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  • Writer's pictureBarış Şahin

Modifications on Strats Part I - 12 Ways to Enhance the Natural Tone of a Strat

Modifications on Strats Part I - 12 Ways to Enhance the Natural Tone of a Strat


Eric Clapton and his Blackie


Considering today's most successful designs across various fields, it might be surprising for many unfamiliar with these affairs that one of these designs happens to be an electric guitar. However, not for us. The Stratocaster brought to life by Leo Fender in the early 1950s with contributions from Bill Carson, Freddie Tavares, along with Donald Randall, George Fullerton, and Rex Galleon, is now more than just a guitar model produced by the Fender company; it has become a "standard" for electric guitars. Despite the music scene/era and needs of the years that it was designed in, the lack of many guitars to be taken as examples, limitations of gears beyond the guitar itself (such as amplifiers and pedals of the 1950s), the technological limitations of guitars in those years, and the relatively limited knowledge and experiences regarding electric guitars, the adaptation ability of Strats just by some minor or major modifications,  enabling it to find its place in almost the most extreme music genres of every period of time. From Allan West of Obituary played Death Metal, Eric Johnson played fusion with his band “Electromagnets”, Eric Clapton in the late '70s and '80s played pop rock/rock and blues, Eddie Van Halen and Dave Murray played Heavy Metal with different taste, they all used somewhat Strats, proving its versatility. In essence, starting with a strat with a good tone (I must note, it doesn't necessarily have to be a Fender brand Stratocaster) will inevitably yield better results. However, taking the tonality a notch higher is not impossible. I won't delve into electronic modifications in the first part of this series. They are for later... However, I await feedback, constructive criticism, guiding messages—just so you know, writing these without your reactions can be boring :)

The Tone in Electric Guitars

This part reflects the views and enlightment of Yasuhiko Iwanade from his wonderful book “Beauty of the Burst”.

In acoustic guitars, string vibrations cause the top plate (soundboard) of the guitar to vibrate. These vibrations of the top plate move the air inside and outside the body, creating pressure changes that generate sound perceived by our ears. In this process of sound production, variables such as the material of the guitar's top plate, the physical distribution of the material (such as the distribution of wood fibers), and its thickness play significant roles in the guitar's sound output and character.

The sound production process in solid-body guitars, such as electric guitars, differs from that of acoustic guitars. In solid-body guitars, the vibrations of the strings and the interactive movement of the body and neck system create sound as a dynamic system. Unlike acoustic guitars, solid-body guitars, due to their thick and solid body instead of a resonant cavity and thin soundboard, cannot move the surrounding air adequately, resulting in a lower sound level.

In electric guitars, the actual sound is obtained by the signal created by the pickups that detect string vibrations being sent to the amplifier and speakers. Consequently, the sound produced by solid-body electric guitars can be divided into two:

Essence Tone (Natural Tone/Primary Tone): The sound formed by the interactive vibration system of the guitar, primarily composed of string vibrations and the movement of the neck/body/strings.

Secondary Tone: The sound obtained when the vibrations of the primary tone pass through the pickups.


Even though the guitar output signal, the pickups it passes through, the amplifier, and the speakers can alter the sound, frequencies that aren't present in the primary tone cannot be intervened with or added artificially, such as overtones or upper/lower harmonics. In other words, something not generated by the guitar cannot be added electrically later!

Various Approaches to Enhance the Natural Tone

In the preceding sections, we outlined the concepts of the essence (natural/primary) tone and secondary tone. In this article, we'll discuss some interventions that can be made to enhance the natural tone of our Stratocaster. Some of these are widely acknowledged, while others are theoretically logical but their practical applicability or benefits may be debatable. The reason for including these second type of interventions is to first spark brainstorming and make some aspects debatable. Just as someone who doesn't play the guitar and lacks a good ear might perceive a good guitar and a bad guitar as producing the same sound (which is normal because someone with an untrained ear and/or not familiar with tones will solely focus on the root sound and might not perceive overtones, etc.), similarly, certain modifications that we might not think would make a big difference could seem the same to someone who hears less. Seymour Duncan's former vice-manager Evan Skopp summarized this situation beautifully in an interview. He was asked if certain extreme details in Duncan products (such as some Duncan pickups containing a wooden spacer like the old PAFs) make a difference. Evan essentially said, "I can't hear it, but my inability to hear it doesn't mean it doesn't exist or that people can't hear it. I have friends working at a major guitar company (I think he referred to Fender) and according to what they say, they receive customer feedback claiming there's a tonal difference between single-piece and multi-piece pickguards." That's the gist of it.

