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.)