I Sing The Body Electric

2010: Joseph's newly acquired Fender Custom Shop 'Strele-Caster' guitar


In Consideration of The Considerations in Selecting a New Electric

For those who would know me - though not entirely well - bearing witness to me sitting in a room with an electric guitar often ushered a response somewhat akin to the Dylan at Newport metamorphosis.

It's true that I started out as a 14 year old, 'coffee-house folkie' - yes. And this genesis would, in turn, be the foundation for a future curiosity, spending much of my time scoring for orchestral palettes in more recent years - now more mature, more relaxed, more resourced. But how I could go from an acoustic six-string to a large ensemble of strings would often prompt a reaction of an increasingly confused bewilderment.

It would, indeed, be The Beatles who opened me up to more expansive possibilities at a very early age. It wouldn't be 'Eleanor Rigby' so much, with its stringed octet. Rather, my childhood ear took an instant notice to 'Penny Lane' - the trumpet obbligato, in particular, loosely based upon Bach's 'Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F' - though I wouldn't come to know that for some years to come. Still, I do remember thinking at the time, if internally articulated in a somewhat different way, "Oh they're doing 'grownup music' there." And they grew the mustaches to match.

Fast-forward the tape to age 14 ... My musical co-conspirator at the time, Doug Adams, would join me in an 'open-reel' bedroom studio, as we performed a variety of 'musical experiments' with what we had at hand - literally. I had just acquired a now-revered Yamaha acoustic guitar as a step up from a hand-me-down Giannini classical guitar, still remaining in attendance, on-call for active duty. Doug would drop by with his cheap electric - a red hollow-body that sported some sort of name on the headstock, but would otherwise remain nameless. Our 'palette extension' would include an out-of-tune and wholly unregulated piano - along with a percussion section that included a set of bongos and some 'tourist-grade, gift shop' maracas. We would ultimately borrow someone's bass - I don't recall from whom. All of this captured with low-end, 'garage band' equipment feeding an open reel tape machine. I think our mic collection may have even included a public address microphone 'disbanded' from a local supermarket.

I'd be poised with something acoustic, as Doug manned the electric. I was more folk-based; Doug, a little more Rock 'n Roll - such was our captive diversity. But all the while, I was hearing yet other things. I imagine Doug was, as well. But alas, we didn't then have the access to woodwinds, strings, and horns. We didn't even have a synthesizer at this time. I believe we both filled in the details, internally.

It was, indeed a time. And for those born unto the analog tape age, you can greater appreciate one's drop-jawed response to even Apple's home-friendly 'Garage Band' software that now comes pre-equipped on every contemporary MacIntosh computer. Doug and I would have killed for such multi-tracked, timbral versatility - if we were even able to conceptually imagine it at the time, no less in an abstract format or numbers, that would become to be known as 'digital'.

But through a multi-year musical timeline, I would touch on many forms of music - inclusive of Pop, yes - where I would often merge, if predictably, acoustic folk timbres with the orchestral sounds of strings, woodwinds, and brass ensembles. In time, I was finally able to bring the soundstage I had imagined at age 14 to realizable fruition (if 'fruition' is every entirely realizable in the mind of the artist).

And it was here that, for those few listeners who were paying attention, an electric guitar would sometimes come into play. Most commonly, it would be used for textural embellishment, rather than the main act. It was this sporadic and reserved use of the instrument that would lend an overall impression of it being somehow absent. Or, if consciously heard, it would often be assumed that I pulled in some studio member of my 'All Live Nude Girl Band' to play those parts. For Joseph 'going electric' was, again, regarded as being so Dylanesque, Newport '65 - so out of sorts, it seemed.

But, in truth, I had long played a Fender 'Franken-Caster' guitar. This being a highly modified, Frankenstein of a Stratocaster electric - if without a matching pair of bolts in the neck. The guitar would go through so many 'revisions', I kept a healthy stock of blank pickguards at hand as the platform on which the key electrical components of the Stratocaster would be mounted. From a variety of pickups, to active electronics nestled within, to a split stereo output configuration, it would frequently emerge from The Mad Lab with some new twist - most commonly following a rather nasty electrical storm.

