Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Raising a little Strat

This guy's been an adventure.

Every guitarist at some point comes in contact with the classic Fender Stratocaster. It's as iconic as a guitar gets; even more so than its peers the Gibson Les Paul and the Fender Telecaster. Think Bruce Springsteen and you're thinking Fender Telecaster. Think Les Paul and you're thinking... Les Paul. Um, try thinking Jimmy Page and that new kid on the block, Slash, and you're thinking Les Paul. Think Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, David Gilmour, Bonnie Raitt (oh, heck, look for yourself at : ) and you're thinking the Fender Stratocaster.

Does the brand carry a lot of weight? Ask a non musician what a Fender is, and not only will they know, they'll probably have an image Jimi Hendrix playing a flipped-over upside-down Strat .

The Strat is cost efficient, designed for quick assembly and repair, and is flexible in operation. It's base platform is an ash body, a bolt on 25.5" scale maple neck, three single-coil pickups, a five way switch, a volume knob and two tone controls. They've been around for put-near fifty years and the only real change has been the shape of the tuning peg-head which, in the late 60s through the 70s, was wicked-big like a bobble head doll.

You want a Strat? What kind? How will you make it yours? Made in Mexico? Japan? America? Custom Shop?

Strats are like PCs. They all work pretty much the same and there are a million manufacturers, makes, and models. And then the modding sets in faster and with more lingo than a twenty-year old boy with cash, bad taste, no girlfriend, and a 94 Honda Civic. To quote from Jeff Beck's (another Strat Player) Guitar Shop,

"Killer Strat cat... just feel those frets... It's got scaled down Strat style body with the feel of a Les Paul... deep cutaways, no pick guard, and a couple of humbuckers. Full shred! Stiff neck, graph nut, and an ebony fingerboard. Balls deluxe!"

As for this particular guitar...

I've had it for almost three years, but it's been pretty-much unplayable until now. It started life as a Kramer Focus 211S "FatBoy," Kramer's Fat Strat for the beginner, complete with tremelo and humbucker pickup in the bridge for the king's ransom of $75 + shipping over at musicYo. Today they're $99. Like Bimbleman's Beer, "If you need a guitar real bad, we've got a real bad guitar."

If you're starting out at guitar or want a beater to take on the road, it's a heck of a price. The quality control is hit and miss. On this one I missed, but did get a beautiful Lake Placid Blue metallic paint job. I'd actually had the same Kramer Focus model previously, in silver, but sold it to a friend whose son was getting the itch to learn guitar. That one was a hit- it played well, sounded good (as far as I could tell), and was even less expensive. Bottom line, a Kramer Focus is a real guitar when compared to the toys you'll find at Target, Radio Shack (??!?), and Sam's Club, but it's no real Fender. It does have real connectors, knobs, and switches and, occasionally, you'll get one that is or can be set up well.

Not this one.

Cheryl bought it for Christmas based on my specifications in my letter to Santa. If you don't know about me and my Guitar Acquisition Syndrome, let me explain that I am afflicted with a virulent yet pragmatic strain of the disease, and am up to about ten guitars at the moment. Being cheap (which you do know about me- it's always the cost, the cost!), I just can't bring myself to walk into the local guitar shop and pull a pre-relic'd Strat* off the wall, plunk down $1500 and be happy. No, I have a predilection for bargains, and bargains appear to be contract manufactured in Korea. Some are just killer, and shame the American brand names for qaulity and value. But that should come as no surprise to anyone who's ridden in a Hyundai or a Kia, or pedaled a Giant bicycle. Anyway, I asked for this because at the time I was struggling along with just one electric guitar, a (shock!) Kramer Striker, which is your favorite 80s hair-band's lead guitarist's guitar. Watch the vintage videos on YouTube, and you'll see the rad hockey-stick peg head. When I thought about getting another Strat style guitar, I remembered the silver Kramer, saw they had one with a humbucker in the bridge (makes for a more hard rock sound), Lake Placid Blue, and what the heck. Santa, would you please?