Additionally, there are three things I must mention in advance. Firstly, the content discussed in this article can sometimes be extreme, i mean they can be in the “nuanced” level. Not day and night level of difference i mean. Its purpose might not be to turn something terrible into something outstanding, but rather to fine-tune something that's already great. So, adjust your expectations accordingly. Secondly, the statements you'll read below about this being better than that or relatively known to be good are not definitive conditions for perfection. I mean, just because a Stratocaster doesn't have a certain type of steel in its tremolo saddles doesn't mean that guitar would be bad. These are mostly generalizations and like any generalization, they contain "exceptions" that shouldn't be underestimated. Lastly, some of those mods can be hard or felt under a certain tone. When you play your strat through a TS-9 equipped deluxe reverb, yep, they are ready to be felt & heard while standing next to the amp. You know, when you have a tone that the air pressure come from your speakers is also part of it. On the contrary, most of those mods are not for your overly compressed, saturated and computer simulated hi-gain tones coming from 5” speakers. The nuances i’ve mentioned get lost in the gain levels and compression and that’s where many debates like “tone wood” are coming from…

Attention: Let's establish some points from the outset. If your guitar is under warranty, some of the ideas, methods, and alternatives I'll discuss in this series of articles may lead to the loss of your warranty. Therefore, the responsibility lies with those reading this article, and Tone Journey Blog or myself cannot be held accountable. Additionally, the modifications mentioned may require various levels of manual skill. If you think you can't do these properly or at all, take necessary precautions or leave it to someone professional. Also, don't approach this with a 'Nothing will happen to me' mindset and don't hesitate to use protective gear such as goggles, gloves, masks, etc

Let's begin...

1) Tremolo Modifications: Renowned luthier and restoration expert Dan Erlewine says, 'The bridge is the heart of the guitar.' I completely agree with Dan on this. If you own a Stratocaster with a tremolo system, modifications to this bridge system can create significant changes in tone, sustain, and some other noticeable improvements like tuning stability. Moreover, if you select the right material, you might achieve tonal enhancements and even provide an advantage in drawing your guitar towards your desired sound. Firstly, not every Strat is the same. Some have six screws, they might have an old-style bridge, some have two screws and a floating tremolo system, some are made in Mexico, some in Japan, and some aren’t even Stratocasters built by Fender. At this point, I'd like to add that if a Strat isn’t a Fender, it doesn't mean it's not good. There are boutique companies and luthiers producing Strats and Teles much better than average/ordinary Fender relatively. However, outright claiming 'boutique is always better than standard production' is definitely not correct (the crux of the matter is if a Strat is good, regardless of the brand or model, then it's good). Although there's a variety of brands, there are alternatives for almost all tremolo systems. In my opinion, boutique-level Strats (like Nash Guitars, Suhr, James Tyler, Xotic, Fender Custom Shop, LsL, Tom Andersons etc.) don't need modification, nor should they. So, paying a fortune for a boutique Strat and feeling the need to change this and that seems absurd to me, I couldn't help but mention it. Thus, it's wise to steer clear of expensive guitars that have issues with fundamental parts.

Anyway, back to Strat bridges. Regarding Strat bridges, we first need to decide: should we change the entire bridge, or is it enough to change specific strategic points? Experience might be necessary to make this decision. However, if I were to make a generalization with pros and cons, I believe, in Fender production Stratocasters (most of American models, many of Japanese and Mexicans, but not every model has a good trem), a complete change is not necessary in my opinion, it's not a necessity. However, in Far Eastern Strats, it might be necessary; it might be good to change in SX and similar Strats, you know. On the other hand many of those Far Eastern guitars, today, have already have a good tremolo made by Gotoh, Wilkinson etc. And no mods are necessary.

It may vary depending on the trem, but rather than changing everything, swapping the tremblock and/or saddles might be more sensible, as the bridge baseplate is relatively not as essential as the saddle and block.

a) Trem Block Replacement: They're generally made of 2-3 common metallic materials: brass, steel, and zinc alloys. In budget-friendly, Far Eastern manufactured guitars (also found in some Japanese Fenders), the most common material you'll encounter is zinc alloys, manufactured via the sand casting method. If you hear terms like Zamak or Mazak, You get the hit... Many SX and some Harley Benton kindo guitars feature these kinds of blocks. In Fenders, some Mexican, Highway series, and some Japanese models use that thin zinc alloys. There's quite a variety, so I can't say they're all the same, but many come with zinc blocks.

