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10 Ways to Improve the Tone of a Fender Stratocaster

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You have probably read more than a few tips over the years about how one can achieve "perfect guitar tone". We personally believe it is a journey rather than a destination- not unlike your playing. There is really no such thing as perfection no matter how much you chase it. However, there are some important modifications that can be done to make subtle improvements to your guitar. Our focus here today is the iconic Fender Stratocaster- it includes improvements time tested and sworn upon by veterans of the guitar world. Compound these small adjustments and suddenly you have made a significant change to the instrument. We have tried to leave out any overly complicated modifications that could actually distract from your playing, such as switches that enable 30+ tone variations- that is just overkill in any live application. While we believe that there are a couple valuable switching upgrades, they still did not make the list. We have great respect for our customer's opinions and would like to share real feedback from Stratocaster experimentation over the past 12 years of running our parts store. Obviously, what you plug into after is probably equally as important/complex... but we will cover that in a later article. With that, here is our top 10 (not specifically in any order, except for #1).

1) Practice/Playing Style- no need for a detailed explanation here. Great players can make a budget Squier Mini-Strat sound amazing. Conversely, the finest Stratocaster in the world will sound like chaos in the hands of a player who has not put in the hard time. Subtleties like dynamics and knowing when/what not to play instantly transform the guitar to a whole new level. Some artists swear by playing with their fingers as opposed to a pick when referring to dynamics. At the same time, a picker can also really change the bite or warmth depending on how close to the bridge they pick (not to mention how hard the attack). We could go on for days with other technical playing tips you have probably already heard, but that is really a whole other subject for discussion. We are, after all, parts people and our job is to help you fine tune, much like a golfer using the right clubs. Anyways, in summary the next 9 tips are secondary to good old fashioned elbow grease at the end of the day.

2) Intonation- properly setting up your Strat can make all the difference as you navigate throughout the fingerboard. How awful is it to play an E chord in perfect tune only to fret a sour sounding chord further up the register? There are many simple tips online how to get it right (ie: play open note, compare to 12th fret harmonic, adjust saddles accordingly) but it does not hurt to bring it in to a tech who has spent their career mastering the setup. They are more likely to find/balance out other issues discussed below. It is worth every dollar if they have a long proven track record. Keep in mind that any changes in the truss rod, tremolo tension, string gauge or string height will usually require an intonation adjustment.

3) Strings & String Height- some players put this at the very top of the list. Many believe that a Stratocaster benefits from a slightly higher action. The idea here is that it lets the strings ring out more, thus increasing sustain and expression. Vibrato and bending becomes easier which can really create your "signature" in solos. It also provides more distance from pickup magnets, which can dramatically alter tone (see #4 for pickup height). String type (nickel wound/optional coated, stainless steel, etc.) can also play a role in changing the sound of your instrument. Are you going for a rounder or brighter tone? Experiment to find what works best for you, it is a relatively cheap investment and the options are endless. When you find a set you love don't forget to change the strings routinely, they lose brilliance over playing time. Lastly, string gauge plays a factor in many minds. The goal is to play the highest gauge possible without impairing your personal style/ability to perform. If vibrato is a big part of your style and you lose it with too much mass than that is a cost/benefit you do not want to mess with. Some folks tune down a half step in order to bump up the gauge (due to a more slinky feel). Some customers claim it "fattens" up the tone of a Strat. Jimi & SRV did it with great success.

4) Pickup Height- have you ever noticed that stock Fender Strats come with pickups factory installed at a staggered height? There is a reason: balance. The idea is to remove the lower end mud and give the upper register more presence. Many Strat players seem to never be satisfied with the bridge pickup. You often hear "ice pick", "thin" or "brittle" in conversation. Grab a Phillips-Head and bring up the height a bit as you play to hear how it changes the sound. On most alnico magnet pickup designs you need to be careful not to get too close as the magnets can literally pull on the string and dampen your notes. Also keep in mind that it changes the balance between the other 2 pickups. Some in the industry believe that installing a base plate under the bridge pickup thickens the tone, something a little closer towards a Telecaster sound but without as much twang. By the way, did you know that if you lower the middle pickup you can also get a little more quack in positions 2 and 4? Try it. On the flip side, if your neck position is a bit too boomy/muddy, try lowering it a tad until you dial in an EQ curve that is more consistent with the other 2. Still not satisfied? Read #5.

