Everything that goes into a rig will define the output from pickups to speakers but I personally believe it all starts with the Guitar. Every Guitar has its own characteristics, you could get 2 off the same line and they’ll have tonal differences, if you’re eagle eared enough to notice them. Furthermore they all play differently, different shaped necks, scale lengths, sizes…
If you took the Telecaster off Hugh Cornwell and gave him a Strat would the Stranglers sound the same? If you took the Stratocaster off Andy Summers and gave him a Les Paul would The Police sound the same? If you took the Les Paul off Jimmy Page and gave him a Telecaster would Led Zeppelin sound the same? Well to be fair he started on a Tele with the Yardbirds. But now weve gone full circle, 3 Guitars and 3 bands and would they be the same?
So what Guitars would I like to make sure I could be in any band. Firstly lets go for a good old Telecaster.
Leo Fender was an electrician who had no idea about Guitars so preceded to cut out what he thought would be an adequate body from a piece of Ash, bolted a maple neck onto it and people went what the F**k is that? Until they played it. The Tele is extremely distinct, just listen to; again, The Stranglers but also tracks like ‘Green Onions’ Booker T and the MG’s. The image above is of a 1960’s Tele which you can tell by the White pickguard (50’s were black) and Rosewood Fingerboard. All that plus the vintage Blonde colour makes that the Tele for me. And maybe a little bit of wear.
If I had a Tele and a Strat they’d be called Boing and Twang. Those 2 words just explain their tones. Angling the pickups away from the bridge on the lows and towards on the highs gives more twang at the high and and less at the low. Then with a small ‘Lipstick’ Pickup in the bridge you have a nice mellow tone. These have a 3 way pickup allowing for bridge, bridge and neck, or neck. Originally Strats had the same thing so people such as George Harrison and Eric Clapton used toothpicks to get the switch to sit between the Bridge and middle or Neck and middle.
Enough talk lets see a Strat.
Probably the most popular guitar and most recognisable for its shape. This is a classic 60s stray with a sunburst body that would be built with 2 pieces of ash glued together, maple neck with rosewood fingerboard, vintage tuners (that are a pain in the ass to restring until you figure out the trick), mint green pickguard and aged white pickup covers and knobs. The adjustment for the truss rod is at the other end of the neck hidden in the body which means you’d have to unstring and unbolt the neck for every quarter then of adjustment which was the only down side to the 60s Strats!
when the first strats were built around 54 they had only a 3 way pickup selector and fender never thought of using the bridge and the middle or the neck and the middle together until players like George Harrison and Eric Clapton began using tooth picks to hold the pickup selector in between to get an out of phase tone due to the distance of the pickups, the same way you get phasing from the distance of microphones from a sound source. Tracks like Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix and Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam belong to the Strat for these reasons. No other guitar can reach the tonal characteristics of a Strat.
The most notable difference between the Tele and Strat is the addition of the spring loaded Tremolo Bridge and Whammy Bar. This allowed you to adjust the pitch up and down whilst playing but could be very temperamental with tuning until the Floyd Rose was built which featured a locking nut and tuners on the bridge for easy adjustment. Furthermore the strings would be installed the other way round with the ball at the headstock. David Gilmour used the Whammy bar consistently. A great and very 80s use of this system is called a dive bomb where you slowly tune the whole guitar down until the strings are loose, then back up again.
The 80s ushered a new breed of stratocaster named superstrats which would have extremely hot (high output) pickups, usually a floyd rose and some were even made of carbon fibre. Also the action would be extremely low for fast playing and guitarists such as Stevie Ray Vaughn came to the limelight. These usually have a humbucker in the bridge and neck with a single coil in the middle (H S H) rather than classic strats were all single coils (S S S).
