How to Hot-Rod Your Strat For Under $20 a Week

The Strat Chronicles (or how I modified my Strat for $12.50 a week)

PART ONE

My mission was to take my Strat and modify it, so there’s no 60-cycle hum, as well as beefing up the sound a bit, all while maintaining the standard Strat appearance.

I budgeted myself just $12.50 a week. It’s been an adventure, and a long one at that, so I decided to chronicle my experiences, and share them to show how a little money over a long time, and staying focused, can yield substantial results. Hopefully I can share some of my experiences with you, and maybe offer some advice or things to consider when taking on a task like this.

PART TWO

The first thing I wanted to do was to beef up the sound of my Strat without preamps or any other onboard gizmos. So, I ordered a new pickguard with a Hendrix-style reverse angle on the bridge pickup. Jimi used to take a right-handed Strat, flip it over, re-string it and play. The pickup angle is reversed, the pickup pole pieces are backwards, and now the low “E” string is a lot longer from the reversed headstock, and the high “E” string is shorter. This created a unique configuration that a right-handed Strat player just couldn’t copy unless they got a lefty Strat, and strung it up right-hand style.  All of these things together made it sound a bit different from a normal Strat, in fact Hendrix preferred right handed Strats vs. left handed ones. I’m not looking to emulate Hendrix, but I’ve been around enough to know that this change might make a slight difference in sound, which also wouldn’t be permanent, since a pickguard is super easy to swap in or out.

One problem: my ’50s reissue has vintage style routings for a normal angled pickup, so I needed to get the slot under the pickguard carved out for this new angle. I’m not a purist, and this isn’t a rare guitar, plus the new cavity would be covered by a pickguard. Thankfully I had Jon Mouradian at Mouradian Guitar Co. on my side.  He did the cut, and it came out wonderfully.

Does it sound different? Yes. Slightly less top-end chime on the higher strings, a bit tighter low-end response on the bass strings, and the mids seem to feel a bit chunkier. To clarify, I did this mod on its own, so this was done with the existing Sheptone pickups, which are true single coils, so I still had that humming issue. Did it sound Hendrix like? No. But it did help achieve a few things that I was trying to do sound-wise, basically making the bridge position a bit fuller.

Funny thing is, a few months after I did this modification, Fender came out with a right-handed Strat with the Hendrix configurations I mentioned earlier. I knew I was on the right track if I was a step ahead of Fender!

PART THREE

The 60-cycle hum. I could have put a noise gate on a pedalboard; I used one in the past, and didn’t like what it did to my tone. So, hum cancelling single coils were the way to go. Here’s a hum cancelling single coil primer, as told to me years ago from a Seymour Duncan tech: The stacked single coils will generally sound more like a single coil pickup, as the magnetic fields are on top of each other. The bladed kinds will sound more like a humbucker, as their magnetic fields are side by side, like a traditional humbucker, just in single coil dimensions. Now the problem is nailing down the tone you want.

I had some DiMarzio HS3 hum cancelling stacked pickups in the past in another guitar, so I was sold on that configuration.  I wanted to keep the Strat looking stock, with the usual 6 pole piece look. These days there are hundreds of pickup manufactures so it’s easy to get overwhelmed with decisions.

Thankfully in the age of YouTube, there are plenty of demos of various pickups. Some videos are professionally done by manufacturers or magazines, some homemade. The sound quality varies, as well as the method of miking up an amp, and of course the player, so a huge grain of salt must be taken when using these as a basis for pickup selection.  Forums are also a good resource, but one man’s trash is another’s treasure, so again a grain of salt is required. It wasn’t easy to land on my final choices, but the process was interesting and overwhelming at the same time, and was probably the toughest part of the whole project.

All the while I was doing my research, I was squirreling money into that separate savings account. It wasn’t easy to land on my choices, but when I finally did, there was a sense of relief. Now all I needed was for the money to catch up with my decision.

