Stratocaster Frankenstrat Partscaster Gold

STRAT-5

06/08/03- I recently shopped for another Strat to capture a nostalgic remembrance of the first real club-playing guitar hero I met. He played a gold Stratocaster (and sung JH's "Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire" with a Thai accent). I was after something different than Strat-4; with a "classic" look, but with certain modern refinements. None of the true vintage Strats I saw had what I wanted at a price I was willing to pay (and I'm now hesitant to desecrate those anyway), and none of the current issues had exactly what I wanted-- Pale Shoreline Gold just didn't do it for me. So I decided to assemble my next Strat, taking the backwards route: Starting with a non-Fender (Fernandes) Japanese '62 Strat replica (which had the gaudy gold finish and gold-plated hardware I wanted), replacing the pickups with some noiseless Kinmans, adding a Fender neck and adding some vintage Fender parts surviving from my '71 Strat. It's not a Fender Strat (but then you could argue that Strat-4 isn't either, anymore -- or maybe never was?), but it looks like one and covers a lot of bases in what I want in my Strat. It's the color I wanted, has the familiar and more statusy Fender headstock with the truss rod adjustment in an accessible place, great pickups, and a touch of authentic vintage to give it that extra bit of status and personal connectedness. From a playability point of view, the stock Fernandes guitar played better than many Fenders I've tried, but the other junk serves the ego. Nothing wrong with that since we do bond with our guitars. In a way, I'm sort of relieved that I didn't realize that my '71 Strat would become a collectible. It's kind of eerie to think, "this is the same volume knob I cradled back in high school!"

Here's my rundown on Strat-5:

TREMOLO BRIDGE The vintage-style bridge is cool and looks cool, but they're kinda quirky. Heck, whammy bars are all quirky. But they really expand the range of sounds your guitar can produce.

One of the issues with the vintage style is the tremolo bar: It screws into the threaded bridge block. That usually means that it's got some play and kinda floppy unless you tighten it all the way down --but then you don't know where it will find its "firm" position and you don't want to overdo it and break it off either. If it's not relatively tight in there, certain notes may trigger audible and annoying vibrations of the arm in the well. I don't know if they're supposed to come stock with these, but a tiny spring dropped down into the well helps eliminate this problem. Also, wrapping the arm's threads with Teflon tape helps. Shrink wrap tubing is more substantial and supports the arm higher up on the shaft, but can make the arm a little too tight feeling.

Floating versus fixed tremolo bridges-- A floating tremolo is really nice since you don't have to apply much force to the arm and can get very subtle effects. However, the cost (and it's an unacceptable one for me) is that bending a string while holding another will cause the unbent one to go flat. Also they're hell to tune due to the string/spring tension interactivity. Breaking a string means you can't continue playing in tune.

One solution is to increase the spring tension so that the tremolo is no longer floating-- the plate sits flat, fixed on the guitar's body. This means that the tremolo action is downward only, with a very stiff action. Another solution is to install a Hipshot Tremsetter device to replace the center spring. It's hard to describe how this device works, but it appears to be something of an adjustable divided spring. You can set your bridge up as a floating tremolo, but adjust the spring tension so that there's a definite and firm centered spot for the fulcrum to return to. Naturally, in order to counteract the effect of extra string tension induced by bent strings or one's palm resting on the bridge, the spring tension has to be fairly stiff. There's no way of getting around that, and because of this, lighter gauge strings allow for less spring tension and a looser feel. So the Tremsetter is a compromise between a floating and fixed bridge with some trade-offs in both directions. I consider it an improvement but it's apparently not a very popular modification, probably because the mechanism is so unintuitive-- and you need to know what it's supposed to be doing to install and adjust it. Because of this, they're pretty cheap if you get one from a dealer who's got batches of uninstalled ones from Deluxe guitars he's set up for customers. I didn't install Strat-4's for several years after owning it and don't regret doing it.

Saddles- If you're considering replacing saddles from a Japanese guitar with vintage USA ones and reusing some of the screws, there's a definite possibility that they won't be compatible. That's true for my Fernandes Strat copy and I believe it's true even for pure Fender products; I think it's a metric thing. It took a lot of digging through very similar "fits Fender" screws to come up with replacements for my vintage saddles.

Also, the string-to-string width of the saddles isn't standardized very well either. The Fernandes bridge is slightly narrower, and my original bridge cover didn't fit without bending the sides in just a little. This made the fit of the replacement vintage saddles very tight. I suppose it's a good thing that I only had 5 of my original saddles-- using all 6 might have splayed them a little bit. But the Fernandes bridge is actually wider than the Deluxe Locking Tremolo bridge which was standard issue on Strat-4. I assume that the American Standard bridge is similarly narrow.

PICKUPS- I didn't have any complaints about the sound quality of the stock Fernandes pickups except for the horrible hum inherent in single coil pickup design. Yes, they were cheapie pickups, but then I can't say that the pickups that came in my '71 Strat were examples of top-grade materials and loving craftsmanship. I decided to replace them mainly to address the hum problem, and was attracted to the perverse idea of replacing them with pickups that cost as much as the guitar. The good thing about Kinman pickups is that they look like Strat pickups, and they've gotten excellent reviews regarding their hum-rejection and fidelity to the vintage Strat sound. That's apparently a hard thing to do, since dual coil pickups (to cancel hum) tend to attenuate the high frequencies which are characteristic of the single coil design, the familiar clean (icepick-in-the-ear) "Strat" sound.

