06 May, 2008

Building the perfect beast... I mean, Stratocaster

Location: a dark basement somewhere in Seattle... or maybe my bedroom
Mood: devious

The quest for the perfect Stratocaster is one that should not be taken on lightly. And it should not be underrated in its importance. But it is not a task for everyone.

The first Stratocaster I played belonged to a friend who goes by the codename Inman Wheelright. It was a sweet Black Stratocaster with maple neck. It was not in particularly fantastic condition, but it had "that Strat" sound - it's a sound that you know when you hear it. The tone of the Stratocaster has been described by so many different adjectives over the years - and ironically, none of the adjectives really describe the sound, but we all (we, being guitarists) adopt those same terms as if we know what they mean:

for example:

bell-like tone

The big ones that people always cite as "the tone" are the "bell-like" and "vintage" which is really funny since these are the least quantifiable. What is "bell-like"? Do you actually want your guitar to sound like a bell? I don't think so. But when people say "bell-like tone" everyone seems to know what is meant.

Anyway, I have always been in the quest for this elusive thing.

The first Stratocaster that I ever bought was a 1989 Fender Strat Plus Deluxe. I did not know enough about Stratocasters when I bought this, because the construction of this particular model was such that it was designed to not have that vintage bell-like tone. It had a metal "nut" instead of a bone nut. The "nut" on a guitar is the part at the end of the neck that the strings pass through, just before they attach to the tuning posts. The nut is one of the key elements in defining a guitar's tone. The tone of a guitar is driven primarily by the following:
  • pickups
  • strings
  • style of bridge (material, do strings go "through the body" or terminate in the "tailpiece, and is the bridge "floating" (meaning, held in place by pressure) or physically attached, and is there a tremelo system in place for providing vibrato)
  • wood for the body of guitar
  • wood for the neck of guitar
  • nut composition
The relative contribution of each of these components is probably a subject for much debate, although it is probably safe to say that the top three would be 1) pickup type, 2) style of bridge, and 3) nut composition. The reason for this is that the bridge and the nut are the 2 things that define the ends of the string from a musical perspective, and the pickups are the device that converts the mechanical string action into an electrical signal.

So, in spite of that digression, my point was that a metal nut is not the typical material for vintage guitars, and thus, I probably could not expect my Fender Strat Plus Deluxe to sound like a vintage (meaning, "old") Stratocaster with the magical bell-like tone. Additionally, this guitar had a type of pickup called a "Lace Sensor". This was a relatively new design at the time it was made, and I just recently learned that it was named after a guy named Don Lace, who invented it. I had previously thought it was just some fancy name for a new pickup.

Lace Sensor pickups do not operate quite the same as the standard single-coil pickups on "vintage" Stratocasters, and thus, another reason that this guitar did not have "the sound".

I tried some things to make this guitar sound better. I got rid of the Lace Sensors and put in more classic Stratocaster pickups. Didn't sound right. I took those out and put in yet other Stratocaster style pickups. Still didn't sound right. It's a decent sounding guitar. But the fundamental mechanical design just is not the right one.

At one point, around 1997 or so, I purchased a USA Fender Stratocaster - I think it was a 1997 model. Very pretty too, with a sunburst finish. I had that for a few years. For some reason, it also did not have "the sound". I really can't give you a good explanation as to why it didn't. It should! It's an American-made guitar, and there's nothing about it that should have prevented it from having the sound. It smelled really nice, I remember that much! I eventually sold that one - though maybe I shouldn't have done so, since my new rule of thumb is "You never sell a guitar, or you'll regret it!"

In maybe 1998, I bought a G & L Legacy. This guitar looks like a Stratocaster, and was made by a company started by George Fullerton and Leo Fender (hence G & L). These guys were the big two guys from Fender, who started their own company, after Fender was apparently ruined by being bought the the large CBS corporation. Surely this guitar would sound like the classic Fender Stratocaster. I'll say this much - it is a very nice playing guitar. The neck is great, it is one of the nicest guitars. But... does it sound like that classic Stratocaster? Not really. Maybe it's the strings I am using? I don't know! Maybe it's mental illness. I don't know. It can be very hard to quantify the emotional aspect of our perception of sound.


Years pass. And I have been not really into the Stratocaster thing of recent years anyway. Rarely have I played the G & L at gigs. The blue Fender Strat Plus Deluxe was gifted to a friend, so I rarely use that one. And I was happily playing the other guitars I own - of which there are many.

But now... along comes the band. And I suddenly developed an itching for that guitar. That sound. That tool in the toolkit that would have the look, the feel, and the sound that fits the music. And it had to be a Fender Stratocaster.

I was in the market for a backup guitar anyway, because I don't really want to bring 2 expensive guitars to every show, so it would be nice to have one "beater". But I wasn't really shopping for it. More accurate to say that I was just "open to the possibility of finding it".

And one day last week, I happened to go into The Thieving (I mean, Trading) Musician. Not a store where I typically consider purchasing anything due to their unfair pricing. And I always need to just check out and see what they've got. And one of the instruments on the rack was a mid-1980's Japanese-made Fender Squier Stratocaster. Red, with a maple neck. Now this would be something that I would assume would be a piece of shit guitar, because "Squier" was a brand name that Fender was using for their cheapest line of guitars. Real crap. You can buy a recent used Squier on E-Bay right now for well under $100 if you're lucky. But... it looked pretty, and was kind of old, and the price was quite low ($339) so I figured I'd give it a play.

And it played great. And sounded great. I played every other Fender Stratocaster they had in the store, including some that were priced at $1400. And this sounded better, and felt better than any of them. How? I didn't take any action, but I was definitely interested. So I went home and did my research, and sure enough I find out that when the "Squier" line was first established, they were Japanese-made and there was actually quite good workmanship. In recent years, the Squier is now made in places like China, and the materials and such are clearly not as good. This original Squier series was made to look and feel like an old, "vintage", Stratocaster. And E-Bay prices seemed to suggest that it was worth just about $300.

So, long story long, I went back and bought it. It appears that the electronics are not original, though they are still not particularly high quality - but the guitar already sounds good.

I am in the process of buying the components for a "makeover" to convert this into a top-notch guitar. New tuners, new wiring and electronics, a nice new pickguard, new pickups. And instead of having a cheap backup guitar, I think I am going to end up with a cheap main guitar.

The final touch I am planning on doing is something that would, in some contexts, be considered to be fraudulent. I ordered online a set of "Fender Stratocaster" decals to put on the guitar in place of the "Squier" decals. So basically, I am going to "re-brand" this guitar so that it appears to be something it is not. This is not because I am ashamed to be seen playing a Japanese-made Squier Stratocaster. It is more because I am going to be playing with a band that has a certain image, and I feel like it would be better for me to be playing the guitar that says "Fender" on the headstock. With the modifications I am making, it will sound better than most Fender guitars, so it's a little leap to make.

The "fraudulence" would come into play if I then attempted to sell the instrument, advertising it as a true USA Fender. But I don't see myself ever selling it because that would violate my #1 rule of guitars.

Exciting, huh?


  1. observant one06 May, 2008 20:17

    You should generate a Fender-like script that says 'Faker' and stick it on instead of the Fender decal; see who notices.

  2. Inman Wheelright08 May, 2008 12:33

    I just hope you don't end up with a guitar that is good but not quite great. Maybe you should just suck it up and buy the vintage strat...of course I bought mine in 1980 for $400...I guess it is worth a little more now, even though I had a fourth screw added to where the neck attaches to the body.