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strat review (with upgrades and pics!)

Discussion in 'Guitars in General' started by ganzosrevenge, Feb 14, 2009.

  1. ganzosrevenge

    ganzosrevenge Member

    Messages:
    253
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    Feb 13, 2009
    Location:
    Hewlett, NY
    This strat has been a 6 month process to put everything together, but well worth it in my eyes both cosmetically and functionally, so here's an indepth review of it. The modifications put in were as follows, Luxe Capacitors (one 1958-1961, and one 1961-1968), Callaham American Deluxe upgrade system, 2 Seymour Duncan SSL-1s, 1 Seymour Duncan Brobucker (11k), black hardware for pickup screws and pickguard screws, and 250k Pots with 10% tolerances and Onyx Forge Guitar's stainless steel insert kit. Ultimately, I sought to uncut the perceived corners that were cut by Fender in their interest of keeping this guitar at a somewhat reasonable price.

    As a mahogany bodied / maple neck / rosewood boarded stratocater, its inherent properties emphasize less of the high-end, move its midpoint a bit lower than an alder or ash strat's mid, and brings out the lows a bit more. Think of it as making strat single coils a bit more P-90ish and you'll have a decent idea of what I mean. Now this doesn't mean that you're going to instantly get into SG Jr. Territory by putting in a strat single coil in it, but, it does mean that a traditional strat single coil will have a bit more bark / low-end to it than if it was in a more traditional strat. The configuration standard is HSS, however with an HSH body rout, the ability to change pickup configurations is limited pretty much by one's imagination; the ease of changing this guitar into a more traditional S-S-S, superstrat style X-X-H or H-S-H, or even tele style (S X S / H X S) is feasible so long as one can finid the right pickguard. Such modularity of pickguards to fit into the strat facilitate ease of switching out the stock pickups for those that better cater to the user's needs. Another key point of this body is the contoured heel designed to enhance access into the "high notes". While useful for those who play this guitar righty (as this is solely available to righties), those choosing to "Jimi it" will find no enhancement here except maybe a comfy place to rest one's pinky while going beyond the 16th fret. Nice if you need it, doesn't hurt the guitar if you don't need it. (I must note as a disclaimer that this guitar does NOT play nicely with the warmoth pro necks... the location of the truss rod adjuster is right where the contoured screw goes and the screw could seriously mess up the truss rod.) What really has perturbed me though over the 2 years I've owned this guitar, is that the shielding paint Fender provides is virtually useless. This is to the point that regardless of a shielding wire connecting the pickguard to the body, the same amount of that 60 cycle goodness strat lovers have grown to know is in equal quantities... not good, Fender... not good.

    Speaking of neck department, the Neck is fairly standard American deluxe fare (9.5" radius, C neck profile, 22 frets, abalone inlays), save for the tuxedo-style black paint / silver spaghetti logo headstock, a VERY nice aesthetic touch that compliments the black pickguard, but simultaneously limits choice to a black pickguard (or you risk running into the "mismatched colors" dilemma, which is especially prominent on a black-stocked guard. American Deluxe necks are often capable of being on a Custom Shop instrument, displaying nice straight grain, or a fairly consistent flame (in my case, a solid and fairly consistent A flame with tight striping exists) and have the rolled-sides for easier playing, medium jumbo frets to facilitate soloing, locking tuners (variable, some are true schallers, some are fender/schallers with the late 60s F's on them, mine are the latter... no functional difference, but they just look a little cheap for me), and exclusive to HSS variants, the LSR nut. The LSR nut deserves special attention for several reasons. Some people say that the LSR nut sucks tone away, or that the LSR nut's ball bearings get lost easily. Although this may be true and admittedly a trade-off, the LSR also allows for one to change string gauges without fear of strings binding in holes too small, or wiggling in holes too big; in essence a modular, low-friction nut that doesn't catch strings, doesn't require cutting or changing for different gauges, and allows for more dramatic vibrato action without losing tune. Going back to the aforementioned downsides, I will concede that losing one of the small ball bearings is probably going to cause some nightmares when trying to tune / divebomb, but with reasonable care the LSR nut should provide enhanced stability when used with the supplied Locking Tuners.

