Stratocaster modded

06/08/03- Naming this article "My First Strat" would have been waaay too dorky. It wasn't my first guitar anyway, since I learned my first chords from Mel Bay on a Teisco electric during a long steam train ride from Penang, Malaysia to Bangkok, Thailand. Guitar #2 was a wonderful Yamaha semi-acoustic electric (SA-50), bought in Tokyo. I consider the Stratocaster my first "real" guitar because it's the one I played in my first high school rock band, and had it all the way through college and for several years after. This '71 Strat cost me 4,000 baht ($200 US, at the time). It originally had a sunburst finish and stayed that way for a few years, accumulating a few healthy dings during that time. Then I began tinkering with it, destroying its "collector's value". At that time, a '71 Strat was not exactly a collectible guitar-- and that concept was pretty foreign, anyway. Fortunately, because I tinkered with it, I still have some souvenirs-- long after the guitar was stolen!

1971 Stratocaster parts


Patent Pending saddles Stratocaster

Violating that vintage mojo

The saddles were my first practical modification on Strat-1 since they corroded like crazy due to my habit of anchoring my palm on the bridge. Lots of broken strings, too. Through the years my picking style changed to where my palm generally hovers over the strings further up, with the fingernails grazing over the scratchplate and strings. Strings now die and have to be replaced before they break. Of course, I haven't had a vintage saddle in a guitar in a long time, so that may have something to do with it too.

The "Pat Pend" saddle markings are supposed to be one of the things which identify a vintage versus a re-issue saddle (also the underside of vintage knobs have three vanes instead of four). Of course, these have a huge influence on the sound the instrument produces. Oh pshaw... it's purely a status thing.

Because these were bare steel, they were easy to nickel plate once cleaned up. The nickel plating is fairly durable, but the top layer of gold plating isn't. Replating heavily chromed parts isn't nearly as easy since the chrome has to be stripped and it's a tough S.O.B. I don't know how to do that. Hydrochloric acid and reverse current deplating might work but creates horrible toxic fumes. I know because I've tried...

The pic at the top shows the guitar in the mid stages of desecration: I'd already stripped it and started working on converting the peghead decal to read "Fender Bastardcaster" via chisel engraving (!) and added an extra string tree. Later, I drilled extra holes for a bolted down bar-like string retainer, removed all the frets (why?) and finally swapped out the neck (which I still have as a sad reminder). I removed the pickup covers, replaced the scratchplate with a black one, and replaced the neck pickup with a DiMarzio humbucker (why the neck pickup?). I still have an original pickup, but it's a low output microphonic thing that only holds sentimental value for me. (It fulfills that role very nicely in a ziplock baggie.) Naturally, I replaced the 3-position switch with a new-fangled 5-position one. Apparently, from the pic showing the extra switch on the scratchplate, I'd already started fiddling with onboard active electronics. I'd had a bunch of different things installed, probably starting with a treble booster, an MXR phase shifter and a distortion circuit. I think I even tried a wah wah circuit and compressor in there. The most useful one was the distortion because you could blend into it with your pinkie. At the very least, I destroyed many hundreds of dollar's worth of currently collectible pedals by doing that that kind of stuff. Finally, the coolest thing I did was carve a nekkid lady on the side, with the jack/battery cover strategically located at her crotch. Very classy.

Of course I wish I still had that guitar, and at times I kinda wish I hadn't desecrated it so radically-- but it was fun, and it deepened my relationship with the guitar. I now realize that the guitar was one of the last of its kind-- I was describing it (the model, not my modifications) to a music store salesman recently and he insisted that it was a '60s Strat because of the location of the truss rod adjustment at the heel. But I'd taken off the neck and remember at least part of the date code: April 1971. Apparently, Fender was still using late '60s necks with 4 bolts and the big headstock in early '71. For nostalgia, I'd love to own one of these guitars again, but I'm not gonna plunk down several thousand dollars for something that I'd be afraid to personalize!