Callaham Block vs Zamak Block
Callaham Block vs Zamak Block

In the American Standard (later American series) models, steel is used, but not the conventional steel of the past. For the high-end American-made models (reissue series, Eric Johnson Strat, etc.), there's a steel that's been hot-rolled and contains lead. Although the presence of lead has disadvantages in terms of sustain, tonal clarity, and its ability to absorb sound waves, the hot-rolled steels have a different microstructure due to the rolling conditions and applied thermal and mechanical processes compared to those that have undergone cold forging. The bridge blocks in the pre-CBS era were cold-rolled and comprised lead-free stainless steel. However, there wasn't a significant change for a long time, at least until 1971. At the end of that year, they bid farewell to steel and welcomed chrome-plated "Mazak" (or "Zamac") tremolos and so on.

If you're chasing classic Strat tones, I strongly recommend considering these types of steel blocks for replacement, especially if your guitar is equipped with thin zinc blocks that have taken over your tone... Trem blocks, for those who can hear (although this can vary depending on the guitar), and sometimes (not in every guitar/from my experiences) can be as efficient as pickup changes.

In recent decades, the most popular type of modification has been pickup changes. Many people make the mistake of opting for pickup changes without understanding the guitar's structure/characteristics, or even for guitars they don't own. Yet, before investing in a more expensive alternative like pickup changes, for instance, giving a chance to block replacement for clarity needs might serve as a significant leap in enhancing your tonality. Perhaps, for a guitar lacking clarity, where the sounds decay rapidly and are weak in dynamics, the correct bridge block could be the solution? Now, which brands should you choose? Among the most renowned worldwide is Callaham.

Yes, Callaham's prices might be a bit on the higher side, but they are quite renowned. However, Guitarfetish and Killer Guitar Components' retrofit blocks also seem good.

Brass? I particularly like brass blocks for Floyd Rose and similar floating trems; in fact, I find them somewhat essential in some guitars. According to my experince, brass brings some tonal smoothness and pronounces mids better while rounding sharpness of hi and lows. They are beyond from any kind of zinc blocks. However, if your Strat's tone feels overly bright, you're experiencing a raw sharpness, and there's also an issue with sustain, it worths considering heavier brass blocks.

There is also titanium alloys you may consider. Yes they are expensive, that’s so true. But what do they do and to whom they are for? Rich people? Yes but there are more :) Titanium blocks (if the other system components are good too) can reflect the overtones and harmonics exceptionally better than any other block and doesn’t reshape your tone by eq filtering. Hence if your guitars tone is already good and you trust its sonic quality then titanium might be good investment. Because of they do not absorb certain frequencies they misevaluated as “too bright” or “too trebly” by people most of the time but the thing is they are not. I must note that HANTUG makes PERFECT titanium parts made of aerospace materials.

Titanium Block from HANTUG

Listen my humble video that my Nash has that block you see above;

Another modification beyond changing bridge blocks involves a technique attributed to Eric Johnson and is apparently a standard feature on all EJ strats. It involves completely scraping off the paint on the surface where the bridge block is bolted onto the bridge plate, leaving it super smooth. This aims to create a more conducive and efficient bridge system for tone transfer. The key here is achieving an extremely smooth surface that shines brightly. Avoid leaving it rough, bumpy, or uneven; the objective is to increase the contact surface area between the plate and the block...

b) Saddle Replacements: Strings passing through the block are directed towards the neck side through movable parts called saddles. As these parts have direct contact with the strings, their mass, metallurgy, design, and manufacturing quality significantly effect the tonality and performance. The most common types are die-cast steel (American Standard, Amr. Deluxe, etc.), sheet teel (Amr. Vintage Reissue), and brass (usually found in Teles). Brass tends to be slightly softer tonally, while steels lean towards a sharper, crispier, brighter sound as a generalization.

Saddles of Fender Strat

For classic Strat tones, the old-fashioned, lighter bent steel saddles are good. Saddles like those offered by Callaham, Raw Vintage, Gotoh are known as prestigious choices. Moreover Hantug has saddles shaped like sheet metal but made of titanium alloys. Remember what i’ve written above. They are not vintage correct but may add more into your tone.

Unlike blocks, as far as I know, the saddles in US made Fenders are quite good and don't require replacement unless there's another issue. But if there are frequent string breakages, especially occurring right at the saddle without any metallurgical issues, the situation might change. Graphtech particularly offers beneficial products for such occurrences. And there is also Hightwood Saddles that keeps the vintage look and mojo but also keep your hands un-hurt because of the high adjustments screws. They are made of good material, sounds good and Works just as promised.

