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Fender Player Lead II is awful (get the III instead)


I tried one of these recently. It was not good.

I recently went to Guitar Center because I was thinking about buying new guitar. While there, I spotted a Fender Lead II on the rack and tried it out.

The one I tried is exactly like the one you see above in a color Fender calls Crimson Red Trans.

The only three things I can say positively about the guitar is that it looks cool, the body felt right, and the neck felt nice. The red is deep and the black guard works well with it. Overall, it's a very nice look. The body does feel correct and is easy to get used to. The neck has the "Modern C" profile and that also felt nice.

Everything else, however... bad.

The deal with this guitar is that it has special switching on it which is guaranteed to confuse most players. Volume and tone, you know those. One of the 3-way switches is a pickup selector and you know that one too. It's that other toggle where there weirdness starts.

If you have both pickups selected and flick that switch, the pickups are put out-of-phase and "honk" right out. And the reason it only works when both pickups are on is because that's required to do the out-of-phase thing. Yes, that means the switch only does one thing on one pickup setting.

But the weirdness continues, because there is not a single pickup setting on this guitar that sounds good at all.

I'll start with the out-of-phase thing first. This is absolutely not the same out-of-phase sound you get from a traditional build Fender Mustang with single-coils in it, like the Fender Vintera '60s Mustang. That Mustang's out-of-phase tone sounds great. But the Lead II's version of that just sounds so ridiculously choked. Everything about it is just wrong.

The other 3 pickup positions all have a sound I can only describe as plastic. It basically sounds like a bad attempt at a Strat copy.

Lead II also has period correct '70s "F" tuners on it. I've played other Fenders with these and they worked fine, but not on this guitar. On the one I played, the wound strings barely held their tuning even after stretching them out. I had played a brand new dirt cheap Squier Bullet Strat HT just before I picked up the Lead II. The Bullet Strat held tuning with no problem and it too was also a hardtail with 25.5" scale length just like the Lead II.

This is one of those rare instances where I think the guitar would be better off with modern Fender sealed tuners. I very much like slotted tuners and always prefer them first, but on the Lead II they just don't work.

It is rare I come across a Fender that disagrees with me this much

An example of a Fender design that puts me off instantly is the Duo-Sonic, but only for one reason - the bottom middle curve. I talk about in detail here. I can't play a Duo-Sonic in the seated position because of where the neck sits when the guitar is resting on my leg. The Mustang however with its bottom middle curve set back further puts the neck in just the right spot.

Lead II is a different story. For the tuning issues, maybe a change of the nut and using my string of choice would fix that. But for the sound, I seriously doubt I could ever wrangle a good tone out of it.

Unfortunately, I did not spot a Lead III in stock, so I couldn't try one. That one has dual humbucker pickups instead of dual single-coils.

I'm confident that the Lead III has none of the tone issues the Lead II has, and I'll tell you exactly why. Alnico II magnet humbuckers. This is a lower output humbucker that (usually) has more treble response and would suit the Lead very well.

It should also be noted there is no out-of-phase on the Lead III. The second toggle acts as a coil split instead. Much more usable for the Lead overall.

I'm 100% certain that had I tried a Lead III instead of the II, I would have liked the guitar a whole lot better. And bear in mind this is coming from a guy who prefers single-coil pickups.

And if anybody from Fender happens to read this, the Lead III could really use a set of chrome cover humbuckers. It's solely for appearance, but wow would it look nice with those - especially the ones with the "Fender" logo stamped on them.

Published 2021 Mar 9

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