How can you improve a guitar that’s been described as already close to perfection? Huw Price has 25 ways to make your Fender Strat play and sound better than ever before – and some of them hardly cost a bean…
There was a time when vintage Fenders were thought to sound superior to newer ones simply because they were old, and most players were content to leave it at that. As the prices of vintage Fenders went stratospheric, the guitar community began to ask why the old ones sounded different. Could those characteristics be replicated with newer instruments?
Well, maybe, yes. It became apparent that various changes had been made to Fender’s manufacturing methods and materials. In retrospect, 1965 was not ‘year zero’ for Fender because these changes occurred gradually – even if most were instigated by CBS bean-counters.
Pickups and woods have been subjected to close scrutiny, but only now are players becoming aware of the significance of seemingly minor electronic components, plus bridge blocks, saddles and nut materials. And it’s not all about vintage tone; a proper understanding of the way the component parts fit into the formula will help you to make informed decisions about the modifications that will make your Stratocaster play and sound the way you want.
The purpose of this Guitar & Bass article is not to list all the fabulous aftermarket accessories and relic’d plastics that you can solder into or screw onto your Fender Strat. The emphasis is on optimising the basic instrument, and many of these modifications won’t cost you a thing. Others are relatively cheap, and we’d advise you to investigate all the options before spending big money on exotic parts… because with a few judicious tweaks, a bit of basic wiring and some routine maintenance, that old Strat may yet surprise you.
1: Block The Block
Some Strat players never use the vibrato – Robert Cray and Billy Gibbons prefer hardtail Strats – but most consider the springs to be an essential component of the guitar’s sound. So how can you have a trem-loaded Strat that you can be tuned up in a single pass and won’t go out of tune when you snap a string? Simple: tighten the spring claw, place a lump of wood between the bridge block and the back of the trem rout, and slacken off the claw to allow string tension to wedge it in place. It’s simple, it’s cheap, and it works. Just ask Eric.
2: Beat The Buzz
All guitars with single-coil pickups are prone to picking up noises, and Stratocasters will buzz and hum depending on the environment. Fortunately, there are ways to quiet things down. The simplest is to fit a RWRP pickup in the middle position, but this will only hum-cancel in positions 2 and 4.
Some advocate lining the pickup and control routs with copper foil. Allparts sell sticky-backed copper, but you have to join all the edges with solder because the adhesive is non-conductive. Many pro players have installed dummy coils, and they feature in some Suhr models; you can remove the bar magnet from the underside of a cheap pickup and use it as a dummy coil. Ultimately, though, the only sure-fire way to silence a Strat is to install noiseless pickups such as Lace Sensors or Kinmans.
3: Bridge Tone Control
Many have wondered why Fender chose to provide tone controls for the neck and middle pickups but neglected to provide treble roll-off for the pickup that actually needed it most. It’s easy to remedy this oversight, and if you can solder, it shouldn’t cost a thing. Method 1 is to swap the middle (or neck) pickup’s tone control to the bridge pickup; method 2 is to add a jumper wire so the bridge pickup can share one of the other tone controls. Problem solved.
4: Capacitor Value
Pickup upgrades are often an attempt to sweeten the sound, but most of us overlook the tone capacitor. Fender initially installed 0.1uF caps – firstly paper/oil types, then later ceramic discs. Around 1964 the cap value was changed to 0.047uF.
Treble is always lost through tone circuits – even when they’re supposedly off – so the capacitor value is significant. A Strat will sound brighter with a 0.047uF cap than a 0.1uF. If you’re chasing ‘vintage tone’ it’s worth spending 20p on a 0.1uF capacitor before spending £200 on a set of pickups. If you want your Strat to sound brighter, try a 0.022uF cap.
5: Dan Armstrong Wiring
Dan Armstrong devised a parallel/series wiring mod for Strats that uses the ‘middle’ tone control as a blender/mixer. With the blend control at 10, you get all five regular pickup settings. When it’s rolled fully back you get a H/S/H configuration – the middle pickup combining in series with the neck and bridge in the front and back positions. These pseudo-humbucker settings are fatter and louder while settings 2 and 4 are genuinely out of phase.
You can explore semi-series and semi-out of phase tones as well, because there’s a blender rather than a switch. The new layout is simple to operate and if you’re content with master volume and tone, it’s a great way to use that spare control.
6: Swinging Arms
Over time vibrato arms can become loose. If they develop too much play then they rattle back and forth when you use them, causing noise and making it harder to achieve a smooth vibrato – and you can certainly forget about Jeff Beck levels of precision.
There are a couple of tried and trusted remedies, though. Some players like to drop a small spring into the bottom of the arm hole in the block so that as the arm is tightened it presses against the spring and feels a bit more stable. Another popular fix is to wrap PTFE tape around the arm thread.
You can buy this tape from plumbers’ merchants and it’s very cheap – which is just as well, because the tape will need to be refreshed every so often. For a more permanent solution, check out the innovative trem arm from the UK’s Staytrem.
7: Height Adjustment
The term ‘Stratitus’ is used to describe the odd-sounding tuning anomalies many Strats exhibit on the low E string as you play above the 12th fret. This is caused by excessive magnetic pull from the pickups inhibiting string vibration, and pickups that are set high will make things worse. Don’t assume that your Strat came out of the factory adjusted to perfection – the proximity of the coils to the strings has a significant effect on tone.
Set the pickups high and they’ll make your Strat sound bright, loud and aggressive; set them lower and the tone should open up, with sweeter trebles and more dynamic response. Set them too low, and your Strat will sound dull and lifeless. All three pickups have height-adjustment screws and they’re there to optimise tone and balance the levels of the pickups. Let your ears guide you.
8: Inductance Plate
Turning Telecasters into Tele/Strat hybrids is common enough, but fewer players have attempted to Tele-ise their Strats with a replacement bridge pickup – Lowell George being an honourable exception. These days it’s a cheap and easy mod that requires a metal inductance plate to be attached to the underside of a regular Strat bridge pickup.
These can fatten, focus and generally beef up your bridge pickup tone. Steel plates sound different to copper and so forth, so do some research beforehand to decide what appeals to you. Suppliers include Fralin, Shed Pickups, Singlecoil.com and Oil City.
Friction is the enemy of stable tuning. This has been well understood for decades, and excellent results are achievable with traditional petroleum jelly and graphite from soft pencils. Other DIY solutions include silicon grease, Chapstick and ‘O’ ring grease, while specialist guitar products include Big Bends Nut Sauce, Graphit All and many more. Although they all do much the same job, the guitar products are designed for accurate and mess-free application. Potential sticking points include nut slots, the point where the strings contact the saddles and beneath the string trees. Lube up as part of your string-changing routine.
10: Master Tone Control
Strat players have long struggled with over-bright bridge pickups, prompting aftermarket pickup makers to devise ‘balanced sets’. Many deliver, but the underlying cause is not addressed. Stock Strat pickups are balanced, but the stock circuit isn’t, as only the neck and middle pickups bleed treble through the tone circuit. Changing to a master tone arrangement is a simple modification that ‘balances’ the treble response of the pickups and frees up the second tone control for trick wiring.
If you connect the master tone control to the output (centre) tag of volume control rather than the input, the ratio of guitar signal to treble bleed remains consistent regardless of the position of the volume knob. Many find it renders treble bleed capacitors superfluous – and you can try it on your Tele too.
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