FIG. 1: The Fender VG Stratocaster offers several modeled electric and acoustic guitars, and you can also play it as a normal Stratocaster.
The VG Stratocaster is the result of a collaboration between Fender and Roland, incorporating the latter company's VG modeling technology and GK pickup in an American Series Stratocaster. Roland's digital processing provides the VG Stratocaster with models of Stratocaster and Telecaster electric guitars and five acoustic guitars. With the turn of a knob on the instrument's pickguard, VG processing also makes five alternate tunings available for each modeled guitar. A Normal mode bypasses all VG processing (including alternate tunings) and allows you to play the instrument as a regular, all-analog Strat.
At first glance, the VG Stratocaster looks like a normal American Series Strat (see Fig. 1). It has three Alnico single-coil pickups, a 5-position blade switch for switching pickups, rotary tone and volume controls, a maple neck with either a maple or rosewood fingerboard, a synchronized tremolo bridge, a 3-ply parchment pickguard, and chrome hardware. Closer inspection, however, reveals a Roland GK bridge pickup and Mode and Tuning rotary controls mounted on the pickguard.
The stepped Mode control selects from four categories of modeled guitars — Stratocaster, Telecaster, Humbucking Pickups, and Acoustic — or bypasses all modeling in Normal mode. Stratocaster mode is modeled after an ash-body Strat fitted with three single-coil pickups, whereas Humbucking Pickups mode is modeled after a Stratocaster with two humbucking pickups placed in the neck and bridge positions.
When the guitar is not in Normal mode, the GK pickup is the only active pickup and the blade switch selects the desired virtual pickups for the currently selected modeled guitar (see Fig. 2). Because the guitars in Telecaster and Humbucking Pickups modes don't include a middle pickup like a traditional Strat, two of their blade-switch settings activate redundant neck- and bridge-pickup selections. Switching to blade-switch positions 2 and 4 selects the normal and modeled Strats' middle pickup along with bridge and neck pickups, respectively.
Acoustic mode presents a special twist. In this mode, the five blade-switch settings each recall a different modeled acoustic guitar, and the instrument's tone control adjusts the amount of built-in reverb (its lowest setting turns reverb completely off). None of the electric guitar modes feature reverb.
The Tuning control has six switch positions that either activate five alternate tunings in turn or render normal tuning. The alternate tunings include Drop D (low E string tuned down a whole step), Open G, D Modal (strings tuned to D, A, D, G, A, and D from bottom to top), Baritone (tuned like a baritone guitar), and 12-string. (To see how each string is tuned in each tuning mode, see the specifications table online at www.emusician.com.) If you tune your guitar differently than standard tuning, the alternate tunings will be transposed by the same amount.
No Muss, No Fuss
All VG processing is built in, with no external interfacing required save the usual ¼-inch TS instrument cable used to plug the guitar into an amplifier, a direct box, or a preamp. Unlike a MIDI guitar, the VG Stratocaster imposes virtually no tracking latency.
The instrument requires four AA batteries to power its digital processing (guitar models and alternate tunings). Rechargeable NiMH batteries yield about 10 hours of operation, whereas disposable AAs provide a bit less. A blue power-status LED on the guitar's pickguard is constantly lit when an instrument cable is plugged in and battery reserves are high. The LED flashes when the batteries are running low on juice and goes out when the batteries are completely drained. If your batteries go dead and you're caught without fresh replacements, you can still play the VG Stratocaster in Normal mode like a regular electric guitar.
Fender deliberately chose battery power for the VG Stratocaster so that musicians wouldn't be tied to cumbersome and easily misplaced proprietary adapters or cables. This arrangement makes the instrument extremely easy to use. The battery is under load only when an instrument cable is plugged into the guitar, so removing the cable when the instrument is not in use preserves battery life.
The VG Stratocaster comes with a hard-shell case. You also get a tremolo arm, a 10-foot instrument cable, an adjustable guitar strap, and an owner's manual.
Axe to Grind
First and foremost, the VG Stratocaster is a high-quality musical instrument. Guitarists will appreciate its good intonation and fast action. My review unit (which featured a rosewood fingerboard) had no problems with fret buzz anywhere along its neck, and the trem arm didn't throw off tuning with vigorous use.
FIG. 2: Whenever you engage any of the VG Strat's modeled guitars, it bypasses the three single-coil pickups in favor of the Roland GK pickup mounted near the bridge.
