Somewhat unusually for a ‘signature' artist, Simon Neil may require an introduction. Neil is the guitarist and vocalist for Biffy Clyro, a Scottish alternative rock band renowned for their complex, heavy, melodic interwoven guitar riffs and chord sequences.
Their live shows have won a huge following of fans all over the globe, and Neil and bassist James Johnston have been honoured with Artist Series Squiers: Johnson gets a Lake Placid blue Jazz Bass, and Neil has this classy-looking Strat.
In essence this is a tweaked Classic Vibe '60s Strat (we looked at the '50s Strat and Tele models in Vol 20 No 3) but with a few mods to suit the Biffy frontman's tonal tastes and to bring it closer to his favoured Fender Custom Shop Time Machine '60s Strats, without the associated hefty price tag.
As with the Classic Vibe Strat range - themselves a reminder of the halcyon days of the JV-era Squiers - the body contouring is softer than many cheaper versions, and the finish is really something special.
Fiesta red is a notoriously tricky colour to agree on, let alone match, but they've done a great job for a low-priced production model. The aged plastic parts including knobs, switch tip and minty scratchplate may not hold up to concourse close scrutiny, but they're sum-of-the-parts convincing.
The amber-tinted one-piece maple neck is also superb.
The absence of any unnecessary skunk stripe (bravo, Fender) really helps that sought-after ‘vintage' look. With a slim section and a close shaved C-profile with filled tang-less fret ends, it's slinky in the palm and could easily pass on a far more expensive instrument.
A pleasantly chocolatey rosewood 9.5" radius fingerboard with neat fake ‘clay' dots provides a home for 21 medium jumbo frets. The fretwork installation is very impressive, and the choice of a wire that's tall but not too wide or chunky provides a great balance between accurate chord intonation and effortless string bending with a low action.
Our sample was a breeze to play, and the floating vibrato - a regular moulded-block Squier unit with the addition of bent steel saddles - offers about a whole tone up-bend and good return to pitch.
The Simon Neil signature lurks on the rear of the headstock at the end of the row of six Kluson-a-like tuners, and a Biffy Clyro logo is placed on the headstock nose. Truss rod access is at the headstock end, as with most Squier or modern Fenders.
It's a practical and sensible compromise when balanced against having to remove the whole neck to make adjustments, as on a vintage original or an accurate reissue.
But it's the pickups that really put the signature on this model. These ‘custom vintage-style pickups' use different magnets - three Alnico V magnets on the bass side and a trio of Alnico III slugs for the treble.
Pickup makers say Alnico V magnets offer a harder-edged midrange while Alnico III displays more warmth and a mellower voice - but as ever, this is really in the ear of the listener.
Under the scratchplate you'll find standard Squier small-case pots and a cheap switch. I'd liked to have seen higher quality parts in the signal path, but these parts are relatively inexpensive to upgrade should the need arise.
Played acoustically, this Strat sounds quite light and airy. Plug into a decent valve combo with lots of headroom and things get interesting. The tweaked pickups stamp on any preconceived Squier Strat tonal expectations; played clean the bottom end flaunts the tight, focussed Strat snap beloved of many players, but cross over to the treble strings and there's a noticeable and unexpected thickness to the tone.
The Alnico III magnets may account for some of this fatter presence, and on the ‘in between' settings normally reserved for funkier, percussive moments the tone is dark and slightly muted.
The output isn't particularly hot or overwound, but upping the gain compresses and fuses the distinct tonal differences. The lower strings retain a crisp edge for articulate lower string riffs and chunky, defined chordal work retains clarity while the treble strings revel in that thick mellowness with plenty of body and presence for strong solos and melodic passages.
At full tilt the voice is tight, raucous and balanced across all the pickup settings, without a hint of wincing brittleness. It's also great fun to play.