Keeping a classic and making it my own.
Fact: the stratocaster is an American icon. After I had outgrown my Squier Affinity Strat, I begged my parents for a real Fender strat, no more of that cheapo Squier stuff. This was around late middle/early high school, and being a huge Hendrix fan, I didn’t want just any Fender strat, I wanted a 60’s reverse headstock strat in olympic white. Oh baby.
At a recording session during my high school years. I think we were called, “The Upside-down Christmas Trees” or “The Mercy Burkas?” It was a weird time.
I know, the whole reverse headstock thing might be silly, but high school me totally dug it so I didn’t mind the jokes, like the one in this post’s title. To be honest, I still really dig it. Also, this was before Fender directly marketed the guitar as a limited edition Jimi Hendrix product and offered it in “ultraviolet” (purple), so I’m quite pleased that I didn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars more. Anyway, on to what this is actually about.
While my Fender strat was certainly a HUGE step up from my Squier, it certainly still sits at the lower mid-tier of Fender’s product line up. And yes, it’s made in Mexico, so it didn’t come with that “made in the good ol’ USA” sticker. Potentially unpopular opinion: where a guitar is made matters a lot less than what most people think. However, I don’t deny the difference in build/part quality between guitars of differing origin, and that’s where my modding journey begins.
Over the years, as my playing needs have changed, I’ve modified my strat to offer better playability and different sound signatures. If you know what you’re doing, modding can be a great way to change things up without dropping a ton of cash for a new guitar. From subtle improvements to complete overhauls, there’s lots of things you can do. In addition, I think it’s really cool to take an instrument and really put your own flavor into it. That’s part of the reason why I won’t move on from my reverse headstock strat; at this point, it is too “me” and I don’t want to get rid of it. Instead, I take care of it and change it up according to my current needs. I’ll go over some of the most impactful changes I’ve made, and you can decide if you want to try these mods. Take caution though: don’t blame me if anything goes wrong.
I’ll start off with some of the simpler stuff that I’ve done recently. I used to love a good glossy polyurethane finish. They can look so pretty and make something feel so smooth. But as I’ve gained more experience and spent more time on stages, I’ve learned just how sweaty my hands can get while playing. Add to that the hot and humid conditions of club or bar venues and I quickly realized that this moisture and glossy finish combo does not make for a good time. My sweaty palms frequently got caught on the glossy finish of the neck and I was not able to play with as much dexterity. I began bringing a microfiber cloth with me on stage, hanging out of my back pocket, to quickly wipe my neck down between songs, if and when I got a chance. This was not ideal. Solution: remove the glossy polyurethane finish, and refinish the neck with something sans gloss, but that would still protect the wood.
Here’s how I did it:
- Prep: Start off by blocking off any crevices or cavities that should not have any particulate matter fall into it. This would be areas like the pickups, neck joint, etc. I just taped a plastic bag over it, sealing any potential entrances. I also removed the strings, just because I knew I would be doing a lot more work on other things later.
- Sand: Start off with 500 grit sandpaper. Sand along the entire neck, applying pressure as evenly as possible. The lacquer will come off as a white powder. When there’s no more powder coming off and you start hitting wood, it’s time to stop and move on to a higher grit sand paper. Repeat process with higher grit sand paper. I think I went up to 1000, 1500, 1800, maybe 2400 as well.
- Seal: Some people just quit after sanding to get a really smooth feeling neck. However, this leaves your neck wood prone to the elements, with absolutely no protection from moisture. Save yourself the headache, and refinish your neck. Combine a 50/50 mixture of shellac and rubbing alcohol. Apply to wood with a rag. It’ll dry quickly, so you won’t have to wait too long to apply 3 or 4 coats, total. Let that sit overnight, and then in the morning spend a little time going over it with some 0000 steel wool.
Voila, no more sticky neck. Shoutout to PG for the inspiration for this mod.
