling amount of Strats whose trem systems have caused headaches, but I can’t remember a FujiGen Fender ’57 Reissue which has refused to return to pitch under moderate trem use once properly set up. So these were always highly playable guitars, full of beans, and sounding very evocative indeed through a decent amp.


Because of their modest prices and the lack of any great concern about maintaining all original status, the Fender MIJ '57 Strat Reissues were a perfect canvas for customisation. A bit of hardware-swapping, augmented by a Fender USA Custom Shop gold anodised scratchplate and a set of American Fender Vintage Strat pickups, has rendered this white example highly reminiscent of David Gilmour's famous '0001' '50s Strat - although the MIJ is rather less worn than the real artefact.

1992 was a great year to buy an MIJ ’57 Strat Reissue, but the sub-£300 prices I mentioned near the start of this piece would not last. The model’s RRP in fact shot up by £169 in the next couple of years, and that inevitably took its toll on retail prices at the point of sale. Indeed, it seems that by 1995, FujiGen Gakki could no longer build the instrument to an acceptable quality, at a competitive price – hence a withdrawal of the Vintage Reissue. The replacement ‘Vintage Reminiscent’ spec guitar, which was essentially a cross between a ’54 Strat replica and a Squier Silver Series Strat, was listed rather generically as a ‘50s Strat’, rather than a ’57 Reissue, as was formerly the case. This ‘50s Strat’ was still produced by FujiGen Gakki, but it couldn’t have been long before Fender started to lose faith in FujiGen and focus production more heavily elsewhere. The Crafted in Japan models started to appear in significant number from the mid ‘90s, and the Fender-FujiGen contract was then fairly rapidly terminated.

CONCLUSION

As someone who’s owned both Squier JV Series and Fender MIJ ’57 Strats, I can categorically state that the Fender-branded MIJs were better in terms of build precision, playability and sound. That’s based only on guitars I’ve personally owned and used, but don’t be fooled by the hype on JVs and their typically higher prices than MIJ export Fenders. JVs were great guitars, but they built their rep as budget instruments, and it’s a lot easier to create a buzz when a product has a low price. Yes, true, the JVs were more vintage-authentic than the Fenders into which they morphed, but for consistently good sound and headache-free use, it’s my belief that the subsequent MIJ Fenders took the honours. So, I’m off now to fantasise about a spot of time travel back to 1992 with three hundred quid in my pocket and an empty gig bag under my arm. Now, which colour am I gonna pick?…

More Guitar Reviews and Retrospectives

Planet Botch provides a contact facility for business matters only. Here's the link to the Contact Page.