doing some recent website updates, I noticed that Strat-4 doesn't look
like it used to, and hasn't looked like that for years. For me, the biggest
visual change has been the pickups. It's a neurotic thing, but I've come
to dislike Strats with Lace Sensor pickups-- it has nothing to do with
the sound, but visually, the blank pickup face started looking to me like
blind cave fish (or some sci-fi critter that has featureless skin where
you'd expect eyes or a mouth). Everytime I'd see this Strat (even now,
with the above pic), I'd focus on the pickups and think that it was just
wrong. Anyhow, they were replaced with Fender's noiseless SCNs,
which have actual pole pieces.
Sound-wise, the SCNs are okay and no worse than the Lace Sensors, and
maybe even a little better-- it's actually an irrelevant point for me,
since I wouldn't play this guitar for its magnetic pickups. For one thing,
it's a heavy sonuvabitch, as far as Strats go. Secondly, the mag pickups
are third in line after the other pickup options: Piezo and hex. The Graphtech
piezo pickups sound and feel really different, and are a nice vacation
from playing through single coils and humbuckers.
The piezos feed the Graphtech Hexpander system, described in another
article (which has been invaluable
to me for remembering how to operate the damn thing!). The Piezo/Hexpander
combination works great with Roland's GR-33 guitar synthesizer, but not
so great with Roland's VG-99 guitar processor system. I believe that Roland
deliberately sabotaged the design by excluding filtering so that it would
work best with their magnetic hex pickup system. That's why there's a
Roland GK-3 apparatus stuck between its legs.
Aesthetics-wise, the GK-3 doesn't bother me as much as blind-faced pickups,
and it's a clear indicator of the special-purpose nature of this guitar.
When it's wired up with two 13-pin cables and a 1/4" cable, it looks like
a piece of lab equipment.
No doubt you're wondering, "Why would any sane person want to connect
a GR-33 and VG-99 to the same guitar?" I don't claim to be sane, but you
can do some interesting and weird live things with this combo that you
couldn't do with just a single hex-equipped guitar. I played around with
this setup a few years back, running the synthesizer output with a volume
blend pedal; the VG-99 has a hold function and dual sounds for each preset.
If you're really ambitious, you can blend the piezo or mag pickups in
the mix. Practically speaking, it's a bit distracting to be dividing your
attention between all the damn floor pedals, switching, the guitar's knobs,
and oh yes... actually playing the guitar (especially synth guitar since
you want to avoid squalks and false triggers). After a few hours of this,
it will make you appreciate the simplicity of just plugging your magnetic
pickup guitar straight into your amp and playing.
The audio sample below comes from that jacking around back in '08, after
I'd installed the GK-3 and wanted to show a friend some of the cool possibilities.
This was probably the last time I had all this stuff connected together,
since it takes up too much floor space and requires too many cables. (And
to preserve my dignity, I must state that these were quickie "compositions"
and quickie live, direct-in recordings... #2 shows how easy it is to get
confused by all the pedal pushing.)
VG99-GR33 sample (2.5MB .mp3)
SO... HOW DOES THIS DAMN THING WORK?
07/31/16- I hadn't played Strat 4 in a long, long time because
I have too many guitars (Truly a first-world problem!). It's
a great playing guitar with a very nice neck. Unfortunately, I'd
forgotten how to put it in piezo mode. Pathetic, huh? I wired this
one a long time ago, and squeezed lots of functionality (hexpander,
piezo, & mag pickups) into 3 pots and 3 switches, with battery
and 13-pin cable power. At the time, I was very familiar with how
it worked. I just wish my brain had retained all those fine details.
Fast forward to now: I've come to believe that the hexpander/13-pin
Roland interface is obsolete, but the piezo mode remains a cool
and useful thing. I spent 30 minutes trying to put it into piezo
mode. The only way I got there was by partially inserting the 1/4"
plug-- okay, that's likely a stereo jack/plug feature. Removed the
jackplate to study the wiring, looked at the installation documentation
and tried to figure out how I could quickly and easily gut/bypass
the hexpander stuff for piezo/mag pickup modes only. I didn't want
to invest too many brain cells in this (4 pages of my hexpander
install article was too much). Resigned myself to the hassle of
removing the pickguard, removing the hexpander circuit, switches
and pot, and doing a total re-install of the simplified mag/piezo
circuit. Couldn't find the simple summing block and cable (last
seen in 2003) needed for a basic Acousti-phonic install. So I ordered
parts and waited for arrival before doing any work.
The day before expected parts arrival, I decided to get a head
start: Snipped the strings, removed the scratchplate and began removing
switches. Lo and behold, the middle pot's a freakin' push-pull pot!
I had no idea! Suddenly, it sort of made sense: I'd forgotten
how the damn thing worked, and hadn't documented it anywhere. It
was soooo not intuitive (and much, much worse than my Les Paul Personal!)