5) Change Pickups- this is really entirely dependent on the genre/what the particular player wants to achieve in their tone. Some are trying to emulate an artist, others are going for something completely original or out of the box. It is never a one size fits all type of answer. The good news is that the market is chock-full of amazing pickups from both the original manufacturer (Fender of course- they have been doing this a very long time so don't ever write them off), time tested aftermarket pickup manufacturers (ie: Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio) and newer reputable higher end boutique manufacturers (ie: Lindy Fralin, Jason Lollar). Some of the more popular genre choices from our experience: Blues: Fender Texas Special/Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot, Classic Rock: Fender Custom Shop '69/Seymour Duncan SSL-5, Hard Rock: Seymour Duncan Little '59/ DiMarzio Super Distortion (single size), Metal: DiMarzio Fast Track II/Seymour Duncan Hot Rails. Dare we recommend a humbucker? While this is not for Strat purists, for some this is the single mod that made their Strat finally sound the way they wanted to hear it in their head (better known as the "Super Strat" design). It is certainly not a new concept, players have been doing it for over 40 years. An excellent choice for a 'bucker that plays well with single coils is the new Fender Shawbucker, created by guru Tim Shaw of Gibson fame. We have received amazing feedback from customers who are looking for the best of both worlds.

6) Tremolo/Block- another modification our customers swear by. Using a top quality steel block can help the player achieve better sustain and response. Callaham is probably the most respected manufacturer for this type of upgrade, if you are willing to spend the money. Some players even go so far as installing a titanium block (very expensive, but with excellent results). The saddles also can alter the tone depending on what the player is trying to achieve (see #8). Many insist that the tremolo be locked down with 5 springs/block in order to get better sustain/stability. Of course, the big trade-off is you lose the functionality of one of the greatest features of this magical instrument. If you are constantly going out of tune (many other solutions to this problem by the way), not happy with sustain or don't ever use the tremolo this is a good call. It has served Mr. Clapton well for decades.

7) Change the Neck- a STRATosphere favorite modification. If you are more comfortable you usually play better- and thus sound better. Different neck profile/thickness are usually what our customers are going for. Some swear by thick vintage style "Chunky"/"Baseball" profile necks in increasing sustain and improving tone. Usually a "U" or "Boat Shape" profile, it favors those who anchor the back of the neck with their thumb. Others feel it is more about comfort and ability to play with ease- they often choose the modern "C" shape as a result. This profile favors the player who wraps the thumb around the front edge, as opposed to anchoring the back/mid section. The same could be said about the soft "V" shape. The size of your hands plays a role in your choice of both profile and radius. 7.25" vintage radius tends to suite smaller hands, while 9.5", 12" and compound radius are usually a better choice for larger hands. That being said, there are no set rules- some modern styles such as sweeping arpeggios simply benefit from a flatter radius. Frets are also a topic of discussion. For example, the Dunlop 6105 fret wire has been the buzz the past decade due to their tall/thin design, allowing the player to fret out less when bending up the neck. While on the topic of necks it is also important to mention truss rod adjustment. The key point here is subtlety, make small adjustments to balance tension. The Fender website has great detailed instructions on how to increase/decrease relief. If you are inexperienced this is a task best suited for a tech. Have it done as part of your intonation/ set up. Try to bundle that with any other modifications discussed in this article to get the biggest bang for your buck. Lastly is that old debate of finish that make many red in the face- one that tends to be heated between the old/new school players and manufacturers. Some insist that the modern polyurethane finish dampens tone and that nitrocellulose lacquer is the way to go. Others rave about hand rubbed oil finishes for the smooth feel. Some folks love a gloss finish, while a growing number have moved to satin as it doesn't "stick" in humidity. Talk to any guitarist in the hottest summer months and you have probably heard the same.

