Upgrading from Stratocaster to ???
October 6, 2004 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Gearheads and axe-masters, hear my plea: I want to go from a standard Strat to an ideal guitar in an affordable and sensible manner.

Here's the current situation. I own two electrics: An Epiphone Casino and a 97-ish Mexico Strat. I love the Casino with all my heart, and specifically love the bright, cutting tone of the P90 bridge pickup.

The Strat, however, is a better fit for the rock band I'm in; it's got a more rounded tone (the Casino's bottom end is nothing to write home about) and much better sustain.

But there's nothing about the Strat's tone that I love; it's just sort of adequate. The bridge pickup sound leaves me wanting, and even the middle pickup is just, y'know, there. So I'd like to move from my current Strat setup to something that captures some of the quality of the bridge position on the Casino (bright and sparkly and jumping out there for solo stuff) and has more interesting options for tone up toward the neck pickup(s). And I want to do it on the cheap.

What's a plausible route here? Do I have someone modify the heck out of my Mexico Strat -- cut space for new pickups, rewire it all -- or should I consider a new guitar with something closer to this idealized setup, possible with some (fewer) modifications to THAT?

Please hope me.
posted by cortex to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: One I-don't-know-what-I'm-doing notion I had, for example: with either the Mexico or a new guitar, aim for some custom pickup work to put a P90 at the bridge and a humbucker in the middle position (I really never play the neck position pickup with my current guitars). A friend suggested the further possibility of wiring that middle-position humbucker with a push-pull potentiometer to switch it between humbucking and single-coil modes.

Which sounds, well, neat -- but I have no idea of the practical implications of that sort of thing.

Super bonus sub-question -- I'm in Portland, OR, and when I think guitar-fiddling work, I think 12th Fret. But are they the best folks to go to for custom electric guitar wiring stuff? Or there others as good or better?

Go go gadget askme!
posted by cortex at 3:24 PM on October 6, 2004

I think you're always better off trying to find a guitar that works for you as-is rather than trying to hot-rod something. There are so many differences between the Casino and the Strat – scale-length, neck attachment, body weight and composition – that it's dangerous to assume that this radical surgery is going to give you what you want. And you'll almost definitely devalue your guitar.

Fender makes a P-90-equiped Strat. Why not try to get your hands on one of them?
posted by timeistight at 3:53 PM on October 6, 2004

It's not cheap, but how about a Gibson SG? I have never played so fine a guitar. I don't know if any of the current models come with P-90s, but you can certainly find a used one with P-90s, either on eBay or in local shops. (Honestly, try an SG; I am continually amazed at how natural this guitar feels to play).

As far as the MIM, you might want to consider some hot single-coils for it. Duncan has a whole line of aftermarket single-coils, and they've got sound samples on their website. As a bonus, if you're just putting some new single-coils in there (or single-coil-sized humbuckers, don't forget those!), you can almost certainly do-it-yourself.
posted by uncleozzy at 4:15 PM on October 6, 2004

I'm pretty sure your Strat is already routed with a big-ole ditch underneath the pickguard to accomodate all manner of pickups. Surgery will thus be limited to routing the pickguard, which is cheap and replacable. Before fiddling with pickups, which are kind of pricey, I'd look into replacing the stock tone pots with nice 250k pots. This is much cheaper and you'll want to do it regardless if/when you replace the pickups.

As for pickup selection, cruise over to the Telecaster Discussion Page and visit the Strat forum. You will find all manner of tone geeks discussing modifications at length.

Depending on what sort of tone you're looking for, you may do better by replacing the guitar or some other part of the signal chain. What amps and effects are you using and what sort of tone are you looking for? If you want Carlos Santana tone, you won't be able to get it from a Stratocaster and a Polytone Mini-brute, for example.

Since you mention a lack of bottom end, you might want to ditch the strat. I spent a lot of time trying to get the Social Distortion White Light, White Heat, White Trash tone out of a strat with all manner of pickups. It didn't work. However, a Les Paul does that tonal trick easily.
posted by stet at 4:17 PM on October 6, 2004

Response by poster: stet: for clarification, my complaint about bottom end was regarding my Casino, which is mostly a red-herring in this context.

Thanks for the feedback so far; and I imagine there are more guitar nerds among us yet.
posted by cortex at 4:25 PM on October 6, 2004

No problem, cortex. Still, I'm wondering if there's a well-known recording with an example of the tone you're looking for. That would help to clarify what sort of modifications may be best for you.
posted by stet at 4:37 PM on October 6, 2004

I've done this. I bought a body, a neck, a sweet whammy, pickups and all the other parts and built my dream guitar. It required a moderate amount of skill. Instead, you could get one of these, a pickguard, and some of these pickups, then take it to your local luthier and have him/her do the bridge mount and wiring. It'll still run $300US.
posted by plinth at 6:34 PM on October 6, 2004

Best answer: MexiStrat? That's your tone problem right there. MexiStrats are assembled with cheap import pickups, not the usual Fender pickups found in the American series. The tuners on MexiStrats are nothing to write home about either.