For what it's worth, I'll never forget my first and lasting impression after disassembling Strat-1. After being exposed to all the hype of the statusy American Fender Stratocaster (Greco, Ibanez, and Hagstrom guitars were un-cool and plentiful at second-hand stores), I was shocked to see that it was constructed like a piece of junk, especially compared to the immaculate construction and quality of my Yamaha semi-acoustic. The neck was held in adjustment by a funky little piece of insulation cardboard (or something like that), more respectfully referred to as a "shim". Also, after I took the pickguard off, the routing and interior finish seemed crude. Not only that, but it had a weird, funky-assed stink.

Fortunately, I had a backup guitar when it was stolen, a Gretsch solid body BST-1000. It's a very different guitar-- 2 humbuckers, no whammy bar, a very narrow fretboard with a zero fret and a thin body-- but still, a fine player and good-sounding guitar. My eventual replacement for the Strat was a Tokai Strat (STRAT-2) which I can barely remember-- except for learning to hate it for its chunky neck and super clean sound. I think it was a pre-'60s vintage copy, a supposition based on finding a pristine single-ply back plate which I can't identify and a relatively new 3-position switch. I didn't own it for very long; that guitar was stolen too, but my preliminary tinkering once again left behind a couple of souvenirs. I don't really miss that one.

Mike Judge custom Les Paul

Mike Judge (and Bob Schneider too) customizes Gibsons, but in his case the instrument actually appreciates in value: 9,000 bucks (plus tax), available in downtown Austin.

Stratocasters became more refined with micro-tilt neck adjustments and saddles that weren't simple bent & stamped strips of steel. Some of the late '80s made in Japan "Contemporary" models (STRAT-3, my next stolen Strat) were aimed at a wider audience who wanted to buy "Fender", but without the traditional Fender sound or appearance-- Floyd Rose style tremolo with roller saddles, locking nut, humbuckers, 2 knobs, and plate-mounted jack. I'd even installed a Gibson "Widget" synthesizer gizmo on mine. Since then in the world of Fender, things have edged back to the more traditional design, and there are many more variations produced, from the funky concept of pre-worn "relic" repro vintage (like stone-washed jeans, I suppose) to models with humbuckers and locking tuners/tremolo bridges. Overall, there's a return to that core funky traditional heritage in evidence today, and pale green vintage-replica scratchplates are all the rage. That funky quality doesn't bother me anymore-- in fact, I'm drawn to it. Behind it, there's the Fender-branded mystique... and within that, quite a bit of energy is expended assigning status to different vintages and manufacturing origins. Generally, if it sez "Fender", it's good. If it doesn't say Squier, Mexico, Korea, or Japan, it's better... ignoring the issues of actual playability, sound and price. (Although Japanese Strats are becoming much more respectable, and deservedly so.) That's the conventional wisdom, at least.




Strat-1 after further modifications, including black scratchplate, DiMarzio humbucker in the neck position. and the engraved nekkid lady. My guess is that I had some onboard electronics at the time since the jackplate is installed inside out to make room for a 9-volt battery. At the time of the photo, it still had the original neck (defaced to read "Bastardcaster"). I don't recall what I replaced it with, but I still have it, sans frets. The two photos are from a video of a party gig, probably in '79 or '80 (and camera dude apparently liked the graphic enough to zoom in on it).

The November 2010 recreation of the Strat-1 nekkid lady engraving, finally attempted on Strat-7 (originally, the Yngwie Malmsteen Strat). I decided against doing a more conservative bikini'd version in favor of the original unabashed porn version because as any guitar geek can tell ya, that improves the tone. The one concession I made to decency was to shrink and move the graphic to the side so that her crotch wasn't at the jackplate: Sadly, that cost me at least 2.5 units of Tone.

Most of Strat-1's surviving original parts were installed on Strat-5 (Gold FrankenStrat), which is being spared the special porn mojo.