Gear talk (4): Stratocaster mods & repairs

In the last year, I’ve been using my two Squier Strats for the majority of my live work. My blue Made-in-Mexico Fender HSS Strat (let’s just call it the Blue One for the rest of this post) has been in semi-retirement, for two reasons:

  • It’s my most expensive electric. The Squiers are much cheaper to replace if a drunk guest at a wedding/corporate gig (about 80-90% of my live work with the electric guitars) kicks, spills beer on or otherwise ruins one of them!
  • It still has a humbucker-strength, high-output pickup in the middle position (a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails).

My MIM Blue Stratocaster, before the Hot Rails pickup (middle) was removed.

Nowadays, the bands I work with on a regular basis don’t require that full-on, airy sound I previously used so often. I also missed the in-between sound achieved by using the neck & middle pickups together, as the Hot Rails tended to dominate in the mix. Time for a change…

In with the old

So the Hot Rails is coming out. What do I replace it with? This guitar has been my ‘Hot Strat’ for the best part of two decades; I require a classic-sounding pickup which isn’t considerably weaker than the neck & bridge pups.

By chance, I stumbled across another Fender Vintage Noiseless for sale on a well-known online auction site (you know which one) and snapped it up for a great price. Perfect! Now I have exactly the same pickup in both neck & middle positions, which means I don’t need to worry about how they’ll match up together.

How does it feel?

In a word: good. But we need more words. It’s very, very good.

This guitar remains a souped-up Strat for rock gigs & studio work. But now, it’s regained a wider range of the ‘classic’ Strat sounds. The sparkle & twang you’d expect to hear are all present, with a lovely ‘quack’ in positions 2 & 4. The middle pickup on its own has a lovely BB King feel to it, especially when my amp is clean but just starting to push into breaking up. Marvellous!

I haven’t had a true single coil in this axe since I took out the stock pickups over a decade ago. Those original ceramics weren’t great, which is why I changed them. These, however, are somewhat wonderful.

A true HSS once more, thanks to the Vintage Noiseless pickup (middle).

But wait! There’s more…

As well as swapping the pickup, my tech guy also rewired the tone controls. The back tone knob now controls the bridge humbucker, leaving the middle pickup unwired. This means that the middle pickup is effectively always set to 10. However, this enables a certain shimmer to come through when selecting the in-between positions (2 & 4), adding definition without dominating the mix. Add to this the new ability to dial back some of the harsh top-end on my bridge humbucker, and I expect to be using the bridge more on clean settings as well as continuing to exploit it’s beautiful overdriven tone.

In particular, the aforementioned shimmer (there really isn’t another word to describe it) from the middle pickup adds a lovely bite when using this pup in combination with the bridge. This is especially true when played through a slightly pushed amp – perfect for a tough yet clear Robert Cray-style lead tone. And that is a very good thing, in my opinion!

In other gear news…

My Squier Classic Vibe Strat was also in need of a little TLC. I noticed at a recent gig that the volume pot was starting to come loose. Mercifully, this has been easily fixed before it became a serious problem (and started pulling on the wiring, potentially cutting out the sound altogether).

This only leaves a few mods on my other Squier, the blonde Vintage Modified Strat, still to do. I’m looking to make a few changes to the electrics on this axe, which I’ll discuss in greater detail in a later post. For now, I can say that I am in talks with a small pickup manufacturer in the USA regarding a custom set of single coils. But that’s a story for another time…

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