Yes, the Kinman pickups are examples of top-grade materials and loving craftsmanship. They sound great too (that being a somewhat subjective issue-- typical sonic descriptors like "creamy" & "warm" make it sound like we're talking about food). Even though I got the mellower aged "Blues" set, they're still freakin' shrill on the high E when you crank up on a clean amp-- yep, that's authentic. I'd actually forgotten just how shrill they were. They're not monstrously high-output like the Duncan Hot Rails, but you don't buy them for that quality.

Most importantly to me, they complied with my replacement plans-- sort of. I wanted to reuse Strat-1's pickup covers, so the first thing I did was remove the Kinman cover from the neck pickup and attempt to slip mine on-- Sonofabitch! Their pole pieces are more narrowly spaced! I soon realized that this was the case only with the neck pickup, and was done that way to align the poles with the angle the string travels on its way from the bridge to the nut. On Strats with 3 identical pickups, the poles on the neck pickup don't align optimally, so this was indicative of the attention to design that Kinman put into their pickups. In the Kinman Blues set, the other two pickups are the same size, but wound differently, so they have to be installed in their correct positions. Fortunately, the new Kinman pickup covers can be aged with boiling coffee to closely match the shade of older guitar furniture. As Eddie sez, "Two out of three ain't bad."

Kinman pickups are also considerably taller than conventional single-coil pickups but fit within the standard body routing. This does affect the fit of standard pickup covers however, since those would fit only halfway down the pickup: You can get around that by using a combination of rubber tube spacers (from new guitars) and springs to bridge the gaps between a standard cover's base and the pickup's base.

THE GUTS Lurking under the scratchplate were the Fernandes guts. I was really surprised at what I saw there, and not particularly impressed either: Minimal aluminum tape shielding on the backside of the scratchplate in the controls area, just like the '71 Strat. The pots were all tiny little things and the selector switch was a boxish white plastic thing. Those are definitely not Fender-ish, but I'll reserve cussing about the components for when and if they fail. It's possible that they're actually good components, and I'm not going to replace the switch with my original 3-position CTS one: You lose too much functionality with the 3-position switches. I wired the tone pot for all the pickups, which means I have one basically unused pot; I'll figure out what to do about that later.

THE NECK This was a tough one. The Fernandes neck was of excellent quality-- it played extremely well, nice wood, and had thin vintage-style frets (which I like but currently aren't very popular). However, it had a rosewood fretboard which, on a gold/white guitar, doesn't looks as good as maple. (And that's important.) The most egregious failing was the non-Fender shaped headstock emblazoned with the brand name "Fernandes". I don't know why they put that there, sheesh! It was replaced with a more statusy genuine Fender maple neck from the less statusy "Made In Mexico" Deluxe series, already equipped with gold Kluson tuners. From a comparison of the USA and MIM maple necks I own, the playability is about the same-- the difference is basically cosmetic, with the USA neck using a better quality wood with nicely patterned "flaming" and no blemishes. On the plus side, compared with the Fernandes neck, the truss rod adjustment is up at the peghead and not at its feet (I'm not trying to keep it as a '62 replica). On the minus side (for me), it has the more fashionable heftier frets-- but I can accept that. I'm not sure I could accept the cosmetic issue with the headstock as easily. The body doesn't have the Micro-Tilt neck adjustment, but both bolted on straight without any shims. The Fernandes body's neck routing gets credit for that. I decided not to use Strat-4's original Made-in-USA maple neck mainly because it didn't have as much "vintage vibe" with the LSR nut and 22 frets; also, I'd need bushings to fit the tuners to the larger-sized holes, and the Fender logo was printed in silver, not gold (and that's important, doncha know?).

Along those lines, the "Fernandes" stamped neckplate had to go, replaced with a pretentious gold plated "F-Limited Edition" plate, purportedly made by Fender's Custom Shop. I really wanted to use my first chrome-plated "F" plate, but discovered that it's really difficult to strip heavy chrome (to make it gold-plateable). It's silly to devote so much attention to a part that I almost never see, but it's all in the spirit of mongrelizing a guitar to your preferences (silly or not).

THE OTHER STUFF I was able to use most of my remaining Strat-1 parts, including the Volume and Tone knobs-- I don't know what happened to Tone 2, but I found an origin-unknown vintage replacement that was naturally aged to about the same color. The tremolo arm tip was replaced, as well as the two tremolo springs (I used a Tremsetter for spring #3). There were only a few original parts I didn't use; the extra pickup cover, the switch and a few screws... oh, and the bridge cover (No one uses those anyway).

All in all, it's been very gratifying to kludge together a guitar that looks kewl with some parts that connect way back to my first Strat. And it's kind of a gag to have an originally genuine Strat which looks and sounds less like a Strat than the originally imitation one.

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