There are a number of countries of manufacture for Fender Stratocaster; made in Korea MIK, made in Japan MIj, made in Mexico MIM and made in America MIA. They tend to flow that direction in quality however some Japanese Strats, specifically from the 70s were better than the Americans. As you flow upward in quality, naturally the price increases but what do you get for the money? Japanese and Korean bodies won’t be alder or ash but imitation wood such as birch that doesn’t oscillate as well. Mexican Strats may be lower quality alder or ash or may even be more than 2 pieces glued together. However sunburst Mexican Strats are 2 pieces glued together it’s only solid colours where you can’t see the wood that may be 3/4 pieces. You may get a lesser quality piece of wood compared to the Americans but it won’t be far off. The value for money of a Mexican sunburst Strat is better than an American made sunburst Strat. Furthermore you can buy parts online and assemble the guitar yourself for significantly less money. You can tell an American or Mexican body as the have a hole drilled in the neck slot and below the pickup slots (then 2 more either side on a Mexican body) which are for a jig to slot into to cut the slots for the pickups, bridge and so on.
the electronics In a Mexican Strat may be from Korea, and on a Korean Strat may be from China. The quality of metal is lesser and lesser meaning less conductivity specifically with Chinese pot metal where they melt down anything they can before losing all conductivity to save money. But Squire (owned by fender for budget entry level guitars) make Strats with incredibly comfortable necks. You may find a Squier more comfortable than an American custom shop, however they will sound different! It’s all a balancing act so choose carefully before buying.
Another query is do the springs from the Tremolo Bridge reduce sustain and impact tone? I’d say yes, it works like suspension in your car or bike if you think about it. Clapton put a piece of wood behind his bridge to stop this but Billy Corgan has fixed bridges on his Strats to get more sustain. Id like to have 2 Strats, one that works each way so you’re covered for the style of the song you’re playing.
Well that was a tonne on the Strat so let’s get to my favourite! The Les Paul! Manufactured by Gibson in 1952 after fender brought out the telecaster, these were the first solid body electric guitars that were amazing! The first les Paul had a trapeze style bridge, p90 pickups and solid gold top. Typical single piece of mahogany as the back with 2 pieces of maple on the top. Over the next few years they changed the bridge eventually to the best functioning tunimatic bridge and stop tail. These allowed you to adjust the intonation and had no tuning issues. However the guitar was not selling as well as they’d expected so had to come up with an idea to make it sell. In 58 they dropped the solid gold top and rocked the cherry sunburst. Also they installed the new PAF humbuckers for even more output. The difference was so slight but you were able To see the beautiful maple top and no 2 les Paul’s look the same because the wood is always different. You could see the flame effect the wood gives which is sexy!
The original 58 les Paul’s are highly sought after due to their ultra tone and go for up to hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately things have changed including laws and trees. In the 60s mahogany was all natural but consostenly used in furniture as well as these guitars. Eventually it ran out and is now farmed which has had an effect on the wood, potentially because it’s being cut at a much younger age than it would have been in the late 50s and 60s. Also the glue that stuck the tops on and set in necks was insect based which meant it would dry to a glass like state which would oscillate much better. Modern polymer based glue isn’t the same and it’s for this reason the custom shop 58 reissues are still extremely expensive but not as much as the originals. During the 70s Gibson hit a bit of a lull in terms of manufacture and the quality dropped. Also they have barely catered for left handed people which has put them under scrutiny. They’re crap at coming up with names, for example SG stands for solid guitar… but their guitars are out of this world!
The original les Paul’s were extremely heavy due to the amount of wood involved but around 82/83 they began drilling holes in the upper left quarter of the body to relieve some of the weight. This is called 9 hole weight relief. Later and more contemporary measure of weight relief are called chamfering and full on chamfering where larger sections of the mahogany are removed before the top is glued on. However purists, such as myself, argue it kills the tone. The wood is the most important part of the guitar in my opinion and cutting it out is cutting your nose off despite your face. My lespaul has 9 hole weight relief and is still very heavy but I’m man enough to take it to keep that tone.
You just have to listen to tracks such as Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin or Love Is The Law by The Seahorses to see why the Les Paul and Marshall amps combined were so popular. It’s a mighty roar but you can easily clean it up or get some fantastic tones with the volume and tone pots as well as switching between pickups. Peter Green physically turned the bridge pickup in his Les Paul round so it gave him a more nasal out of phase tone due to the windings of the child when the switch is in the mid position (both pickups selected). Other guitarists had phase flip switches installed on the pots to do this electronically as well as coil taps (turns humbucker into single coil by bypassing one of the coils) to further experiment with tones. Les Paul’s are a huge canvas of tone for you to explore which is why I love them and it’s something that the stratocaster somewhat misses but they are chalk and cheese in fairness.