Vintage Tone – Myth or Mojo? Part I

Hello reader, in this post I’m going to attempt to shed some light on this and share what I’ve learned firsthand. If you are not a guitar nerd or gearhead, this post is likely not for you.

First of all, some of my background on the topic. I have done thousands of gigs with dozens of different bands, and hundreds of recording sessions playing all kinds of music. I have used many different amps and guitars. I used all current production gear for a while, later using some vintage blackface Fender amps, and 60s Fender guitars my friends had. I now own my own 67 Super Reverb and 70 Twin, and recently picked up a maple Eric Johnson Strat. As my quest for tone went on, I realized more and more that I prefer traditional tone, until achieving it became a very serious conviction.

There are a lot of folks who say it is all nonsense, I was actually quite taken aback recently when a friend suggested it’s simply a matter of pickups. Unacceptable. I’m drinking the koolaid, and I’ll tell you why.

Ive owned several Strats over the years. In my professional life, I’ve had (and still own) three. In my quest for vintage tone I’ve taken two of these Strats and upgraded them in various ways, always getting closer to that classic tone but never getting all the way there. Both are maple neck Strats with poly finishes, one a 2008 American Deluxe and one a 2012 American Standard.

The first hurdle was pickups. I needed vintage voiced single coils and turned to companies who specialize in recreating them. The Suhr and Klein companies both have done extensive research on the old pickups, down to the metallurgy of the magnets. I have a set of Suhr MLs in one and Klein Epic 62s in the other. Both sound great and did well for me, but it wasn’t the same as my buddies 63 Strat. But why do these pickups fall short in a current production guitar, but make fantastic replacements in an actual vintage instrument?

Likewise, the Callaham company makes the best trem blocks and replacement hardware around, with a lot of care taken in the composition of the metals used. I installed replacement trems and springs in both Strats, which again brought me closer, but again not making my 2012 or 2008 Strat convincing enough to satisfy me. They were still not nearly close enough to that full open zingy and guttural sound from my friends 63 Strat. My Strats sounded good, but it wasn’t enough.

I decided to research vintage reissues, go to something that starts with similar construction methods to my buddies old Strat (I have no interest in spending the money required to get a 50s or 60s Strat) Custom Shop stuff starts around 4K, which is again more than I was willing to spend. So I looked at what other options were out there for new vintage spec Strats, and started checking out the Eric Johnson Strat online. I have a friend who owns one and swears it’s the best guitar Fender currently makes, and apparently a lot of people feel that way. I checked out demos on the web starting with the behind the scenes on Eric’s involvement in the making of them. They started with his favorite vintage axes. That guy is so detail oriented and meticulous, such a demanding tonehound, Fender banned him from the premises at some point due to his incessant need to perfect the design. This was my guy.

For a few more months I researched the web, trying to separate fact from fiction. One day last week I went in to Guitar Center to lift my spirits in the way only a store full of guitars could… and they happened to have a few Eric Johnson Strats in the house. I sat down with a white maple neck and immediately recognized my buddies vintage Strat in its sound. Not only that sound but the sound of many people who have rocked old Strats, Jimi, Jeff Beck, Knopfler… you get the idea. THAT sound was in this thing, a brand new production guitar. It was the first time in my life a simple major barre chord had THAT sound. I found it and I had to have it, and I walked out with it. That guitar has been on 6 or 7 gigs now, and the sound turns people’s heads. People who have spent decades playing music all over the world immediately recognize THAT sound. My buddy who owns the 63 Strat could not believe it, and now he wants a new Strat!!!

What I’ve taken away from this is that it’s not any one thing. It’s not even the old wood. (Although the wood is important) It’s a recipe and commitment to those old original designs and construction. The nitro finish, quartersawn neck, 21 frets, 6 point bridge, sanded neck pocket, single ply pick guard, and vintage tuners are all a part of the whole of it. There is just no replacement for the design. Also, Eric Johnson is now one of my heroes for what he achieved in bringing us mere mortals new and affordable fantastic production models that nail that classic tone. Thank you Eric Johnson wherever you are, because this Strat does satisfy, it’s a lifer, and has ended my search for authentic Strat tone.