This $350 Fender guitar might just be the best value in the entire music market

Squier StratMatthew DeBord/BI

  • Fender's Squier line of electric guitars has long been seen as a great entry point for new players.
  • A lot of guitarist assume that these "beginner" instruments are just a stop on the road to a "real" Fender.
  • But the Classic Vibe Squier series offers something special: incredible quality, incredible value, and throwback setups to previous eras.
  • I tested a Squier Classic Vibe '70s Stratocaster and was blown away by the quality and playability of the guitar.
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Many guitarists know the Squier name because it was on the headstock of their first instrument. Like a lot of guitar companies, Squier's history is deep; it dates back to the late 1800s, when Victor Carroll Squier established a company to produce stringed implements for the making of music.

Fender bought Squier in the mid-1960s, but later the brand went on hiatus. It was revived in the early 1980s, and that's when its modern rep developed. Nowadays, Fender will sell you a Stratocaster or Telecaster electric guitar that's made in Asia carrying the Squier label for $200.

Consequently, while a lot of beginners start out with these rather fine guitars (I own an Affinity Strat, a remnant of one of my kids' interest in rockin' and rollin'), they often move on to a "real" instrument later. However, Fender offers within the Squier lineup "Classic Vibe" guitars that combine budget pricing with assemblies that evoke bygone eras. If you want a old-school Stratocaster, for example - one with a 1960s look and feel - Squier CV is your bag.

I've played plenty of awesome guitars, many of them with Fender script on the headstock. But when it comes to bang for your buck, the Squier Classic Vibe is hard to beat.

So I asked Fender to let me borrow a Classic Vibe 1970s Stratocaster to officially test out. Here's how it went down:

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Say hello to the Classic Vibe '70s Stratocaster HSS, in walnut with an Indian laurel fretboard.

Say hello to the Classic Vibe '70s Stratocaster HSS, in walnut with an Indian laurel fretboard.

The appealing idea behind the Classic Vibe Squier line is that some players want period-emulating guitars at a price that's substantially lower than what one would pay for either a vintage instrument or a Fender custom order.

The CVs are made in Indonesia, and the components, while generally excellent, aren't quite as stout or refined as what you'd find on Mexico-made guitars or the axes that come from Fender's Fullerton, CA factory. They are, however, wonderful beater instruments that you could happily flog at any grungy bar where you band is playing, free from the worry that someone might steal your baby or that the a $3,000 guitar with Fender script on the headstock could be knocked over and damaged.

I used my Marshall 50-watt, solid-state, two-channel amp to test the CV Strat, and the results were generally quite pleasing. The output from the bridge humbucker wasn't quite as gritty or roaring as what I get from my own Strat, but the middle and all-important neck pickups had a smoother tone than what I can wring from my 30-year-old single-coils. I also ran the CV Strat through an Orange head and cabinet, as well as Vox modeling amp, and again, I was able to craft some tasty sounds. I have a small Fender practice amp, as well, but the CV Strat didn't like it as much. I took that as a positive sign. This guitar wants a real Fender unit — perhaps a Blues Junior. That's a fantastic, $600 amp (new) that paired with the Squier would give you a smashing rig for less than $1,000.

What really made CV Squiers stand out for me is their wonderful playing feel. Feel is a personal thing, but if a guitar doesn't have it — well, it matters little if the price tag is in the thousands. It used to be that budget guitars felt cheap, but that's no longer the case. My opinion is that CV Squiers feel superior to some of Fender's Mexico-made guitars, although the build-quality on the so-called "MIM" instruments is noticeably better.

The Classic Vibe '70s Squier Strat features the large headstock that was the norm for that decade. Some players think the extra wood adds some resonance and sustain.

The Classic Vibe '70s Squier Strat features the large headstock that was the norm for that decade. Some players think the extra wood adds some resonance and sustain.

According to Fender, this Strat has three alnico pickups, along with "a slim, comfortable 'C'-shaped neck profile with an easy-playing 9.5"-radius fingerboard and narrow-tall frets, as well as a vintage-style tremolo system for expressive string bending effects."

The vintage-style finish on the neck is perhaps my favorite aspect — I don't like it when guitars look too new.

The vintage-style tuners are a nice touch. Because of their bridge design and famous whammy bar, Strats have a reputation for being a little unstable on the tuning front. This Squier stayed in tune pretty well, however.

The vintage-style tuners are a nice touch. Because of their bridge design and famous whammy bar, Strats have a reputation for being a little unstable on the tuning front. This Squier stayed in tune pretty well, however.

The components on my test guitar were of high quality generally, although they lacked the heft and finish of what you'd find on higher-end Fender axes. Of course, for less that $400, one can't expect the best of the best. With CV Squiers, Fender offers a beautiful compromise. I personally think that these guitars look and play like instruments that cost twice as much.

Two aspects worth calling out are the real bone nut — typically found only on much nicer guitars — and the poplar-wood body, which is just about perfect for weight and sustain, not too heavy, but not insubstantial.

The familiar three-knob, five-way-pickup-selector setup. For this HSS Strat the single-coil bridge pickup has been exchanged for a beefier humbucker.

The familiar three-knob, five-way-pickup-selector setup. For this HSS Strat the single-coil bridge pickup has been exchanged for a beefier humbucker.

The idea here is to give Strat players options normally reserved for their Gibson Les Paul-playing brethren. Strats are famous for their neck pickups, but a lot of folks think the single-coil bridge pickup is useless. Dropping a humbucker (so called because unlike a single-coil unit, it doesn't buzz when selected) in there means you can use your Strat to play heavier music, punk and metal, but still have the tasty neck single-coil when it's Hendrix time.

I find that HSS Strats can go from, say, a Dead Boys cover with the bridge engaged to sliding through a funk number with the neck selected and some of the tone rolled off.

It's worth noting that you can always use the CV Squier as a platform for customization, swapping out the pickups for different models.

I'm a fan! Honestly, Squier's Classic Vibe '70s Strat might be the best value in all of guitar-dom.

I'm a fan! Honestly, Squier's Classic Vibe '70s Strat might be the best value in all of guitar-dom.

For much of my guitar-playing life, I've favored Fender Telecasters, but after I got into a group, I found that Strats are both easier for me to play and offer more versatility. So I bought an old Squier and I haven't looked back. My axe is also an HSS setup, with a pretty beefy bridge humbucker and milder single coils in the middle at the neck.

It was a cheap acquisition, and even after I had some work done on it, it came in below what a new Squier Classic Vibe '70s HSS would have run me. But I had to dig around to find it, and then I had to figure out how to get it up to snuff. Meanwhile, for $350, I could have had a gig-worthy Strat that would perform at the same level. No overthinking involved.

Classic Vibe Squiers are, as far as I'm concerned, the most stupid-good values in all of guitaring. I've sampled the best, US-made instruments Fender has to offer, and yes, they're worth every penny. But for grab-and-go playing, CV Squiers are amazing. And if you don't like something about them, you can always upgrade components and even swap out the necks.

I also own a cheaper Squier Strat — a roughly $200 instrument — and the move up in quality from it to the CV is astounding. That starter guitar is a fine thing, but the CV is worth the extra $150 for the neck alone.

My view is that Classic Vibe is the best starting point for most beginner guitarists. Even if you bail out after a year, you should be able to easily sell a CV. But if you stick with it, you can take a Classic Vibe all the way to the stage with no problem.

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