The Fender Stratocaster Guitar.
All the stuff you didn’t know or want to know. By Dan Torres –
Torres Engineering (www.torresengineering.com)
Escape the confusion and mysteries around RWRP, “ the out of phase tone”, tone controls, switches, shielding, fixes, some history and more.
The Stratocaster has a lot of myths around it and It also a lot of truths you may not know. You may or may not be familiar with the all peculiarities of your instrument
I have to look at the vintage Stratocaster design. There are dozens of modified and switched around models out now, far too many to even list.
I am talking about the straight up 3 single coil pickup, 3 controls, one lever toggle switch.
Tone Controls. .
For instance, are you aware that you have three pick-ups, but only two tone controls? Your treble pickup has no tone control. Fender was of the opinion that you would always what the “lead” pickup to be as bright as possible
. Did you know that the original, vintage 3 position selector switch offered no combination of pickups?
You were to select which pickup you wanted, but none together.
This makes the separate middle and neck tone control thing make more sense.
Fender adapted a model railroad switch to his new guitars, the Telecaster first.
The Strat followed with an even less complex use of the switch.
That is why the switch has two sets of poles on it, but only needs one. (The jumper wire found on the switch is totally superfluous.
The tone controls can be directly attached to the pickups.) I have several of these switches from the late 40’s marked for model railroad use.
They even include the same knob. I also have several tube testers from the same period using the same switches.
Musicians along the line found that by experimenting they could “catch” the switch between positions and get two pickups at once. Musicians are always a curious lot.
This was that great, and now classic, strat funky/sweet tone.
It was pretty hard to get that switch caught in the exact position and keep it there.
Obviously you could not switch to that tone in the middle of a song.
Lots of guys just jammed the switch in place, a piece of pick, match book cover, whatever was handy. Then it becomes a totally “one tone” guitar.
Ok as that tone was awesome!
The 5 position switch we invented in the 70's takes care of this problem. It is pretty standard now.
Some of the really exact vintage repros still have the 3 position.
THE OUT OF PHASE LEGEND –
there is none!! there is no legendary, “out of phase” sound. Absolutely none, there never has been one.
It is just someone who did not know anything about guitars describing the sound of the two pickups on at the same time as “out of phase” (I will not tell you who it was)
. He did not know what he was talking about and just threw around a word he had heard, about a sound he had NEVER heard.
But a real big star is endlessly influential even if he is 100% wrong.
Clearly the writers who passed it on did not know anything about electronics either (you would not expect them to.)
Real out of phase is WAY, WAY different. Extremely thin, very ugly bright with no bass at all.
The cool tone you hear is the combination of the bridge and middle pickup. It is different because the pickups are so close together – their proximity to each other is the sound, not the phase of the pickups.
If you really, really do not want to believe the truth here, have your tech reverse the wires on the middle pickup so it is really out of phase, then listen.
The Stratocaster Vibrato
Did you know That the vibrato is fully adjustable for any degree of tension and action? There are 5 springs in the rear of the guitar that are adjustable via a spring holder.
You would tighten or loosen it to get the tension you want.
This was originally designed for pretty heavy gauge strings and Fender has never changed it!
Usually you have to remove some of the springs to be able to get any results at all.
Using 3 springs is a good place to start with .009 or .010 gauge string sets.
Is my guitar different from others?
Sure it is. despite popular belief to the contrary, not all instruments made in a given year are even vaguely identical?
There's a great variation – a variation in tone quality, sustain, and“feel” - from one instrument to the next,
I'll try to give a few hints in selecting a Strat that will help you get one on the high quality end of the scale, one that is right for you. But first, some history.
When did it come to life in the first place?
The Stratocaster, with its three pickups and new vibrato, was introduced in April, 1954.
“Stratosphere” was the impetus for the name. If you have a real old one, (or a repro of the old ones) it will have a gold anodized aluminum pickguard!
Until around mid 1966, all Strats had a smaller headstock (and decal) than they do at present. From '54 to '59, all -maple necks were standard. T
here are lots of details that change constantly over the years but the basic design has always been the same.
Bodies and the side (waist) cutaway were not all the same.
