Tag Archives: axe

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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Guitar News: Fender announce new Player Series to replace MIM models

Recent news from Fender. It looks like the ‘Made In Mexico’ tag is being either rechristened or replaced…


There’s more on the story via this link to Reverb.com:

https://reverb.com/uk/news/fender-discontinues-mim-standard-series-replaces-with-the-player-series

The general consensus amongst guitar gear fans is that the MIM range improved greatly from 2006. I briefly owned one from 2012 (a lovely HSH model I sold as I wasn’t using anywhere near enough) and can testify to the improvement. My first ‘proper’ electric guitar was a Fender MIM Strat from 2000, which I still own. Hopefully I’ll never part with it. The original pickups were a little flat but otherwise I can’t fault it – but that’s just my humble opinion.

(I upgraded the pickups on this old Strat around ten years ago – more in that in a new post coming soon).
Still, having given up the more recent MIM guitar, I might have to give these new ‘Player Series’ models a look-over in the very near future. Do let me know your thoughts…

Guitar tone: have you been missing the obvious trick?

Still looking for a better guitar tone? You might have been missing something obvious for some time. You have the guitar, the amp, the overdrive pedals, EQ, but that sound isn’t quite there? It just doesn’t feel right. The obvious answer is to do less. More specifically…

Dial down the gain. Clean up your sound.

Sound ridiculous? Stay with me for now and I’ll try to explain why I believe a cleaner sound makes for not only a better guitar tone, but also helps your sound cut through the mix of a full band. A few things to consider…

Here comes the science (sort of)

Adding overdrive or distortion to your guitar smooths out the tone. Yes, it can sound lovely and ‘syrupy’, not unlike Clapton’s famous ‘woman tone’ or the thick lead sounds of Gary Moor or Slash, but have you ever noticed how your solo cans till get lost in the live mix? This is particularly true if your band includes keys, a second guitar player or a horn section, as all of these instruments predominantly occupy the midrange of the frequency spectrum. In effect, your smooth tone is competing with many different voices, and all that lovely smoothing-out (which sounds so cool for your legato runs, etc) makes your sound more likely to dissolve into the wider sound of your band.

The trick is volume over distortion

Try listening to pretty much any classic rock record from the late sixties and seventies (the age of the ‘guitar hero’). Notice how so many of those riffs are only slightly overdriven, at best? Some, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, make use of guitar sounds which are virtually clean. That classic sound you hear is usually a small amp (say 30 watts) being turned up full, and breaking up into a light overdrive sound. This applies to most of the back catalogues for most of your favourite ‘heavy’ bands, from Led Zeppelin and The Who to early Aerosmith and even Black Sabbath.

My favourite example to highlight this is the classic song, Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple. The link takes you to the studio recording. Compare this with every covers band that had played this song. Ever. Heck, compare it with how Deep Purple play it now! Everyone has a different opinion, but wouldn’t most agree that the original sounds better?

These bands sounded heavy because they were playing the loudest amplifiers available, and as they got bigger, the sound got heavier, but we’re still a long way from the Mesa Boogie levels of heaviness the eighties would bring along…

Wouldn’t these bands have played heavier, if they had been able to?

Quite probably. They were considered pretty noisy for their time! If those full, thick distortion sounds had been more readily available in the mid-sixties, would the sound of rock guitar have been very different? The truth is, we’ll never know. Those artists used the equipment they had available, and we can only hypothesize as to alternative outcomes. Here it becomes a little too ‘chicken-and-egg’ for my liking, though there are numerous threads on guitar forums across the internet if this is the kind of debate you’re looking to investigate further.

Of course, one counter-argument would be the fuzz pedal. This was heavily used by some artists, notably Hendrix (if you’re not sure how that fuzz sounds, think of the opening riff to ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones as your starting point). This effect created a thick and – it goes almost without saying – ‘fuzzy’ sound to the guitar’s tone, making solos sustain for longer and creating a warm, distorted sound. However, the fuzz pedal didn’t take over the sound of rock  guitar as we know it. Perhaps distortion wasn’t the end-goal for guitar players back in the sixties, after all?

So should I play clean but loud for the rest of my guitar-playing career?

Probably not a good idea. Your band mates will most likely not appreciate it!

However, I might suggest you start by dialing back the gain a little on your drive channels, pedals, etc, and make better use of volume and tone controls (on the guitar, amp and any stompboxes you are using) to allow the sound of your guitar to ring through.

But what about sustain?

It’s not always possible to turn up loud and play away. I currently gig with a digital amp which is DI’d into my band’s mixing desk, with no output from the amp itself. My main channels are a clean and a slightly overdriven channel, both of which are fairly ‘dry’ signals (not effects except for a very small amount of reverb). My lead sound (for solos) is another version of the overdriven sound, with a slight boost in volume and treble frequencies. Crucially, this sound also includes a fair bit more reverb dialed in, plus a short delay mixed low underneath the original signal. The reverb and delay both act to thicken up the sound, and assist my guitar sound not only through increased sustain, but in helping the sound to cut through the mix.

Another trick to use in the studio is to use two amps when recording; one with an overdriven sound, and another set to an almost clean tone. The cleaner of the two amps can be mixed quite low, but it’s presence will add some clarity of definition which the heavier sound loses. The whole thing makes for a guitar tone which is not only more thick, but more true to the sound of your guitar – try it!