Hightwood Saddles

Moreover the latest innovation of Trev Wilkinson, WLS130 is so good reviews but couldn't try them yet.

Other option is to fine tüne your tone by choosing saddles from different materials. Brighter tone saddles (titanium or aluminium) for wound strings and brass saddles for plain strings may fine tune your tone. Look at those Tele saddles;

c) Spring Replacements: The bridge springs, often overlooked but crucial in transferring everything from the strings to the body's vibration, play a significant role. Their numbers, placement, and tension are influential factors often disregarded. If the tension in the bridge springs of our Strats has weakened, it can be beneficial to replace them collectively. If the tremolo is frequently used, a maximum of three springs should be used, adjusted to match the center three claws that attach the springs to the body. This means the parts of the springs that align with the block should go into the outer holes, while the rings aligned with the claws should go onto the central claws. If the tremolo is rarely used, increasing the number of springs to five can also be a beneficial move.

2) Removing the Back Plate: Removing the back plates of Strats is a factor that plays a role in the guitar's natural tone and acoustic volume, although it doesn't create a noticeable effect when heard through an amp. However, the claim is, it does create a pleasant sensation as if the tone the player hears is passing through a natural and internal reverb chamber. Thinking it won't make any difference? I'd suggest taking off the plate and trying it out—what do you have to lose? And I have a solid reference for this: Eric Johnson. He's a legendary guitarist, famous for being able to tell whether the pedal battery is alkaline by ear :) and none of his Strats have back plates, not even in his signature series specifically made for him. Additionally, Scott Handerson and Guthrie Govan's guitars also lack of back plates; some don't even have screw holes for these covers. Snake oil? Easy to try :)

3) Fixing the Unused Tremolo: For a Strat tremolo, an increase in the number of springs is crucial in terms of energy transferred to the body or engaging the body in vibrations. Because vibrations along the neck are transferred through the neck screws and onto the body via the bridge. The more springs on the bridge block, the more efficient the transfer. By firmly securing an unused tremolo system with wooden blocks, an increase in the amount of energy transferred through the bridge might be achieved, resulting in improved sustain and tonal response.

4) Nut Modifications: I'll keep this brief for now since I plan to delve more extensively into this in the coming months. However, the nut material affects the tonal color perceived only on open strings. Yet, it is crucial regarding tuning stability, sustain, and dealing with dead spots on the fretboard. If your Strat's nut slots are excessively deep, especially if you experience intonation issues on the first 3-5 frets—this problem is widespread not only in budget models but also in higher-end guitars, unfortunately, typically around the 15th-17th frets where the sound quickly diminishes (dead spots)—or if you constantly face tuning problems, it's likely time to change your nut. What materials do we have? Bone, ivory, TusQ, graphite/teflon-based nuts (such as some of Graphtech's products), polymers like micarta and corian, brass, and steel are common options. Also, a small note, one way to determine a luthier's skill and craftsmanship is by looking at their nut work for me. I always check the nut first. If detailed nut job is over there, everything&everywhere has the same detailistic approach.

5) Attention to Neck-Body Joint: In guitars with bolt-on necks, the area where the neck and body join plays a significant role in transferring certain frequencies, especially those producing high frequencies and the vibrational energy along the neck. Therefore, it's crucial to have a smooth surface both where the neck touches the body and in the pocket where the body meets the neck. If this area is finished with lacquer, scraping it off, and, more importantly, ensuring this region is properly shaped and smoothed, can increase the contact and, consequently, the transfer surface, allowing for better transfer possibilities. Also, in guitars with bolt-on necks, many manufacturers or luthiers use thin pieces to adjust the neck's angle. These can be cardboard pieces, thin wood shims (I've seen a lot of these 'veneer' parts, especially on Ibanez guitars), or even a pick... Theoretically, avoiding movements that reduce the contact between the neck and body can be highly beneficial.

6) Allowing the Guitar to Breathe: Another lesson learned from Eric Johnson. Removing the paint under the tremolo cavity and under the pickguard to allow the guitar to 'breathe'. As far as I read, Eric Johnson does this to all of his Strats. However, as you might expect, don't anticipate an immediate tonal development as soon as you remove the paint. However, over time, depending on the relative humidity of the wood, your environment, and the playing conditions, if your guitar's finish is a thin nitrocellulose, shellac, or oil varnish, you might expect the wood to continue to dry. This could be a move that might be beneficial in the long term if you're not living in an excessively humid area. But if you live in an extremely humid place, it might not be something I'd strongly recommend. In such a situation, an alternative could be carefully scraping the paint in these areas, applying a few layers of shellac varnish on the exposed wood. Also, it's a good investment not to get a guitar initially finished with ultra-thick polyurethane or polyester varnish.

