Monday, December 26, 2011

In Defense Of The Fender Stratocaster......

Conventional rock and roll wisdom says that a Strat is not a "rock" guitar. It is a "funk" guitar, it is a "soul" guitar, it is a "blues" guitar. But for Rockabilly? No, that's a Gretsch. For Punk Rock? No, that's a Les Paul Junior. For Metal? No, that's something pointy with too many frets. For Country? No, that's a Telecaster.

As for me, it took me a long time to come around to the ways of Strat-love. I even refused to let a great guitarist join my old band on the grounds that he played a Strat. I hated them with a passion. I was wrong, people.

Why do us "rocker" types hate Strats so much? I believe the reason is threefold:

REASON NUMERO UNO- "The terrible, awful people who have famously played Strats." It all starts with a very overrated man named Eric Clapton. He was great in his early years, when he played Les Pauls, SGs, Teles, 335s, etc. But as soon as he fell under the spell of the Stratocaster, it was all over. He not only came to epitomize the Strat player, he came to epitomize watered down, shitty white blues music. Terrible crimes he committed against his blues/rock roots, all the while clutching a black Strat in his puffy hands and making a queasy expression that most people thought meant he was a kindly British rock star having a good old time.Of course, that grimace of puke to come really signifies a deep, horrible self knowledge. This knowledge comes after you have sold out your high minded ideals for a steady and massively huge paycheck and a couple rolls in the hay with George Harrison's wife. This often comes with the realization that your playing has become trite, obvious and boring. Because this brings you millions of dollars, you will not seek to change this. But forever will you suffer the guilt and shame.


(LEFT: The great Buddy Holly.) So who, besides Clapton, ruined the Strat for us all? Well, a man named Stevie Ray Vaughan really made the Strat the horridly common instrument it is today. Stevie was actually a really great guitarist who played with soul and grit and real blues feeling. He sold all those qualities to a major label in order to be more like his hero Eric Clapton, then he cacked it in a helicopter, thereby leaving us a couple listenable records, along with some dreck. At least he spared us the further crimes against rock and roll he was most likely about to commit with his trademark beat up 60s Strat. I'd like to think he would have eventually wised up and gone underground, becoming a fixture on the chitlin circuit and shunning the garish MTV spotlight. I'm a fan, sadly, and that's a fan's wishful thinking. Other Strat-ruiners: Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (now busy ruining the LP Junior for us all), U2's constipated martini bar waiter "The Edge", and lots, lots more, including frog faced frat boy John Mayer and retarded Allman Brother Johnny Lang.

REASON NUMERO DOS that we hate the Strat: "It's too common." Yes, the Strat is the highest selling guitar of all time, and the most copied. More guitars resemble a Strat than any other guitar shape. Almost every guitar maker, large and small, have Strat like guitars. Even Gibson, who recently bought the Charvel company (who were very famous in the 80s for making really gaudy modernized Strat copies, which led to the coining of the term "Superstrat"). Only the Les Paul guitar shape is as close to being as recognizable and constantly copied.

(Left: The great Dave Alvin and his well worn 60s Strat.)
REASON NUMERO TRES: "They sound so thin and wimpy." The Stratocaster, like the Telecaster before it, was developed with single coil pickups, the latest in technology in 1954 when it was designed. These pickups are capable of a wide variety of sounds, but they do favor the cutting, thin, high end treble side of tone. This guitar was developed for playing early country music and western swing, like the Telecaster, as these were Leo Fender's favorite musics. Compared to slightly later technology developed by Gibson and Grestch in the form of "humbucking" pickups, they are also kind of buzzy and noisy when plugged into a cranked amp. Humbucking pickups eliminate the buzz, but also eliminate the high, keening wail of an original Strat bridge pickup.

I will now address each of those concerns, proving once and for all that the Stratocaster is the ultimate rock and roll guitar.

