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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12 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. 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.

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