So... for my own benefit:
- Top pot: Magnetic pickup volume
- Middle pot (push-pull): Piezo pickup volume
- Switch Pushed Down: Piezo Acousti-phonic circuit OFF
- Switch Pulled Up: Piezo Acousti-phonic circuit ON
- Bottom pot (rotary switch): 13-pin hexpander volume
- Switch Off: Aux battery cut-off in series with cut-off
at 1/4" jack (power & sound through 13-pin)
- Switch On: Battery in-circuit with 1/4" jack plugged
(piezo & mag sound through 1/4" plug, running without
- Mode Select Switch (3 position): (1)Up=Magnetic, (2)Mid=Blend, (3)Down=Hex
- Up/Down Momentary Switch: Hex mode patch selection
- For Magnetic Pickups:
- Mag pot(1) volume
- Push-Pull Pot(2) Switch: N/A- Either state
- Rotary Pot(3) Switch: N/A- Either state
- Mode Select Switch: (1)Mag or (2)Blend
- Up/Down Switch: N/A
- Piezo Pickups:
- Piezo pot(2) volume
- Push-Pull Pot(2) Switch: Pull Up to engage Acousti-Phonic
- Rotary Pot(3) Switch: On to engage with 1/4" cable
- Mode Select Switch: Any position
- Up/Down Switch: N/A
- Hexpander Output: (Obsolete, so don't really care enough to
document its operation)
The gutting & remodeling is still a good idea since the wiring
is complicated and optimized for magnetic pickup and hexpander modes.
It's on my eventual to-do list. It's good to have all the parts
on hand for that project when I'm ready to tackle it.
Doom & Gloom: I don't keep up with this stuff, so this
may not be much of a revelation, or may have already happened...
(doh!) I believe that Roland's 13-pin interface is headed for extinction,
and that manufacturers will stop releasing products that use it.
The 13-pin cable is thick and unwieldly: Mine are in storage, somewhere.
Modern tastes favor wireless technology (despite the routine of
battery charging-- people have gotten used to that with smart phones).
With the Fishman TriplePlay wireless pickup, I can use the Roland
GR-33 as a MIDI synthesizer tone module (for as long as it works),
retaining most of its functionality that I had with the 13-pin system.
Or it can be used with a computer via a standard USB interface.
The Fishman system tracks better than the Graphtech and Roland 13-pin
pickup systems. So Strat 4's Hexpander circuit really isn't serving
As the 13-pin products out there stop working, it will become
harder to get repair support. It's a niche product family, and the
complexity and sophistication of design will make it very difficult,
if not impossible for local repair shops to make on-site repairs
(which has probably always been true, even when the products were
new). That's more or less what happened to my Line 6 PodXT, and
there weren't any useful easy fixes online; it was just another
disposable consumer electronics product. I salvaged its pots, digital
encoders and knobs before it went into the trash.
This is a big change in the way guitar stuff used to be
(and most still are): Electric guitars have been simple devices
that could be fixed by folks with basic electronics knowledge (like
me), supported by an abundant supply of easy-to-obtain repair parts.
Traditional electric guitars last until the wood disintegrates.
As long as there's a demand for tubes, old point-to-point wired
amps from the '60s can be kept running by experienced local techs
and DIYers with off-the-shelf components. Same for old-school stompboxes.
That's not the case with modern digital technology like Line 6's
modeling guitars, amps, and the latest tech stompboxes/multi-effect
units. Component-level repair is a thing of the past; for a long
time now, service techs have just replaced sub-assembly circuitboards
and sent the suspect boards back to the mothership. Modern circuits
are so complex with tiny components and custom-designed chips, optimized
for cost-reducing automated manufacturing. The churn of turning
out new products almost ensures a relatively short product life
cycle: The circuitboards from an original production run are in
limited supply, so spare inventory set aside for repairs eventually
dries up, eventually making repairs not-feasible.
For most products, it's cheaper to replace than repair: There's
usually a newer product that fulfills the same function and does
it better, with more features, so everyone's happy. However, the
Roland 13-pin interface is a niche product system that some
users have a substantial investment in. If manufacturers stop making
products with 13-pin interfaces, all the Roland-Ready guitars become
mag-pickup only guitars, even if they aren't broken. At least they
still work in the traditional mode. I consider that to be a very
forward-thinking/hedging-its-bets design consideration on the part
I guess the moral of the story is that you should enjoy modern
tech toys while they last, but don't expect them to be around forever
(and that includes things like the USB "standard", that's
disappeared from some electronics products-- will the replacement(s)
be as widely-adopted or long-lived?). That's a naiive expectation
based on the way things used to be, back when people believed
they could upgrade computers instead of replacing them.
The things that you can count on being around for a long
time are old-tech standards like chalk, pens, and paper. And guitars
with magnetic pickups.