Stratocasters Part 1: Basic Set-up and the Perfect Hank Marvin Tone

I thought we should talk about Strats to complement the Tele post, my “I want one of those” Strat moments was when I first heard Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. I was drawn to the honky, on-the-edge of overdrive in-between sounds that Mark Knopfler used on that first Dire Straits album in 1978. I got my first Strat in 1980, a natural finish with a fixed bridge and maple neck. It was a 1979 model that was quite heavy and although I loved it, it was never the best sounding guitar. I’m now lucky enough to have an original 1962 and some other Fender Strats, all with trems.

Basic Set-up

I always have the trem set floating about an eighth of an inch off the body, that way the springs add to the tone and squashy-ness of the attack, it also adds a bit of resonance. If you set your trem floating on a Fender you can hear the springs resonate when you play a B note anywhere on the neck.

It’s important on Strats to set the pickup height correctly, if they are too close to the strings, particularly on the bottom E, A and D, the magnets will pull the strings and the guitar will not play in tune, it gets worse as you play further up the neck. There is no set height for doing this, it’s more of a trial and error, as different pickups have different strength magnets;

Step1: First lower all three pickups, then raise the bridge pickup to approximately 2mm from the underside of the Low E string.

Step 2: then set the neck pickup as close as possible without it interfering with the strings vibration. You can observe the effect by looking closely at the strings vibration above the neck pickup. When the magnet is too close, it won’t oscillate freely; gradually lower the pickup until the string vibrates freely and uniformly (it’s best to do this with new strings and with the bottom E string fretted at the top fret).

Step 3: Finally, set the middle pickup height half-way between the neck and bridge.

The Perfect Hank Marvin Tone

One of the all-time favourite Strat tones ( particularly amongst Baby-Boomers) is Hank Marvin’s tone on the early Shadows records. Marvin famously used the first Strat in the UK; a Fiesta Red with Maple neck. The original Shadows records were recorded with Marvin using his Strat and a Vox AC15. The magic ingredients here are the original hand-wound Strat pickups which sound bright, not harsh and also have a much clearer bass sound than machine wound pickups. Of course the bridge pickup on a Strat bypasses the tone circuit and capacitor so it has a very clean, clear signal going to the amp.

Vox AC15’s are quite dark sounding amps compared to today’s higher gain valve amps so the combination of the bright bridge pickup and the unique Vox Class A valve tone gives that classic Shadows / Marvin tone. Let’s not forget the Meazzi tape echo that Hank used between his guitar and amp. Tape echo tames some of the very high treble and warms up the mid-range.

Final tip; use heavy strings and pick near the neck pickup and you should get close to the Hank twang.

Next time we’ll look at classic Strat neck pickup tones from Dave Gilmour and Jimi Hendrix.

(If you’re interested in hand-wound pickups then take a look at the hand-wound pickups page on www.thelittleguitarshop.com, there are also some demo videos of pickups I have made.)

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19 thoughts on “Stratocasters Part 1: Basic Set-up and the Perfect Hank Marvin Tone

  1. Pingback: Telecasters: why they are great and tips for achieving your desired Tele tone | The Little Guitar Blog

  2. I used to have a Fender Cyber Twin and I got Hank’s sound using Reverb and Delay. However I traded the amp for a Fender Mustang IV. I can’t remember what the settings were I used but played The Shadows songs all the time. Now I’ve got to try to duplicate them on the Mustang IV. I have a Red Strat though not a Salmon colored one. The color of the guitar has absolutely nothing to do with it. Any Strat will do but it has to be a Strat or a Burns. I think they sold Burns here in the U.S under the Baldwin name.

    • I’ve got a Yamaha Pacifica that does the tone perfectly. Still, I prefer to use my strat, obviously.

      On a Line 6 Spider IV 75, there’s a patch you can download called ‘Fender Clean’ that works perfectly for Apache.

  3. All good stuff here, but I think everyone would agree that even Hank could not reproduce the original recorded sound of the Shadows Hits. So many factors involved- Studio recording techniques, heavy strings, guitar set up etc.

