Squier Contemporary Active Stratocaster HH
HOW MUCH GUITAR CAN YOU GET FOR A GRAND WHEN IT SAYS SQUIER ON THE HEADSTOCK? QUITE A LOT, IT TURNS OUT! WORDS
Back in the ‘80s, Fender offered a really fun guitar line called the Contemporary Stratocaster, produced in Japan and offering humbuckers and locking tremolos. They were crazy amounts of fun (although some of the bridges offered were better than others), and they helped to keep Fender relevant in a changing market where everyone wanted ‘Superstrats’ with names like Ibanez, Jackson and Kramer on the headstock.
Now, the Contemporary name is back on a range of high-quality Squier Stratocasters and Telecasters, most of which retail at $899 and feature fixed (in the case of the Tele) or nonlocking (Strat) bridges, with the exception of the Contemporary Active Stratocaster HH, which has a Floyd Rose tremolo and a pair of specially designed active humbuckers and comes in at an RRP of $999.
This isn’t just a Squier-ized retread of the ‘80s Contemporary Stratocasters, though – that wouldn’t be very contemporary, would it? This model has a reversed ‘70s-style headstock with a slim C-shaped neck profile, 12-inch fingerboard radius and narrow-tall frets. In short, it takes everything we’ve learned about shred guitars since the ‘80s and applies it to a truly capable and classy lookin’ rock and metal guitar.
BE ONE OF THE POPLAR KIDS
The body is made of poplar – not the most obvious choice for a Stratocaster, but a good piece of poplar can be a great guitar wood. I have a Buddy Blaze seven-string prototype made of poplar, which has a really unique harmonic profile: tight bass, crisp highs and prominent, vocal upper mids. It reminds me of when you add a thick maple top to basswood, like on a Music Man Axis or EVH Wolfgang. I immediately noticed the same kind of snap and sing from this Squier, although in this case, we’ve got a rosewood fingerboard instead of the ebony of my Blaze.
The body and neck are finished in satin polyurethane, giving the guitar a more metal-esque look, and the neck finish is natural satin too for a smooth feel. There are 22 frets instead of the traditional Stratocaster 21, and the hardware is black chrome-plated. The pickups are active ceramic humbuckers, somewhat EMG-like with a standard three-position blade switch and Master Volume and Master Tone controls. There’s no coil-splitting option, though I feel like this guitar is made for distortion, not clean tones. Any clean tones you do find yourself using with this axe are likely to be of the Slayer, “Something evil is about to happen” variety, rather than a country twang or bluesy spank. If you want those tones, you shouldn’t be looking at this guitar.
It’s also worth noting that in the earliest day days of Squier, the brand was known for great, high-quality instruments. Over the years, the brand has been known for more affordable, entry-level guitars, but over the last decade or so, Squier has really moved back into pro-quality instruments. Proof of that is in the use of an actual Floyd Rose tremolo in this model instead of a licensed unit – but hardware choice alone doesn’t tell the full story. Squier has stepped up its game as guitar-making technology has progressed, and the brand is worth a serious second look if you haven’t played one in a while.
It’s eerie how much this guitar feels like a Fender rather than a Squier instrument. The neck is super comfortable, as is the setup. A sculpted neck joint would have been nice for those really widdly notes, but that’s a minor niggle. Sonically, the bridge pickup is quite sharp and crunchy – certainly not as dark as I might have expected from an ‘own-brand’ pickup. It has some really great pick attack that cuts through even insane levels of gain, and it has a nice edge to it when played clean too, if that’s your thing.
Flip to the neck pickup, and the guitar takes on a noodly character that’s especially effective for sweep picking or other super fast techniques. There are actually some pretty sweet, dynamic clean tones available when both pickups are used together – it’s not quite an indie jangle, but you’ll get plenty of mileage out of ‘em if needed. These pickups respond well to picking strength and fretting-hand phrasing, but the downside is that if your playing is a little less fancy, this guitar might sound a little more dull with the stock pickups. I can imagine a lot of players upgrading these pickups to EMG or Fishman actives – not necessarily because the stock pickups themselves lack anything, but because it’s already such a solid guitar that a little investment in new pickups would push it into some really unique territory.
The Floyd Rose holds its tuning as reliably as ever. If you’ve never used a Floyd (and it’s 2018, so what’s the hold-up!? The days of ‘90s Floyd hate are over, man), there’s a little bit of a learning curve to changing strings. But just remember: if you break a string with a Floyd, you can just unwind a little more string from the headstock and lock it back into the bridge. Try that with a Les Paul!
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s clear that this is a really well-made, greatplaying guitar with perfectly usable pickups: a little bit of an upgrade down the line would really push this guitar up another level, but it’s not exactly a slouch as it is. And it really does tap into the spirit of those original Contemporary Stratocasters, while learning from where those guitars didn’t quite get it right.