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Editorial: Signature Guitars

Our desire with the whole Signature Series was to build the guitars exactly the way the artists play them. We didn’t just want to build something that everybody was going to buy and then the artist had to have his different.

Dan Smith, Fender, from A.R. Duchossoir’s The Fender Stratocaster, 3rd ed., 1988.

Undoubtedly, this was a dig at Gibson and Les Paul. It is well known that Paul did not want an archtop electric guitar, but a flat top, and he wanted the maple/mahogany proportions in the body reversed, so Gibson made them special for him. That’s all fine, I suppose. But what about Fender? Have they gone the way Dan Smith intended? You can just take a look at their website, at the two different Eric Clapton signature models. One for the general public, and a Custom Shop version, exactly like the one E.C. himself plays on stage, which is different. Okay.

I am not a great fan of Trivium, but I am impressed with Matt Heafy’s attitude towards signature guitars. I always wondered why such a comparatively high-profile player would settle with an Epiphone when he could probably have arranged a signature model with Gibson. The answer turns out to be that the guy wants the people who enjoy his music to be able to afford one! I think this is a very nice way of looking at it. People write a lot of shit on message boards, but occasionally, you do run across nice people with interesting things to say. Someone once commented that it’s us¬†regular hobbyists and amateurs, Clapton, Slash and Petrucci fans, who get ripped off, so that Gibson, Fender and Music Man can continue supplying free instruments to already filthy-rich rock stars. And probably tack on royalty money to boot.

My favorite electric guitar is the Gibson Les Paul, so I probably have no right whatsoever to say this, but I am not overly fond of signature equipment. I think it’s a matter of association: I want to be myself and to have others see me as myself and not as some wannabe. And I also wouldn’t want to use something featuring the signature of an artist whose works I do not particularly enjoy – again, the association thing. I could never step on a Mark Tremonti phaser pedal because I don’t want to send him royalty money, and I don’t want a Petrucci or Hetfield guitar because I don’t want to be regarded as a wannabe.

 
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Posted by on 7 November, 2014 in editorial, gear

 

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Review: The Fender Stratocaster

It is all too easy to take the Stratocaster for granted. I know for sure that I did. It took several years with other makes and models to realize just how ingenious this design is, how amazingly right Mr Fender got it back in 1954. It is even more unbelievable when you put it into its historical context and conclude that the perfect rock and roll guitar existed almost before there was rock and roll!

The most striking thing with the Stratocaster is that something so beautiful can be so utterly functional and sound so bloody good, all at the same time. There is nothing that is out of proportion on this guitar, and still there is little about it that is merely decorative. The form follows the function – and how! It might have been a space-age instrument back in 1954, but the more “modern” models they brought out to complement and possibly even replace it look hopelessly dated and outmoded today. The Stratocaster is simply timeless. And that’s before you’ve even picked it up! When you do, you find that it just melds into your body. Every control is in the right place – close enough to your picking hand that you can adjust stuff on the fly, but far enough away that you don’t accidentally change settings.

My Stratocaster is a 1996 American Standard with a rosewood fretboard. The finish is called Vintage White, which is a very vintage white indeed, since it has the deep yellow color of butter or vanilla. It was love at first sight, in spite of the rosewood fretboard, which I am not a fan of. (My aunt’s late husband preferred rosewood, and when he went looking for a used Stratocaster, we almost made a deal that if he found one with a maple neck, we would swap necks with each other.) I don’t use the vibrato, so I tighten the vibrato springs as far as I can and put the vibrato arm away. Then I’ve replaced the pickups with a DiMarzio set (Super Distortion S in the bridge, Area 58 in the middle and Air Norton S in the neck), just because that fits my temperament and playing style so much better than the stock Stratocaster pickups. Maybe if I got a second Stratocaster I would restore my 1996 Miss Vanilla to factory specs including setting her up for vibrato arm use.

One of the main reasons why I got so hot under the collar about my Stratocaster was the tiniest, most insignificant detail: that it had the old 50s style logo. It was the missing piece, the final little thing that made a good guitar design great. Personally, I think that the 1986 to 2008 American Standard/Series was the pinnacle of Stratocaster development. Mr Fender didn’t leave much room for improvement (it’s pretty much a matter of taste and application what you think about the single-coil pickups), still they did manage to tweak the Stratocaster just enough to make me prefer modern instruments to their elders. They flattened the neck radius from 7.25″ to 9.5″, added bigger fretwire as well as a 22nd fret. They improved the electronics slightly, including a reverse polarity middle pickup that acts in humbucking fashion when you select the “in-between” positions. My favorite feature, though, has to be the powdered stainless steel bridge saddles. No more snagging your right palm on the protruding set screws, no more rust, no more gathering of dust. And then you eliminate that funky 80s logo and go back to the original. The end result is a modern-speced guitar that looks just like the original to all but the most discerning eyes. That’s why I don’t do vintage reissue. And as for reliced or “road-worn” instruments, I prefer to start from a fresh sheet and be in control of that process myself.

Oh, and one last thing: I thoroughly dislike the ‘Strat’ nickname and consequently try my best not to use it. It’s an ugly word that doesn’t even have the redeeming feature of being inherently funny.

 
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Posted by on 17 February, 2014 in gear, review

 

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Review: The Fender Telecaster

The Fender Telecaster was the first electric guitar I fell in love with, at the tender age of five. It had everything to do with the Tele-wielding duo of Parfitt and Rossi from Status Quo, whose music I greatly admired at the time. (Actually, I still think it’s great music if you want good unpretentious rock and roll. And I have to admit to still wanting a white Tele with a black pickguard.)¬†Others my age drew horses and figure skaters, houses and cars, whereas yours truly picked up the crayon in order to trace the contours of the Fender Telecaster. I might have discovered the Stratocaster not long after that, and developed an even stronger affinity for that model, but that doesn’t change the effect that the Telecaster still has on me. There is something about it that still speaks to me almost on a visceral level, and I have devoted a lot of thought to what it might be.

One idea is that this guitar brings with it a certain sense of getting down to the root, the original source. But the answer doesn’t lie far beneath the surface. The Telecaster is the epitome of elegant simplicity. Let’s face it: it isn’t really much more than a roughly band-sawn plank of wood with a guitar neck stuck on there almost like an afterthought. But that is precisely what makes it so attractive. It is unassuming and unpretentious and as a result it is just so charming.

Leo Fender invented the Stratocaster as an improvement of the Telecaster, and it manages to be one in basically every imaginable way. Still it does not supplant it. The sisters are similar, and yet so unlike each other. It is amazing that the Tele is approaching retirement age and still manages to be relevant. How many other commercial products from the late 1940s are still going strong today?

My Telecaster is a 2008 American Standard with a maple neck and ash body, finished in 2-tone sunburst. I bought it new in Boston in May of that year. It cannot have been in the store for very long when I discovered it. Not only is the neck dated March 12, I simply cannot see how someone would walk past such a wonderfully beautiful instrument and not pick it up and bring it home. It is easily one of the most spectacular guitars I have seen, let alone owned. There is one thing in particular that I like about it, and that is the perfect combination of a vintage look and modern features. I am going to go off on that riff a bit more in my upcoming Stratocaster review, but let’s just say that my Telecaster has all the modern stuff that I like (a flatter neck with more and bigger frets). Still, it looks traditional enough that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 50s bandstand.

 
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Posted by on 17 February, 2014 in gear, review

 

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