Musical possibilities abound in a sustainer-equipped Stratocaster.
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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Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.