For the record, I decided upon Seymour Duncan’s; the Custom Hot Stack for the bridge, a Classic Strat Plus for the middle and the Vintage Hot Stack for the neck.

PART FOUR

My Strat kept staring at me, saying “fix me, play me, and use me” but my guitar fund was still a bit shy of getting all three pickups at the same time. I was 12 weeks (6 paychecks) into saving up for my new pickups, but still $75 shy of getting all three at the same time, so I rationalized it all out; I never really use the middle pickup on its own. So, I opted to make this install a multi stage operation. I could buy the neck and Bridge pickup, wait to buy the middle one, and in the meantime, I would be able to play my Strat. I would be noise and hum free, at least in the neck and bridge positions.

It’s tough; support a local store at the cost of convenience, or go to the internet and get what you want with no problem. I defaulted to Amazon. I still try to give a local shop my money, if they have what I’m looking for in stock. At this stage in my game, a lot of shops don’t stock what I want/need, and in a sense, I’m not that important, because at this point I have pretty much everything I want/need, gear-wise, and really don’t buy more than strings on a regular basis now, maybe some cables every other year, etc. So to a store, I’m not a regular customer, and since I don’t buy “off the rack,” I’m probably more of a problem to a store than I’m worth.

So, while I couldn’t find a local retailer for the pickups, I did have a local repair guy to do the install. For the past 6 years I’ve been going to Mouradian for all my repairs and setups.  He did notice that the new bridge pickup was slightly bigger, and needed some more carving in the pickup routing area. After making sure the pickups were in phase, meaning no thin-ness or volume drop in positions 2 & 4, I was set.

Mouradian’s shop is super busy, so I opted to have them just do the pickup install, no setup or re-stringing, which I was fine with. I went home and re-strung it (with the only pack of strings I had in the house), only to realize I forgot to install a new item I purchased: a cavity electronics shield. Emerson Electronics makes a shield that fits over the control knobs, and 5-way switch, acting as an additional ground to eliminate hum. I was bummed I forgot to install it, as I’d have to remove the strings to install it properly. I figured I’d play it for a bit, then install the shielding plate in a week or so. Even better, I’d find out if the shielding plate actually does what they say it’s supposed to, or if the pickups’ own noise cancelling goodness was doing all the work. Changing one variable at a time to really see what each change actually makes really opened my eyes, even if it added a step to the now multi-step install process I was knee-deep in. 

PART FIVE

So, with a new neck and bridge pickup installed, I was happy. The neck pickup reminds me of the Texas Specials with plenty of creaminess and bigness, with no noise. The bridge pickup feels tighter, but that may be because of the new pickguard’s reverse angle. It has plenty of cut and overall depth for what I like. I may have to compare it against a normal angle pickguard in the future. It cut through my singer’s humbucking rhythm guitar sound, which is pretty beefy on its own, all the while making its own space in the mix. Then a problem occurred; the volume pot died. No one to blame here; parts wear out, in this case it physically was jammed up, and now cutting out.

So, after that was fixed, I put on a set of D’Addario NYXL 10’s. Since I started playing at age 14, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve tried other strings; D’Addario’s have never let me down. These are a new design of strings, and I have to say I really like them. They’re about twice the price of normal XLs, but I think they may be my new standard string!

With a fixed pot, Emerson shielding plate, and new strings, I was back in business. The verdict? The Emerson plate does cut down the hum on a noticeable amount, so for $10 it’s worth it! Positions 2 and 4 aren’t as noisy, and position 3 is the noisiest one, as it’s a pure single coil, but it does make a difference, and for any Strat player, I’d suggest this!

The next step is the middle pickup, and modifying the switching.

