Off the record
Each month, session ace and Supertramp guitarist Carl Verheyen offers well-chosen word of wisdom on life as a guitarist. This month: it’s all about Strats.
Somewhere along the road I found a way to make the Strat’s three singlecoils and vibrato bridge really work for me.
I have a confession: I own 14 Strats. I’m not sure how it happened, but somewhere along the road I found a way to make three singlecoils and the vibrato bridge really work for me. Then an old friend sold me a Sea Foam Green 1961 Fender Strat for $500, way before the word ‘vintage’ became associated with electric guitars. I still own that instrument due to my policy: if it sounds good, don’t sell it! But I insure it for considerably more these days.
It’s amazing how many things Leo Fender got right, back in ’54. The vibrato bridge is still one of the most musical around, even 60 years later. And with the addition of the five-way pickup selector in the early-70s, the guitar became a workhorse for many styles, way beyond its original country music intentions.
A good lightweight Strat is hard to beat for versatility. And the tonal spectrum is much broader than its little brother the Telecaster, or the classic Gibsons. After hefting a Strat and making sure it’s not a heavy log, my attention turns to the sounds and marriage of wood and pickups. Here are some of the tones I look for:
Neck Pickup. A strong neck pickup should have the most ‘sonic girth’ of the entire guitar. Words I use to describe it are “fat” and “woody.” The sound I have in my mind is Stevie Ray Vaughan’s thick solo sound with a full bottom end. It gets a little more complicated when I add a saturated distortion pedal into the mix, because I never want the sound to ‘mush out’ below C# on the 4th fret of the fifth string. If you can dial in a clear ‘beam’ from C# downwards, and still have plenty of sustain and saturation, you’ve got a great neck pickup.
Neck-Middle Split. This is a great rhythm sound. It’s the warmest place on the Strat, capable of hollowbody jazz tones with the tone knob rolled off and clean funky rhythm guitar that’s not too biting or trebly.
Middle Pickup. The sound I look for here can best be described as “glassy”. The clean, clear sparkle tones you get from the middle pickup are a big part of Jimi Hendrix’s studio recordings. Remember, back in his day the five-way switch hadn’t been invented as a retrofit for the Strat, so without offsetting the three-way switch and hoping it would hold, the guitar had just three positions for the selector. The middle was a go-to pickup for funk players, too. I’ve used it on solo electric intros with delay and chorus for those shimmering tones that no other guitar can match.
Middle-Bridge Split. This can best be described as the classic Stratocaster ‘cluck’ tone. Rock guitarists and country players have used it so much over the years that it’s almost become cliché, but nonetheless, a classic guitar sound everyone should own. I love the way it distorts; there’s both warmth and bite to the sound that works with many types of music. I’ve used the middle-bridge split with massive distortion, playing a very high melody over a 75-piece string section. My tone was smooth and sweet, blending with the cellos and basses but cutting through the violins. Bridge Pickup. Since the Strat’s bridge pickup is not mounted on a metal plate like the Tele, you don’t get that extreme ‘ice-pick to the ears’ tone that can spike you pretty hard. Instead, the Strat’s back pickup is equally at home with country chicken pickin’ and rock solos with heavy distortion. On all my Strats I rewire the rear tone knob so I am able to control and roll off the bridge pickup’s treble. This also makes for some gorgeous, fat distorted tones for soaring solos.
When the Carl Verheyen Band goes on tour, I bring two or three Strats, plus a few other guitars. Even though I use many instruments on my records, nothing gets the music across like a Strat. Simple, elegant and, even at 60 years old, beautiful to hear and behold. Visit www.carlverheyen.com for more about Carl and his music.