8) Tone Pot for Bridge Pickup & "Treble Bleed Mod"- there are close to 0 things Leo Fender did not get right very early on. While he was not a guitar player, he was a genius inventor, master of electronics and keen observant of the Stratocaster in live application. The original Strats did not have a dedicated bridge or master tone pot. Some would suggest that this was the anomaly of his perfect design in the instrument. If there is one pickup that needs taming more than any other on your average Stratocaster, it would have to be the bridge position. Having the ability to "dial back" the tone can put you in the sweet spot while eliminating the "ice pick" sound discussed earlier. The early Strats did not have it. Fortunately, the modern models come stock with this feature. If you don't have it in yours and are having troubles with balance we really think it is worth the small amount of time to switch the wires. You may consider installing a master tone pot and using the second control instead as a blender pot, Lindy Fralin highly recommends this blender mod. While you have the hood opened up, why not also solder up the "Treble Bleed Mod"? This is a cheap and simple mod that retains treble/reduces mud as you dial back your volume control. Here's what to do- simply solder a capacitor (typically .002mf) between the live terminal on the volume pot and the center wiper terminal. Just google "Treble Bleed Mod" for a schematic. We have had countless customers tell us that they perform this simple mod on every single Strat they own, so it cannot go without mention in this area.

9) Points of String Contact- this would include the tremolo saddles, nut, strings trees and tuner posts. We have already discussed the importance of the block. There are many different types of replacement parts available on the market these days. In regards to saddles some like to keep it old school with bent steel, while others prefer solid cast steel for more stability and perceived sustain. Still, others choose graphite for less string breakage. We have heard this can slightly soften the tone at the same time. Each may have a very subtle effect on tone. With nuts there also many options out there. Our most popular choice in the store is still the good old bone nut by far. Others, again, go with GraphTech (graphite) for less string breakage. The feedback again here is that graphite may reduce "bite", but that is still open to debate. Guitar lube products can also be used at all points of contact to help with string breakage problems. For a brighter tone there are also metal options such as the modern LSR roller nut which also helps with string breakage. Yngwie Malmsteen prefers a less dense brass nut for perceived thickness in tone. String trees can help reduce overtones depending on where they are placed on the headstock- while not the prettiest part to look at, this can be particularly useful in recording applications. Still not bright enough? Brad Gillis used a metal pick back in the 80s for more bite on his Super Strat- it is technically another point of contact so it deserves mention. The tuning pegs you install can really help if you find you are going out of tune too much. Fender makes a great set of "F" logo 2 pin retrofit lockers. Manufacturers including Schaller, Grover, Gotoh and Kluson also offer locking tuners that due a fantastic job of both keeping you in tune and changing strings faster. Some of these are 2 pin retrofit for any modern American or Mexican Standard neck- no drilling!

10) Body Type/Finish- another popular part for modification in our storefront. Are you looking for a balanced, brighter or darker tone? Alder has been the wood of choice by Fender for many years, and for good reason. It is probably the most balanced in frequency of tone woods. It does not hurt that the species is in the great abundance, which helps in mass production. We personally think it is a great affordable choice for tone wood and is relatively easy for finishing projects. Ash is an excellent choice for those desiring a brighter sound. Swamp Ash in particular has seen great demand over the past decade due to its lighter weight. The Northern ash variety can certainly do a number on the back after a long gig. Ash does require a bit more work if you are finishing or refinishing the body- if it is not filled properly a decent amount of crazing will develop from the wood grain. Then there are those who want a little more growl/dark tone. Basswood is a relatively cheap and lightweight choice (EVH used this with a maple top successfully)- the wood grain is not pleasing to the eye so it is best finished in a solid color. Mahogany, of course, would be another good choice in this area of the tone spectrum. Then there is that old heated debate again. Nitro vs Poly! Some say it makes 0 difference, including a couple very reputable Fender licensed body manufacturers. However, we have a big customer base that cannot be ignored when they say that it most definitely does make a difference in the way the guitar "breathes" and "resonates". They claim you can hear the acoustic difference when not plugged in. While on the body topic, there is one last mod worth mention. Anywhere that hardware or wood connects to wood can be sanded down/cleaned to bare wood- for example underneath the bridge area and in the neck pocket. You have probably heard how Eric Johnson does this on every Stratocaster he plays. He and many other players also remove the rear tremolo cover saying that it increases resonance and clarity. We have even heard that it changes the dynamics of distortion when circuits are introduced later in the chain. Some may question this, but a man of his merit cannot be ignored.

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