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Vintage guitar of the week #11 - 1990 Fender Stratocaster Plus

Yes, this guitar counts as vintage. It's 25 years old.

This is a bit of a special guitar for me because it's how I remember Strats being when I first starting getting into guitars. I first picked up the guitar in 1990, so this is the kind of thing I saw new in guitar stores back in the day.

Let's talk about the 1990 Fender Stratocaster Plus model.

What makes it a "Plus," specifically? Factory installed Lace Sensor Gold pickups, a Fender/Wilkinson roller nut (later changed to the LSR nut,) Sperzel staggered locking tuners (later changed to Schaller locking tuners,) TBX tone control, and a Hipshot Tremsetter. On the bridge you will see the two-point bridge and the brushed offset screw saddles, complemented with black adjustment screws and black springs.

This was a time when Fender was stuffing their high-end Stratocaster models with all sorts of goodies, and in addition going for a sleek, streamlined look. The color choices for the Plus model were specifically designed to look upscale, the Fender logo on the headstock at the time was small and silver in color with black outline, and "MADE IN U.S.A." was shown directly beneath "STRATOCASTER", all on the front of the headstock. The back of the headstock is blank as this is before the days of putting any decals on the back.

But is the guitar any good?

Yes and no.

The necks feel wonderful on this particular era of Strat. Fender was using satin urethane coatings (and still does) on the back of the neck during this time on the USA models, giving a silky smooth feel.

String bunching/kinking absolutely doesn't happen on the Plus due to the roller nut and locking tuners. In fact, the only way I know to get any sort of bunching or kink noises is if you specifically let the strings rust first before playing. Obviously, nobody does that.

Where things get a little weird for the uninitiated is how Lace Sensor pickups work when mated to a TBX tone control.

Okay. Let's explain this.

The big deal with the Lace Sensor pickups is that instead of using pole pieces, they use what they call magnetic sensing fields. Make no mistake, this Strat still sounds like a Strat should, but for some, the sound that comes out the Sensors takes a little getting used to because the tonal character is not the same as pole pieces.

Lace Sensor tone is good, and I admit it makes for a wonderful stage guitar as it's a lot easier to command a more "even" sound. But the character of the sound is different. I can't really describe in words what that sounds like. You'd have to hear it for yourself to know. It's not bad. It's just different, and that's really all I can say about it.

Where players really get thrown for a loop is with the TBX tone control.

TBX is Treble/Bass eXpander, and what this does is something I can describe in words easily.

A TBX tone control basically acts like a boost. From a roll of 0 to 5, you get normal tone control. After 5 there is a notch, which you will feel when you reach it when turning the knob. After that notch, resistance is decreased, which provides more treble frequencies, more bass frequencies, more presence and more output - and this is why I say it acts like a boost.

The main advantage to TBX is that it's all passive. No battery required.

The main problem with TBX is that for those not in the know, they just think that after the notch, the portion of the tone control where TBX is engaged is simply "the other half" of the overall tone palate, when in fact it's not. 0 to 5 is regular tone control. 5 to 10 is TBX-enabled. This means for regular Strat tone control "on 10," you would turn the control to 5, and for expanded tone, you go past 5.

Why is this a problem? Because for those that don't know TBX, they would simply turn the TBX control up to literal 10 because that's all they've ever known, resulting in a "screechy" sound. In reality, the best use of TBX is never on literal 10 but rather at literal 6 or 7. And when I say literal I mean "as you see it on the knob."

In other words, literal 0 to 5 is actually 0 to 10 regular tone control, and literal 5 to 10 is TBX 0 to 10.

Confused? You probably are. That's okay, because most have no clue how TBX works until they actually sit down and use it.

In as plain English as I can state it: "The first half" is regular Strat tone control, "the second half" is TBX-enabled tone control. If you want traditional Strat tone control, use 0 to 5. If you want TBX, use 5 to 10. I can't say it any simpler than that.

Will you hear TBX when it's engaged? Oh, yes. That boosted sound will come through loud and clear.

Is it worth owning the real-deal 1990 Plus model?

This all depends on whether you like this particular era of Fender Stratocaster styling, and whether you believe the improvements to the guitar are actual improvements.

I can honestly say this era of Strat styling is the sleekest. Fender went with a sort of industrial-inspired look here. If you put the '90 Strat Plus next to a brand new American Standard, the '90 looks more expensive and more upscale, given its appointments. The Lace Sensor pickups have no pole pieces, so that along with the smooth, brushed saddles and smooth look of the tuners add to that sleek appearance.

A modern Fender that compares to the '90 Plus is the Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster. Remember, the Strat Plus was a top-of-the-line model for its day. The Deluxe of today does offer enhancements just like the Plus did, but in a decidedly different way. The look of the Deluxe is kept more traditional. No roller nut is present and there are no Lace Sensors, but it does have N3 Noiseless pickups, S-1 switching and compound radius fretboard. The Deluxe truly is deluxe, but is a different animal compared to the '90 Plus.

However, the Deluxe costs more than the '90 Strat does by several hundred dollars.

In the end, if you like the older industrial style and guitar enhancements of the time, then yes, it's worth buying the '90 Stratocaster Plus. The "Plus" wasn't just marketing schlock, as the guitar truly does have several enhancements over the Standard, both in the year it was made and today compared to a new American Standard.

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