Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster

fender strat
fender strat tree
fender strat body
fender strat back

Let me start this off by saying I love Strats and I hate 'em.  They can be a great sounding guitar - if you can find one.  Fender guitars are notorious for being inconsistent.  You can audition ten Fender guitars in a store and some sound good, some play good, but not both.  I don't have the patience to sort through a rack of guitars to find a good one.  I managed to land a really good Jazz Bass guitar, but good Strats or Teles seem to be fewer and farther between.  A discriminating guitar player that I know echoed the same disappointment - and he worked at a store for years that carried Fenders.  He owns a real sweet vintage Tele, but has yet to find a Strat worth buying.

So I gave up on finding a Fender guitar for years.  My Epiphone Genesis fit my needs since 1984.  Then I was going through a phase where I wanted some more variety of guitar tones, which the first step toward that goal was acquiring my Vox Valvetronix amp.  The Genesis was a nice sounding guitar, but a bit hard to play.

Then I spotted an ad for a vintage guitar show here in lowly Owego NY - of all places.  I decided to check it out.  Not much of a show to boast about (although I enjoyed socializing with the folks there), but this piece caught my eye.

I had never heard of a set neck Strat with mahogany body before.  My preference lean toward glued-in necks because they stay in tune better, so this got my attention.  But I was out of work, out of money, so I didn't think any more of it.  When I got a job a month later, I went back to the store that displayed that Strat at the show and auditioned it.

I was quite impressed - at last here was a Strat that both sounded AND played good.  That meant more to me then the fact it was a custom shop guitar with pretty artsy woods.  It has medium jumbo frets and an ebony fingerboard, the action is nice and fast, and has a satin finish neck (I don't like the "stickiness" of lacquer finishes).   The body is mahogany with a bookmatched quilted maple top - I always liked Les Pauls, so here was a Strat with similar body construction.  Combined with the set neck, it had the sustain of a Gibson with the twang of a good Strat.

The bridge pickup is a Seymour Duncan Jeff Beck model split coil humbucker while the middle/neck are Fender Texas Special single coils.  The custom shop added a mini-toggle switch that toggles the bridge pickup between single coil and humbucker.  This piece sports an interesting "midrange" control in addition to the standard tone control - it combines the neck and bridge pickups that creates a midrange boost with bass cut.  With the control all the way up, it barks like a Gibson - all the way down, it twangs like a Fender.  Now this is tone variety.  It works best with the bridge pickup, is very subtle with the neck pickup, and is totally ineffective with the middle pickup.  Between the pickups, the tone controls, and the coil switch I was able to get a wide variety of tones.  Coupled with my Vox Valvetronix, it made the amp come alive.

The guitar has an American Standard deluxe vibrato tailpiece with pop-on whammy bar and stainless steel saddles, Wilkenson roller nut, and Schaller locking tuning keys.  I can bottom out the vibrato and it comes back in perfect tune - try that on a production Strat!  I was surprised of the total lack of string trees on the headstock, but with the sustain offered by the ebony fingerboard and mahogany/maple top coupled with the locking tuning keys, string trees aren't needed!  The pearl pickguard looks nice with the quilted maple top.

The Certificate of Authenticity states that the guitar was built in December 1993 at the Fender Custom Shop in Corona California.  It had no signs of wear at all on the guitar, leading me to believe that it sat unsold in the store.  On the contrary - its original owner bought it for over $4,000 and then put it away as an investment, having never played it.  He didn't get his investment back, as I bought it for less than a fifth what he paid for it!  I am told that there were about 100 of these guitars made.  It's a very unusual guitar, but plays and sounds exceptionally well.

I was tempted to get gold plated hardware with the idea that it would look classy with the quilted maple top.  Then I saw exactly that guitar on the 'bay - to be honest it didn't look that great, the gold hardware/maple top actually clashed.  The chrome hardware with the maple top looks better, so the guitar stays as it is.

Strings make a significant difference - I've been experimenting with different gauges and makes.  When I bought the guitar I immediately changed the strings, but it felt and played different.  I wanted to find out what it was strung with, whatever it had they sounded and played real good.  0.046-0.010s were a bit heavy, 0.042-0.009s are way too thin in tone and playability.  I'm finding I like 0.046s for low E while 0.010s didn't feel right.  I found that Fender 0.046-0.009s definitely felt like the original gauges, but they sure seem to be a popular set as most stores I visited were out of stock of them.  I like the Fender strings, but am experimenting with D'addarios and GHS Boomers of the same gauges.  DRs did not sound very good and weren't good for vibrato tailpieces, but they make much better bass strings.

Guitar is not my main instrument (I leave the glory to my brother, I actually play keyboards) but I know enough about amps and guitars to know the good ones.  I don't make a habit of checking out guitars in stores, but once in a while I stumble onto one and my instinct tells me to check it out.  Every guitar I own was a happy product of that instinct.  When you find a good guitar, you don't let it get away - and they almost did, as shortly after I bought them the store owner had another customer come in ready to buy them. 

Good Strats are quite rare, and my Epiphone Genesis has been feeling neglected since I picked up this beauty.  But there is a use for both, as one can get sounds the other cannot.  I sold my Mesa Boogie MkIIa because it was redundant after I got my Vox Valvetronix - but the Epiphone guitar isn't redundant so I'll be keeping both guitars.  Nonetheless, this Strat is one of the best finds I have made and it will have a home for a good long time.

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