By Dave Gregory, XTC.
DAVE GREGORY of XTC describes the Strat in use
In this most fickle and unpredictable of professions, the music business, it takes a hardy animal indeed to weather the changing fads and fancies of an increasingly discriminating public. One such beast has been with us since the birth of rock 'n' roll itself and today enjoys a popularity undiminished by time and changing fashions; today the Fender Stratocaster is arguably the world's most successful electric guitar.
The reasons for its popularity are manifold, but what most attracts this player to its ranks is its very versatility. A glance down the list of fellow owners and the diversity of their individual styles bears homage to its apparently limitless capabilities; from the bar-room blues of Rory Gallagher to David Byrne's scratchy musical neurosis; the steel-on-glass glissando of Ry Cooder and Lowell George to the blistered steel-on-broken glass excesses of Ritchie Blackmore and Gary Moore; the gentle folk of Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol and the country-honk blues styles of Clapton and Knopfler; and of course the Stratocaster's two greatest salesmen, and the best friends Fender ever had, Hank B. Marvin and Jimi Hendrix, who must be about as far apart stylistically as it's possible to be.
Jeff Beck forsook his much-loved Les Pauls for the favours of a Fender in the early 1970s, and is rarely seen these days playing anything else; George Harrison had his psychedelically painted for the "Magical Mystery Tour" film; and when Bob Dylan renounced the faithful and devastated the known universe by "going electric" back in 1965, he did so armed with a Strat.
Add to this list any number of faceless studio musicians, semi-professionals, bedroom hopefuls and collectors who have taken the Stratocaster to their hearts over the past 30 years and you have an impressive testament to its enduring appeal and adaptability in the face of changing trends.
So exactly what is it about this ubiquitous piece of rock 'n' roll machinery that gives it its eclectic, across-the-board appeal? Let's look closer at the beast in question and consider what it has to offer the player.
The original purpose behind the Stratocaster's design, in 1953, was that Leo Fender wanted to produce a solid-bodied guitar with its own built-in vibrato, or "tremolo" unit, as players were beginning to add all manner of pitch-altering devices (Bigsbys and worse!) to their instruments, often with less than successful results.
Fender worked long and hard on the development of their new device and the Stratocaster was only put into production when the design team were completely satisfied as to the efficiency and effectiveness of the unit. The fact that the design remains unchanged to this day, and still works better than most of its rivals, pays tribute to their diligence and patience. The "Synchronised Tremolo" system today stands proudly in what is after all a very dodgy field of music mechanics!
Of course, during the 1950s, guitar strings were of a much heavier gauge than today's, and electric guitarists as a breed had yet to progress to a stage where such subtleties as finger vibrato were employed in their playing. So the tremolo arm enabled them to put a little "tone" into their lead lines, and perhaps add a little drama to chords. Check out any of Hank Marvin's solos on early Shadows recordings — Hank's right hand was permanently welded to the whammy-bar — or that wonderful minor 7th before the choruses of Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over".
Some time in late 1966, an American gentleman known as Jimi Hendrix released his first single, "Hey Joe". On the B-side was a delightful refrain entitled "Stone Free", the guitar solo and fade-out featuring the most brutal mis-use of Stratocaster hardware hitherto encountered. But at last, some 35 years after Doc Kaufman's original prototype, the tremolo unit had found its true vocation! And today, players such as Ritchie Blackmore and Eddie Van Halen have taken Jimi's example (which of course he himself was to develop further) to often ludicrous extremes, and now set the standards by which all heavy metal is assayed.
Because of its tremolo system, the playing action of the Stratocaster tends to be "tighter" than other guitars equipped with standard tail-piece equipment. Five sturdy springs, located in the back of the guitar, exist to pull the bridge section firmly back into position after the tremolo arm has been depressed; so every time a string is "pushed" in order to bend a note, one is not only pushing against the natural tension of the string but the five return springs as well.
Other firsts on the Stratocaster include an angled jack socket mounted on top of the body, presumably to help eliminate accidental removal of leads by clumsy feet (although it can sometimes by awkward removing jack plugs from these sockets!). There's also the now-famous Fender contoured-body sculpting, which makes it more comfortable to hold than its elder sister, the Telecaster. The lower left edge of the top of the body is "dressed away" behind the player's right arm, and the right hand side of the back of the body is scooped out as if to fit snugly around the rib cage (or beer gut, depending on the length of the strap).
But it's the all-important sound of the Fender Stratocaster that really wins the hearts of most players; its three identical single-pole pickups positioned, in such a way as to extract the maximum tonal range from the instrument. And what a range indeed!
Let's start with pickup one, located at the neck end of the body. This produces a beautiful jazz-blue tone with a distinct edge that lends itself equally well to funky rhythm chops, plain chord work or bluesy soloing. Take a listen to Steve Hunter's work on Peter Gabriel's "Waiting For The Big One", or most of Stevie Ray Vaughan's solos on Bowie's "Let's Dance" album for examples. If that's not enough, check out the original studio version of Hendrix' "Red House", for me some of the finest electric blues guitar ever. In fact, prior to "Are You Experienced?", Jimi Hendrix' first album, the Stratocaster had been largely ignored by the blues fraternity, the purists preferring the fatter-sounding, longer-sustaining Gibson Les Pauls and ES300 range. But Jimi proved that the Strat could be just as expressive, just as soulful sounding as the Gibsons, and today it is probably more popular amongst blues and soul artists than any other guitar.
