So you’ve bought a Fender Stratocaster, or another strat-style guitar with three single-coil pickups and a non-locking tremolo system, but you can’t get it to sound the way you want it to. Don’t panic — here are some tips on how to make a strat sound good.
There really are no wrong ways of doing it in the strictest sense. However, we’re used to hearing things sound a certain way, so it’s important to at least know how these archetypal sounds are made, so that you can break away from them with intent. Not knowing what came before surely a poor guitarist makes.
If you’re going to play any kind of lead on a strat-stye guitar, the neck pickups is the easiest place to start. It produces a fat, clear tone that sounds good in both high and low registers, and has a squishy, forgiving feel that makes the guitar very easy to play. It sounds good clean, overdriven and fully saturated, which makes it a good fit for a lot of different styles. David Gilmour, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Yngwie Malmsteen and Jimi Hendrix are all players who’ve made the neck pickup tone work incredibly well, in spite of the rather large differences in their respective playing styles.
The strat neck pickup pairs well with a tubescreamer-style overdrive. A Tube Screamer is a light-to-medium gain overdrive pedal with a pronounced midrange, and this brings out a woody, stringy lead tone — perfect for blues and not-too-aggressive rock.
This refers to the sounds you get in positions two and four on a five-way pickup selector switch. In these positions the neck and middle pickups — or bridge and middle pickups respectively — are connected in parallel, resulting in a very bright and clear tone. There’s a bit more bass in the neck and middle combination, and a bit more midrange in the bridge and middle combination, but they’re both really bright. To my ears they sound best when used with a clean tone.
A lot of the early Dire Straits guitar tones were based on these pickup combinations, and when you take into account that Mark Knopfler is a fingerstyle player, the unique advantages that these combinations have, start to come into focus. The increased brightness can sometimes be a bit too much if you play with a pick, but played fingerstyle they bring out a lot of detail. Pinching, scraping, rubbing and pulling on the strings, in addition to the whole spectrum of sounds that lies in the different combinations of fingertip and nail, rings out clearly, giving you as a player one of the most expressive sounds you can hope to achieve.
The middle pickup is sadly under-utilised on its own. Usually it works in tandem with either the bridge or the neck pickup, but only using it in this way is to rob yourself of a very usable sound. The middle pickup produces a hollow-sounding tone that’s also bright. This makes it a very good pickup for playing melodies and leads in the lower registers on the wound strings. The detailed and somewhat “clanky” sound brings out the metal-to-metal contact between string and fret, and it also emphasises the pick attack. It works very well with an overdriven tone, and responds very well to pedals with a lot of midrange, such as the Tube Screamer.
When people who’re used to playing humbucker-equipped guitars first play a strat, they often find that the lead sound from a strat’s bridge single coil leaves something to be desired. The standard strat wiring has no tone control assigned to the bridge pickup, which can make it very piercing and thin-sounding. This is easily remedied by a small change to the wiring so that the bridge pickup gets its own tone control. Any decent tech should be able to fix this in thirty minutes. Turning down the tone control to around six turns the bridge single coil into a fatter, but still detailed middle ground between a single coil and a humbucker. You still have the ability to cut through the mix, and it’s a leaner tone than you’d get from a full-fat humbucker, but it still works very well as a lead sound. There is noticeable a difference in playing feel, and this is probably something that you’ll need to get used to before you can play with confidence if you’re primarily used to Les Pauls.
Strats sound great with fuzz, and especially with a Fuzz Face. This combination can give you everything from a processed semi-clean sound, to a soft, warm fuzz, to an end-of-the-world, barely controllable meltdown. The key is to use the volume control on your guitar to control the amount of madness. With the volume at around six, the fuzz is almost unnoticeable — maybe a hint of hair around the edges of notes when you dig in. Turn it up and the fuzz keeps coming, but you still retain your strat’s basic tonality. Turn it up full wick and the fuzz takes over, leaving precious little of your basic guitar tone intact. I feel that this is one of the more expressive gear combinations around. To me it sounds best with the fuzz going into a slightly overdriven amp, as this tames and softens the high end just a bit. It also adds a layer of compression, which is nice, giving a little bit of sustain and evening the levels out a bit. This makes it easier to place it in a mix or in a band context.
Strats are great instruments, and they’ve been part of popular music since the fifties. Like an acoustic guitar, their sound is easily recognisable, but you still have every opportunity to make it sound like you. Ritchie Blackmore said it was easier for him to sound like himself on a strat — a sentiment echoed by many others. Hopefully some of the stuff I’ve written about will be of use for you in the quest for your strat tone. Let me know how it goes — comment below.