Stratocaster Deluxe Plus Hexpander

STRAT-4

06/08/03- Strat-2 was a Japanese knock-off (Tokai) with a really fat neck. Dunno why I bought it because I grew to hate its fat neck. I wasn't too heartbroken when it was stolen. Strat-3 was a made-in-Japan Fender Contemporary Strat with humbuckers and a Floyd Rose-like tremolo with roller saddles. I mounted a Gibson Widget MIDI gizmo on it to play through my computer's sound card. It played well and I liked it, so I was bummed when it got stolen. Strat-4 looks a lot like it, and Strat-3 had steered me in the direction of an "improved" Strat.

Strat-4 of 1997 (which amazingly, hasn't been stolen yet) deviated from that vintage vibe with modern refinements per mid-'90 (which Fender actually started in the '80s): A pewter Stratocaster Plus Deluxe with a maple neck, locking tuners, an LSR bearing nut, (almost) noiseless Lace Sensor pickups and a locking tremolo. It's a well-built guitar with some good ideas and a few questionable ones.

The LSR nut is a good thing, sort of-- no string trees needed-- but it really doesn't live up to the promise of the concept: Bearings that usually sit idle tend to lock up when called upon to work (just like people). At least, steel-on-steel is a low-friction combination (and the reason why rail transportation is so energy efficient).

Locking tuners seem to be an good idea, even if they don't seem quite as responsive as some traditional ones I've used. You're supposed to tune down to the note... huh??? But you can change a string and tune it up PDQ since you don't put a bunch of wind turns on it.

The locking Fender-Floyd Rose tremolo bridge is questionable-- restringing a guitar shouldn't require Allen wrenches, IMO. And virtually non-adjustable saddles??? You can't adjust their individual heights and intonation adjustments are under the bridge plate. Sheesh. What were they thinking? In theory, the ideas are well intentioned: a solid screwed down saddle transfers energy more efficiently to the block resulting in longer sustain. But it wasn't something that I really noticed, and I believe that the decay of notes is not a bad thing, especially if you like songs to end.

The two-point bridge fulcrum seems to be a good idea and you'd have one more overall height adjustment than a vintage bridge in the adjustable saddle version of this bridge. But the best feature is the drop-in whammy bar. (The screw-in kind suck, especially when the threads strip and they break off in the block.)

The net interaction of these features on tuning stability is probably an improvement, but doesn't guarantee that your strings will stay in tune-- it's the nature of the whammy bar and the inevitability of strings aging.

Hum-free pickups are a good idea-- almost a necessity today since there are so many sources of EMFs ("electro-magnetic fields"). It's fashionable to say the Lace Sensors are "toneless" and "sterile", but I think this come from the sound just being different than a traditional Strat pickup. By the time the sound hits your ears, the pickup output has been colored by any stompboxes in the signal path, the amp and the speakers, which radically modify the tone. A pickup can't be toneless unless it's broken (which makes 'em truly noiseless too)- however, you may not like a pickup's sound for your particular application. Anyway, I like them okay, and the inbetween positions (2 & 4) give a nice thin "clucky" sound. However, they're weird-looking, without exposed individual pole pieces and with non-removeable covers (they're glued to the coils-- don't even try). I guess it's practical-- there are no pole pieces to snag a pick, so you can adjust them pretty high. But the vintage vibe, cosmetically, counts for something. Fender must have realized this and now produces a more traditional-looking noiseless pickup. That's probably why they stopped issuing Deluxe models with the non-vintage looking LSR nut. These kinds of things appeal mainly to the dyed-in-the-wool Gearhead looking for innovation.

 

LET THE MONGRELIZING BEGIN Naturally, I've tinkered with this guitar too. The white pearloid scratchplate had to go, replaced with a black one. That basic change in cosmetics required a new neck-- a rosewood Plus neck with an LSR nut, from the same year. (It would have been smarter and cheaper to have bought a guitar with these cosmetics in the first place, but you never can predict where your tastes will go.) So black Lace Sensors replaced the white ones and a Seymour Duncan "Hot Rails" pickup was put in the bridge. For what it's worth, the Lace Sensors aren't as noiseless as the Semour Duncan humbucker.

One of the attractions of a humbucker (besides the noiseless thing) is its mellow top and higher output which puts preamps into early distortion-- no, this isn't intended to be a purist's Strat. Actually, while I like the signature Strat sound, I don't like it full-time, 'round the clock. Variety is good and I have less tolerance for the icepick-in-the-ear thing nowadays. (The main reason why I like Stratocasters is the shape: The asymmetic retro styling of the cutaway horns has some aesthetic appeal for me. Mainly though, it's the contour of the body and the weight distribution between the body and the head when it's hanging from a strap. The strap buttons are perfectly located.)

Based on a discovery I made while recomissioning the original maple neck on Strat-5, I replaced the locking Schaller tuners with D'Addario Planet Waves Locking Tuning Machines. These are advertised as having an "auto trim" feature which clips the excess string off when you tune up. While it works and it's convenient, it's not what interested me about those tuners: They have a higher gear ratio (16:1) than the Schallers (12:1). They feel considerably more responsive to me and are much less frustrating to tweak in-tune. Best of all, the guitar stays in tune better than it did. They don't look as spiffy as the brushed chrome Schallers though, but in this case I'm willing to sacrifice a little.

A Roland GK-2A hex pickup and external controller for a synthesizer were installed for a while; I'd considered mounting the electronics internally since the "wart" is ugly and leaves exposed wires to snag on. Ultimately, I ditched it and installed a Graphtech Ghost/Hexpander piezo system which is much cooler and tracks better. This gives the guitar an additional acoustic piezo sound, plus an output interface for Roland's GR-33 guitar synthesizer and V-99 guitar modeling systems. Like I said, this isn't intended to be a purist's Strat.

It's this "Frankensteinable" aspect which makes the Strat so much fun. It's such an established standard with so many aftermarket manufacturers, and has been copied by so many other manufacturers that it's easy to construct one to fit your preferences exactly. This has a practical aspect: You can take a '71 Fender Stratocaster and replace the rusting and deteriorating saddles with Graphtech's modern frictionless "string-saver" kind (or their piezo saddles). This is a player's kind of customization. On the other hand, if your interest was in retaining the "vintage mojo", that would be a taboo thing to do.

Unless you're the keeper of a sacred virginal and vintage Strat, you can really go to town with the modifications, even if they aren't practical. As long as you're not concerned with the unspecified point at which a Fender Strat no longer could be considered a "Fender", it really doesn't matter what mongrelized collection of parts you use. It's your guitar unless you're looking at it for its resale value, in which case you don't really own it-- the future does, and you're just its temporary custodian.

 


12/11/10- While 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:

CONTROLS:

  • 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 13-pin cable)
  • Mode Select Switch (3 position): (1)Up=Magnetic, (2)Mid=Blend, (3)Down=Hex
  • Up/Down Momentary Switch: Hex mode patch selection

OPERATION:

  • 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 circuit
    • 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 much purpose.

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 of Roland.

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.

 


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