Stratocaster Modding Q & A
Dirk answers reader questions about modifying Strats
Hello and welcome back to “Mod Garage.” After our excursion into the anatomy of the Stratocaster 5-way pickup selector switch, I wanted to take some time to answer some questions I received from you during the last months. Since I started this column, I have received a lot of emails with questions about Stratocaster mods. Here are some of the most frequently asked:
Q: I did the 7-Sound mod, and the new combination of the bridge and neck pickup together sounds really cool. But with all three pickups together, I can’t hear any improvement in tone. Did I do something wrong?
A: No, you did everything right! Most people (including myself) find the combination of the bridge and neck pickup together a real improvement in tone, but not so for all three pickups together. The reason is that we know the bridge and neck pickup combination from our Teles, so we have easier access to that tone. With all three pickups together in parallel, it’s hard to find a useful tone. The parallel combination is the guilty party. But wait until we talk about serial combinations—that will open new doors for you!
Q: I removed the tremolo cover [10 Easy Strat Mods to Improve Primary Tone] and the improvement in tone when playing my Strat unplugged was huge. It sounded more acoustic, more open with a better response to my playing. After plugging my Strat into the amp, I couldn’t hear any difference, so what’s going on there?
A: Yes, this was a hot-topic a few months ago! To cut a long story short, it seems that removing the tremolo cover has a huge influence on the primary (unplugged) tone of every Stratocaster, but is not always audible when playing electrically. You simply have to try it; it’s done in less than a minute. I have removed the tremolo cover on all of my Strats, and found the same result. For three of my Strats, the improvement in tone was stunning when playing them electrically, but on another I can’t hear any difference at all. Basically, the primary improvement happens because of the tremolo springs; they are adding a kind of acoustic dimension to your tone, similar to a little reverb. Without the cover, this effect is not reflected or dampened, so it’s very easy to hear and feel the difference. I will do some more research on this soon, trying different springs and different materials—maybe it will help to shed some light. I will keep you updated.
Q: I want to do the “out of phase” mod to my Strat, but which pickup is the best for this mod?
A: The middle pickup! The reason is simple: you can only hear the out-of-phase effect with two pickups together—playing a Strat’s bridge pickup alone out of phase will sound the same as playing it in phase. On a stock Strat you only have two combinations of two pickups, and the middle pickup is always involved. If you did the 7-Sound mod, you will have the combination of the bridge and neck pickup as well, so if you want to use the out-of-phase sound here, you will have to put the neck or bridge pickup out of phase to make the effect audible.
Q: I did the bridge pickup tone control mod, but I now lose some high-end when playing the bridge pickup alone, even with the tone control fully opened. What can I do?
A: This is easy to solve. Simply use a .0047uF (4700pF) capacitor to bridge the two lugs of the output stage (stage 2) of the 5-way pickup selector switch, instead of a piece of wire, and you’re done. This way, the added capacitor is in series with the normal tone cap, decreasing total capacitance. This should save you from the high-end loss.
Q: I was told from my buddy musicians that every Strat has built-in out of phase sounds, so why you are showing this mod?
A: Oh yes, this is one of my favorite rant´n´rave topics—and one of the most common misunderstandings. When we talk about out-of-phase sounds on a Strat, we are NOT talking about position 2 and 4 of the 5-way pickup selector switch! This is a misperception we see a lot. In position 2 and 4 both pickups are still in phase. Some people like to call them out of phase positions, but I like the term in-between positions much better, and it helps to avoid misunderstandings. So, rant over… for now…
Q: I want to shield my wires to the output jack, but I don’t have any shielded cables. What can I do?
A: Normally this is not necessary on a Strat, but if you want to add a little extra shielding without using special, shielded cables, you can perform this old-school trick from the early tube-radio era: instead of using a shielded cable run to connect the output jack, you can use two standard wires and twist them together (like a twisted pair). This will provide extra shielding and will work as well as any standard shielded cable. You can also use this little neat trick inside amps, and of course for any cable run inside a guitar. As a little extra bonus, you can do this to the connection cables of any Strat or Telecaster pickup, to fine tune the tone and to provide some extra shielding to single coil pickups. It works best with the cloth covered wires.
Q: I rotated my pickups 180 degrees like Jimi Hendrix did, but it sounds still in phase.
A: Physically rotating a pickup 180 degrees will definitely not put a pickup out of phase, but you will achieve a different tone—especially with a pickup with staggered pole pieces. Hendrix was left-handed, but at the time no special lefty guitars existed, so he simply took a normal right-handed guitar and played it lefthanded. And I’m pretty sure Jimi never rotated any pickups 180 degrees in his axes!
There are other common misunderstandings about the out-of-phase mod. Don’t use two phase switches, because reversing the leads of both pickups would put them back in phase again, and you’ll receive the stock sound. And putting a single pickup out of phase will also have no audible result; playing a Strat’s single pickup out of phase will sound the same as playing it in phase. You can only get an outof- phase sound when you use two pickups together, one of them out of phase.
We will return to more Strat mods over the next few months, starting with a very cool mod to shift the range of your tone controls. Until then keep on modding!
Dirk Wacker lives in Germany and has been addicted to all kinds of guitars since the age of five. He is fascinated by anything that has something to do with old Fender guitars and amps. He hates short scales and Telecaster neck pickups, but loves twang. In his spare time he plays country, rockabilly, surf and Nashville styles in two bands, works as a studio musician for a local studio and writes for several guitar mags. He is also a hardcore DIY guy for guitars, amps and stompboxes and runs an extensive webpage www.singlecoil.com about these things.