But, like the Frankenstein of Karloff fame, it would be consumed by fire a few years back - sitting in the wrong place, at the wrong time - with most of the damage resulting from smoke and water hoses. And while its basic skeletal form remained, the guitar would not remain play-worthy in the much-revered, Fender 'Relic' tradition.

But I did still have a notably pricey Gibson Byrdland, hollow-body electric available to me, sitting back in Massachusetts. While not of a solid-body character, I reasoned that it would hold me over on the electric front until I got around to replacing the Stratocaster. It would take me essentially three years to do so, with so many other projects and prospects on the plate ...

TELECASTER CUM STRATOCASTER

For several years, with my Frankenstein Stratocaster still actively throwing children down a well, I would sit at the home of friends who possessed an earlier design of Leo Fender: The Fender Telecaster. With a genesis that dated back to 1949, it would be the first production model solid-body electric - as a precursor to the more 'advanced' and 'futuristic' Stratocaster of 1954. And yet, both guitars live on as standards of this day, always remaining in production throughout the years - if in a variety of configurations, vintages, and places of origin.

But the more I played these Telecasters, the more I liked them. Even as it related to aesthetic considerations, I became increasingly attracted to the Telecaster. While Leo Fender set out to make the follow-up Stratocaster more 'futuristic', I increasingly saw the Telecaster as more sophisticated. Understand that, in defiance of conventional perception, sophistication does not imply greater complexity - it's often quite the opposite. Consider the sleek and minimalist Jonathan Ive designs of Apple computers against a Windows Tower, say. So, to my eye, while the Stratocaster was more 'modern' by design, the Telecaster was more 'contemporary' (and yes, there is a difference between modern and contemporary).

Even the minimalist, machined control knobs of the Telecaster are representative of a more sophisticated industrial design - relative to the plastic, broadcast-style knobs, sporting function labeling and numeric legends - as found on 'The Strat'.

But all of the above would mean little if - as a musical instrument - the guitar was lackluster in character or overly confined in its tonal variations. And it was this very notion that made me increasingly attracted to 'The Tele'. As what would be a two-coil, two knob design - combined with a three position switch - the guitar was capable of genuinely useful (as in, musical) variations. But more than this, over time, I came to realize that amidst all of the knob-tweaking I would engage in with the Stratocaster, I would often center in on settings that would resemble - if not replicate - a Telecaster sound. And, with this, it became clear to me that I could get to my selected tonal preferences faster on a 'Tele'. This, even with the Tele-specific tweaks and modifications that resided in my head, if in the academic.

This, coming from someone who - through much of the late 1990s - wondered just how much a particular electric guitar selection mattered. After all, with sounds so frequently processed by way of distortion pedals, tube clippers, and a tall rack of yet other tone-modifiers, you were often left to wonder if one was listening to a guitar - or rather, an array of 'pedal and rack' timbres that just happened to be triggered by a six-string instrument - be it a Fender American Deluxe or an Asian Squire. This notion naturally put some finger-nuanced, playability issues aside.

But then I thought my sound isn't entirely reflective of their sound, after all. So yes, the guitar mattered. Still. All of this would conjure an episode where, upon once engaging an aggressive overdrive distortion mode with a series of knobs, someone would ask - with a knotted brow, What's wrong with the guitar?. This, as her daughter sat there in a state of nirvanic rapture, unable to contain a fiendish smile that comparatively made The Joker seem catatonic - but there you have it.

Still, applying raunchy dirt to a guitar signal is the easy part. What I listen for is more elusive - if only as the 'start point': A sound that's innately clean - yet shy of clinical. A mix of the laboratory, with the sonic sprinkling of a drugged-out Billie Holiday, say. And, moreover, an effective way to selectively alter the ratio. For me, the Telecaster was quite capable of that. And the configuration I chose, in particular, could pretty much do it in spades ...

