On the occasion of my (eek) 40th year, the completion of a rather sizable project I'd been working on, and the ongoing project of collecting musical instruments for the kids, I finally bought myself a real guitar. Now, I used to play the bass pretty seriously, both in terms of what my hands could do on the thing and also the size and weight of equipment I had acquired. And I've beeen noodling on my acoustic for years—and especially since the kids were born. But I've always
wanted a strat. So I did it, and am I stoked! I've been playing for several hours each night, something I haven't done in about 15 years. So call it my mid-life crisis if you will. Beats a red sportscar and all that embarrassing shit any day.The Guitar
After somewhat intensive research and digging about, both online and off, I chose a new Fender "Highway 1" strat. I learned that you can pay just about any price you want for a strat, from a hundred bucks right up to several thousand, depending on what it's made of, where it was built (US ones are of course the most prestigious), what components it has, and whether or not it has Hello Kitty graphics. The Highway 1 occupies a spot at the bottom end of the US-made models, or, to put it differently, halfway between the Made-in-Mexico ones and the American Standards. It's US-made out of Mexican parts, or vice-versa, but that's not the important part.
What it is
is a very decent and thoughtfully put together blend of vintage and new features. It beats the Mexican strats on feel (the neck is way nicer) and pickup quality (as far as I can tell, anyway) and a few detail points. It lacks the American Standard's 2-point trem and nicer tuners, but otherwise shares lots of details with its more expensive sibling. It has a 70s-style large headstock, a vintage 6-point trem, real alnico pickups, big fat frets, and a matte "nitro" finish that supposedly makes the body more resonant.
Mine is flat black, with a rosewood neck and a bridge humbucker, and it sounds terrific, with all that great pop and twang that strats do. I have it strung with medium-gauge strings (11s) so I can whack it a little harder, and it feels very
solid. It even stays in tune.The Amp
One of my long-term reasons for wanting a strat is that I inherited my Dad's vintage tweed Champ, which he bought new with a Fender lap steel in about 1970. The serial number and the Internet tell me this amp is from 1961 or 1962. I think one of the tubes had been replaced, but otherwise it's entirely virginal. It has the classic one-knob panel with the on/off/volume that goes up to 12. It has an 8" speaker, runs about 5 watts, and sounds amazing
, especially with those strat pickups. The Champ kind of has one sound (no tone knobs or switches), but it's a really good sound, and the strat is capable of lots of different sounds, so it works very, very well in combination. The 6V6 power tubes (er, tube) distort into a wonderfully ratty overdrive when it's turned up to about 4 or 5, and this setting is actually disturbingly loud, at least in my basement.
The Champ has a long mythical history. Apparently Clapton recorded the original Layla
with one, and I've heard at least rumours that the first few Zeppelin albums were done with nothing more than a telecaster and a Champ. Could be—in any case, the thing sounds absolutely fabulous with the strat.The Stompbox
After more Internet research, I learned that the box I really wanted to round out this rig is an old Ibanez Tube Screamer, a pedal made in the 1970s and 80s that both simulates an overdriven tube amp and can also do a nice job of actually overdriving a tube amp. Trouble is, these things—and especially the old TS-808 models—were apparently what Stevie Ray Vaughan used, and so they go for $375 on eBay. Yikes. There is, thankfully, a whole industry devoted to modifying newer pedals to 808 specs, and so I found one reasonably priced on CraigsList. I am very happy with the pedal. With the Drive knob set to zero, it pretty much maintains the Champ's natural sound, until you whack a chord or a doublestop (and especially with that humbucker) in which case it breaks up very nicely. The Champ makes a hard, round, bell-like tone (especially with the single-coils) and the pedal just makes them crumble. Of course, you can crank the knobs up and pretend to be Green Day too.The Music
So far, I don't think I've produced any music on this rig. It's been far too easy to just knock off blues licks. The strat is so incredibly playable, and the whole rig sounds so nice that I find I can while away an hour without leaving the Strat's sweet spot—between the 5th and 10th frets where all those Hendrixy, John Frusciante-ish sounds live. Noodles aplenty. The sounds it makes are so clear and defined that it is really easy to just wail, and rejoice in the little bits of Hendrix, Knopfler, Santana, and Stevie Ray that seem to just fall out of a rig like this.
Not that I'm really all that into those players; just that those particular tones are kind of low-hanging fruit on a strat and a Fender amp—you have to get past that, I think. So what I'm actually doing, I guess, is learning to play the amplifier, which is an entirely different thing than playing the guitar—the dynamics that pickups and amps and effects boxes produce are a whole different thing, and in that sense, I'm starting from scratch, even though I know my way around the fretboard pretty well. And there's enough scope, sonically, in this simple rig, that I have a long, long way to go before I really know it well.
I need to keep in mind something I learned while playing acoustic guitar: that I play better when I think more about my singing. Which also means paying attention to songs, rather than licks. This is where I go next.