    For all its strengths, there are two significant weaknesses to this guitar that a little aftermarket shopping can alleviate, the pickups / switching and the bridge block. First the bridge block, a block of resin-impregnated steel with pop-in ability. It pops in all right, but the block I had had so much play that the arm just as easily popped out... no force was necessary, all one had to do was turn the strat so the backplate pointed up, and out came the arm... if Fender had marketed this with the intention of an arm that could be pulled out easier than it was stuffed in, then they had made a winner. The saddles on the other hand, I have no complaints about. They are stainless steel, machined to reduce the angle which the strings come up and out of the block to reduce breakage. A good idea, especially for those with thinner strings who often experience string breakage at the saddles due to too sharp a transition angle. Furthermore, the resin-impregnated block is not the greatest at transmitting sound, in spite of it being fairly heavy (12 oz in my strat). Perhaps the resin dulls the rate that the strings can vibrate or kill some of the attack, or a method Fender uses to keep costs down in a bit, I'm not sure, but for a guitar that is a hybrid of American Deluxe and Custom Shop and has more low-end than normal, dulling the sound with a less expensive bridge is more than a minor holdback for this otherwise amazingly versatile guitar. The first major upgrade therefore was here. A callaham american deluxe upgrade block and saddles were ultimately purchased and the block is currently in my strat (I can't quite get the saddles to line up right, and i'm a perfectionist for keeping things lined up, not a fault of the callaham saddles, just my pickiness). The block is made of CRS 1018 (cold-rolled steel) with no resin or any thing to cheapen it, much like early strats, and the string balls stay right at the outer edge, so more strings go through the block itself, thus providing a greater anchor for the strings to stay in, and negating the use of the fender bullet strings. Immediately, I noticed a difference. First, the attack was faster with less mushiness; a more acoustically alive guitar as a result if you will due to the better quality block (which weighed in at 17.5 oz), and better anchored strings. As an added bonus, the block and it's delrin bushinged tremolo hole and complimenting vibrato arm (in '64 length with virtual pop-in screw) not only worked, but with 2 turns of the arm, a very nuanced experience was of vibrato. There was just as little effort needed to make slight vibratos as there was to divebomb sevenths and eighths, no binding in the nut, and most importantly, no second thoughts that at any moment the arm could fall out of the tremolo. Expensive as a Callaham upgrade may be, its stability / reliability / quality is something one should consider when upgrading a stock block.

    The second major weakness is the S-1 loaded, texmex / diamondback pickguard. Here we have pickups that belong more in an MIM stratocaster than an american deluxe with in-house modifications. A major cost-cut here, or just my poor luck, I'm not sure, but the Tex-Mex pickups were fairly high output for stratocaster single coils (7.8k neck / 8k middle), and in a mahogany stratocaster, produced single coil mud. The 8.3k diamondback humbucker was no better, as it gave off the impression that it was a really large humless strat single coil with a LOT of mud (perhaps a result of the A2 magnet, i'm not sure). The S-1 switch, although widely variable in its ability to combine parallel and series wiring configurations together, is a wiring nightmare of huge proportions, with the normal red, black, white, and green wires, but also red/white wires, red/green wires, and purple wires as well. Fender was well intentioned here attempting to provide gibson-esque sounds, however there are two flaws here... fender shouldn't try to emulate gibson, and fender's strong spot is making great single coils; humbuckers should be left to a third-party that specializes in them. Out it went, and in went a pickguard done by AcmeGuitarWorks with 2 Seymour Duncan SSL-1s and an 11k Brobucker (trembucker, 4-conductor, potted, double black)from the SD Custom Shop (Thanks MJ, it works great!). Although everything was slow in coming together, the combination of 2 6.3k SSL-1s and an 11k Brobucker in Lone-Star stratocaster configuration (double super 5-way with autosplit in pos 2, with neck and middle on one tone control, and the bridge on its own tone control). The difference was night and day. In the SSL-1 positions, traditional strat sounds were retained with a bit more low-end that's inherent in mahogany bodies. Played through a loaned Fender Super-Sonic, it was completely possible to get that signature 50s and 60s fender chime, with the typical hum in the single coil positions, as well as get the "little wing sounds with the drive turned up a tad. Overdriven, think Voodoo Child (Slight Return) and you have the idea. However, because of their proximity to vintage stratocaster pickups, they have that 60-cycle hum that may or may not appeal to everyone. I for one like it, but that's me. In position 4, the traditional strat quack is retained, although it has a bit more "honk"; again due to the mahogany body. The 11k Brobucker provides a super-hot PAF experience that can be described as a mix of a '59 and a JB mixed together. The balance of the '59 combined with the balls to the wall mentality of the JB. This is not by any means a bright pickup. Clean, this pickup pushes the amp into mild overdrive and gives a very strong impression of a Les Paul; not even the maple neck can overcome this pickup's tendencies. Dirty... 100% pure, unmitigated, Sabbath. This isn't a high output pickup (11k), but it's "Dump switch!" tendency means that it doesn't need much gain in order to scream, and yet just as easily it can clean up and get a nice jazzy sound. Very versatile. Last, but not least, the Luxe Capacitors. Luxes have a reputation of being brutally accurate reproductions of 1950s and 1960s capacitors found in early strats, teles, basses, and Les Pauls. They're expensive, at $15 to $30 each, but their ability to truly modify tone is unbelievable. Whereas the stock fender caps provided very little variance in tone, these can either run wide open, or suck out every ounce of high-end and mid-range imaginable, they truly are tone caps, and enhance the 50s / 60s aura aimed for in this guitar.