Take away points:

  • Clean up your tone – wind back that gain!
  • Use effects to create the impression of more volume (such as reverb and delay) instead of piling on the distortion

Caveats:

I fully appreciate that everyone’s opinion is bound to differ on subjects as personal as guitar tone. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. It is also worth remembering that certain styles of guitar-based music rely on a super-distorted sound as an integral element to their sound (think of bands like Nirvana and Skunk Anansie, for instance). However, don’t be afraid to try experimenting with a cleaner tone. Be warned though, with a clean sound, there is nowhere to hide any weaknesses in your playing technique!

 

Gear Talk (3)

Summer has ended, and with it wedding season. The number of gigs I’ve been playing each week is now returning to a level more compatible with two other jobs and a master’s degree. Now I have time to take stock and update you on my two new working guitars…

Vintage Modified Strat in vintage blonde (left) & Classic Vibe Strat in fiesta red (right).

My previous Strat, one of the new Fender Made in Mexico Standards, featured coil-tapping on both the neck & bridge pickups. In my current function band, I found myself playing it almost exclusively in the single-coil setting. After years of having a humbucker in the bridge position, I finally fell in love with the classic single-coil Strat sound. As it turned out, the Mexican Strat’s neck didn’t feel quite right for me – a trifle too thick, certainly compared to the thinner, vintage feel of my favourite blue Strat (see ‘Gear Talk’ 1 & 2). At the same time, I’d read several reviews singing the praises of the top-end Squier models. It seemed that Squier were no longer solely the savvy choice for the beginner.

I’d been looking for two guitars which sound and feel similar enough to each other to make mid-gig changes much smoother. The weight and shape/feel of the neck needed to feel close to identical, while the sound had to match up as best as it could. I had also been hoping to use more budget-concious instruments – if the build quality was up to it – in order to retire my favourite blue Strat from regular function gigs. On paper, the squires seemed ideal, so I took the plunge and bought two varying models on a retro theme…

Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster

The rave reviews on the deluxe, Classic Vibe and new Vintage Modified lines claimed that many guitarists might well be fooled in a blindfold test with some of Fender’s classic guitars. Likewise, build quality and parts were considered by some to surpass the recent Mexican standards. With this in mind, I purchased a brand new Squier Vintage Modified Strat, finished in a quote lovely custard yellow colour they call Vintage Blonde.

The Vintage Modified range aims to replicate a vintage guitar that’s been retro-fitted with player upgrades. Here, that means Duncan-designed pickups, a better bridge than the entry-level Squiers, a thin, tinted neck and vintage style tuners for better stability. The pickups appear to be a slightly aged off-White, adding to the retro vibe. Best of all (in my opinion), it has the large headstock that Fender started using in the last sixties/early seventies, which is the most obvious nod to the past.

I really like the sound of this guitar. And that’s not compared to Squier’s Affinity range, but the Mexican standards. The basswood body is lighter, but it doesn’t have an obvious effect on either the sound or sustain if this guitar, even compared to my Blue Mexican. Likewise the feel, not to mention the incredible playability, of this guitar far exceed its humble price tag. This has become my main axe for function work. All I needed now was a similar beast to partner it with…

Classic Vibe Simon Neil Stratocaster

I’m going to come clean here and admit I’d never heard of Simon Neil. While I had heard of his band, Biffy Clyro, I couldn’t name or even recognise a single song of theirs, nor could I adequately describe their style. However, friends more clued up on this sort of thing than I am informed me they have a mix of street cred with a younger audience and play interesting, heavy rock music. The specs on this guitar imply that Mr Neil has good, and indeed similar, taste in guitars to me. While I wouldn’t normally buy a signature model (other than a Les Paul, naturally), seeing this guitar going for £200 second hand was too good an opportunity to pass up. Heck, if I didn’t like it, I could always sell it on.

This (now discontinued) guitar is essentially a budget-friendly version of the Fender Simon Neil signature model. Based on a ’62 Strat in gorgeous Fiesta Red, it certainly looks the part. The Mark Knophler/early Hank Marvin vibe in the aesthetic was enough to override any boggling doubts about the subtle Biffy Clyro logo on the headstock. The rosewood fingerboard is slightly lighter than expected, but sounds as warm and dark as you’d expect. As with the Vintage Modufied guitar, the bridge and tuners are an upgrade from those axes at the lower end of the Squier range, and the overall build quality feels like another great job from their Chinese factory. The pickups are a custom mix of Alcino 3 and 5 magnets, which offer up a delightful blend of early and late 60’s Strat tones in one guitar. Very nice!

Having played this guitar for a couple of weeks now, I feel it’s here to stay. I’m currently setting it up so it’s gig-ready, as the action on the two guitars wasn’t quite matching up. There is a slight difference in the sound, particularly when overdriven, but it’s close enough to be complimentary. Other than that, and the obvious differences in finish, these guitars feel the same in my hands and under my fingers, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Finally, even though I never thought I’d say this, I encourage you to give Squier (and indeed other budget models) a go before spending all your money on the top-end guitar brands. Now, more than ever, you may well find the difference is that you’re paying extra for the name. All in, these two new guitars cost less than one New Mexican standard, and for what I need as a working musician, they do the job exceedingly well. Join us, and you too can live the two Squier dream onstage!