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Stratocaster Q&A, 2011

A selection of Strat-related questions from Dirk''s inbox.

It has been almost two years since my first Stratocaster Q&A column (“Stratocaster Modding Q&A," May 2009 PG). Since then, I've gotten numerous emails concerning Strat mods, so it's high time for a sequel. This subject consistently generates interest and feedback, and I'm happy for that. Somehow, the Strat seems to invite guitarists to pick up a soldering iron and start exploring simple mods, and that's my main goal for this column. So here's a selection of Strat-related questions from my inbox.

I want to replace one of my Strat's pots with a push/pull unit for the “seven-sound" mod. For this project, I need a pot with a SPST switch, but I can only find push/pull pots with a DPDT switch. What can I do?

You're right. To do the very easy seven-sound mod—which adds a switching device that can activate the neck pickup— you only need a SPST switch. In layman's terms, that's a simple on/off switch with only two lugs, and those are hard to find on a push/pull or push/ push assembly. CTS makes several, but they're only available in a few values, none of which are suitable for a Strat's passive pickups. Typical push/pull pots are equipped with a DPDT (aka 2PDT) switch, which provides more lugs than you need for this mod.

But this isn't a problem— simply leave the unused lugs alone. In this case, you use two of the six lugs, and leave four unconnected. This won't affect your tone or impact the mod. We're going to cover switching basics in one of the next columns, so stay tuned. In the meantime, a good guideline is that it's better to have extra options and not need them than vice versa. For example, you can perform the seven-sound mod with a DPDT switch, but you can't split a 4-conductor humbucker with a SPST or SPDT switch. That requires a minimum of DPDT or higher.

I've heard that on early Strats, Fender didn't use springs to mount the Strat pickups in the pickguard, but rather small pieces of latex tubing. If this is true, is there a difference in tone?

Yes, this is true. On '50s and '60s Strats, Fender inserted small pieces of yellowish-brown latex tubing between the pickups and the pickguard, and you adjusted pickup height by compressing or relaxing the tubing. Latex tubing has an advantage. Being a non-magnetic material, it can help reduce feedback— especially when you play very loud. If you have problems with feedback, try replacing your metal springs with the old-school tubing. It might help.

But there are also some downsides to the latex tubing. It's tricky to slide it over the pickup screws, and latex starts to degenerate over the years. If you have latex tubing that looks whitish or milky, it's time to replace it. If you don't, it will eventually crumble leaving you with a loose pickup—in the middle of a crucial solo, of course.

Because they react with a pickup's magnetic field, metal springs can encourage feedback, but they last forever and are easy to install. As for tone, I can't verify that Strats with latex tubing sound fatter than those with springs, but the springs add a kind of reverb sound to the tone, which I like a lot. It's something to experiment with.

I want a cross between a Telecaster and a Stratocaster. What do you recommend?

This seems to be a common desire and many companies are offering Tele-style instruments with three pickups—like a Strat. Even James Burton is playing a triple-pickup Telecaster to put some Strat-like sounds at his fingertips. That's one way to mix features from these two guitars. Another would be to wire up a hardtail Strat with a Telecaster bridge pickup. Because of the Strat's contoured body, this is the more comfortable choice. Several companies offer authentically twangy Tele-style bridge pickups sized to fit a Strat pickguard, and this is a good option because it doesn't require any body routing.

I've heard that Strat pickups with bevelled magnets—like on Rory Gallagher's Strat— sound better than the modern flat magnets. Is this true?

These pickups sound different because their bevelled edges influence the magnetic field—a lot. The physics are complex, but in practical terms, the pickups sound fatter with more overtones and less shrill highs, though I don't think Fender did this in the old days to intentionally enhance tone. Rather, it was an accidental stroke of genius. The alnico material used for the magnets was new and very expensive at that time—and it was porous! I'll bet a lot of magnets crumbled while being hammered into the pickup. So to minimize the risk of destroying the magnets during the installation process, Fender simply bevelled them on the hammering surface. Depending on which employee was at the sanding machine, the edges are more or less bevelled from pickup to pickup. That's one reason vintage Strats sound so different from one another.

What's your favorite Strat?

I own a whole bunch of Strats—new, old, and vintage models—as well as Strat-style guitars from other companies. But to answer the desert island question: I think it's my Fiesta Red MIJ '50s Reissue Strat from 1992, modded with an EC-style blocked tremolo, the seven-sound mod, and a set of LeoSounds Irish Tour pickups. It's not a very beautiful or valuable Strat, but this guitar plays well and sounds marvellous. And it also has a nostalgic element, which is why it's my favorite.

What is your favorite Strat mod?

That's easy. The seven-sound mod—which expands the standard five sounds by adding the bridge-plus-neck combination and all three pickups in parallel—plus playing with the pickup heights. Pickup height adjustment is the most effective and cheapest Stratocaster modification, and that's what we'll discuss next month. Many weak-sounding Strats will come to life when you adjust their pickups correctly, and there are a lot of tonal shades to discover in the process. See you then!

Dirk Wacker lives in

Germany and is fascinated

by anything related to old

Fender guitars and amps.

He plays country, rockabilly,

and surf music in two

bands, works regularly as a

session musician for a local studio, and writes

for several guitar mags. He's also a hardcore

guitar and amp DIY-er who runs an extensive

website——on the subject.