A Very Vintage Strat

The ’80s were tough on guitars.

Last weekend I went to a memorial service for a music pal I hadn’t seen since the ’80s. Judging by the pictures I saw and the stories I heard, Brett remained the gentle, generous music lover I’d remembered till he died in his sleep a few weeks ago.

I ran into lots of old music friends and bandmates, and we alternately smiled and winced as our old photos and concert videos flashed on the big screen. Were we really that skinny? Did we actually wear that stuff without being coerced at gunpoint?

Like we tend to do at such moments, I left brimming with resolutions: Appreciate life. Cherish friends. Remember that music is a joy as well as a job. And do something nice for my sad old Strat, the guitar in all those old photos and videos.

See, back then I only had one guitar — an all-original ’63 Strat I’d picked up in 1980, when pre-CBS Fenders were still perched on the precipice between collectible and affordable. (I paid $450, a staggering investment for me at the time.) It remained my only serious guitar for a decade. It was in near-perfect condition when I bought it, and it was a battered ruin by decade’s end. (The ’80s were a tough time for guitars, what with all those studded belts.) I was a young player with a bad attitude and little concern for collectibility, as opposed to the middle-aged player with a bad attitude and little concern for collectibility that I am today.

I’ll some thoughts about Strats then and now. But first, have a listen:

I was playing a lot of African-influenced music back when I knew Brett, as was he. (I wrote about those days here.) He was passionate about the bubbling, major-key music of Southern Africa, so the first part of the demo, a looper-based cover of Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata,” is for him.

I haven’t played this guitar much in recent years. The last time I performed with it in public was at an Apple developers conference, where I demoed Native Instrument’s then-new Guitar Rig software onstage alongside the late Steve Jobs. (And that’s a very different story.)

Why did I drift away from it? Partly because I could — as I got older, I was able to afford some of the alternate guitars I could only dream of when I was young. Also, I found myself increasingly drawn to mongrel guitars that deviated from the classics. (I preferred the quirky Gibson Trini Lopez to a straight ES-335, for example, or the chambered Hamer 20th Anniversary to a stock Les Paul.) The Strat was just so normal. Another factor may have been a phone conversation with Tom Waits before I played my first of many sessions with him: “No strats,” he growled succinctly.

It was especially interesting to revisit the guitar now, after experimenting with and writing about so many Strat variations over the last year. Some observations, in no particular order:

  • This isn’t exaclty a news flash, but man, an old alder body can have such zing to it. The guitar really feels alive in your hands and against your body.
  • The flip side of that is, of course, the unapologetically bright tone, especially from the bridge pickup. I’d forgotten all the ways I’d used to moderate that explosive treble — most often by avoiding pickup position #1 altogether! As you can hear in the demo, I don’t always succeed at reining in glassy top-end. You definitely need a lighter pick touch to get get a sweet sound. (I doesn’t help that I’m not playing fingerstyle in the demo, because I tore off a nail to the quick last week while photographing a man in a gorilla suit.)
  • But despite my issues with Strat bridge pickups, I dislike most alternatives even more. I’ve never dug any of the hotter/louder/darker replacement pickups, at least not when paired with vintage-style pickups in the other positions. The only alternatives I do love are the Tele-inspired bridge pickups with a metal plate at their base, as made by Fralin and Duncan. If this guitar weren’t a vintage model, I’d install one of those in a flash.
  • The other two pickups sound great — but really, any number of high-quality replacement pickups sound as good. The humble Duncan SSL-1 stands up really well against these 50-year-old relics.
  • The sixth string sounds like crap about the 7th fret or so.
  • The old tuning peg design remains one of the best ones ever. They have a split shaft, a hole for securing the end of the string, and a slightly conical shape that encourages tight, clean string wrap. Simple and brilliant!
  • For the demo, I installed old-school nickel-wrapped strings, which tend to sound a little warmer and darker than most modern formulations. But sheesh — the guitar is still really frickin’ bright!
  • Many years ago I replaced the original bridge with a stainless steel model and heavier bridge block. As part of the restoration, I reinstalled the original bridge and block. (It’s amazing that I located it, given the state of my garage. Trust me, saints have been elevated on the basis of sketchier miracles.) Again — maybe a touch less brightness and sustain, but not all that much of a difference.

As you can probably tell, the guitar is like one of those old friends you love even though they drive you nuts sometimes. I don’t think we’ll ever feel quite the same bond we did 30 years ago, but it felt good to hang out again — especially after my Strat received a desperately needed grooming session! (More on that in an upcoming post.)

22 comments to A Very Vintage Strat

  • bear

    Sorry about your friend.  It’s hard to lose someone who’s a connection to your younger self.

    I used to play a vintage-styled vintage-wired Strat exclusively.  I came to peace with it by dialing my amp dark and using the bridge pickup as a still-bright sound, but one that I was apt to use, and just have darker options from there.  Listening to Roy Buchanan helped with approach, although Roy could use the tone knob on his bridge pickup.  I did discover that I prefer the 2 in-between position to the 4 with the amp set up this way.

    Knowing what I know now, I might have messed with cable selection to tame the tone a bit.  The long, coily cables are coming back into vogue, and probably for the same reason Hendrix liked them — because they move the resonant frequency of strat pickups down below brittle, shrill, and ice-pick frequencies.  If you use low capacitance cable, you could set up caps in a box that you can switch in and out of line as desired.