With so many different Telecaster variations from which to choose, the selection process can be potentially daunting. This, not only in terms of configurations, but also as it could narrow down to individual samples. Indeed, I would also consider one of the MIM (Made in Mexico) Telecasters as I had a long-held curiosity about them. This, in part, based upon my readership who is often interested in more modest offerings within better reach - combined with my nearly uncontrollable passion for taking the underclass and transforming it into the upper-crust. It's a perverse hobby, I know - particularly when you have the cash to just buy a Custom Shop Fender, and screw it. But for me to really demonstrate the transformation of Eliza Doolittle to My Fair Lady, I'd probably start out with an inexpensive Squire (the Asian-born Fender) and take it from there. Then again, perhaps not. I was, after all, principally seeking my guitar in this instance - not yours.

And yet, as it related to the notably popular Mexican Fenders - as well as comparative wood selections, I consulted someone who had, over the years, likely played damn-near most everything going in an electric: Doug Adams ...

Doug would voice, "I've handled a lot of the MIM Teles and Strats and have found quite a few good ones, but not as consistently as their higher priced, American sisters ... You might have to play a few, but there are jewels out there ... I mean, Mexicans built most of the Fenders in the 70s and 80s ... Just these days, they don't have to cross the border every morning to work ... Youngest brother, Kirk, purchased an American Made Custom Shop Strat and was VERY pleased ..."

"Many people lean towards ash - my '74 Strat is alder and has never let me down - and is lighter - so it's a toss up. I have Tele, as well, and play it a lot. I'm sure you'll be pleased ..."

... Perhaps Doug's Fender Mexican Worker History Assessment Was a Bit Abridged ...

Fender Cum Grass-Blower  

I would, over the next day, spend some quality time with an array of Telecasters at The Guitar Center in Natick, Massachusetts. I knew the best days and times of that location, with a relatively clear floor and few competing distractions. With this, I made several rapid switches between the Mexicans and The Americans - playing them 'dry', without amplification, at first

And in my rapid trade-offs, testing for playability, I must say that the Mexicans did quite well. Assuming the same neck profile, there were some differences between the two groups - that which I couldn't entirely put my finger on (no pun) A somewhat different feel, while keeping the fretboard woods the same. And yet, I couldn't cite one array as being decidedly better than the other. By my assessment, either could be tweaked in the setup to come even closer to one another. In fact, the worst-playing of the entire group was an American Telecaster - if uniquely. It happens. While not atrocious by any means, it just wasn't setup right, either straight from the box, or someone at Guitar Center - customer or employee - had fucked with it a bit. But my assessment of the Mexican Fenders was that playability was not a deal-breaker with some applied tweaking. This, as applied to my playing style. And for those of you playing rhythm guitar parts in a country band, spending much of your time with cowboy chords near the headstock, I can't see how any of this would make too much of a difference. I say this without elitism - rather, as an observable fact.

It should be additionally noted that I heard - anecdotally - that Mexican Fenders started to clean up their act around 2008, offering better consistency along the production line. I've also heard faint whispers that the MIM Telecasters were of a slightly better build, generally, relative to their Mexican Stratocaster counterparts. I cannot affirm either. It may, perhaps, be true - but the Guitar World is often riddled with folklore. I merely offer it for your own consideration.

But there would be yet other considerations. Most notably, the electronics. I was told by two luthiers over the years that the potentiometers (pots) and switches in the Mexican Telecasters were often essentially identical to The Americans - or generally so, based on their experience (not as true for the Stratocasters). But the pickups ... it was here that there was some cost-cutting at all times. And upon plugging my candidates in - yes - the Mexican-based 'pups' weren't as refined, to be sure (as it related to the 'clean tones'. It's very important to 'normalize' the volume between guitars in these comparisons, by the way. Don't be confused or influenced by the 'hotter' pickups. But understand, the stock pickups in the Mexican 'Standard' Telecaster were still quite serviceable - just not quite up to those found on the American Standard.

