For the first seven years of playing, a Fender Stratocaster was all I ever played and all I ever wanted. My extreme metal phase turned out to be just a temporary interruption, because I went right back to Fender after it was over. Getting my first Gibson, however, was another matter entirely. From the moment I came home with my black Les Paul Studio, my yellow Stratocaster was relegated to a backup instrument that quite literally gathered dust for years. It was only after I joined the cover band and fell under the spell of Eric Clapton that I was inspired to pick up the Strat again and see what I could make of it. It was enough to make me realize why I need one of each type, but not enough to convince me to use Fenders for more than covers, noodling at home or the odd bit part on recordings. My main style has always been some kind of heavy rock or metal, and whereas it is by no means impossible to coax such sounds out of Fenders, going the humbucking way has always been quicker and easier.
Therefore, when I started my hard rock band in early 2019 and got around to jamming and creating, it was natural to bring along the SG, which had up until then served as my primary rehearsal guitar for almost three years. Since this was a period of experimentation, not just with styles and arrangements, but also with pedals and amp settings, I thought why not, and brought the Fenders along as well. I had no idea what I was in for. About the only thing that didn’t come as a surprise was that all of a sudden I was fighting the guitar a lot more. I very consciously did not alter the amp settings other than upping the gain a bit. Trills and legato predictably became a lot more difficult, and it was tough to flow across the fretboard the way I’m accustomed to. My left hand was cramping up after 15 minutes. The cleans, of course, sounded amazing. Everything involving distortion required a bit of an adjustment, which I was well aware of going into the experience. I concluded that it was a worthwhile experiment, fun and a bit different, not life-changing but also not too frustrating.
The big change happened when I listened back to the tapes. There was a section in one of the jams where the bass player and drummer held down a groove, and then I came in and punctuated with big open chords on the Telecaster. I could hardly believe what I was hearing! The guitar just crashed through with this super-punchy, fantastically clear crunch tone. I had to hear that again live in the room! The Telecaster accompanied me to the next rehearsal, and sure enough: there it was again. Just enough crunch to facilitate hard rock riffing, but tons of clarity and definition.
I have to do this every once in a while to remind myself. More distortion does not equate to more sound. Actually, it is quite the reverse. Less distortion means that more of the actual guitar tone is permitted to poke through. Less compression means that my playing dynamics are preserved to a higher degree. I play at full volume, which takes care of the sustain. The only thing I have to do is make sure that I am good enough. If I keep my chops up, I don’t have to rely on distortion and compression as a crutch. Should I need that extra push for a fill or a lead, then there’s always the overdrive pedal to kick it up a notch.
The best thing with this discovery is that I’ve gained back a whole lot of control over my tone. I can get a whole range of sounds just by altering my pick attack. A clean sound is never farther away than a quarter turn of the volume knob on the guitar. Should I wish to soften it up further, I can just flick the pickup switch and use the neck and bridge together. Nowadays, the channel switcher for my amp is just a bypass button that I use between songs to get rid of the hiss.
This has led to a major shift in my playing habits. Before 2019, I spent about 80% of my playing time on the black Les Paul. Now, my three Fenders share about 90%. Just as expected, it’s felt really weird to come back to the flatter fretboard and shorter scale length of the Gibsons. What did surprise me is how quickly I adjusted to dialing in sounds for single-coils. Everything sounds muddy and honky with the humbuckers now! Interestingly enough, I have come to appreciate my second Les Paul a lot more, the one with the P-90s. It sounded oddly similar to the black one while riffing at home on low volume, but at rehearsal levels, the differences became big enough to throw me off. After I’ve gone over to Fenders, the 90s have felt a lot more familiar and natural.
After this much playing time with my Fenders, including the third one that found its way into my collection in August, 2019, I have come to an interesting conclusion. The Telecaster just works. For the kind of music that we’ve been creating, it is a perfect match. Mine never fails to get me that sound and feel, it has yet to let me down. I have often thought that a Tele is less subtle and above all less flexible than a Strat, but I don’t agree with that anymore. I find myself missing the Tele neck + bridge combination on a Stratocaster way more often than I miss any of the classic Strat pickup selections on the Tele. A cleanish sound, some modulated delay and the middle position on my Telecaster and I am just gone for hours. It is that inspiring. I can make other sounds on a Strat that are nice as well, but not that nice. It is odd to think that I would become a Tele guy in my middle age!
The more I play on these guitars, the more satisfied I am with the noiseless DiMarzio pickups in the yellow Strat (three Area 58s) and in the Tele (Area Ts). The question I keep returning to isn’t whether I should get noiseless pickups for the blue Strat, but which ones to get. I seem to recall a notion to keep the single-coils in there, but I quickly reconsidered. Our rehearsal space has a major shielding issue, and it feels like the single-coil hum out of my amp is actually louder than the notes that I play. When I first started the band, I was still entertaining the notion of getting a Player Stratocaster of some kind. For a while there, I gravitated towards an HSS, i.e. with a humbucker in the bridge position. It is still a pretty good compromise for those that prefer the Fender feel but a somewhat fatter Gibson-type sound. The only thing I don’t particularly like with it is that it spoils the look of a Stratocaster. However, after making the aforementioned discoveries, going with that rear single-coil felt like the proper choice and not just a compromise driven by conservatism and aesthetics. What I have noticed is that the Area 58 in the bridge position of my Stratocaster has a touch less output than the Area T in the same slot on the Tele. It isn’t much, but it is there, I think about it, and then I immediately go into solution mode. Getting a single-space rails humbucker is out of the question, mainly because I just don’t need that much juice. A stacked humbucker will do nicely. So currently I am vacillating between the Area 61 and the Virtual Vintage Heavy Blues. The ‘61 is just a touch hotter than the ‘58, and DiMarzio themselves recommend the 61-67-58 combination, but the VVHB has the same mV output as my Tele bridge pickup. Will it be too hot and spanky for the Stratocaster? There is only one way to find out. At least the clean sounds are beyond the scope of these discussions. Fenders in all honor, but I generally try to avoid the bridge pickup entirely when playing with cleanish tones.