If you look at the electric guitar industry as a whole, you’d get the feeling that most players prefer guitars that look like old, beat up, road worn, instruments. There has been an alarming trend towards building new instruments with distressed looks and faux-aged cosmetics.
We say “alarming” because frankly, we think you’re kind of a poser if you purposely buy a brand new guitar that looks like something that has endured decades of use. While a few of our staff like to create their own road worn, tour-inflicted guitar damage, most of us shed tears for the first dings in our beautiful unmarred finishes, we cover our belt buckles with our shirts, and between sets, our guitars rest on very sturdy stands or in their cases. Yeah, we’re that anal about our gear. But odds are, you’re not. So be it.
|Documentation & Support||10%|
|OVERALL RATING = 3.7, which earns it a WIHO Award!
3.6 stars or better: Outstanding, WIHO Award
3 stars or better: Worth considering
2 stars or better: Suited to specific needs
1 star or less: Not recommended
Thus it was with great trepidation that we greeted the Sandberg California ST-S in a Roquefort blue, hardcore aged finish. Despite the expert, custom shop distressing job that Sandberg applied to the exterior, this was no pawn shop relic on the inside. The seemingly vintage hardware is actually state-of-the-art modern stuff under the hood, and the California ST-S combines superb playability with some of the finest Strat-like tones we’ve ever heard from any Strat-like guitar. We can easily recommend the Sandberg California ST-S to any Strat lover in need of a guitar that can rock heavier than standard Strats while still retaining the bell-like chime and bluesy wood tones we’ve come to expect from these iconic instruments.
Fortunately for us, the California ST-S can also be ordered with a beautiful, high-gloss finish (as well as numerous other options) at a bargain price (for a premium instrument). So whatever your taste for cosmetics, this guitar will look great, sound great, and feel great. While many premium guitars fail to score high enough overall to earn our coveted WIHO award (despite being excellent instruments), this one sailed through the review machine unblemished (distressed looks notwithstanding, of course). What more can we say?
Our California ST-S featured a swamp ash body and a twenty-two fret, Canadian hardrock maple neck (25.5” scale). The familiar four-bolt design is contoured for easier access to the upper frets.
Hardware is first class, so don’t be fooled by the vintage-looking tuners. Those are actually Gotoh Magnum locking tuners, and the Sandberg tremolo bridge has a familiar two-point blade design.
The pickups are Sandberg Single Coil 60 VP (Vintage Power), with Alnico5 magnets. Besides a familiar five-way blade selector (parallel wiring in positions 2 and 4), Volume knob, and two Tone controls, a secret weapon lies underneath the second Tone control—it’s actually a spring loaded, push/push pot that activates a special tone circuit in the bridge position for achieving more humbucker-like tone.
As for that distressed finish? Well, if that’s your thing then you will love it here. Unlike the cheap painted-on faux finish of lesser “aged” guitars, this is real handiwork. The finish is rubbed/sanded off in places, there’s a real cigarette-like burn on the headstock, and the dings and pits are enough to make some of us weep (admittedly one of our other editors was rather fond of the look). You could spend thousands more on some custom shop aged replicas and have a comparable look. But why bother?
The California ST-S was well balanced—middle of the pack weight-wise for typical Strats, maybe leaning just a bit towards the heavier side of the Strat spectrum, and it played just like a comfortable, well maintained, vintage, Strat-style instrument. The D-shaped neck had a ‘60s Strat feel to it (substance, yet not a baseball bat like a ‘50s neck), and the satin finish enhanced playability. Jumbo frets with nicely rolled edges made easy work of bluesy bends, even with relatively low string height.
Controls were located as expected, and the Tone and Volume controls all worked across their entire range. The first Tone knob closest to the Volume knob affected bridge pickup tone while the second Tone control—with the push/push mechanism—affected the neck pickup tone. In both cases, the tone controls are actually treble cut controls.
The Sandberg tremolo bridge received high praise for its smooth movement, and tuning stability was very good. The California may look like a vintage Strat, but feel free to perform your favorite whammy bar antics here.
If all you cared about was getting “Strat sound” from your next guitar, you would be well served by the Sandberg California ST-S. But the guitar sounds notably better than the baseline tone against which so many of us formulate our opinions of tone.
The California starts with that definitive Strat-like tone, and a gorgeous bell-like chime in position 2, while positions 4 and 5 really showed off the woody sound of the guitar. Through our Rivera R100 the clean tones were really fantastic! This guitar produced great bluesy tones at the neck, and killer rock tones when playing crunch rhythms and leads on the bridge pickup. Overall, it’s a very warm sounding guitar, and the sound is big and rich, no doubt thanks to the additional body mass compared to some very light Strats we’ve played.
Hard rock and metal players will be in heaven with the bridge pickup tone, which is hot enough to drive a high-gain amp like our ENGL Powerball II and Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier as if it were a humbucker-loaded axe. And this is before we pushed the push/push control to activate the humbucker-simulated tone. In this mode, the tone got just a hair hotter, and subtly wider/thicker. We found that it made more of a difference for us with medium-gain amp sounds and slightly overdriven tones, as the standard bridge tone was more than ballsy enough to drive our amps.
Rolling off the treble, particularly on the neck pickup, gave the California a very usable jazz guitar tone.
Never did these pickups sound brittle or weak, and we loved that all three single coil pickups were super quiet! The guitar may look vintage, but thankfully it lacks that horrible vintage pickup noise. The California ST-S really gave us all the tones we love from a Strat, heavier tones that we don’t typically associate with single-coil Strats, and none of the negative things we find bothersome.
Documentation and Product Support
Sandberg provides a downloadable two-page PDF that fully explains all guitar controls as well as adjusting neck relief (via the two-way truss rod), changing strings with the locking tuners, adjusting intonation and saddle height, etc. What made the documentation especially nice was the detailed, full color photos. We’re surprised more manufacturers don’t do this.
The Sandberg California ST-S sells for just $1,695, a very fair price for a premium, hand made guitar like this one. The Hardcore Aged version will set you back $2,090, a good price for such a well-applied distressing job. Add a few hundred more for the Hardcore Aged Masterpiece and you'll even get frets with grooves in them from wear-and-tear, comparable with other true custom shop relic jobs. All Sandberg guitars include a padded, Sandberg-embroidered gig bag.