Evolution of a Guitar: The Red Strat

Very nearly everything about the guitar has been replaced over time, and it's an interesting case study in experimentation and customization of a guitar.  I've changed things, then changed them again as my tastes changed or I acquired new knowledge about parts or wiring or as I wanted to achieve a sound I wasn't quite getting.

v.0: Basic low-end Stratocaster

I paid about $250 for this.  It came with stock Fender pickups.  (I'm not knocking these as I happened to think cheap pickups actually have a lot of character, just not much output and usually a bad hum as well.)  The neck was unfinished (or perhaps lightly finished) maple with very cheap tuners.  It also happened to some very ugly wood grain lines going on in here that made it less than the most aesthetically-pleasing neck you're ever going to find, but I could live with that.

v.1 Modded electronics

I was just getting into guitar electronics at the time I bought this guitar, and so it wasn't too long before I made a few basic alterations to the wiring without upgrading the pickups.
High-pass capacitor on the master volume pot.  This keeps the highs from dropping out when you turn the volume down.

Phase switch on middle pickup.  These are really useful for getting another couple sounds out of a stock Strat.  Very bright and clanky on a clean signal; sharp and biting through distortion.

Neck pick-up add-in.  This gets you two additional combinations: N+B and all three pickups.  David Gilmour has added this to his guitar at times, and a lot of copies of his instruments have it as well, though I didn't know that at the time I installed it.

Added a varitone in place of the second tone knob.  This model was from (the now-defunt) Gribblin Engineering.  It originally came on a long-shaft rotary switch with a chickenhead pointer knob.  I hate altering the stock appearance of guitars (see my page on Principles of Guitar Modification), so I cut the shaft shorter and filed it down to accommodate a Strat knob.  It wasn't perfect, but it worked well enough.  It also got some interesting tones that really impressed me.

The version with these mods in it can be seen on the Red Strat v.1 page.

v.2 Pseudo-Clapton Strat

My first guitar was the black Strat (covered in a couple incarnations on this site), and while it made the most sense to turn that into a version of the Clapton model, I didn't want to swap out the guts of it.  The red Strat was bought with a mind toward turning it into a Gilmour clone, but when I bought the EMG DG20 signature set, it didn't look very good in a red guitar.  The DG20 was inexplicably stocked with ivory pickups (which Dave never uses) and a pearloid pickguard (which, again, Dave never uses).  In spite of the name, this was not exactly a signature set, but whatever.

I bought the creme Strat mainly to house the now-hot-rodded guts of the red Strat, only it didn't work out that way.  The DG20 set looked best with the creme Strat (which also happened to have a very glossy neck like Dave's red '57 reissue), so I put it in that.

Though he's more famous for the black Strat(s), Clapton has sometimes played a torino red one like this as well, so I decided to finally turn this guitar into a version of his '80s and '90s signature Strat.

Gold Lace Sensor pickups.  I think these were incredible, and most people seem to overwhelmingly prefer these to Fender's "Vintage Noiseless" crap pickups that replaced the Sensors in Clapton's signature model in later years.

TBX tone control, etc. but not the Clapton preamp.  I didn't get the preamp until these guts had migrated over to the black Strat and this guitar became v.3.  This tone control can function like a regular tone knob, but also can add a small (but noticeable) amount of brightness.

Phase switch.  I'm not certain I had this mod on this incarnation, but I almost always include a phase switch on any Strat I can include one on since they're very interesting and useful additions.

Routed the body for a battery.  I'm not sure when I did this.  I believe I experimented with a preamp (though not the Clapton model) sometime in here, although I also did in the black Strat.  I may not have routed this until I needed to for the active pickups.

Many of the above mods (and probably a few others) are detailed on the Black Strat v.2 page.  I can't remember just which elements of the wiring were present when it was in the various transitional phases during this period.

I should also note that the pickguard isn't the original to the guitar, although I couldn't tell you when or why I got a new one.  I think it may have been from the creme Strat when I installed the Gilmour EMG set into it years before, although I can't be certain.  All I know is that not all of the holes in it lined up exactly with the screw holes in the body.  I just left those without screws most of the time, but I more recently took the time to drill new holes to match the current pickguard.

v.3 David Gilmour clone

I eventually decided to part with the creme Strat and turn the red guitar into a Gilmour clone.  The later was always the plan, but I had been hanging onto one guitar with a set of original cheap stock Fender pickups.  At this point I only wanted one Clapton-clone and one based on Dave's red guitar, so I got rid of the creme one.  I moved the Lace Sensor set-up to the black Strat, appropriately enough.  It was well on its way to becoming a clone of Clapton's signature production model "Blackie"; as I said above, the Clapton preamp was added to the black Strat once the rest of the guts were in place.
EMG SA pickups + SPC and EXG preamps.  This is the classic Gilmour set-up, only I bought the pickups in white and the two preamps separately instead of getting another DG20 package deal.  In fact, I didn't know it when I did this, but by this time (mid-2000s?) the DG20 had incorporated the SPC and EXG preamps onto one board so they couldn't be separated.  It's apparently a cost-cutting technique on their part, but it's an inconvenience if you ever go this route and decide to modify or abandon one of the preamps or the other (which I eventually did; see below).

Attempted to gloss the neck with hardware-store clear coat spray.  This worked well enough, but there was some checking in the finish almost from the start, possibly because of the conditions under which I sprayed it or maybe my technique or even the material itself.  I have no idea.  It held up for several years, although it doesn't compare to a professionally done job.

