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How to get good tone from an unmodded Stratocaster

Fender Standard Stratocaster

Some guitar players are all about modifying the Strat. But what about keeping the guitar totally unmodified?

Getting good tone out of an unmodified Stratocaster is easy once you understand traditional Strat tone.

A traditional Strat is the Fender Standard model as shown above. Not the American Standard. The Standard, as in the one made in Mexico. It has the mostly-old-school design with the exception the neck is a modern "C" shape with 9.5-inch fingerboard radius, modern medium jumbo frets, truss rod adjustment at the pegboard and not the heel, and the selector blade has 5 positions instead of the original 3. The guitar is a plain 21-fret with SSS pickup layout and no tone control wired to the rear (bridge) pickup by design because that was Leo Fender's original wiring setup.

Rule #1 and the only rule you need to know about traditional Strat wiring

Everyone hates the fact that traditional Strat wiring has no tone control wired to the rear (as in the bridge) pickup, so you have to work around it.

Because the rear pickup has no tone control wired to it, that means the vast majority of distortion pedals don't work well with the Strat. Only a very select few can actually deal with those super-trebly Strat pickups properly while still delivering proper sounding distortion.

Namely, the DigiTech Grunge and the Big Muff Pi.

The "secret" of the Grunge pedal is the HIGH knob. You can turn that down and use that to cut off the super-trebly sound while still getting great distorted tones.

The Big Muff Pi (or nano version for a smaller package) is fuzz. Strats love fuzz. Big time. Fuzz establishes a ceiling that sounds great for solos. It may not crunch all that well (that's what Grunge is for), but for solo tone, it works wonderfully.

Two other pedals I would add in would be a MXR Dyna Comp and a BOSS DD-7.

"I have little money and I need this sound for cheap"

The Grunge is cheap already. Get that. For everything else, go all Behringer. Behringer Super Fuzz, Behringer CS400 Compressor/Sustainer, Behringer DD400 Digital Delay.

If you want an alternative all-in-one that has everything plus more, use what I use, the DigiTech RP360. The version of it with an expression pedal attached for wah and so on is the RP360XP.

Whether you use separate pedals or an all-in-one, you need the Grunge distortion, good fuzz, good compression, good delay.

What order of effects should the chain be?

  1. Compressor
  2. Grunge
  3. Fuzz
  4. Delay

"Do I absolutely need fuzz for my solo tone?"

No. You can get a similar sound by switching to the front side (as in neck side) pickup and turning the tone knob down using just Grunge...

...but I would suggest at least trying a fuzz effect. Believe me, it really has a good sound to it. Eric Johnson is a heavy fuzz user, so it's not just for hippie rock. Far from it.

"Do I absolutely need a compressor?"

For an unmodded Strat, yes. The pickups are low-output by design, and to punch up the response without installing new pickups, a compressor is the answer.

Whether it's the MXR Dyna Comp or a cheap Behringer, yes you need one. In fact, you probably even need one even if you decide to switch pickups later.

"Do I absolutely need delay?"

For any Strat or any electric guitar for that matter, yes. Yes, yes, yes and yes again.

Reverb sucks. Well, it sucks for everything except surf music. But chances are you don't play surf.

Delay is the electric guitar player's indispensable tool. Use it, love it. Whether you choose analog or digital delay, get it.

Final tip: WORK with it

If keeping your Strat unmodified, expect to encounter some "tone challenges" of sorts. That's just the way it is with Strats. Don't expect the guitar to sound perfect even if you get all the stuff mentioned above.

Work with your tone. Shape it and experiment. You'll find your sound, but it may take a little effort.

Remember, Strats are not "automatic" guitars and never have been. But when you do finally get that sound out of it, it's truly a magical moment.

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