A Tale of Two Stratties

“Hey Scott, played the Fusion for the first time at band practice tonight. First time I've needed it to cut through the mix. So impressed and it's so easy to play I can't ever see myself wanting to play anything else. It's simply fantastic.” –Jim M.

Always a great way to begin the day, to continue into the “world” portion of the morning by turning on the computer and checking the emails to find someone very happy. It happens a lot and I’m grateful I can help that happen. Like everything, this is a result; a situation that added up to what it is. The threads sometimes seem very thin as to how we find each other in life, but satisfaction is rarely a happy accident. It happens through care and attention in the ingredients and process. For me it’s not enough to have someone adequately pacified… “Ehh, it’s an ok tool.” I want the work done in the workshop to contribute to tools that then contribute to inspiration; tools of creativity, of expression, of communication. I want them to make you want to play your music… because I’ve found that if you play your music, sing your song whatever it is, it all starts to fall into place. I just get to sing my song in the wood & wire you might use to help sing yours.

It was 20 years ago. Having summered through out along Interstate 35 in the old Dodge van, I had a part time job at a music store north of Austin and I stayed in a back room some nights when it got cold. Like anywhere else that became my habitat there was music, a workbench, and guitars to play with. I had bolted together some Strats by this time, the first level merit badge of any budding builder. They’re like ’50s cars. Everything is so easy to work on. I was getting my repair chops together and exploring what could be done with three coils seen as that, not as “A Strat”; when you unchain something from what it is mostly known to be, you realize that’s only a portion of its potential. 

The shop was owned by a friend I’d played in a band with and among other lines we sold some Japanese made Strat copies that were fantastic. Not merely slapped together to well known and infinitely duplicated design specs, it was as if they had taken the best old Stratocaster guitar around and copied that one, including by default the very aspects that made that particular guitar a really good one. Well, one day a man consigns a 1960 Strat, sunburst, for what at the time seemed like HUGE money… just into 5 figures. I’m not going to tell you it’s the best Strat I’ve ever touched because that belongs to a ’64 sunburst hardtail a friend who managed a pawn shop offered me for $850 in 1989… yeah I know I only played it for three minutes and was a broke-ass musician living on a floor. That’s why my mind has elevated it to some kind of Excalibur level. There was no way; I didn’t have enough left nuts to sell for it. 

But the one six years later truly was a really REALLY good old Strat. I did the setup on it; I “dialed it in” as they say. I found where everything balanced – the pickups tonally and in volume, the trem, the action… and then it happened, it transcended its reality as an assembly of components into ONE thing. If you get everything working together in harmony, helping every other part do its job, it becomes a functional whole, a wonderful machine for its purpose. When the lights were dim and the closed sign was out, I guarantee you I played that one for a lot longer. They probably heard me down the street, as if I had been tuning a hot rod engine or test firing a rocket. I was. 

So I looked at one of the Japanese copies on the wall. Being patterned after a good one, they all had great potential. “I wonder if I can dial THAT into THIS?” It was good to start with, really good, and other than the tactile sensation of fresh clearcoat and new plastic vs. the duller, aged patina of the 1960… it handled the same; same neck contour, similar weight. Way closer overall than an out-of-the-box $398 guitar should be. But that’s Japan at its finest and these were little gems. One night I took the 1960 out of the glass case, put the copy on the bench, and spent hours getting it to feel exactly the same. I found “…a little bit here, a little bit there” can work magic in the subtleties. With the same fresh string sets, through the same cable into the same amp I then spent MORE time stunt driving these things and making tiny adjustments in pickup height and angle, string tree height, trem spring tension… you name it. Sure there’s some magic in the matter, I knew that even then - but most of the technical part of anything is keen attention and honed-enough skills. That’s all, I reasoned, it should take to get these related machines to be nearly identical. And I was going to keen and hone! It’s all in the details. If the ingredients are there and cooked right, the rest is seasoning and balance. If you get all that in harmony, you tickle the muse and the magic takes over. 

There was some intangible thing in the aging of the old pickups that might be along the lines of a glass of wine poured straight away and the same poured after the bottle breathed a little, through an aerator. Something only a connoisseur with taste buds honed by experience might pick up. I couldn’t get that last per cent of subtleties in the bloom and decay of the notes, of smoothness in the attack. But I sure as hell got 95% of it. More accurately, it felt like I got 110% of what was in that copy guitar out of it. That was the moment in practice I understood the concept of the whole transcending the sum of its parts – that parts which should only add up to “eight” can be massaged together and dialed in to add up to “nine” in overall performance. This is true in guitars and basses, in relationships, in the workings of groups. The results of pieces working together can be exponential. Another enlightening moment along this path of music – a moment that, if by its own example, transcended what I was physically doing in that moment with two guitars. 

I don’t remember what happened to either guitar; I think the shop owner may have taken the copy home. And before the 1960 was gone, I was down the road. I headed back east where I opened a tiny music shop and started building guitars in the back room… another story for another time.

Play nice & be exponential,

Listening to: Paul Simon Rhythm Of The Saints; Boyd Rivers You Can’t Make Me Doubt; Smashing Pumpkins Gish; The Best Of Van Morrison.