I think I just found my new favorite HSS Strat-style guitar in a very unexpected place.
Overview & Final Score: 8.3 out of 10
As a longtime HSS Stratocaster player, I’m not sure there is a more versatile guitar design on the market. While this Sterling Cutlass CT50 isn’t technically your run of the mill HSS Strat, it really feels like a more upgraded, perfected take on the design. Packing Sterling designed pickups, with master tone and volume knobs (none of that useless 3-knob Strat nonsense), a standard 5-way switch makes you feel right at home on this Cutlass CT50HSS guitar. Sterling’s beloved vintage-style tremolo makes another appearance here, providing the same smooth performance as it did on the St. Vincent and Mariposa guitars. A lightweight Poplar body features a Roasted Maple neck and fretboard, and comes in some rad finishes including the Dropped Copper pictured above, and Rose Gold or Firemist Silver. Locking tuners, 22 medium jumbo frets, and a full 25.5″ scale length round out the impressive feature set on this budget guitar and help make it feel much closer to an Ernie Ball than you might expect.
My first reaction to this guitar was “why do these pickups sound so good?”. For a $500 guitar, they just sound out this world compared to some of the lower end Fender MIM Strats I’ve played. The single coils are super crips, clear, and articulate. Perfect for tight rhythm playing and clean lead lines. The humbucker really brings the guitar to life too, providing a surprisingly balanced output that sounds big and fills space, but doesn’t get too shrill or blow the single coils out of the water. I’m not trying to exaggerate and suggest this is on par with a $3000 guitar, but the Cutlass CT50 sounds far closer to a premium guitar than anticipated. High marks for me come from the versatility of the HSS design, the pristine cleans, and the ability to handle multiple stages of gain pedals well. Sonically, the Sterling Cutlass is cut out to gig relentlessly no matter what genre or style you throw at it.
There’s really a good bit to like in terms of action and set up here. The roasted Maple neck is a huge winner in my book. It looks great, feels smooth (and fancy), and is going to hold up better to changing weather and climate than most other necks out there. Sterling also clearly hit a lot of the key points here, as there is nothing that stands out as bad or below average. Likewise though, nothing aside from the roasted Maple screams out to me as a premium feature. So the strong rating here is a reflection of this guitar being comfortable, reliable, and in tune after taking a power chord beating from me. Locking tuners help make string changes quicker and more convenient, and do help prevent string slippage as well, which improves tuning. But the 4:2 headstock design of Sterling/EBMM is unbeatable and really just improves the action, feel, and tuning stability of a guitar no matter the quality or price point.
Finish & Construction: 8
Again, high marks here because of the overall sturdiness and reliability that the Cutlass possesses. The finish was not only gorgeous, but showed little to no signs of error/damage/lazy QAQC. Likewise, the set up, fret ends, and hardware adjustments all were fine out of the box. I think you can certainly tweak a few things to be more to your specific liking, but there isn’t anything preventing you from taking this on stage right out of the box. It’s also a time tested body shape and general guitar design that really prioritizes user friendliness over anything else. That will always get a big boost in the score from me, as I like guitars that are tools, not just works of art. As a huge fan of the HSS Strat design, this fits right in as a modern update to a rugged, flexible design. With a killer finish, that has a slight sparkle to it, this is a well built and good looking option for the budget-minded player. I mean, getting a roasted Maple neck on a $500 guitar is borderline criminal.
This category is the reason that this guitar gets a higher score here than on my Ultimate-Guitar.com review. I don’t often get to grade for value using that scale, but I care very much about the guitar per dollar here. Simply put, the Cutlass CT50HSS is better than the sum of its parts. It feels much more on par with a $900 Mexican Fender from the Vintera line than it would with another $500 guitar. Especially with $500 quickly becoming the lower end of the market, whereas it used to be solidly in the middle. It’s a lot of guitar for the money and I would take this is my main #1 instrument with no hesitation. It’s fairly easy to modify as well, just like all Leo Fender-designed guitars are, so you can really tweak it and shape it to your liking throughout your guitar playing career or growth arc. Arguably, the Cutlass would be a phenomenal first guitar for a beginner or a superb gigging instrument for a 20 year vet. That’s a great value.
Good for: Stratocaster Players, Versatile Players, Studio and Recording Artists, Garage Rock, Blues, Jazz, Pop