While I was doing this, I noticed how silly my neck plate looked. Over the years, I had sloppily carved in different designs, and later, after regretting it, opted to sand the entire thing to try and erase my mistakes. Man, I was a dumb kid. I reached out to my good friend, Cindy, who is a super talented graphic designer. Aligning with the theme of making this guitar my own, I asked her to use my initials and design a logo that I might be able to get etched onto a backplate. The result was fabulous. The design is superb: very modern but still super groovy. Luckily she knows me well enough because I really gave her no guidance in designing it. Finding the right engraving shop took a bit of time, but Engraving Connection in Plymouth, MI came to the rescue and did the job. They’re a tiny little shop that does great work for great prices, 10/10 would recommend. This aesthetic choice doesn’t affect playability or sound in the slightest, but it was a fun little side project and I love the way it turned out. I may experiment with decals on the headstock later, but I think this is a great start. It feels almost like I have my own signature guitar, and I didn’t have to get good or become famous to get it. HA!
If you’re like me and think this logo is super fresh, please give Cindy a follow on the ol’ Instagram @cindyyshaw and check out her website: cindyyshaw.com to see all of the super cool and cute stuff she creates!
Next, onto the pickups, but first, a little bit of backstory: I first switched out the original pickups sometime during undergrad. There was nothing wrong with them, but I had just wanted to explore different sounds and see what other single coil offerings were capable of. After I felt comfortable with a soldering iron (and a few gnarly burns), I plopped in a set of Fender Custom Shop 54’s to get a taste of what that original strat sound was like… Dirty. It was dirty. These pups are noisy, with more 60-cycle hum than acceptable, by my standards. However, the spank and bite of classic strat tones were undeniable. Beware: this means it’s also a little more thin sounding than more modern strat pickups.
When I started playing more at church, I very reluctantly began to move away from the neck pickup and venture into the bridge position. It was a huge shift for me, made even more jarring by the fact that I wanted a little more chime instead of twang in my bridge tone. A fantastic mentor of mine suggested the Seymour-Duncan Little 59, which was a single coil sized humbucker. Since it was my first time playing a humbucker, I was a little nervous, but the warmer, higher output tone was a fantastic option to get that newfangled P&W sound everyone goes on about. Besides that though, It’s addition provided a great deal of flexibility and I felt like I could get the best of both worlds with having both types of pickups on board.
Last August, I picked up a Reverend Charger 290 guitar with a completely different sound. The p90 style pickups are more than sufficiently chime-y for church stuff, so I almost always use it for that now. Lately though, I’ve really started to miss that unmistakeable single coil sound. Enter, Lambertones. I had heard through the P&W grape vine about the rising popularity of their pickups, so I decided to check them out. Sure enough, they had recently released their “Triple Shot” single coils. They sent them to me at the beginning of the year, but it’s taken me until now to put them in. I actually just finished the job and I’m quite pleased. The bridge and middle positions feel like a return to my roots of that 60’s style sound, but better. Flip the switch into the bridge position though, and you get another beast entirely. It is unbelievably spanky, and I LOVE IT. To my ears it definitely has a tele type vibe to it, and I’m curious if that was intentional. Either way, it adds another tonal variation to my palette, and I am not complaining.
Lastly, I did want to give a brief mention to some less glamorous but supremely important work. Don’t underestimate the value of a good set-up. Especially after such a harsh winter, give your instrument some love and give it a proper set-up. It’ll help with playability, intonation, buzz, etc. This time around, I opted for light gauge strings, as opposed to mediums, since I’m doing quite a bit more bending. I also floated the bridge! For so long I’ve left it in more of a hardtail position to preserve tuning, but I’ve been using it a lot more and I feel that it’s time to get LOOSEY-GOOSEY. I’d rather focus on playing and enjoying the dang guitar rather than staring at a tuner all the time, pursuing the myth of perfect tuning.
At this point, I think the only part of the guitar that I’ve left stock are the tuners, and that might change in the future as well. Tinkering is a fun way to experiment with different aspects of the instrument, but it’s no substitute for practicing and playing! That’s the best way to know exactly what you want and need from your instrument. If you’re ready to take that next step though, it can really open up a world of possibilities without having to drop a ton of cash for a new guitar. Just make sure you spend the time learning how to do things first, before you ruin a beloved instrument. All of this sounds like a lot of work, but realistically it probably could’ve been done in one weekend. This TLC couldn’t have come at a better time, as I’m about to head into a stretch of weekends of constant playing, performing, and serving, and I need my gear to be in good shape! I’ll have to play the Triple Shots for a bit more before making a final verdict, but I am so pleased with them already. After months of the strat being out of commission, it’s good to have it back in the rotation. Can’t wait for it to see more action!