  • I too have drifted from my strat in recent years.  A Tokai Goldstar Sound early 60′s knock-off that exhibits all the traits you spoke of to a T.  I kinda’ got used to all the eccentricities of the original pickups, and learned to celebrate the boinky and thin, and revel in its funkiness.  At least it sounded nothing remotely like the Texas Special loaded strats that were so prevalent in all too recent years (I came to despise that tone).  I really only ever relied on it when I was accompanying fellow Gibson adherents and we needed more sonic separation.  

  • *Great playing, Joe, as always. I love the “aggressive” part. I hear a great deal of Wilko Johnson/Bill Carter/Andy Gill scratchiness in there. And that’s where a stock Strat bridge pickup leads you. A lovely, humble sound. Personally, I was never fond of the wimpy in-between positions on a Strat. The middle pickup is useless. And the neck pickup belongs to SRV. :rant: That leaves us real men :pity: with that nasty bugger near the bridge. A tone control would be nice, tough.

  • bear

    BTW,  maybe Tom could have allowed you to use a Strat, but with one rule: only if it’s in the one position with stock wiring.  I could imagine that sound fitting seamlessly into a bunch of his albums.

  • mngiza

    mutz says, “The middle pickup is useless.”  Au contraire; when I was performing regularly on a Strat, I found the middle pickup exceptionally useful for clean rhythm sounds. Also – google the Paul Simon middle-pickup-only Strat.  Also – for a distorted/phased/univibed Trower sound, you need that middle pickup.

  • No offense, mngiza. That middle pickup is just useless for ME. Sometimes a little rant gets the ball rolling. I guess I have to listen to some early Trower stuff again.

  • joe

    What lovely compliments, mutz! Andy Gill! Bill Carter! Ilyn Payne!

    Oops — I meant Wilko Johnson. Yes, the actor who plays the mute executioner Ilyn Payne on Game of Thrones is also the baddest of guitar bad-asses.

  • WGOliver

    *I always find myself going back to my strat.  One change to the vintage style wiring that I do to every strat I own (one of my “secrets,” if you will) is to wire just the bridge pickup directly to the bottom tone pot, and I tend to keep it rolled off about a quarter turn, unless I am going for twang.  Doing that, I can live on that bridge pickup.

  • mngiza

    1) mutz, no problem.

    2) If you are playing surf or fifties/sixties oldies, as I did for years and years, or Buddy Holly tunes (e.g. the famous “Peggy Sue” pickup switch moment), you gotta have that middle pickup!

    3) It seemed that the Strat in and of itself became a cliche there for awhile, kind of the generic “electric guitar”.  Perhaps that was Mr. Waits’ point.  But if he had had Jimi on the phone, would he have growled “No Strats…”?

    • joe

      Actually, I think what Tom really meant was, no modern hard rock guitars. (This was 20 years ago, when ’80s “super” Strat abuse as still fresh in memory.) I wound up playing one of Tom’s guitars for a lot of the session. I’m not sure if there’s such thing as the opposite of a Strat, but if there is, this is probably it.

  • joe

    Actually, I think what Tom really meant was, no modern hard rock guitars. (This was 20 years ago, when ’80s “super” Strat abuse as still fresh in memory.) I wound up playing one of Tom’s guitars for a lot of the session. I’m not sure if there’s such thing as the opposite of a Strat, but if there is, this is probably it. 

  • el bjorch

    Yes Oliver. I think thet the no.1 hack on strats must be adding the treble cut to the bridge pickup. I don’t know why it is not factory standard.

  • mngiza

    1) Thanks for your wonderful blog, Mr. Gore.  Although I am moving away from electric guitar performance, I cannot resist the tonefiend.

    2) Years ago I owned a beautiful 1918 Gibson L-1, whose vintage is close to that of the guitar whose picture you posted.  Traded it in ’75 or so for, you guessed it, a 70s Strat, even-up (mistake, the first of many).  Oddly, an L-1 and a 1970s Strat sell for roughly equal prices in the year 2012, too.

  • Dennis Rambo

    That’s what a Strat is supposed to look like.

  • [...] A nicely relic'd Strat Of course he did the old fashioned way, by playing the fuck out of it. A Very Vintage Strat – tonefiend.com [...]

  • can’t help it, i love old stratocasters. In fact I also just started writing a bunch on the things.
    http://jsegel.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/the-stratocaster-part1/

    just in case you’re keeping track via these responses: I use the middle pickup A LOT, especially in lead playing… but… my favorite guitar is an old thing with Lollar pickups in it and old pots that seem to measure out at about 230kOhms, which (i think) makes it a little less bright.

  • Bryan

    1961 – I bought it in 1980 from the original owner. $175 + an early 70′s red-label Yamaha FG-180 worth about $125 back then (and now, too). Looks a lot like yours. I changed the wiring so that the bridge pickup has it’s own tone control and the middle and neck pickups share the other tone control. Also did the capacitor/resistor trick on the volume pot so that the tone stays the same no matter where you have the volume control. Very skinny neck, 3rd fretjob since I’ve owned it. It’s the mothership; I still play out with it.

  • Bryan

    I have to admit mine was pretty well-played by the time I got it, but I certainly added to the, uh, ahem, authentic patina. For me it wasn’t so much belts, though, it was those damn rivets on the right front pockets of my Levis. I finally started prying them off each time I got a new pair – still do.

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