1) Famous Strat players: Yes, hacks like Eric Clapton are associated with the Strat. Guess who else played one? Buddy Holly was the first well known Strat player. Buddy revolutionized pop music in the mid fifties, wrote his own songs, dressed sharp, and was rarely seen without his trademark mid fifties sunburst Strat. In fact, he owned several, and outside of acoustics, was never seen playing a Gibson.

ROCKABILLY AND SURF MUSIC: Other rockabilly players besides the great Buddy Holly, favored strats. Ronnie Dawson, of "Action Packed" and "Rockin Bones" fame, always played one. So did Johnny Meeks from Gene Vincent and the Bluecaps. As did Roland Janes, who played on Sun Records sessions by Jerry Lee, Billy Lee Riley, Charlie Rich and more. Sonny Burgess and James Burton have been seen with Strats, as well. Dave Alvin of the Blasters and Jimmie Vaughan (yes, Stevies' bro) have been seen playing nothing but Strats for their blues/country/RnB based musics in modern times. As for the Surf? The Ventures, the Shadows, The Trashmen, Dick Dale. These giants of reverb and tremolo all played Strats. The hollow twang of surf music would not have existed without the Stratocaster. Even the Beatles played Strats on several cuts on "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver". Here are the Shadows with Cliff Richard defining 60s Brit Pop. Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin had the first Strat in Britain and his guitar heroics on said bright red Strat began the UK's enduring love affair with the electric guitar.

(At left, the Shadows rock out on matching Strats.)
Another Strat hero was Jimi Hendrix. Probably the most famous guitarist of all time, and the most famous Strat player. He sold more Strats than all the guitar salesmen on the planet, just by making it his instrument of choice. He liked Strats because Buddy Guy and Ike Turner did. That's right, Ike Turner. Perhaps one of the earliest bad ass guitar heroes, Ike stuck pretty close to his Strat collection for the entirety of his career. He beat his women and he beat his guitars, but both seemed to do alright for themselves afterward.

(Check the pic on the right to see Ike and Tina and their 1950s Strat.) Brother Wayne Kramer from Michigan Proto Punks the MC5 played a Strat quite often in his heyday (and today), as did his counterpart Ron Asheton from the amazing Stooges. Yep, that's a Stratocaster being flogged on such ballsy rock epics as "Kick Out The Jams", "Down On The Street" and "TV Eye".

That's Ron Asheton looking superemely cool with his late 50s Strat. But surely a Strat is no good for Punk music, one says? Hmm. How about Bob Andrews from Generation X, who used one more often than not? How about Robert Quine from Richard Hell and the Voidoids, who rarely played anything but a Strat? What about the brilliant Ruts guitarist Paul Fox? He was a Strat player.

Here's Bob from Gen X reminding you that punks played Strats in 1977.
What about heavy metal? Surely the shrill, quacking Strat sound couldn't keep up with the balls out punch of a metal riff? I'm not sure my favorite metal guitar player, the human riff factory that is Fast Eddie Clarke of Motorhead and Fastway, would agree. See below.

Sticking up for Strats in metal would also be... Richie Blackmore, Yngwie Malmsteen,Eddie Van Halen, and ...oh, just every guitarist in Iron Maiden, plus Steve Harris, who plays a Fender Precision. That's the Bass version of the Strat, for those keeping score at home. Witness:

I think I've just about wiped away that image from your mind, right? The one where you picture Eric Clapton's unfortunate weasel face grimacing in bowel-constricted agony as he plays another one of his cliche ridden, ham fingered solos while the world's most boring audiences cheer him on listlessly? Just take another look if you need to, while the rest of us move on to...

COUNTRY MUSIC. Although the Strat is now widely associated with blues and blues rock, and the Telecaster is universally known as "the country guitar, the Strat itself was originally designed for country players, by country players and one particular country fan by the name of Leo Fender. Here's the one man who, besides Mr Fender, contributed most to the perfect functionality and design of the Stratocaster.