7) Tuning Peg Replacements: Tuning pegs serve as more than just a part of the tuning stability system of any type of electric guitar (the others being the bridge system and the nut); they can also play a role within the tonal system. Sealed tuning pegs with more mass (like Grover, Sperzel, Schaller, etc.) can be beneficial for better sustain and eliminating dead spots. On the other hand, lighter ones (like Kluson, Gotoh Vintage, etc.) tend to bring a more suitable tonality for classic Strat sounds. My preference is, as far as i can, the locking sealed tuners for the mass and tuning stability.

8) Increasing Headstock Mass: The mass of the headstock section of the neck has long been a topic of serious debate. James Tyler, for instance, despite receiving criticism for his peculiar headstock design, managed to gain acceptance. His main claim was the increased mass in the headstock area and the theories regarding guitar tone and sustain. As mentioned earlier, if there are certain areas that inexplicably dampen or start to resonate and the issue isn't due to fret irregularities or the inherent structure of the guitar, you probably have what's known as dead spots. By inherent structure, let me clarify that sometimes certain guitars can emphasize certain notes or frequency groups more prominently while downplaying/damping others. It's not a common occurrence, but it's not too rare either. Distinguishing dead spots is simple; they're localized and more commonly found around the 12th to 17th frets in guitars with thinner necks like some Ibanez models. They affect a specific area of one or a few strings and impact all note frequencies in that area. For instance, if the note with XXX Hz is affected in that area, there won't be any issue with the A one octave lower. However, in other cases, there might be an overall weakening across all variations of a specific frequency throughout the guitar.

Are we out of solutions then? I'm not sure if you like Joe Satriani, but you might have noticed something hanging on some his guitar headstock, a rather mysterious-looking thing. It used to be attached to the guitar headstock like a metal clamp, although I haven't seen him use it for a while. That thing he used was a system called 'Fat Finger,' made of brass, designed to increase the mass on the guitar headstock, thereby mitigating dead spots. If you're experiencing a 'dead zone' issue, especially on your Strats, Teles, or slim-necked Ibanez guitars, you can either go in pursuit of this solution or opt for a better alternative, an equipment produced by Fatih Yilmaz from Mile Guitars, these special components are cleanly mounted on the backside of the guitar headstock, invisible from the front and thus not causing any visual clutter.

9) Periodic Screw Checks: Even if their direct contribution to your guitar's brilliance might seem minimal, tightening loose screws around the tuning pegs, bridge, between the neck and body, and on the pickguard can make a noticeable difference sometimes in eliminating the buzzing or unwanted sounds.

10) Fret Replacements: I have a review on that subject covered all the details about frets before and soon i’ll publish here.

11)Testing Different Strings: Electric guitar strings create significant differences in tone and sound in three ways: firstly, especially with variations in thickness, they affect both the primary and secondary tone of the guitar. Thicker strings add volume to the sound and make it easier to bring out richness in overtones and harmonics. Secondly, the metallurgical composition (pure nickel, pure steel, or nickel-plated) plays a role in the guitar's secondary tone because the materials in the strings or their coatings may cause different behaviors in the magnetic field over the guitar's pickups. For classic strat tones, I personally prefer typical nickel-plated steel strings. Having a minimum thickness of 0.10 is a more accurate move for bringing out the guitar's tonal potential. You can particularly exemplify this with Steve Ray Vaughan. Many guitarists, especially when it comes to SRV-style tones, focus on pickups, pedals, and amplifier alternatives. However, one of the important parameters to consider for such voluminous tones (not the only one, I'm not saying it's the sole secret of the SRV tone) is SRV's choice of string sets. Of course, the undeniable effect of tuning down a half-step as well. Anyway, this "small" change may sometimes yield quite dramatic results. The third way is not primarily our topic, but it concerns the structural characteristics of the strings; whether they are normally wound, semi-flat, or fully flat-wound, directly affecting various parameters due to altering the oscillation characteristics of the strings. However, the strings we're referring to here are the normally wound ones.

12) Different Picks: Seems like a simple thing, doesn't it? Well, it might appear that way. However, using a pick or not, the thickness of the pick if you're using one, the material it's made of (metallic, various types of polymeric materials, etc.) and other factors are elements that can even affect the sound coming from the amplifier. There's no need to be too authoritative about this; a pick isn't a very expensive thing, so it's best to try out plenty of them ;)

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