The Stratocaster is without a doubt one of the most popular guitars of all time. It has remained largely unchanged since inception in the 1950s, and has aged gracefully throughout the decades.
Originally, all Stratocasters were made by Fender in California, but as with all things, the rising cost of domestic manufacturing took its toll, and in order to continue to be able to provide affordable instruments to the average player, and to remain competitive in the market, Fender had to begin production in foreign plants.
Fender has made Stratocasters in most of the usual foreign manufacturing nations – China, Japan, Indonesia, and Korea to name a few, but they also own a plant in Ensenada, Mexico, just 180 miles south of their Coronado, CA headquarters.
Fender’s Mexican made instruments are typically considered to be their second tier – not quite up to the standard of the US made guitars, but a noticeable step up from those made in China, for example.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ve put together the most comprehensive top to bottom comparison of American made vs. Mexican made Stratocasters. Because there are a number of various models made at each plant, we’ve focused on their most comparable options, the American Performer Stratocaster, and the Player Series Stratocaster (Made in Mexico). These guitars are both rebranded, and were formerly named the American Standard, and the Mexican Standard.
Keep on reading to learn more about these top selling Strats.
The American Performer Stratocaster is built with a maple neck, like all other Stratocasters. It has a rear installed truss rod, which is why it features the classic walnut “Skunk Stripe” on the rear.
The headstock and the neck are formed from a single piece of wood, so you’ll find no joins, and therefore fewer potential points of failure. It has the 70s jumbo style headstock, with the large 70s style Fender branding.
It has a Modern C shape neck profile. The modern C neck is a great “middle of the road” shape that suits a majority of guitarists, perhaps with the exception of those with the very largest hands. It has more of a flat oval shape than a traditional C profile neck, and is pretty much uniform in shape from the nut to the 12th fret.
The neck has a fast feeling and durable satin urethane finish. It’s very thin, and feels barely there, but does a great job of protecting the light maple from staining, even with heavy use.
On American Performer Strats there is no choice in fretboards. All color options come with a rosewood board. Rosewood is a rarer, more expensive, and generally more premium choice than alternatives like Indian laurel or pau ferro, and goes some way to justifying the additional cost of the US made guitar.
The fretboard has a fairly modern, and again, very neutral 9.5” radius. Stratocasters are very much “Jack of all trades” type guitars, and this is why the 9.5” radius works so well with it. It’s curved enough to comfortably finger chords, and it’s flat enough to allow for quick lead work and bends without excessive choke outs.
American Performer models are not vintage style Strats, so you’ll find that they have a modern fret setup. They get 22 Jumbo frets, with the highest standard of fit and finish. There is no sprout, no sharps, and the crowns are highly polished for a fantastically smooth playing experience.
Although the requirement for a neck shim is more common on Jazzmasters than it is on Strats, the American Performer does come with a micro tilt adjustment in the neck heel. This makes it much easier, and more reliable, to adjust the neck angle. For further neck adjustments, it has a standard truss rod, and uses a ⅛” American Series truss rod nut.
The Mexican made Player Series Strat also gets a 1 piece carved maple neck and headstock. Like almost all modern Fender guitars, the truss rod is installed via a rear channel, requiring a skunk stripe on the back.
It features the smaller headstock type, with the vintage “spaghetti” Fender branding. This is a really popular look, and a lot more subtle than the 70s style.
Like the American Performer, the Player Stratocaster has a Modern C neck profile. The shape is more or less identical, although the Mexican made model’s neck feels slightly slimmer due to the reduced nut width. It has the same flattened oval shape with no taper to speak of between the nut and the 12th fret.
The neck is treated to a lovely satin urethane finish. It’s a little thicker than the finish you’d find on the US made model, but because it’s satin, it’s still fast, and never feels gummy or sticky.
A benefit of choosing the Player Series over the American Performer is that you get a choice of fretboards on certain color options. There are both maple and pau ferro options to choose from. If you opt for maple, it has a hard wearing gloss urethane top coat, and as expected, the pau ferro is unfinished. If you do opt for pau ferro, you’ll find it to be somewhat dryer and lighter in color than the rosewood, with pores that are a little more open, but it’s still a good wood choice for a fretboard.
Like most modern Strats, it features 22 frets. The frets on the Mexican made Player Series are medium jumbo, which is a size down from the jumbo frets found on the US made Performer. Medium jumbo is a much more forgiving size for less experienced players as they don’t require such a light touch. Heavy fingered players using jumbo wire will often pull their strings sharp, giving the impression of poor intonation.
As well as the neck being the same shape, the fretboard radius is also the same, at 9.5”. It offers good feel for most players, giving more experienced guitarists the playability they need, while at the same time not working against newcomers.