    Interesting to note that on FBI for instance, Hank gets a very chunky sound on the main part of the tune (Middle pickup) It sounds as though he had the strings set quite low. I have found that this can also be achieved to a certain extent by using the pick at a slight angle rather than exactly on the point.

    I bought a new Strat in 1961 and like may other aspiring Hanks, I have been trying to get that sound for ever since. How I wish I had kept that guitar. It would be worth a few grand by now.
    While we are talking Shadows – let’s not forget Bruce’s superb rhythm playing- a classic example is on Cliff’s ‘D in love’ and of course- ‘Living Doll’.
    Bob

    • wow, what a shame you got rid of that 61 strat. Im seventy years old now and I have been after that magic hank sound nearly all those years. I have a Hank marvin strat, an ac30 and a copy cat, but still cant get that sound. Still, keep on trying.

      • Geoff, two key components are vintage style pickups i.e. hand-wound as Hank’s were, and pure nickel heavy gauge 12 to 56 strings with a wound third, apologies if you already have tried this

  4. Sometimes there is a problem with the tremolo unit tipping down at the arm end, to cure this you have to take out the tremolo spring at the tremolo arm end, slide a screwdriver through the entire spring, carefully bend down the circular part by pressing down gently on a kitchen worktop or hard stable surface until it is straight…not too far…replace it…do the opposite at the other end with the spring from the other side…bend this spring circle up…this will cause the spring to pull down on the bottom E end and level out the pull on the tremolo block… leave the middle spring as it is. Roger Mosedale.

  5. The nearest I got to the Hank Marvin sound was using a ZOOM 505 with the equalizer set at 30.
    The echo was set at optimum for the sound but my main point is this, – either side of the 30 setting the effect reduced and when I displayed the waveform on an oscilloscope and varied the setting I could see the change in the waveform. What happens is the second and third harmonics ” notch ” into the fundamental changing the waveform profile putting “shoulders”, so to speak onto the sine shape. This also increased the duty cycle of the waveform and gave it more “balls”.

  6. Replaced my pickups with Kinman 54 Impersonators. Using Vox AC 30 C2 amp on top boost + Boss DD7 delay and reverb pedal. I have the real Hank sound.
    Hank had his Vox Ac30 modified and it was similar to the modern top boost available on AC30 amps.

  7. Even with hand wound pickups and the correct Vox amp it is still nigh on impossible to get that sound, I’ve been trying to find it since the very start ( or should I say the very strat) and have not yet succeeded. That “BOCK” sound in The Frightened City and the song Mumblin’ Mosie is really hard to attain, even Hank doesn,t sound like Hank with the new gear… still tryin’ though. How about this for an idea… let’s all send a message to Hank ( but will he get it?) and ask him to do a recording using all the original gear and call it ” BACK TO BASICS” and maybe, just maybe we can all pick his brains and get that sound before we all die of frustration! Roger Mosedale.

      • According to a comprehensive chart I have which was compiled with the help of one of the Shadows sound engineers “The Frightened City” is played using the middle pickup. I managed to get “Atlantis” near perfect when I discovered from this list that, although the melody is all played using the bridge pickup, the partially muted echo introduction, which is used twice more in the tune, is played using the neck pickup. Also, “Dance On” uses the neck pickup, “Shindig” the middle pickup. Try these positions out, you won’t believe the difference it makes.
        I’m happy to share this list with anybody who wants it. Please drop me an e mail at vivr@telkomsa.net and I’ll forward a copy.

  8. I started playing the guitar in high school by listening and playing Shadows tunes, Apache being the very first one. I had a very successful “Shadows” band in the early 80’s in Europe, “The four Windows” and in 82 EMI released our first album, “Identity”. I met Hank at a TV Show shoot in Baden Baden. We spent a few hours together in the artist lounge talking. Melanie was there as well. Was a great day for me! Hank is one of the nicest musicians I have met during my long musical career. He has a great sense of humor and the only taboo was, “don’t ask me about Cliff”.

  9. For anyone still trying to find the correct echo’s…yep all of them…the inexpensive way is to get a ZOOM 508, it’s programmable, easy to programme and you can strengthen the feedback and sustain on all of them, the multi-tap echo is just spot on. Dodge

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