I have seen the craftsmen shaping the side cutaway by hand on a big rotary sander. They were very good at it, but no one is perfect.
The Fretting technique was real odd on a vintage one (1950’ to early 60’s) not on repros The frets were PULLED in from the side of the neck, not hammered in from the top like everyone else in the world
. Fender had a machine that pulled the fret wire through the slot using a footpedal.
This was faster and gave more even fret heights but lead to other problems
If you took the frets out from the top to refret it, they tear up the fingerboard. They never entered that way so they do not like to come out from the top.
Leo Fender was of the opinion that no one would refret a strat or tele.
You would just buy a new neck when the frets wore out. This was, in part, related to the odd fretting style, and that it would probably be cheaper for you, the customer, to buy a new neck then to pay someone to refrett the “old worn” one.
But since Fender never supplied replacement necks – well, it did not work out
. Shopping for and “Checking out” a good Strat.
When you shop for a Strat, remember that a “good” Strat has beautiful, lyrical sound.
The notes you play on it will have excellent tone and singing quality.
A finger vibrato can produce a sound like a human voice.
On the other hand, a poor Strat can have dead notes due to bad frets, or can sound very tinny and irritating with uneven output from pickups; or it might never play in tune!
The best way to find a good one is to play every one available. After checking them out, choose the one that sounds good TO YOU and no one else, and it feels the best TO YOU and no one else.
If the action or other adjustments aren't perfect, they can usually be corrected. However, a neck that doesn't feel right is a major (impossible) project to reshape; so start off with the best shaped neck you can find.
If a hard-rock sustaining quality is important ot you, get the heavier instrument on the shelf.
A heavier the instrument has the capacity for a good sustaining quality.
Wood varies in density, and therefore varies in weight. Now, let's assume you have a Strat that plays okay and feels solid enough to be worth taking care of .
The following is a list of modifications most asked for, and most often used by professionals to make their instruments just right for their particular uses:
. Replace Pickups. There are a bunch of replacement pickups especially for Strats. Too many to mention and I would not like to leave anyone out.
Pickups can change the sound to something more suited to your taste.
Check out their sites or in stores to see what may sound good to you. BUT, it can be close but not right on it.
My favorite Strat has had at least 6 sets of pickups in it! But I am picky about tone!
Oops! Another myth, or more clearly, a misunderstanding to clear up. RWRP – I do not like acronyms like this, they are really difficult for those new to guitars
– it is Reverse Wound Reverse Polarity. The “humbucking principle” Easily put. The reverse wound aspect is that the windings of the wire on one pickup travel in the reverse direction from another – one wound clockwise, the other counterclockwise.
This puts the pickups OUT OF PHASE. (yes, we have gotten into this – keep reading)
the Reverse Polarity is having the magnets reversed. One with the north pole up, the other with the south pole up. Reverse Polarity.
This also makes the pickups OUT OF PHASE. It is out of phase twice, therefore it is back in phase but the single coil hum is lost in the process.
The pickups are in phase, they operate in phase but the double reverse removes the hum.
Gibson patented it in 1956 but Fender and others got around it.
It is mentioned so often now that the acronym has become exclusively used for the characteristic and is never explained.
In a Stratocaster set the RWRP pickup is the middle one.
Therefore you have the humbucking principle when it is used with both the bridge and neck pickups It DOES NOT WORK with a single pickup on.
It requires two coils to work, two pickups.
Electronic modifications Selector Switch Modifications.
They Can be made in several says to create combinations of pickups Add a 5 way switch if you don't have one (vintage clones)
We have the famous Blueskaster and Blueskaster Deluxe series of wiring setups for a great (and world famous) set of new tones (www.torresengineering.com)
Pots and controls. The three controls can be wired in hundreds of ways to give you the kind of control you want over the instrument. I introduced the concept (about 1987) of changing pot values to vary the tone and output of pickups. A very cool trick.175K, 250K, 300K, 500K, 1 MEG up to 2 meg (2 million ohms
) The much misunderstood “Shielding”
Shielding. All Stratocasters have an inherent hum produced by the single coil pickup. Shielding of the instrument can greatly reduce or eliminate this hum.