The American performer series Stratocaster is built with a solid alder body. Alder is widely used in Strats and Strat style guitars, and is well known for its bright tones and good responsiveness. The alder tone is ideal for blues and rock, but in reality it works well with pretty much any genre.
US made American Performer alder Strat bodies are typically made from 2 pieces of alder, but on occasion they are made with 3, and rarely, you might find that yours even has a 1 piece body.
Even on multi piece bodies, Fender doesn’t install veneers on the American Performer models, so on models with translucent finishes, the joins may be visible, but they go to greater lengths to match the color of the wood and the grain as best as possible, so that it is less obvious that the body is multi piece.
Depending on the color option you opt for, the American Performer will have either a satin urethane, or a gloss urethane finish. Like all guitar finishes, urethane is there to protect the wood and the paintwork underneath. A urethane finish like this is a little bit tougher than nitrocellulose, but significantly softer than polyester, so, it will age over time
The urethane finish is a big reason for the price jump from the Player Series. Urethane takes significantly longer to cure than polyester, which ultimately increases the length of time it takes to make an American Performer Strat, increasing the overall cost of production.
Unfortunately, the American Performer comes in a limited range of colors, with just 3 options to choose from. You can pick from a transparent Honey Burst, Arctic White, or Satin Lake Placid Blue.
Further adding to the value of the Player Series, it is also made with a solid Alder body, just like the American Performer. Alder is light weight and relatively easy to work with as a wood, which helps in the construction of the comfort contours found on the Stratocaster body. Of course, alder also contributes to the classic, bright Strat tones, too.
Player Series Stratocasters, like most of the Mexican made models (and even US models), have bodies made with multiple pieces of wood, but while the American bodies might have 2 to 3 pieces, the Mexican bodies can be pieced together with as many as 8 pieces of wood. Ultimately it has little to no effect on tone, but it does allow Fender to reduce the cost of construction, which contributes to the lower price.
Player Series models with transparent finishes; sunburst models, for example, may have veneers placed on the bodies to hide the joins, as with Mexican made bodies there is no color or grain matching during construction.
The bodies are finished in polyester lacquer, which is a great top coat layer to use on a guitar, especially for those not interested in aging or relic-ing their Strat. Polyester lacquer cures to a rock hard finish in a matter of hours, making large scale production an incredibly efficient process. The biggest downside to polyester finishes is that their hardness means that if you drop or ding your guitar, you can end up taking large chunks or flakes out of the finish, and it can look quite unsightly.
There are 8 different color options available, and they go beyond the usual sunburst, black, and red that the Strat is known for. In fact, in addition to the classic 3 Color Sunburst, and Black finishes, it also comes in Tidepool blue, Polar White, Buttercream, Capri Orange, and even Silver.
One more area in which the American made models stand out over their Mexican made counterparts is in the hardware that comes installed on them. The American Performer gets the all new Classic Gear tuning machines, which have the ever popular vintage style buttons, but with a more modern 18:1 gear ratio that improves the smoothness of their operation and simultaneously improves fine tuning and tuning stability.
The bridge features 6 bent Fender stamped saddles with 2 1/16” string spacing, and has a Standard Series vintage style 6 screw Synchronized Tremolo system. The trem system gets a steel block, which provides superior resonance, sustain and tone in comparison to the zinc alloy blocks found on lower end models.
It has a fairly standard, unbranded synthetic bone nut, with a 1.685” width. This is a little wider than you’d find on foreign made Strats.
One of the most subtle upgrades you’ll notice on American made Strats is the type of string tree. American Performer models get a pair of roller trees, which help to extend string life, improve intonation and tuning stability, and generally look nicer than the standard trees.
For the pickguard, you’ll either get a 3 ply mint guard on the Honey Burst and Satin Lake Placid Blue models, or a 3 ply black guard on the Arctic White model. Regardless of the color, these models get a standard 12 screw pickguard.
The knobs are aged white plastic, and really look excellent against all of the available colors.
The Mexican made Player Series Stratocasters are fitted with the basic Fender sealed gear tuners. They have modern style trapezoid tuning keys, and they look sleek, especially on the smaller headstock.
Interestingly, the Player Series Stratocaster has what many would consider to be the better tremolo system of the two guitars. The American Performer has a 6 screw tremolo system, while the Mexican made Player Series gets a more modern 2 point bridge. A 2 point trem typically makes it easier to float the bridge, and also provides better tuning stability, perhaps at the cost of a marginal (almost imperceptible) loss in sustain.
The trem block itself is made of zinc alloy, which as mentioned earlier, doesn’t provide as much sustain as you’d get from the heavier steel block on a US model. It’s a relatively inexpensive and simple enough upgrade if you find that the sustain isn’t enough, but it will add extra weight to your guitar, as the zinc is noticeably lighter.
