Jimi Hendrix reaches the end of an already incendiary set at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, when he takes off his black Stratocaster, and straps on another Strat. This formerly red Strat now features a hand-painted white base and personal designs applied with nail polish by the young guitarist earlier in the day. As he plugs in, strumming it to get in tune, he laughs and makes a seemingly offhand remark to the euphoric crowd about sacrificing “something I love,” before summoning a wall of feedback to start the set-closing “Wild Thing.” Unknown to everyone but Jimi, the Strat is now an offering to the audience and his destiny, the guitar a legendary piece, and then pieces, of modern history.
The fiery, cathartic end of the show may have felt like a bomb exploding, but it was really the launch blast of a rocket starting to rise that fateful summer. A rocket that continues to rise and travel upwards to this day. After that show, the name Jimi Hendrix became synonymous with Fender Stratocaster. And one Strat became a legend of its own.
Fender’s 2017 Hendrix Monterey Stratocaster is not Fender’s first Hendrix tribute Stratocaster, but the latest offering from Fender in honor of Jimi, featuring custom shop touches at a comfortable price. When you unwrap it, the first response is Wow! The Fender Hendrix Monterey Stratocaster is a real looker right off the bat. It immediately summons the image of its namesake.
At first look, the Monterey’s paint job is very striking, but not over the top, with an off-white base over the original red finish. The languid, semi-psychedelic graphics are inspired by the original designs Jimi painted on his Strat the afternoon of his pivotal appearance at the festival. Though instantly recognizable, they’re not a direct replication of the master’s handiwork, but a tastefully inspired tribute to that iconic modification by Mr. Hendrix.
OK, we know it looks really cool, but how does it play? The Monterey arrived in tune and sporting a slick, low action setup from the factory. Just from a couple of unplugged strums, it’s obvious this Strat has plenty going for it. The solid fit of the neck to body connection lends a deep resonance for a singing sustain across all the strings. The low notes bloom and the high notes up the neck have a rich, crying quality. Cowboy chords ring out full of overtones, while more complex and high-reaching chords speak up clearly from each string. That’s a great start.
From right out of the box, the setup makes for fast, easy playing and smooth bends all along the neck. It’s a guitar that you just want to keep in hand. The Monterey’s setup has more of a modern feel compared to a classic 60s Strat, and even with .010 gauge strings, high bends and wide vibratos come with ease. The neck is a comfortable medium “C” shape, with rounded edges, a classic 7.25-inch radius and vintage-style frets. The pao ferro fretboard looks and feels like a rosewood board; an encouraging option to the waning supply of the traditional fretboard wood. A smooth satin finish gives the back of the neck and headstock a warm amber hue, complementing the unique paint job, and upping the vintage vibe. In hand, you feel the great balance and stability of the guitar, courtesy of the timeless ergonomic Stratocaster design.
On the Monterey, the bridge is set with a standard Fender factory float, anchored by three springs set tight enough to keep the bridge stable during wide bends. Resting your palm on the bridge seems to have no ill effects, either. Yet, for a non-locking tremolo system, the Monterey stays pretty in tune for your average wobbling, no doubt due to the accurate setup and the well-slotted nut. For your own ‘Wild Thing’ whammy bar opus, however, you’ll still need to twist a tuning peg or two afterwards. Gilmour style vibrato touches are easily summoned with a light touch, adding shimmer to chords and phrases.
The pickups are particularly well-suited to this Strat, with a mid-60s output (averaging 5.5k ohms) and a mellower top end. All the familiar Strat tones are available from the five-way switch, but this set picks up the ringing, resonant quality of the guitar with particular aplomb. The classic Strat-tone touchpoints reveal themselves as you flick from the tubular neck pickup of Blackmore/Yngwie to the middle pickup snarl of Trower to the in-betweens Knopfler quack right down to the Buddy Guy bite of the bridge position.
These slightly lower output Strat pickups work particularly well with fuzz tones because they maintain their character and definition, even under heavy fuzz. It bore this quality through an original red Fuzz Face, a modern BYO FF clone, and a Keeley Monterey (!) digital workstation, which offers a variety of Hendrix-style tones. The Monterey also works up a good lather through a Tube Screamer or Klon-style overdrive, too. Using the guitar’s volume knob effectively is the key here; a good Fuzz pedal delivers an array of tones based on the input from the guitar, a technique Jimi mastered. In fact, the guitar sounds great with all the pedals I have available; from Phase 90s to Univibe stylings from the Keeley pedal, a Cry Baby wah-wah, to some chorus and an Echoplex, the Monterey reveals the classic tones and some much more modern, outside reaching sounds. You still hear this guitar in and through all of them. But that’s not surprising for a good Strat.
As mentioned earlier, both the guitar’s fit and finish are excellent; it seems to have received some extra attention on the finish bench. It feels like a Strat with an Eric Johnson setup; fast, versatile and confident. The Alder body is medium weight, very resonant and a solid platform the neck and tremolo system. A well-coupled feeling of stability comes from a four-bolt neck to body attachment, with the neck plate bearing Jimi’s image and an Authentic Hendrix logo. The master’s signature graces the back of the headstock.
There’s no locking tremolo, but the Kluson-style tuning pegs and higher string tee work smoothly to keep strings from sticking in the synthetic bone nut. The comfortable width at the nut and 2-1/16-inch string spacing, over the flatter-than-expected vintage 7.25-inch fretboard radius with a rounded board edge and smoothed fret edges, are the complementary details that enhance the slick action.
A deftly blended white and red finishes cover the top, before succumbing to all red on the guitar’s backside, and the parchment color tremolo cavity cover matches the pickguard, where the trippy designs wind around the lower and upper bouts of the Monterey, even wandering onto the pickguard’s controls section. Again, it’s not an exact reproduction, but a respectful tribute to that once-in-a-lifetime flash of inspiration from Hendrix.
Obviously, the overall aesthetics of the Monterey evokes a Jimi vibe, right down to his signature and image on the guitar itself. And it can create that vibe while you’re playing it, because at its core it’s a great Stratocaster. Jimi could play any guitar he wanted, but he chose a Stratocaster because it could do what he wanted; facilitate the sounds he heard in his head. The original Monterey Strat, with its unique finish applied only just before going onstage to deliver history for its master, was a great Stratocaster before it became an icon. The guitar meant something to Jimi, he even announces that he’s going to “sacrifice something I love,” before offering it to the heavens. The sacrifice isn’t of the unique touches he applied almost like war paint, but of the instrument he used to deliver the coup de gras of his legendary set.
Even if a tribute guitar is not normally in your sights, the Monterey, goes beyond a respectful tribute to the Stratocaster’s greatest ambassador to bring you a great-looking Stratocaster full of custom features at a non-custom shop price. It’s a player’s guitar, not a showpiece guitar to leave in a case or on a display rack, its one that needs and deserves to be played. A Stratocaster made to do what a Strat does best; facilitate the sounds in your head.
Just don’t set it on fire.
The Jimi Hendrix Monterey Stratocaster has a street price of $899. For more information, visit www.fender.com.