The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The HWY 1 Strat
The Fender Highway One Stratocaster first appeared in 2002. It was an affordable, American-made guitar – something better than the Fender Standard Series, but not quite up to the level of the American Standard instruments.
I recall quite a buzz over these guitars in guitar forums back then, and eventually, I decided I should probably check them out. So, one day I went off to the guitar shop and came home with what is now one of my most beloved instruments, my 2003 Fender Highway One SSS Stratocaster.
Not long afterward I decided I needed another one, and I went out and got the HSS version. This guitar was a bit different, with an oversized headstock (SSS models didn’t have this until later years), rosewood fingerboard and a black Atomic Humbucker in the bridge position.
It was a great instrument, and that HSS Strat is now on my list of gear I wish I never parted with. I wasn’t thrilled with the humbucker, so I eventually traded it in for something else.
But I knew my SSS was a keeper and now, 15 years later, it is still one of my main guitars. I’ve talked about it many times in my various articles and reviews and posted many pictures of it, but for some reason never got around to writing about the guitar itself. So, this is my 2003 Highway One Strat review, long overdue.
The Highway One Series of Strats, Teles, and basses went through a few revisions before finally getting canned in 2010. They were replaced first by the American Special Series, and now by the American Performer Series. American Performer Strats are really nice guitars, but if you have a chance to grab a Hwy 1 in good condition I suggest giving it some thought.
Specs and Construction
My Hwy 1 has an alder body and a maple neck, which, of course, is exactly what you’d expect for a Stratocaster. The one-piece maple neck and fingerboard is fairly thin compared to other Strats I’ve owned and played, with nice rounded edges. I believe it's the "Modern C" shape.
In fact, I owned an ‘80s era American model at the time I purchased this guitar, and it felt like playing a telephone pole by comparison. Needless to say, the guitar is long gone.
Fender would eventually change to larger frets for the Highway One but, as with many upgrades that occurred later, I don’t think I would prefer them over what’s on this guitar. The neck and fretboard are super comfortable just as they are.
This is one of the earlier models with the small headstock. The color is Honey Blonde, as you can see from the images, and the guitar really has a nice vintage vibe about it. Fender used thin nitrocellulose paint on these guitars, and it has worn really well over the years. I really expected that, 15 years later, the paint would be all worn off where my arm rests on the guitar, but not so. This is something that convinced me that it was a good idea to get my Gibson Les Paul Studio Faded, which has a similar thin finish.
I’m also one of those players who believe thin paint helps the tone of the guitar. I’m sure I’ll get some flak for that!
The bridge is a six-point tremolo as you’d see on the Standard Series, not the two-point version. I actually like this a little better. It adds to the vintage appeal of the guitar, and I think it’s a little sturdier. The bridge is a little worn after all these years, and I expected I’d have to replace it by now, but it’s hanging in there.
Pickups and Electronics
The electronics are the basic Strat volume/tone/tone controls with a 5-way switch. This is before the Greasebucket circuit that Fender started using in 2005. They began using hotter Alnico 3 pickups around the same time as well, I believe.
This guitar shipped with what I think were Alnico 2 single coils. I replaced them with Fender Custom Shop Texas Specials a couple of years after I got the guitar. Other than a set of strap locks, this is the only modification I’ve done to the guitar. Interestingly, Texas Specials are now the stock pickups used on the American Special Strats.
As I recall, this Strat sounded very good without the pickup upgrade. As I’ve stated before, it really has a vintage vibe to it, and I don’t know why Fender seemed to want to get away from that in later years. The stock pickups were perfect for that kind of sound – not too bright, with some good midrange and thickness.
I thought the over-wound Texas Specials would keep that vintage sound but add a little more guts with somewhat higher output, and I’ve been pretty happy with them over the years. They’re a little gritty, kind of midrange, and while they lack some of the glassy qualities of some single-coil pickups they are excellent for rock and blues. That’s just what I was going for.
Because I swapped out the pickups, some of what I’ll say here might not be super helpful, but I’ll give you my opinion anyway. I think the pickups are only part of what makes a guitar sound good – the constriction and quality matter too.
I primarily use the one and five positions on the pickup selector, and for the most part, I play blues and rock with this guitar. While it doesn’t have the same kind of output as a humbucker-equipped Strat, the bridge pickup does a good job with mid-to-heavy overdrive. It still sounds like a Strat, but you could get away with some AC/DC or Van Halen riffs and nobody is going to say you're off base.
The neck pickup, as I said, lacks that glassy quality some players look for, but it does sound very Strat-like in a Stevie Ray Vaughan kind of way. It sounds good cleaned up, as long as you don’t expect a modern sound. I think the original pickups were a little more versatile with clean sounds, and not quite as dark.
I do use positions two, three and four on occasion, and there is nothing lacking. Again, I'm playing moderate-overdrive rock and blues for the most part. Country players who like to use the two and four positions might want a little more clarity, or then again they may be pleased with the grittiness.
I've played this guitar through a bunch of amps: Traynor YCV40, Peavey 5150 Combo, Fender Hot Rods, Marshall AVTs. For a long while my main at-home amp was my Peavey Bandit, and I would not have thought twice about using that amp and this guitar for a gig or jam session.
Today my main amps are my Marshall DSL40 and Peavey 6505 Combo. The Highway One is a natural fit with my Marshall, but it sounds pretty darned good through the rhythm channel of my 6505 as well.
I’ve owned so many guitars in my life. Some have been keepers, like the one I'm writing about in this article. Some I've sold and regret getting rid of, while others I ditched and chalked it up as learning experience. For still others, I think back and wish I knew then what I know now.
I put the Highway One Series in general in that last category. Sure, I wish I had held onto my HSS version, but I also had been thinking about a sunburst version with a rosewood fingerboard way back then, which I never pulled the trigger on. I played the Telecaster version, too, and loved it but left it on the guitar shop wall.
These guitars were really affordable at the time, and they’ve turned out to be minor classics. If I had known that back then, I would have stocked up!
As it stands, my Hwy 1 Strat has served me very well over the years. I’ve used it for numerous jams and always get some nice compliments about the sound and look of the guitar. I’m not saying I’ll never own an American Stratocaster again, and I love my MIM Strat as well, but for 15 years I haven’t felt the need.
If you get the chance, check one out. And, if you can grab a used Fender Highway One Stratocaster for a good price, go for it. I won’t be selling mine though!
The Fender Highway One Series
Guitar Gopher (author) on June 10, 2018:
@Wesman - I like those retro headstocks too, though I think I'm glad this guitar has a regular one. On certain guitars they just look amazing though. That other Hwy 1 I had looked cool with the black pickup,amber finish and over-sized headstock.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on June 08, 2018:
Oh the sadness of gear once owned. I can also tell some sad stories there, and then I'm often sad about gear my family members used to own too.
I have dreams at night about cars and trucks I used to own, and guitars I used to own.
I don't think it would ever make or break a buying decision for me, but I just friggin' love the big fat headstock on the Strats that have them.
Those Texas Specials are really good pickups.