Still, the question beckons ... What if your plan is to swap out the pickups, anyway? That's a point that might deserve a sustained consideration. It did for me, as my future plans called for a noiseless pickup array. The thing is, as you start pouring more parts into the MIM Fenders, you can end up just a few hundred away from their American counterpart. That said, if you plan on swapping out components on an American version of the guitar, one has to naturally apply that additional cost - with both considerations taking on a greater significance if one has to pay someone to do it. But certainly for the young who may have to tender improvements over time - as funds allow - I think the Mexican offerings are truly excellent as a foundation on which to build and for many adults, as well - and for modifiers, in particular. At a basic buy-in street price of only $500 for the Standard Tele, these Mexicans are a truly fine value. Really.

But my Telecaster would be found shortly thereafter, following some deep research - while also having the benefit of previous, Stratocaster experience - that which helped hasten what could otherwise be a far more lengthy quest ...

The guitar would be crafted by The Fender Custom Shop ...

For those not entirely familiar, The Custom Shop is the relatively small, boutique area of Fender. When Eric Clapton or Keith Richards - among a host of other notables - have particular requirements, this is the team that brings the artist's imagination to a place of tangible reality. The Big Boys get specialized attention, naturally, but The Custom Shop also serves up several ready-made instruments that are conjured by the staff.

There are 'Master Builts', with one guy (alas, no girls) building the guitar. And then there are 'Team Builts' as an ensemble creation. They offer complete 'Clapton Replications' for those lost in the belief that such an acquisition will make them sound like Eric, rather than themselves - or for those who believe it will give them some special karmic connection to their idle. Other 'Artist Series' are also in attendance.

The more curious offerings include the 'Relic Series' whereby the team takes a nicely setup, vintage-replicated Fender and then fucks it up with razor blades, car keys, cigarette burns, acid-etches, and coffee stains - all artistically executed, Fender hastens to proclaim. The abuse can cost you an extra $1,000 or so. Now that's Sadomasochism. But for those who like to be scarred, without having any earned-memory of the event, The Fender Custom Shop curiously offers this apocalyptic series in spades. For me it's almost as perverse as a contemporary Jew specifically requesting a shaved head and tattoo - paying a premium for the indignity. Silly, silly consumerism - made all the sillier for those with more money, I would eventually come to learn ...

 


Yeah ... It's New.

This fresh sample of a new Fender Custom Shop Relic Telecaster - complete with scrapes, dings, checked finish, acid etching, and much in the way of rusted hardware will set you back $5,750 ...


I, on the other hand, preferred a Custom Shop creation without the prestigious cachet of mutilation. I desired a nicely crafted instrument that offered much in the way of musicality. One that would, to a greater extent, include the very modifications I had in mind for an off-the-rack, American Standard Telecaster ...

The Fender Custom Shop offerings leave many of my more thrift-minded readers behind, I know. A 'low-end' Custom Shop has a current street price of just over $2,000. A more common price bracket for these boutique instruments would fall in the $3,000 ~ $4,000 range. Yes, that's a long way from Mexico, indeed. But much can still be learned here - particularly for modifiers, as well as for those interested in a higher-end example as a point of reference to be used in consideration of purchases more modest. Let it be said, up-front, that no one should feel slighted with a standard-issue Telecaster, by any means. It is the small refinements, along with low production runs, that can elevate a price three-fold - relating to a number of product offerings and categories.

For those with an intimate familiarity with the variety of Telecaster inceptions, a quick glance of my guitar may lead one to conclude that it's a 'Nashville' configured Telecaster, sporting the signature three pickup array (as opposed to the more usual two). But no. Those are traditionally outfitted with the 'Tex-Mex' pickups -- or some similar variant (depending on American or Mexican), rendering their own, distinctive sonic character.