Like the American Performer, the Player Series also comes equipped with a synthetic bone nut. Like the more expensive US made version, the nut is very well cut, and unless you’re an extreme tremolo system user, it’s very unlikely that you’d find a genuine reason to change or upgrade this. The nut is also slightly narrower than that of the American Strat, coming in at 1.650” vs. 1.685”.
It gets a set of Fender vintage style nickel plated chrome saddles, that are identical in appearance to those on the American guitar. They aren’t particularly fancy, but these bent metal saddles still perform well.
No matter which color you opt for, the Player Series comes with a 3 ply parchment pickguard, with a standard 12 screw setup, making this another component that is interchangeable with Fender USA parts.
American Performer models are endowed with high end electronics and wiring. This is one of the most noticeable benefits of choosing a US made guitar over an import.
For example, American Performers come pre loaded with Fender’s excellent Yosemite pickups in a triple single coil (SSS) layout. They use a mixture of Alnico II and Alnico IV magnets together with staggered pole pieces to provide a versatile, and robust range of classic Strat tones. They also happen to feature reverse wound/reverse polarity coils in the middle pickup, and this makes them significantly quieter than generic single coil options.
These guitars are wired up with the Fender Greasebucket tone circuit, too. Without getting too technical, the purpose of this is to keep the bass EQ flatter than it would be with traditional wiring. This means as you roll off the tone, it cuts treble without increasing bass frequencies, reducing muddiness, and giving you a more usable tone control. It’s especially effective when being paired with overdrive or time based effects.
The American Performer Stratocaster also gets a push pull potentiometer on the tone 2 knob. In this case, the push pull activates the neck pickup in parallel when the 5 way switch is in position 1 or 2, giving you access to either bridge and neck together, or all 3 pickups simultaneously. These positions are not typically available on a Standard Stratocaster setup, so this feature adds a lot of additional versatility to an already versatile guitar.
The Player Series Mexican Stratocaster is fitted with a trio of high performing Alnico V single coil pickups. The model that this replaced, the Mexican Standard, came with ceramic pups, so it’s clear that Fender are doing more to make their more affordable models more appealing to working and professional musicians. The pickups themselves are exclusive to the Player Series, and offer all the basic, yet timeless, Strat tones that keep this model so popular.
If you’re into a thicker sound from the bridge position, the Player Series is also available in a HSS setup, with a humbucker in the bridge, and even in an HSH, with humbuckers in the neck and bridge, with a single coil in the middle.
The wiring and circuitry setup on the Player Series is extremely simple by way of comparison with the American model. There are no Greasebucket circuits, no solderless quick connectors, just plain shielded wires running from the pickups to the pots to the output jack.
Similarly, the pots don’t have any trick push pull controls, although one stand out feature they do have is bridge tone control. Most Stratocasters have a master volume and 2 tone controls, which only adjusts the neck and middle pickups. On the Player Series, tone 1 adjusts both the neck and middle pickups simultaneously, while tone 2 gives control over the bridge pickup. This unlocks a whole range of new tones that were previously not available, and is a big plus point for the Player Series.
Price and Residual Value
One of the most common reasons that people opt to spend the additional money on a US made model like the American Performer is the residual value. The initial purchase price is higher at a typical $1400 MSRP, but used models in good condition rarely drop below $1000 on the open market. If you tend to trade in or sell guitars regularly, the resale price on your US made American performer will sting far less than it would with a Mexican made model.
The Player Series is around ⅓ less to buy initially, starting at around $850 MSRP at most retailers, but recovering your money should you decide to sell is much harder. These guitars don’t retain value in the same way, and in anything less than mint condition, they can sell for as little as $350 on the used market, representing as much as a 58% loss vs an approx 28% loss in value on an American made model.
Final Thoughts on American Stratocasters vs. Mexican Stratocasters
Aesthetically, there are practically no differences between American and Mexican made Strats, but under the surface you’ll find that the differences can be significant. US made models are beautifully made, with higher quality control standards, and generally better components, however, Mexican made Strats are still phenomenal guitars for working musicians who might not have the budget for a domestic example.
The average player is unlikely to benefit much from the differences in feel, and because components on US and Mexican made Stratocaster components are largely interchangeable (both use imperial measurements), it’s very easy to upgrade a Mexican Strat with American components – something that’s worth considering if you can’t necessarily afford an American guitar.
Ultimately, both are excellent options, and you’ll probably be very happy with either. The American Performer isn’t any better just because it’s made in the US, it’s purely because the US is where Fender has chosen to build their highest quality guitars.