Kramer’s history is an interesting tale of innovation and pursuit of excellence. Although Gibson bought it out in the ’90s, the company had tremendous success in the ’80s. It even outsold Fender and Gibson for two years during that decade. It also had a reputation for using the best available components (such licensed tremolo units and esteemed pickup builders). It’s no surprise that it was this company that was first endorsed by Eddie Van Halen himself. That spirit is still felt in today’s production, as the Focus VT-211S (coming soon) reveals. I was very surprised by the two samples I received, especially considering the price. Read on to find out if it’s the perfect guitar for you.
Make sure you check out this video I made documenting my first impressions. It also includes various tone samples to give you an idea of what the guitar sounds like in different contexts.
Vintage-inspired versatile design
Obviously inspired by the legendary Stratocaster, the Focus VT-211S features vintage-style concepts and components. First of all, it has 21 frets, as did Leo Fender’s earlier models. Some guitarists will affectionately categorize it as a “grown-up’s” guitar. The tremolo unit has 6 screws. This limits its range compared to more modern two fulcrum models. You’ll still be able to achieve decent dive bombs, vibratos, and flutters. It also provides a greater vibration transfer to the body, which often helps with the quality of the natural tone.
The pickups are an interesting choice of Alnico V magnets. This alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt was widely used in older guitars and produces a nicely voiced, warm and punchy tone. It’s also important to note that the bridge pickup is a humbucker. This double-coiled unit produces a louder signal, and placed in this position is great for rock styles. Thanks to its hum-cancelling properties, it’s a go-to choice for distorted tones. You won’t have to deal with the constant and annoying buzzing sound that single coils emit when pushed into overdrive.
Another interesting design choice in the Focus VT-211S is the use of mahogany wood for the body. This is unusual for classic Stratocasters, but it has been explored in the “Super-Strat” concept. I was excited to see how this would affect the tone, being a fan of the warm and punchy aspect of this material. I wasn’t disappointed and loved the result, especially for gritty overdriven sounds.
The neck and fretboard are made of maple. The radius of the fretboard, which is essentially the curvature of the fingerboard, is 12”. This is a flat-feeling board, which is a bit uncharacteristic of a vintage-style guitar. I think that is a wise decision—a rounded fretboard can be surprising and even off-putting for the average player. The neck itself has a “slim” profile, but doesn’t feel tiny like some more modern models I’ve come across. It’s also unfinished, providing a very pleasant playing experience. There is no glossy finish to stick to all along the range of the guitar. A lot of guitarists prefer this, so I think Kramer picked the most crowd-pleasing option again.
Finally, the finishes on these guitars are beautiful. The ruby-red I’ve received is amazing and pastel-like. The black is definitely more incognito. An awesome thing that you’ve probably noticed is the fact that the headstock matches the body. This really adds some character to the instrument and stands out from the plain wood headstocks we’re used to seeing. According to the Kramer website, the black finish isn’t available anymore, but there are additional choices of teal, purple, and grey.
No matter the style you like to play, you’re bound to find pleasant and satisfying tones in the Focus VT-211. The HSS (or “Fat-Strat”) configuration is extremely versatile, and the quality of the pickups makes it very easy to dial in great sounds.
All the classic Strat-isms are here, from the warm and commanding neck pickup voice to the out-of-phase funk of positions 2 and 4. The combination of the bridge position with the body’s mahogany is very satisfying. When you crank up the gain, you get a punchy, thick distortion that’s suitable for many shades of rock and roll. The Alnico V magnets handle the load very well and reciprocate with even more punchiness. It’s definitely a great combination and will satisfy many musical needs and urges.
When exploring affordable instruments, my main concerns are the initial setup, tuning consistency, and the guitar’s stability. Although both units travelled across Canada in the winter time to reach me, they stayed well set-up and playable. Dry air and temperature extremes haven’t bothered the Focus VT-211S’ I’ve received, and they were all easy to play. There were no sharp edges along the fretboard, and the action was low, without any bum notes. This is a good indication of the instrument’s stability and how it will handle nature’s changes.
There’s a lot to like about this model, and it’s very hard for me not to recommend it. One of the first guitars I purchased was a Fat-Strat, and it endured an absurd amount of use. This type of configuration must be one of the most versatile available. Thanks to the wood choice and pickup materials in these Kramer models, you get an interesting voice that’s removed from the anemic sound that is widespread in affordable guitars.
For beginners, it’s a great starting point. The quality that it provides will follow you as you grow as a player, and it will provide years of use. You might be surprised how long you end up keeping it. If you are an acoustic player looking into getting a first electric, this is the ideal choice. It’s so versatile; you won’t be shopping for other electrics any time soon. If you’re not really a Strat person, this might be the only concession you’ll ever have to do, just to have that tone in your arsenal.
I can’t really find anything bad to say about the VT-211S. Kramer did an excellent job of creating a guitar that’s affordable, great sounding, and filled with that vintage spirit. It’s an awesome instrument, and it’s worth at least trying out and seeing for yourself.
Make sure you check out the Kramer VT-211S (coming soon) on Best Buy’s website.