The cheapest overall improvement is to buy a set of quality pickups of the 'single coil' size so you do not need to make any modifications whatsoever to the pickguard or the body. If you can use a soldering iron, you can drop in the new set yourself.

Fender offers replacement pickups with various tones including their high-end Lace pickups. Other manufacturers, like Dimarzio and Carvin, offer humbucking pickups that fit in single-coil routed pickguards if you want a fatter tone.
posted by mischief at 9:40 PM on October 6, 2004

cortex: What amp are you using? Have you tried your Strat through other amps?

Another option is to trade in your Strat for another guitar. You may not get much in trade-in, but then what you do get could be enough to make the upgrade reasonable.

As for the middle pickup tone, many Strat players never go there even with great pickups. However, that is the pickup that gives the fabled Strat 'quack'. I have played Strats for almost 30 years, and only in the last 18 months or so have I really started to get any feel for that pickup. If you want to hear an expert on playing the middle pickup, listen to some Robin Trower. He plays it exclusively.
posted by mischief at 10:10 PM on October 6, 2004

Hey, I'm just full of questions! ;-P

How much pre-amp gain are you using? Single-coils tend to lose what rumble they have as the pre-amp becomes more overloaded. If you want an overdriven sound, try to get your distortion from overdriving the amp section (rather than the preamp) if your amp is tube.
posted by mischief at 7:20 AM on October 7, 2004

Response by poster: Answers:

Amp is a new Fender Deville 2*12 that I'm liking an awful lot. I grew up on solid-state amps that had much brighter but mechanical overdrive sounds, and I'm digging on the warmer feel of the Deville.

Gain settings I'm still playing with. I've been playing with moderate pre-amp gain and lowish power amp volume -- I can certainly experiment with moving that around. (Practically, until we find a practice space other than The Drummer's Basement, we can't really crank the amps.)

And, aye, I've heard complaints about the cheap single coils on the Mexico. Replacing pickups is the thing I'm inclined to do first -- I'll read up on existing single-coil replacement options and see if that's likely to satisfy me.

I appreciate the feedback from everyone. This is one of those situations where I just fundamentally don't know as much as I'd like to about the problem, and questions about the nature of my question are pretty damn helpful in prompting me to look at things I wouldn't have known to look at myself. Rock, as they say, on.
posted by cortex at 9:29 AM on October 7, 2004

Best answer: I'm going to commit the cardinal sin here and answer some questions that I'm not sure you knew enough to ask.

1) You should go to guitargeek.com and ask there. Those guys are great.

2) I believe that it was 1997 when Fender switched from the 'Swimming pool' route under the pickguard (what the above poster called a big ol' ditch) to a standard Hum/single/single route. To understand this let me explain a bit:

a) The pickguard is a slab of plastic affixed to the wood body with screws.

b) Your pickups are attached to the pickguard, not the wood body.

c) They sit in the 'route' which is carved out of the wood body at manufacture time, otherwise they wouldn't fit.

You should take the strings off, take off all the pickguard attachment screws, and look under there to see whatcha got.

3) You can put a P-90 into a strat at the bridge if it has anything but a single-single-single route, and your Mex strat is very unlikely to have this. It entails only a bit of soldering and cutting a bigger hole in the pickguard. For the cost of paying someone to do it you could buy a 40W soldering iron, some rosin core solder, and an exacto knife and do it yourself and still save a few bucks.

4) The right answer for what you want, however, is to go get a set of Lindy Fralin Steelpole 43's and drop these in as replacements for the really abominable pickups that are currently in your guitar. They'll probably cost about as much as the guitar did but they are worth every penny. And the bridge pickup is very P-90-ish.

5) While you have the pickguard off, coat the back of it in copper tape for shielding purposes, as higher-output singlecoils tend to be a bit noisy.

6) You want a copy of Dan Erlewine's How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great. Anyone who owns two guitars is long past the point at which they need to own this book too.

Hope this helped. Feel free to email me - my username at livejournal - with more questions.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:17 AM on October 7, 2004

Great amp for clean tone, cortex. The downside is Fender's designs don't break up on the power amp side until you push past 8 or 9.

Given that, changing pickups is probably both your cheapest option AND most likely option to show vast improvement.
posted by mischief at 12:53 PM on October 7, 2004

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