When it arrived, it was beautiful, with a maple neck and fingerboard (for some aesthetic reason I really wanted a maple fingerboard), white pick-guard, white pickups and baby, the action was awful. Fret buzz all over the place. Oh, and the humbucker sounded thin and weak. I'm not shy about ruining things in an attempt to improve them, so I grabbed my allen wrenches and feeler gauges and set about adjusting the truss rod, which is a long metal bolt inside the neck of a guitar that keeps things straight as the seasonal changes in humidity tries to move and warp a guitar neck throughout the year. Nope. Yuck. Action to high, buzz too low, just not very good.

Fast forward two years. It didn't get played much. In restringing it, the nut snapped off at the 6th string. It's action was still horrific, and the truss rod was bound up anyway. My friend Birger down in FL was (is) crafting me yet another guitar, to be the custom crown jewel of my collection, named simply "Four," as it is his fourth guitar project. Much more on Four and Birger in another post. Here's a teaser:

I asked Birger his advice and he said "ship it on down to me." So it went down to Florida for an expert to hem and haw and possibly saw. Birger noted the neck was exceedingly warped, the truss rod was useless, and it needed a fret leveling. To un-warp it,** he stressed the middle with a clamp and kept it in a moist area. Imagine Sport-Goofy standing on skis between two tables, toes and tails on each table. Bendy, Bendy. He got it straight-ish!

I visited Birger back in May 08 to do some assembly work on Four, and in preparation I planned on making the strat into something special. I started with these tuners from Planet Waves. They're self trimming: you stick the string through a hole, clamp it down, and as you turn the tuner, it shears the string off, clipping it just the right length. No more pliers or pokes near the pegs! A better mouse trap to be sure.

I then did some research on a single-coil pickup set and settled on GFS Boston Blues, partly because of their balls, but mostly because of their syrup.*** Don't the blue wires look cool? It's too bad you can't see them on the guitar. S'allright. They sound fab. Mind you, they cost as much as the original guitar. But then, so did the tuners. When I get an hour to play with Sonic and a mic, I'll record an MP3 for y'all. Then you can laugh at my skills. I tossed in a surf-green pick guard because I needed a replacement, and thought it would go well. It did. That's not an off kilter white balance, that's a surf-green pick guard on a lake placid blue Strat body. I love my reflection in the knobs.

With Birger's patience, pedagogy, and skill, I did a fret leveling and dressing, fashioned a replacement nut from a blank, and wired everything into the new pick guard and brought her home. And the neck and action were still crap. It sounded good though!

So she sat on hold for another three months while I plotted my next move. I was so impressed by Birger's woodworking skills, can-be-done attitude, and patience that I contemplated making my own replacement neck from scratch. All the tools I'd need are at the local high school's adult ed class.
Did I do it? No, not yet. That's out there. But for $119 and free shipping, I snagged from our friends at eBay a new, un-used Fender-licensed Mighty Mite maple/ebony neck with a 9.5" radius. Very traditional, except the ebony which, when I played it on Four, was an instant favorite. It's hard stuff, yet pretty. So my luthier skills were honed on screwing in without screwing up. It took only two trips to Lowes and the local guitar shop for bits and pieces. Screwing on a neck is not so easy as it sounds, especially when the standard sized neck was too thin for my standard neck pocket. Shims to the rescue!

Notice the shim sticking out of the side of the pocket on the second picture. It's actually more of a wedge than a shim. I'll carefully exacto that baby into oblivion at some point. Honest, I will. When I'm done painting the house. It doesn't get in the way, and it's the only piece of shoddy on the guitar at this point.

Notes on putting that neck in: Make sure it's straight! Clamp it in place and use the bolts to poke through the body and mark a center hole for drilling into the neck. And please pre-drill the neck holes or you're likely to split the wood. Maple's hard, but that means, like a gem, it'll split real nice. I also waxed the wood screws before putting them in should, heaven forbid, I need to take them out again. I hope not. I'm almost done with this guitar, ready to begin a life of playing when I get the blues.

I'm proud of how it looks and plays. It's as good as a $500 Made in Mexico Strat, and cost only a little more! Raising Strats is hard work!
Plucking and a grinning,

* Seriously! Like pre-faded jeans with holes in them, you can pay extra for a strat that has been professionally abused. The ultimate in pre-ruined guitars is this $25,000 gem, which you'd have to be a real fan to buy.

** Un-warping is grammatically like un-thawing. Spose I should have used "straighten."
*** These are the terms used to describe their sound in the web page. Regardless, they sound great and look cool/unique.
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