New tuners.  The cheap original tuners were replaced with vintage-style Klusons like you see on the '57 reissues or the aforementioned Blackie.  These also happened to work really, really well and one of the sets I had on here were among the best tuners I had on any instrument.

This was one point in the evolution.  I'm not sure what the story was here, but probably when I was trying to troubleshoot the problem with it grounding out.

Note the original tremolo.  You can also see that I have the pickups labeled with tape as N, M, and B to keep them straight.

One of these days I need to install a battery box in this guitar so I don't have to deal with loosening all the strings and unscrewing the pickguard just to check if I have a dead battery.

v.4 Moving beyond the clone

I considered finishing the metamorphosis into Dave's guitar by simply getting a candy apple '57 reissue and just dropping the parts into it, but 1) I didn't want yet another guitar and set of pickups sitting around and 2) I frankly don't like the glittery look of the candy apple red as much as I do the glossy torino color.  I settled for getting just a new neck, but that pushed it in a new direction as soon as I played it.  The guitar went from being simply an approximation of Gilmour's Strat to being one of my main instruments, so I no longer felt like it had to conform strictly to his specs.  I decided to make the guitar how I felt it should be.

Note that these upgrades weren't performed all at the same time, but were all part of the same evolving vision for this guitar.

New neck.  This was from a Japanese '57 reissue.  The gorgeous gloss looks great and feels incredible.  Add to that the fact that it even affected the tone positively, something I didn't expect.  The neck came with its own Kluson vintage-style tuners, but these may be swapped out later as I don't feel that they're as tight as the replacements I had added earlier and then removed with the old neck.  Those are still on the original neck in my closet.  (Update: The good set of tuners went on a Telecaster I made into a version of the '52 style.  I probably should have put them on the this guitar since I play it more than the Tele.)

Replaced the trem.  The cheap original trem was swapped for a vintage-style trem from a Mexican Strat.  The part was found on eBay.  The claw is the original that came with the guitar, although I have no idea where the springs might have come from.  (Maybe this guitar, maybe another?  I have a bunch of these in a parts drawer upstairs.)  The trem bar is shared between this guitar and the black Strat (which is what it came with originally).  I never bothered to buy a second arm since I often play the trem by rocking my hand across it, my own weird technique.  Note that I never cut the trem bar shorter as Dave famously does on his Strats.

Removed EXG and added a dummy control.  This wasn't a mod so much as an attempt to trouble-shoot the guitar at one point when something in the circuit was shorting that that the battery was always running out.  It turned out that the EXG wasn't the culprit; an exposed ground wire was, but I had already reassembled the guitar by then, and I really never used the EXG all that much anyway.  In that space I added a pot with a knob on it.  Not wired into anything, just for the sake of appearance.

New pickup selector switch.  No real reason, electronically speaking.  What happened was the original was some off-brand selector that had too wide a shaft to accept conventional selector knobs.  The original knob came off and couldn't be replaced without replacing the entire switch, which I did while wiring in the following couple of electronic additions.

Added a simultaneous pick-up add-in switch (under the vol pot).  I'd previously put add-in switches on other incarnations of this and other Strats, but the simultaneous add-in turns on both the neck and bridge pickups no matter which position you're in, so you don't have to remember which pickup you wired it to add.  (Positions 1 and 5 give you the so-called Tele-sound while the middle three positions give you all three pickups.)

Added a passive tone control.  This took the place of the dummy control that stood in for the EXG.  I felt like I needed something to cut the highs, especially on distorted leads.

New backplate.  The original was lost at some point, and the guitar went without one for a short while.  I've since found the original, but I like this replacement better.  The new one has the vintage-style six string-holes instead of just a single opening.  Not a big deal, but I like the look better, even though honestly the other is easier to work with when changing strings.

New pickguard screws.  Most of the originals were lost during the many mods over the years.  I literally had only three or four remaining to hold the pickguard on, and those weren't even from the same set.  (The heads were visibly different among them.)  I replaced these all with very close approximations of the screws Fender uses, only they were bought a pack of a hundred from the hardware store for a few bucks.

New knobs.  The original set (which probably wasn't even original) were too aged to match the rest of the white plastic on the guitar.  I'm all for "relic" guitars when they get that way naturally, but this looked too mismatched.

The original neck (still attached) next to the new neck, one taken from a Japanese '57 reissue (hardware included).

Two take-away lessons

When does a guitar lose its identity?  At this point it's hard to say that it's even the same guitar anymore.  Literally the only parts that remain are those that are integrally attached to the body.  The neck plate and four screws are original.  Same for the trem claw and two screws holding that in place.  Then there's the strap nuts and the jack plate, although the jack itself was necessarily replaced at the point when I switched to active pickups.  As I mentioned above, I even removed some of the wood in order to accommodate the 9V battery for the preamp/active pickups.  Then there's so much else that's been added in place of everything that I started out with, sometimes multiple times over.  It's not the same guitar anymore, but now it's my guitar.

Why stop with a copy?  Make it your own.  Modeling a guitar after someone is a good starting point, but continue beyond that in directions that appeal to you, even if it means obscuring the "signature" quality of the instrument.  The guitarist you're trying to emulate already has his own guitar that got that way because he followed his own instincts.  If you're going to modify a guitar, make it your signature instrument, not for someone who will never play it.

Copyright Alexplorer.