I’d never shown much interest in Stratocasters. At least not in regard to buying one. I liked their sound, but I didn’t like the way they played. The neck was too fat, or too rounded, or too something. I don’t really know.
Besides, they come in some of the most ungodly colors. If I wanted a guitar that looked like it’d been picked up in a whore house, I’d go to a whore house.
Way back in 1988 I was working for a rental store in Kings Mountain, North Carolina (which was one store in a small chain). On one particular day I was sent down to Gaffney to trade out some furniture or something to a sister store. On my way out of Gaffney, the van broke down. I was just a few blocks from the old Hames Music, so I decided to walk down there and use their telephone.
While I was waiting for my company to come get me, I began to wander around Hames Music. I wasn’t looking for anything. Just looking. But then I stumbled across an interesting looking Stratocaster. I had never seen one like it. Off-white pearl finish. Black neck and hardware. It was beautiful.
For non-musicians, the effect might be similar to meeting the eyes of a beautiful, exotic looking woman from across a crowded room, and knowing immediately that she will be a part of your life.
I took it down and played it. I was shocked. It didn’t play like any other Strats I’d played in the past. The neck seemed to fit my hands better. I don’t know how else to explain it. It felt like it had been made for me, and I honestly wondered if the Fates had intervened and that the van had broken down so that I could discover this Stratocaster.
So I put the guitar on layaway. I took it home within a few months.
Over time, I discovered a few things about it that I didn’t like. The neck was very stiff (a problem with a lot of new guitars, I think), and took well over a year to break-in. It was so uncomfortable that I considered selling it, but I never did (thankfully). But eventually the neck was broken in and I found my peace with it.
The pickups also sounded thin. It had that glassy, brittle Strat sound that was all the rage in the 1980’s. I wanted something warmer. This was enough of a problem that I eventually replaced the original 2 single-coil/1 humbucker configuration with a matched set of 3 Seymour Duncan Alnico II single-coils. But I saved the pickups. They’re still mounted in the original pickguard, and might wind up on another guitar someday.
I know I’m getting off track here. Suffice it to say that it took some time and slight modification, but this Stratocaster turned into one hell of a guitar. The kind of guitar that musicians love to fawn over.
This Stratocaster was one of those guitars I was forced to sell in 1991 during my infamous Florida debacle. Along with my Alembic bass, it was sold to my mother and aunt, who then turned around and tentatively sold it to a fella named Harold (the guitar player in my cousin Chris’ band). Harold never took possession of it, because my aunt wouldn’t let him pick it up until it was paid for. He’d made arrangements to pay a certain amount each week for the guitar, but didn’t pay much on it at all.
So after I came back from Florida, the guitar sat, in its case, in the hallway at my mother and aunt’s house. Losing the Alembic was bad enough, but at least it was gone and the sale was definite. But here was the Stratocaster, sitting in its case, and I had to pass it whenever I went up there, knowing it was no longer mine.
To add insult to injury, Harold told me one night at a club that he when he got the Strat he was going to replace the pickups. He was going to take this beautiful guitar with a set of sweet $280 calibrated Seymour Duncan pickups, and turn it into a heavy metal guitar.
I took it to mean that he didn’t want a Stratocaster for the sound, but instead he just wanted the name. I tried to point out that he was making a big mistake, and was much upset about the implications, but there was nothing I could do about it. I made a tentative deal to buy the pickups from him, and left the club in disgust. Barbarian! Infidel!
In the end, Harold never bought the guitar. He inexplicably stopped paying on it. Sensing an opportunity, I worked out a deal with my aunt, Loretta Chaney, to re-design and re-print the menus for her restaurant in exchange for the remaining balance on the Stratocaster.
From my perspective, it seemed that my dear old Strat was essentially returned to me at no charge. It was a kindness that I’ve never forgotten.
Since then, the guitar has aged nicely. The pickups (sweet to begin with), have aged and mellowed. The finish has yellowed a bit through the years, and now has a slightly antique look (which annoys me a bit, I must admit). But it’s a wonderful guitar. I’m glad to have come to know this guitar, and to have discovered a bit of the foundation for the mystique surrounding Fender Stratocasters. If this one guitar is any indication of the lasting appeal of the Fender Stratocaster, I think I’m beginning to understand.
Needless to say, this guitar was never again in any danger of being sold. I’ve had times in my life where I survived off of ramen noodles, when my treat for the week might be a can of soup. As bad as times have been in my life on occasion, I never thought about selling this guitar. I may have sat there with my belly rumbling from hunger, but I sat there playing a sweet Strat. Somehow that made it all seem better.
[box style=”rounded”]“Apart from the weight of its own history, the Strat abides.”
~ Tom Watson[/box]