Pickup two, in the centre, is a much maligned and underused pickup, neglected by many players (myself included, alas) owing to its less distinctive properties — not bright, not mellow, tending to fall sound-wise between two stools. However, it produces a strong, clear signal ideal for soloing. Close aural scrutiny reveals that Jimi Hendrix played most of his best solos using the centre pickup. I've also noticed a lot of reggae guitarists and bottleneck players like it (Lowell George, for example). On the other hand, Robbie Robertson has a couple of Strats that have had the offending pickup permanently removed.
Pickup number three, set at a jaunty angle in front of the bridge, is in my opinion the Stratocaster's Achilles' Heel. The actual sound it produces is excellent — very bright, plenty of twang and bite. But for me it's never quite enough — you always want that little bit extra from it in terms of raunch, response and just plain volume when compared to the other two pickups. Since I would guess most players in rock use this pickup for solo work, it might seem logical to replace it with a more powerful unit; though personally I can't bring myself to spoil an original Fender by rerouting to accommodate foreign pickups. Besides, nothing reduces the value of a guitar more than personal customising. For studio work the problem doesn't really exist, but on stage, when switching from a rhythm pickup to the bridge for a solo, it fails to deliver that extra bit of poke which every lead guitarist with half an ego needs to get the message well and truly across.
(In 1980, Fender issued a revved-up version of the Stratocaster and christened it "The Strat". On this model a more powerful pickup has been installed at the bridge, thus alleviating the problem, but as I have yet to play one I can't offer an honest critique.)
In addition to these basic sounds it's also possible to select pickups one and two or pickups two and three together to produce the currently popular "out-of-phase" effect, much favoured by Eric Clapton, and popularised more recently by the likes of Mark Knopfler and Adrian Belew. In fact the pickups are not out of phase at all — but the bell-like, almost nasal quality of the sound gives the impression, to the educated ear, that something in the circuitry has somehow gone awry.
It was initially brought to mass public attention in the summer of 1970, when Eric Clapton released his first solo LP to an unsuspecting world. Shocked disciples, expecting scorching electric metal and lots of it, were instead treated to a down-home, laid-back, country blues record featuring Eric playing what sounded like a very cheap guitar. In the biggest public volte-face since Dylan's coming-out party back in '65, Clapton had junked his Les Pauls and Marshall stacks in favour of the looser, funkier sound of a Stratocaster and a small amp. Secondhand record shops soon became well-stocked with Eric Clapton albums. The world was just not ready for this "new" sound.
Of course, Clapton was by no means the first to discover how to achieve this odd effect. Strat owners had long worked out for themselves that if you lodged the three-way pickup selector switch half way between the standard pickup settings, you did have this unusual sound as two pickups were activated simultaneously. But Eric was certainly the first to bring it to wide attention, even though it took a while to catch on. American groups like Little Feat, Orleans and Steve Miller began to feature it on their recordings in the early to mid 1970s, but really it was not until the summer of 1978, when Mark Knopfler emerged with a playing style almost purpose-built for the sound, that the accompanying success of the first Dire Straits album firmly established it in the minds of the great record-buying public. Today it's almost universally referred to as the "Knopfler sound".
With the original three-way selector switches, it was always a fiddle lodging the switch-lever exactly between settings — its spring-loaded mechanism tends to pull the switch into the nearest pickup mode. So it soon became clear that a five-way unit was needed, to give the new Stratocasters those vital extra two presets, and to satisfy the demand from players who were rapidly losing patience with the old switches. By late 1977 the five-way switch was at last a standard fitment on the Stratocaster, and not before time.
Other on-board features include a volume control, common to all pickups, conveniently located next to the bridge pickup and thus very handy for bowing with the little finger of the right hand, and two tone controls, the centre one affecting pickup one, the outside one affecting pickup two. For me, these are just a cosmetic attraction — I've never met anyone who uses them.
I'm firmly of the opinion that one can never possess too many Stratocasters — I've never found two that play or sound exactly the same. True, pickups, neck dimensions and wood specifications have varied slightly over the years but the basic configuration has remained unchanged. Subtle differences in sound and feel abound.
What can be relied upon is that the Strat will always deliver a clean, bright sound compatible with most amplifiers, and particularly suitable for direct injection into studio consoles. Its natural sparkling signal also lends itself very well to being dirtied-up for heavier rock styles. Because it's easy to raunch up a clean sound with effects and so on, and virtually impossible to clean up a naturally dirty sound, the Stratocaster has the advantage over some of its competitors equipped with more powerful pickups.
You can virtually do anything with a Strat — it strikes the perfect balance between output and, shall we say, tonal fidelity; it's a winning compromise that has helped establish it as an industry standard and firm favourite amongst three generations of players.
As long as there are pop groups with guitar players, there will be the Fender Stratocaster. It's impossible to imagine the music scene without it and I can't see it disappearing ever. Here's to the next 30 years.
Feature by Dave Gregory
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