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How the Stratocaster sounds and why?

How the Stratocaster sounds and why?
24 January 2020 Cecca Guitars
Comment sonne la Stratocaster et pourquoi ? Photo Stephen Niemeier

How does a Stratocaster sound? Or more specifically: Why does a Stratocaster sound this way, with that slamming and characteristic shine? We could also ask the question for different models of guitar. The Les Paul, Gibson’s ES-335, the Telecaster, also have their signature sound.

The sonic particularity of each instrument depends directly on the way guitars are constructed as well as the woods and components used.
So let’s go into detail for this icon of music electrified since 1954.

Which Stratocaster?

We can note that there are several periods and many different models in the Stratocaster’s life. Consequently, the sound of a strat varies a lot depending on the period and the models. Double windings, Floyd Rose vibrato, exotic woods: every variation are possible for this instrument which was thought, by its creator Leo Fender, to be modular. We will focus here on models from the 1950s to the late 1960s.

Stratocaster Sunburt touche érable de 1958
Comment sonne la Stratocaster et pourquoi ? Photo Stephen Niemeier

The wood

Two original species were used to make a Stratocaster: the alder for the body and the maple for the neck.

The body’s alder will transmit the different frequencies in a fairly balanced way. the rendering will therefore be rather neutral. As for the maple, it will bring out the treble. The rosewood fingerboard that you will find a little later in the sixties will bring a little more roundness to the sound.

Body/neck junction

Fender guitars are characterized by the use of a neck screwed to the body (bolt on), unlike Gibson which uses glued necks (set in). This assembly option will allow great modularity, facilitate production, especially later when CBS will launch industrial production in the 70s, but also reduce the sustain of the instrument.

La jnction corps/manche d'une stratocaster. Le manche vissé sur le corps, vu de l'arrière
Bloc chevalet/Vibrato flottant d'une Stratocaster

The bridge/tremolo bloc

A Stratocaster has a very specific vibrato which includes the bridge with bridges adjustable in distance for intonation and height (unlike Gretsch and Gibson equipped with Bigsby with on one side the vibrato block and on the other the Tune bridge) o-matic). The floating nature of this vibrato reduces the overall sustain of the instrument (sustain: the lifespan of a note).

The pickups

Stratocaster characterizes it from this point of view by the use of 3 single coil pickups. Magnets are in the center of the copper wire coil, unlike the P90 (the direct competitor of the time) where the 2 magnets are under the coil. The coil is higher than that of a P90 and the number of turns less important (approximately 8000), the surface of the microphone is thus rather narrow. As the magnetic field is therefore narrower, a fine, slightly hollow and very open sound is obtained. These microphones have a relatively moderate output level which makes them perfect for use in clean and crunch sound.

The first models will quickly be monopolized by the Surf music players who have taken advantage of this slamming. While the structure of single coil pickups is always the same, the different components have varied over the years. We will analyze here the first two periods.

First period : the 50's

When the Stratocaster was born, the microphones consist of an Alnico 3 magnet and Heavy Formvar wire. The Alnico is an alloy mainly of Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt except … the Alnico 3 which does not have Cobalt. This magnet is characterized by a fairly low magnetic power (and therefore also an output level) and will put the medium more forward.

If the copper wire used for the winding is always the same, it is the material of the coating, the insulation, which varies. The first to be used is the Heavy Formvar, until 1964. From an acoustic point of view, it will put the treble forward. It is easily recognizable by its fairly light orange color. It is an alliance of Alnico 3 and Heavy Formvar yarn is the true sound signature of the Stratocasters from 1954 to 1964.

Second period : 1965 to early 70's

In 1965, under the direction of CBS, new owner of Fender, the microphones of the stratocasters were modified. The magnet chosen is an Alnico 5, more powerful and brighter. The winding is made with a copper wire called “Plain Enamel”, brown / red, then used by Gibson for its P90s and Humbuckers. The latter brings warmth to the sound while the Alnico 5 magnet will increase the output level. It’s the sound of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.