With his Rorschach blots of tone color and phantasmal phrasing and ambient tones, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien can be a pretty painterly musician. And really, it’s neither an exaggeration nor a surprise to say that his new signature Stratocaster often feels like a cross between paintbrush and guitar (as well as some alien lyre). Its shape-shifting potency comes from a Fernandes Sustainer system that extends the Stratocaster’s basic sound palette dramatically. And at times, it plays and sounds like a different instrument altogether—even while feeling as comfortable, inviting, and expressive in all the ways a Stratocaster should.
But the best thing about the Ed O’Brien is the way it prompts invention and makes you rethink your own playing. Maximizing its potential takes sensitivity, an open mind, and a little practice. And occasionally you might have to bend to the instrument’s will as much as your own. But the musical payoffs for such open-mindedness can be huge. In the right hands, and with the right mindset, the Ed O’Brien Stratocaster is a very powerful musical tool.
Rules of Magnetism
The Fernandes Sustainer system is not a new invention. It’s appeared on Fernandes’ own line of sustainer guitars and is available as a kit. Like an EBow, it uses a battery-driven source of magnetic energy—in the neck pickup—to vibrate the strings from beneath.
The effect can be like amplifier feedback. In other situations it comes closer to a bowed cello or an operatic voice. The sustainer’s performance characteristics change depending on the mass of the string you pluck (higher, unwound strings tend to “sing” more readily) and how you set the sustainer’s controls.
Two of the most vital of these are the switches that reside where a Stratocaster’s input jack usually appears. One turns the sustainer effect off and on. The other switches between a “natural” setting that sustains fundamentals, a “harmonic” mode that sustains a blooming, natural 5th harmonic, and a third mode that sustains the fundamental and harmonic together (though the harmonic is much less pronounced in this mode). A sustainer intensity control takes the place of the aft-most tone control on a regular Stratocaster, and it has a useful detent at the midway point that facilitates use by feel. It’s a thoughtful touch for a control that you’ll use a lot as you get comfortable with the sustainer’s dynamic potential.
Though you can only use the bridge pickup with the sustainer on, you have the full compliment of pickups at your disposal when it’s off. The bridge pickup is a Seymour Duncan JB Jr. It’s a bit hot and mid-focused for my vintage Fender-aligned tastes, but it works well with the sustainer system. The middle pickup is a Fender Texas Special and will feel most familiar to Strat players, though the output is considerably lower than the JB Jr. The neck pickup is the Fernandes unit that comes built into the sustainer. It lacks some of the Strat neck unit’s warm, round tones, but you can approximate such sounds to some extent with deft use of the tone knob.
One of the real joys of the Ed O’Brien is feeling your way into techniques that are uniquely suited to the instrument. While shredders have long exploited sustainers for flashy legato lines, the system is a natural fit for languid, lazy phrasing that allows overtones to bloom. Patient, melodic phrasing also gives you space to leverage the expressive possibilities of the sustainer controls. For example, bringing the sustainer in and out of a passage with the on/off switch yields syrupy, slo-mo variants of Pete Townshend’s Morse-code pickup switching. Switching between the natural, blend, and harmonic modes enables you to add high, fleeting bird cries while your fretting hand shifts chord shapes and melodic phrases. And you can use the very effective intensity control to bring in sustain textures gradually. When you get a feel for the full dynamic range of the controls, this Strat can start to feel as much like a synthesizer or a mixing board as a guitar.
Discussion of pedal effects merits special mention in examining the Ed O’Brien Stratocaster. Because while the Ed O’ Brien generates impressive effects and overtones with an amp alone, it becomes exponentially more expressive and colorful with effects—especially compression, reverb, and delay, which can increase control and enhance overtones. Compressors, in particular, can be real allies. They help tame volume spikes in harmonic mode—even the naturally irregular output from some strings—and add extra bloom to sustained notes. But the fact that a compressor can add so much to the Ed O’Brien experience is not a shortcoming of the guitar. Rather, these are two musical tools that go together as deliciously as a steaming bowl of cassoulet and a bottle of Bordeaux on a frosty day.
Open tunings open up other expansive dimensions. You’ll need to pay close attention to picking technique—droning doubles and octaves can turn muddy or evolve into runaway feedback if you don’t mind the sustainer intensity, volume, tone and your pick attack. Get all those variables right, though, and the Ed O’Brien dazzles with open tunings.
It’s hard to sum up the Ed O’Brien Stratocaster—at least in the realm of quantification and scores. While I loved the way it pushed back and beckoned down new paths, other players that had a go found it less intuitive. I gave the guitar a four-pick score for playability, but it could rate far lower for players that don’t savor the occasionally unpredictable dynamics. It would be best to spend quality time with the Ed O’ Brien at a shop and see how you relate to its bag of tricks, and how it responds to your own. Because while the Ed O’Brien Stratocaster can be a game of give and take—even a tug of war—it’s equally capable of revealing new directions and ideas, smashing any musical trap, or extracting you from any creative rut in which you might find yourself mired.
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