How I came to love Strats

The sound, I always loved. My dad is a Strat player. And I had many Strats and similar guitars (including a Fender blue floral MIJ reissue when I lived in Nebraska). But those guitars and I could never agree with each other.

I was always more of an acoustic player. One thing about acoustic guitars is that they have no (like zero) crap on the top to be (potentially) in the way of playing. A Strat is a delicate machine where you have to strum paying attention to the knobs, switches and even the middle pickup, which is sometimes (or in my case, often) in the way.

The middle pickup issue is the easiest to live with. I always preferred guitars without a middle pickup (none of which would ever sound like a Strat), but as long as they leave me some space (and Strats do) I could work with it. A two humbucker with pickup frames and middle pickup, not so much…

The pickup switch placement is my second vice. A looser strum and I change from neck to bridge pickup. (And that is a change people notice even if you switch back quick…) But since, my playing is more refined. I can work it.

But this third one, I cannot deal with. The damn volume control. Apparently, the place I rest (or have, or whatever) my finger when strumming is right there at the volume control. I understand that having the volume control handy like that comes with great benefits, some tricks you cannot do, say, on a Gibson or a Tele, but those tricks are not me. And the natural movement of my hand while playing, what does it do? It turns the volume down. Basically, I cannot get through a quarter of a song, no matter how much I try, without turning the volume down, and usually all the way down. (And that change people really notice.)

But I love the Strat sound. I have been thinking about custom builds that overcome the issue. Maybe one that leaves off the volume control, puts it at the second knob leaving the third as overall tone could work. But it never looked right whenever I saw one of these set ups. (See above.) Or just pull a Tom DeLonge (as seen on his signature Fender Strat) and have no tone.

Still, the only Fender Strat I have seen that pulled off the limited knob set up was the pink Hello Kitty Squier with the slightly modified pickguard. But that will not get me closer to a Strat tone either (and neither would the Tom DeLonge) .

Enter a trip I once took to Stageshop, the best and really only worthwhile guitar store in Hungary, where they handed me a beat up looking Fano guitar. (By far the best guitar I have ever played, with a price to match at 7 digits in HUF – granted it started with 1 and ended with six 0s, but still – 3250 EUR, 3800 USD) That white Alt-de-Factor SP6 (actual one pictured below) had, what I learned to be called, a ToneStyler instead of a tone pot. (Though it was not the reason it was the best guitar I ever played. Not even close.) Here’s how the ToneStyler works. It is (in the case of the Fano) a 10 step rotary switch and every one of them sends the signal through a different value capacitor. The tone control rolls in a mix of the capacitor into the signal (I am sure I am screwing the terminology up – electricity is less my thing than sound). With the ToneStyler here, you can select 10 different sounds.

The ToneStyler is simply a better tone pot, in my opinion. Unless you want to use it for smooth sound effects, I think it is superior in sound and control in every way to a traditional tone knob. But they have one additional property. They don’t simply turn like any other volume or tone pot. It requires a bit of effort on the part of the player to switch between the positions.

So I got to thinking. What if I just replaced the volume pot in a Strat with a ToneStyler. The end of the story is that this worked like a charm. The rotary switch does not change just by gentle accidental touches to the pot making my main Strat problem a thing of the past. Sure, if I hand my guitar to someone, they are weirded out by the fact that the volume pot is a switch, the middle pot (well, maybe I should not get into it in detail, but it is called a Dan Armstrong wiring – look it up if you are interested) and the last pot becomes the volume down where I am use to having my volume on the Tele, far-far away from everything I could accidentally hit. Except, now I can also have that Strat sound. (Have been listening to a lot of John Mayer this year and it is hard not to lust for that sound – but I know… I know… the sound is mostly in the hand, and that is true. But a good guitar, a good amp, a healthy dose of placebo effect and some optimistic imagination certainly helps as well.)

ToneStylers are ridiculously expensive for what they are. I have looked to pick up a few older models on sale or used ones. I have a good enough stash now (even for so many projects). And if not, I bought a handful of rotary switches and planning to make my own. (Many on the net described how they built their own ToneStyler clones.)

By the way, a 10 way switch is overkill. Even if you set one at bypass and one at tone all the way up, you would not need more than 4-5 additional sounds. My vote is for the 6 way switch. They do make 6 way switches as well, so that’s cool, though my Strat now has a very old model which was a 16 way switch. It is ridiculous, but it works.