Saturday, June 16

Yet Another Strat...

I got a new Strat today. Well, maybe "new" is a little misleading. Maybe "got" is, too.

Like I think I said before, I've loved my little Strat that I built, that was actually the impetus for starting this blog, but I've started to get just a little dissatisfied with some of it's quirks. Even with a good, professional setup, it never really clicked with me. Sure, it plays fine. Sounds okay. The tuners are solid. All in all, it's a very serviceable Strat. But it's just hasn't delivered that jaw-dropping tone that I've wanted it to. Not that I blame it; I had basically no idea what I was doing when I built it, let alone what it was that I wanted it to sound like. I was just picking pieces because of what other people told me and what was affordable.

Then I started playing real Strats, legit vintage ones, and I heard what a Strat was supposed to sound like, felt the smooth action of the neck and really just had an overall mind-bending experience. So I couldn't take it much longer. I had to fix things.

I decided to do a lot more "hands-on" research this time around. I went out to a really nice guitar store in the area and tried out as many Strats as they'd let me. Most specifically, I was looking for tonal differences between fretboard materials (they were all alder Strats, which was probably what I was going to go with anyway), and then tried out a few different neck profiles. Between the Maple or Rosewood neck, all else being held constant, I was pretty amazed at the tonal difference. It was subtle, but definitely there. The Maple neck was a little snappier, the Rosewood one a bit more restrained. I really like both, and could honestly see owning one of each at some point in the future, but I decided that for my one-and-only, I'd go with Rosewood again. Then I tried a few different neck profiles, and found the one I like. The thing that made the most difference to me? The radius. I'm a 9.5" guy all the way. Just feels right.

After that, I started thinking more about specifics. I came across a John Mayer video where he talked about the hows and whys of making his "Black One" Stratocaster at the Fender factory. The thing that struck me was when he talked about making his guitar with no paint on it. That really, really got me thinking about finish. I'd always heard that finish mattered, but I'd only ever owned guitars with a poly-finish, like most modern guitars. Then I got my Mustang, which is from '66 so it's got a nice thin nitro-cellulose lacquer on it. I love the way that guitar sounds. So nitro it is.

I wanted to not repeat some of the mistakes that I made with the first Strat I built, so I went searching for guitars that could fit my standards and not be so expensive that I'd feel bad for customizing them. My search brought me to the Fender Highway One guitars, mostly because they've got the 9.5" radius neck and a body with some nitro on it. Now, digging in a bit more (and confirming it mid-relic-ing), I found out it's more of a compound finish, with a clear poly covered by a colored nitro finish, but either way, it's a thinner finish than most Strats out there.

So to make a long story short, I bought one off of eBay (from 1993, so it's got the medium-jumbo frets, which I prefer, and a vintage-sized headstock, which I'm ambivalent on), swapped out the guts for those in my other Strat, and then got to relicing it. Here's how it turned out:

As you can see, it's not nearly as relic'ed as Mayer's Black One. Like he said, the idea isn't so much about the look as it is about letting the wood breathe. I also think that the whole "heavily distressed" guitar look can come off looking a bit cheesy, particularly when there's paint worn away in areas where there never would be, if the guitar were just worn from normal playing. The upper horn is a pick thing, the lower slant where the arm makes contact makes sense, and the back around the belt buckle is definitely something that happens, along with dents and dings along the edges and around the jack. But how are you going to wear out the paint inside the horns? That just doesn't make sense. So that's about the extent to what I did. Don't get me wrong; this is definitely pretty heavily distressed. But I could definitely relic it more. I also wiped the whole thing down with some lacquer thinner to just thin out the paint that much more.

Then, I rubbed the whole thing down with some black wood stain. The parts that are just wood colored are still covered in the poly coating, but the places that came up black are where I scratched all the way through to the wood. It added a lot of depth to the relic work, making it look way, way more realistic. It also added a nice tint to the plastic parts, aside from the pickup covers which were the same ones from the earlier Strat. If I don't like the way that they look next to the other parts, I'll relic up some white ones and pop them in. I also sanded the neck so it plays really smoothly.

The end result is a guitar that really sings. It's clear and aggressive at the same time. The pickups do most of the heavy lifting, but this guitar sounds an order of magnitude clearer than the guitar that those pickups came from. It's not quite at the same level as Mayer's guitar, which frankly is the best sounding Strat I've ever heard, even over YouTube, but it's close. Maybe chucking some of his Big Dipper pickups in there would take it to the next level, but I'm extremely satisfied. Maybe someday you'll all hear it...

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