Minutes after receiving it, I put the VG Stratocaster to use in a country-music recording session that was already in progress. With the instrument in Stratocaster mode, set to its virtual bridge pickup and 12-string tuning, I plugged into the DI input of an SSL XLogic Alpha Channel channel strip and let 'er rip. When I double-tracked slow-hand arpeggios, panned the two tracks hard left and right, and added stereo chorus to taste, the results sounded absolutely phenomenal. Check out Web Clip 1 to hear the VG Stratocaster played in Normal, Stratocaster, and 12-string tuning modes.
I often fight induced 60-cycle hum while recording with my vintage Strat in my control room (this is a common problem with guitars that have single-coil pickups). The VG Stratocaster's Strat model not only provided a classic, clucky tone that I immediately loved, but also was immune to hum and gave me instant access to alternate tunings without changing string tension. You won't have to worry about fret buzz when using VG tunings that drop a string's pitch a whole step. That said, the VG Stratocaster's alternate-tuning modes had other problems I will discuss shortly.
Playing through a Roland MicroCube guitar amp miked up with a Royer R-121 ribbon mic, the VG Stratocaster delivered excellent rock tones in Normal, Stratocaster, Telecaster, and Humbucking Pickups modes. Relative levels for the normal and three modeled electric guitars were fairly close to equal, which should aid live performers switching between modes midsong (see Web Clip 2).
You can argue about how close Fender came to achieving realistic models of the included electric guitars, but which particular instruments do you compare them to? No two instruments sound exactly alike, especially after they age. From the outset, Fender researchers avoided modeling the VG Stratocaster after any particular instrument and aimed instead at emulating the basic tonal qualities inherent in the product lines being modeled. For the electric guitars, at least, they succeeded.
The five modeled acoustic guitars, on the other hand, sounded nothing like the real thing. Depending on the model, the acoustic guitars sounded either pinched and cutting, muddy, or merely like a DI'd electric guitar (see Web Clip 3). All exhibited an electronic quality that decried their “acoustic” label. The reverb in Acoustic mode was also disappointing, exhibiting a fluttery tail. Far less critical but nonetheless counterintuitive, the two brightest acoustic guitar models were assigned to the blade switch's neck-pickup position.
On a happier note, you can easily access the VG Strat's battery compartment on the back of the guitar's body without using any tools. Inside the compartment is a double-sided cradle that lifts out for quickly exchanging the batteries. It took me only about a minute to do so.
Let It Bleed
During songwriting sessions, I found it inspiring to have alternate tunings available at the flick of a switch. However, the Drop D, Open G, D Modal, and Baritone tuning modes all had problems with secondary pitches bleeding through. Using these digital tunings, I could often hear the real pitch of the string being voiced along with its processed pitch, albeit at a lower volume. The bleed-through pitch was generally most audible in modeled-Strat mode (see Web Clip 4).
The pitch bleed was mostly a problem when it formed a dissonant interval with the modified pitch, such as when playing a string whose pitch was dropped a major second interval by using a particular tuning mode. For instance, D Modal tuning dropped the B string's pitch to an A, which clashed with the original pitch of the B string bleeding through.
Strangely, if I played the guitar's B string in Open G tuning mode without muting the other strings, I could hear the D Modal tuning's pitch for that string (which is a whole step lower) bleed through. Inexplicably, muting the unpicked strings silenced the bleeding note (see Web Clip 5).
On rare occasions in Baritone tuning mode, doing palm mutes on the VG Stratocaster's low E string briefly and randomly produced the string's true pitch (E) instead of its processed pitch (B).
I almost rated the VG Stratocaster a 2 for Value, given the instrument's high price tag vis-à-vis its unconvincing acoustic guitar models and the pitch-bleed problems that plague most tuning modes. However, the pitch-bleed problems might not be noticeable during live ensemble performances when using, for example, Humbucking Pickups mode. More important, the normal and modeled electric guitars all sound great in both Normal and 12-string tuning modes, and the instrument's playability and ease of use are excellent.
If Fender (or Roland) can fix the pitch-bleed problems in a future generation of VG Stratocasters, it will have a runaway hit on its hands. Until then, value-minded studio musicians might balk at the high price for an imperfect instrument. But for those who don't use alternate tunings and just want a versatile electric guitar that plays well, the VG Stratocaster has a lot to offer.
EM contributing editor Michael Cooper is the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in Sisters, Oregon. Visit him atwww.myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording.
modeling electric guitar $1,699
PROS: Excellent playability. Variety of great electric guitar tones. Alternate tunings instantly available. Requires no external adapters or special cables.
CONS: All but Normal and 12-string tuning modes exhibit bleed-through of secondary pitches. Unconvincing acoustic guitar models. Fluttery reverb. Expensive.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 SOUND QUALITY 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5