That's Bill Carson, who played amazingly hot guitar licks for country music legend Hank Thompson's band, the Brazos Valley Boys, in "Country Music California" in the early 1950s. For those of you who don't know, Cali was once second only to Tennessee as the leading state providing country music to the hungry masses, back when the hungry masses had taste. That was a long time ago. Bill here was also a close friend of Leo Fender, and that Strat he's holding there is one of the first few ever made. Lep gave Bill a strat to test out onstage, and Bill's carefully worded opinion on the instrument contains many of the ideas we now associate with every Stratocaster. He was key in developing the instrument's wide variety of sounds and it's curvaceous and comfortable body shape.

Now that you've realized that just as many Strat players have rocked the ballsy riffs as Les Paul players, let's move on to reason number two: "The Strat is just too common".

Well, that one is true. Many guitarists like to consider themselves different, and will thusly play weird or obscure or highly customized guitars to stand out from the pack, who mostly play the two most popular guitars, the Strat (in its many variations) and the Les Paul (which also exists in many variations).

I used to think this as well. Then I played a Les Paul, and I played a Strat. They may be common, but there's a reason: They have not been beatn in design or functionality yet. Nor have they been beaten in beauty or tone or versatility. You see alot of Rockabilly guitarists playing Gretsches, but not many (if any) metal players. The Strat, however, is comfortable on metal stages, rockabilly stages, punk stages, country stages...just about any form of music. It really is a case of Guitar Darwinism. The best guitars will win. Strats and Les Pauls really are the best. And they have been since the early 1950s when they were designed. What other 1950s technology do we still use today? So yes, the Strat is common. Because it's the best.

Now we come to reason number three: "The Strat is too thin and wimpy sounding." Hmm. Perhaps the following clip, made with a stock late 60s Strat, with no pickup modifications at all, will make you question that widely held opinion?

And then there's the best thing about the Strat: it's ability to be easily modified. Strats are the ultimate DIY "hot rodding" platform. You can do anything you want with a Strat, because Leo Fender designed it to be that way. He wanted a guitar you could take apart, easily service, easily modify and personalize. And in designing this, he designed the ultimate guitar. The most comfortable to play, the guitar possessing the widest variety of sounds, the best looking guitar.

One of the many ways players have modified the Strat concerns it's "wimpy" or "thin" bridge pickup tone. Just as an aside, the bridge pickup on a Strat can indeed sometimes be thin and glassy. However, if a player just switches the pickup selector to the neck and middle pickups, one discovers a huge, thick, overwhelmingly grungy and dirty tone, with a cranked amp. If this is still not loud and aggressive enough for you, many players, such as fast Eddie Clarke, Eddie VH, Billie Joe from Green Day, some of the Iron Maiden guys, etc etc have opted to switch their Strat's single coil brisge pickup out for a double coil humbucker. This will fatten up that razor sharp, blade thin Strat sound, giving you the best of both worlds in one guitar (Gibson and Fender tones). Some Strat players say this is sacrilege and spoils both the original look and sound of the guitar, but I say have at it. Strats are for personalizing and playing. They were part of one man's search for the perfect multi function proletariat guitar back in the 1950s, and like the 1950s hot rod cars they were built to resemble, they exist for the driver/player to modify, customize and personalize. See the guitar below, which would be suitable for pretty much any kind of music the world has to offer.

In short, the Strat is both the world's most popular and most undervalued instrument. It looks great, sounds great and feels great. If you need other sounds, the Strat can take on new personalities with just some simple modifications. There's very little a Strat cannot do, and just about nothing a Strat hasn't done, from Rockabilly to grunge to pop to punk to RnB to soul to metal. Where there is guitar noise, there is likely a Strat. Don't hate, celebrate.

To the right is my newest guitar, a Lake Placid Blue 60s style Strat. I'm going to do some mods to it that I will talk about in later Blogs, I'm sure. Hope you enjoyed my Strat rant, and hope it changed your mind a little bit about the perfect versatility of a Stratocaster. And let's remember, it's not what guitar you play, but what you play on that guitar, that counts.