PART SIX

While I was able to get the neck & bridge pickups done quickly, I knew that by the time I had the cash to finish off the Strat it would need a real setup, so I made this final phase of this project one that had to be really planned out, as I was making some rather un-Strat like mods. Here’s the rundown for the final phase:

  1. Install middle pickup.
  2. New 5-way switch (Mega Switch)
  3. New switching configuration:
  4. Position 1-neck pickup only
  5. Position 2-neck and middle pickups
  6. Position 3-neck and bridge pickups (like a Telecaster)
  7. Position 4-middle and bridge pickup
  8. Position 5-bridge pickup only
  9. New control knob configuration:
  10. volume knob (master)
  11. tone knob (neck)
  12. tone knob (bridge pickup)

The switching choice was a little odd. I never use the middle pickup alone. I know there are a lot of people that really think that’s the main clean Strat sound, but I’ve had that position available for me since my first Strat, and I can say I’ve only used it once in any recent memory. The idea of using the middle switch position to run the middle and neck pickups came from Telecasters. Each pickup that would be used in the middle position gets a tone knob.

Eric Johnson has his Strats set up with a tone knob on the bridge pickup. In the past, I had a Strat with this mod, and afterwards always wondered why Fender never did it. I know in the ’50s (when the Strat was designed) amps tended to be bass-heavy, so a bridge tone knob would seem to not make sense, but in later years when guitar amps got more efficient, EQ-wise, it would have made sense to me.

After all this work and money, how does it sound? Well, fantastic. As I mentioned before, the neck pickup tone was great, but now getting the switching done made the final difference. The 2nd position still has some quack to it, so does the 4th, a bit more trebly, perfect for those Dire Straits tones.

The middle position, which now does the neck and bridge together, is amazing! It keeps plenty of drive, but doesn’t sacrifice fullness or get too bass-y. With clean tones, it’s great – nice and full, and with overdrive/grit, it is super full. This option alone makes it all worthwhile!  It’s not like a Tele, but it seems to get the best of each pickup, without overpowering the other one.

The bridge tone option is neat, but unfortunately, it seems to go from everything to nothing between 2-3 on the knob. I’m going to have to see if I can get the pot to have a lot more range on it, possibly changing to a linear pot, and/or modifying/removing/replacing the capacitor on it. Overall, it does what I wanted it to do from the beginning and I’d suggest these mods to any player looking to modify a Strat, keeping the look stock, getting some new switching options and get rid of that annoying hum.

PART SEVEN

Overall, this little experiment was pricey:

  1. Seymour Duncan pickups $76 x 3 = $228
  2. New Warmoth Pickguard = $25
  3. Emerson Strat shielding plate = $10
  4. New volume pot (fix) and install=$50
  5. New 5-Way Super Switch = $20
  6. Setup & Strings= $150

The grand total was $483, taking 39 weeks (at $12.50 a week) and with the actual cost of the guitar (in 1996) being $325, I think I made out pretty well overall. Could I have bought another Strat for this money? Yes, if I sold this Strat for $400, and then added the cost of the work I had done I would have had a budget of $883.  Which isn’t that bad of a budget to have in buying a Strat, new or used. But it wouldn’t have these modifications or components.

Now, I could have bought a pre-wired Seymour Duncan Pickguard with the same pickups for about $300 or so, with their Liberator quick change pot (that is a pretty good option). I’d still have to swap out the 5-way switch to get the switching options I wanted, the pickguard would have to be replaced for the reverse angled pickup and install the shielding plate. I would have really saved around $100, on the labor costs (I would have been even better off if the volume pot didn’t die). I was afraid I’d lose focus, get distracted and end up blowing the money by buying a pedal (which almost happened, but that’s another story) or some other item instead of getting this Strat functional.

In my opinion, it’s cheaper to modify (especially if the changes are non-invasive/reversible, or it’s not a rare/vintage instrument) an existing guitar than go out and buy a new one, especially if the source instrument is one you like already. It’s also eco-friendly; in this case I didn’t end up buying a new guitar, causing a tree to be killed just for my tone quest.

Overall, I learned a lot, and I achieved what I set out to do for this project. I do have some other mods in mind for the coming year. But for now, I have a nice, noise-free Strat with the tones I like, and I can just grab it and go for pretty much any gig!

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