The MOST COMMON piece of incorrect knowledge is about shielding.
Shielding the control cavity and pickguard of the guitar is practically no shielding at all.
The hum we hear would be picked up by some kind of antenna in the guitar, right?
It is audio hum Pots are not antennas, a long coil of wire is an antenna.
Where is the long coil of wire?
Obviously the pickups, with 5000 or more winds of thin wire on them are the antenna,
THEY pickup the hum – 99.9% of it. (a psychological effect/wish is what makes the other forms of shielding “work”)
If the pickups are out in the open, (a shielded pickguard is zero, it is not AROUND the pickup coil) there is your source of noise! Shield the pickups – BUT technique and some important facts are necessary to overcome the, again, incorrect urban legend that shielding the pickup changes the tone – nope, incorrect shielding changes the tone. And at the same time, do a little thinking about an antenna. If your instrument is particularly bothersome (and it will be with something like a 50-watt Marshall), get the guitar pickups shielded
Just plain bad setup Bad work.
Even brand-new instruments can have bad frets., I've heard the old complaint: “Well, it cost me $XXXX, you'd think they'd make it right.” Sorry, but very few guitars turn up with perfect frets. Without good, even frets, you won't ever be able to achieve real good action.
A note: maple fingerboard Strats from the late 60’s on, with a poly finish, often have a build-up of finish along the side of each fret, making it difficult to bend the strings.
Check your frets; if this is so, the problem should be carefully corrected by a good repairman who knows about the problem and how to fix it (tricky).
But The guitar most likely may need a fret level if you are picky about action – most all pros get the frets leveled right out of the box.
The Stock Strat vibrato is very good, very dramatic, and you can have any degree of vibrato that you want. However, the more extreme your vibrato, the harder it is to keep in tune.
The standard vibrato arm tends to break if you bend it repeatedly, Jimi Hendrix really, really had this problem a lot it's best to replace it with the new stain-less-steel replacement arms if you plan to use it at al
. The standard Fender Vibrato worked just fine for Jimi Hendrix – none of the locking or floating replacements existed during his lifetime. but a Floyd Rose would have just made his day!
Keep in tune Nuts, Tuning Pegs.
Tuning pegs on the inexpensive Starts are good for about three months. If you are at all particular about tuning, they should be replaced.
You will know it if the guitar goes out of tune from normal playing, strumming, bending etc. Or just chooses to go out of tune whenever it feels like it.
There are a lot of replacement sets available. I've found the Schaller M-6 minis, the Sperzels, the Grovers, the new locking Klusons, locking Gotoh’s and other quality gears to be excellent and trouble-free, with a smoother and finer tuning.
Graphite bridge saddles and nuts (or Tusq) will REALLY help tuning a lot.
A major problem with new strats is that the nut is cut with a saw. The slots are poorly shaped and the strings get caught. You have probably heard that little “tink” when you are tuning the guitar – if you hear it, the nut needs work
. These are some good ideas For your Stratocaster, not all of them that would take a whole book.
We have lots and lots of cool products you have never seen before (we design them) plus parts for guitars and TUBE amplifiers There will be still more information in the future. I have about 100 articles and a complete book to make available. In future articles,
I'll looking at Gibsons, more Fenders, a lot of Tube Amplifiers, plus others that you may suggest. write (email@example.com)
Super Popular downloads of great projects and still more – check out our website at www.torresengineering. com. We have been in business 35 years and know this stuff pretty well.
I am a player, studio and on the road. A fairly good combination of musical experience, technical knowledge and being a nut about guitars and amps all my life!
Dan Torres www.torresengineering.com
This article was first written as a monthly column in 1977 and was reprinted all over the world. I have done updating, to bring it up to the 21st century but all this information DID exist at Torres Engineering in 1977. there will be a lot more fun articles online from all my columns publications and mods for guitars and tube amps. Lots of good stuff. Also my entire book “INSIDE TUBE AMPS” as soon as we get through typing it into this format!
See the website for upcoming guitar products the famous Torres Guitar and Amp mod kits and a tone more.