    However, all the high-quality electronics and bridgework mean diddly if the neck joint is weak. Because of my switch in pickguards, as well as ensuring the neck screws stayed tight, I became fearful that I would eventually strip out the neck screws and render my stratocaster unusable. It is because of this that I inquired about machine screws with inserts, and was referred to Onyx Forge Guitars. Onyx Forge is a small guitar builder that sells a kit with inserts and 10-24 gauge, 18-8 stainless steel screws that prevents stripping the neck out by putting a layer of metal (usually zinc for $25, I opted for stainless steel for $50) between the screw and the wood, preventing the wood from stripping. It turned out to be a high-risk procedure, so I outsourced the work to a technician who had the tools (drill press and steady coordination) to do the mod correctly. In essence, holes are enlarged in the body's heel, and also enlarged in the neck to accomodate the self tapping inserts. Ultimately, the goal is to get 1,760 lbs of clamping force with the zinc inserts, and 2,500 to 3,000 lbs with the stainless inserts. The stainless inserts do cost double what a zinc kit would cost , but stainless is a far harder and stronger metal, and is more forgiving to those of us who like to REALLY clamp down our bolt-on guitars. After a week of waiting for the work to be done, I had my strat back in her original form, only now with almost uncontrollable sustain. I had to lower the action by about 1/64" to 1/32" and play with a softer touch to keep the sustain under control, yet when I really want to dig into her and get hairy sustain, harmonics, etc... it's that much easier to attain. A double edged-sword if you will, but one that once you get used to, you wonder how you lived without it. It's at the point where upon setting my strat up (with all the aforementioned modifications), the stock version of it I A/B'd it to just felt mushy and loose. This $50 insert kit has made me believe that trem'd strats and sustain can exist together.

    All in All, the american special HSS mahogany stratocaster is a great starting point for a tweaker's guitar. With it's mahogany body, contoured heel, blacked out styling cues, LSR nut, locking tuners, etc., it provides a great starting point for a tweaker to make it his / her own. It's weaknesses, while existent and sometimes significant, are fortunately in places that are user replaceable rather than hard to access. What really has perturbed me though over the 2 years I've owned this guitar, is that the shielding paint Fender provides is virtually useless. This is to the point that regardless of a shielding wire connecting the pickguard to the body, the same amount of that 60 cycle goodness strat. However, it is because of this, and other flaws, one can turn it into a gibson eater, a jackson demolisher, a jazzbox, with imagination, knowledge of pickup properties, and some spare change. What makes it a better bargain is that this is the only way to get a true Fender with a mahogany body without going to the custom shop and ordering a masterbuilt guitar. (According to Fender, mahogany is only available as masterbuild.) For $1,100 or so, some extra pocket change and a plan, one can make a very good guitar, a guitar that can be anything, to anyone, and do it extremely, extremely well.

    Synopsis of Upgrades:
    -Callaham American Deluxe Saddle and Bridge Kit
    -2 Seymour Duncan SSL-1s (1 rwrp)
    -1 Seymour Duncan Brobucker (wound to 11k)
    -CTS 250k splitshaft Potentiometers with 10% tolerances
    -1958 - 1961 Luxe capacitor for stratocaster
    -1961 - 1968 Luxe capacitor for stratocaster
    -Onyx Forge Guitars Stainless Steel insert kit
    -Acme Guitar Works solderless connection kit
    -Claw / Bridge setup with 5 springs, clamped AND decked
     
  2. ganzosrevenge

    ganzosrevenge Member

    Messages:
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    Joined:
    Feb 13, 2009
    Location:
    Hewlett, NY
  3. 5E3

    5E3 Member

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    It looks great! Congrats! :aok
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2009
  4. ganzosrevenge

    ganzosrevenge Member

    Messages:
    253
    Joined:
    Feb 13, 2009
    Location:
    Hewlett, NY
    thanks... there were times that I wanted to completely get rid of the strat... it just was like "OY VEY!" sometimes with how sometimes it didn't want to cooperate (hence why on those 2 pics the old saddles are on the strat). But now it plays so well it's not even funny. I'm taking more pics of it today. Enjoy

    Jason
     
  5. Mr. Kite

    Mr. Kite Member

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    Location:
    Seabrook, TX
    Cool thread, thanks for the detail!
     

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