For readers somewhat more familiar with Fender history - and possessing an even more observant eye - the small toggle switch between the control knobs may conjure thoughts of the relatively short-lived, Telecaster Plus - Version II, where the three pickups were evenly spaced, relative to the first version, with two bridge pickups placed side-by-side. You're closer, yes, but the 'Tele Plus' incorporated three Lace Sensor pickups, unique in their appearance - as well as sound.

Indeed, the closest cousin to my Custom Shop Telecaster would be the rather limited run, Telecaster Deluxe of 1998 (through some of 1999) While 'Deluxes' still very much exist, their configuration would be changed after 1999 - back to a more traditional, two pickup arrangement commonly associated with the Telecaster.

The three pickup arrangement uses Fender Noiseless units across the array, with the outer two - at neck and bridge - being 'Tele-based'. The middle noiseless, however, is pulled from a Stratocaster.

With this, we need a way to regulate the coil traffic and its associated wire routing of the three-pickup array, so a 5-way blade switch - as used in a Stratocaster - would be loaded into the control panel, rather than the 3-way employed in the more standard, two pickup Tele arrangement. And a sector of this 5-way blade is, in turn, wired across a two-way toggle switch, loaded between the control pots. All combined, this provides seven 'tonal centers' for this Telecaster, relative to the more common, three variants.

While this added complexity may seemingly pull away from my premise of the Tele getting me to my preferred tones faster, it should be noted that the 'standard Tele' can still be selected. I regard the middle Strat pickup as being a 'value added'.

One may wonder - with the center Strat pickup used in isolation - if the guitar, indeed, replicates the Stratocaster sound when it's central pickup is selected in isolation. To which I say Kind of. Sort of. Perhaps even close. But when you're loading an identical pickup into a different form factor with a different mass and 'resonance nodes', replication - in the absolute - simply isn't possible. That said, it still certainly sounds 'Strat-like'.

But this would not so much be the point in this instance - certainly not exclusively. Rather, the charm is found in the merger between the Tele and the Strat. Some very useful and interesting tones emerge. Play around, and you can coax some tones that are almost acoustic-like - decidedly more so than those dialed in on many other solid-body electrics. Add a very light and judicious touch of phase and chorus downstream, and those quasi-acoustic tones become almost bell-like. Certainly very musical in timbre. Even the snootiest of first-chair players in the orchestra wouldn't be offended.

Be that as it may, as one whose platform is almost exclusively within the recording context, the Fender Noiseless pickups were the first modification I had in mind if I were to purchase a standard-issue, Tele sample. But here, The Custom Shop had done it for me. Back in 'the day', when recording with 'single coil' guitars, one had to position themselves 17 degrees, due west of magnetic north during winter solstice with a 10 gauge copper wire running between the bridge plate and a cold water pipe.

When I first encounter 'Noiseless' some years back - as one who didn't much favor the conventional, parallel-coil 'humbucker sound' applied to a solid-body Fender - I rejoiced. The humbucker arrangement mated to the hollow-bodied Gibson Byrdland, understand, is of another animal - as the one animal Ted Nugent won't kill with usual, assassin-like glee. But we're otherwise talking about a man who would celebrate the release of deer in Dealey Plaza so he could sit comfortably perched in the Book Depository with a lunch. I mean, when Nugent's own record label feels compelled to imprint his CD jackets with 'No animals were injured or killed in the making of this recording', there may be a problem there ...

But I digress.

Be that as it may, while noiseless units do pull somewhat to the side, sonically, relative to the 'classic sound' (as if there were only one of those for any Fender), it's not sizeable enough to even be regarded as a 'tradeoff', in my view. The 'Tele Sound' is still very much there, without alarm - and easily coaxed to a particular direction with modest downstream tweaks. Amplifier selection, after all - for those not going 'direct-injection' into the console - will impart far more of a sonic signature than a swap to noiseless-versioned pickups ... as will the cabinet, the driver within - and the very microphone used to capture it, along with its positioning. Christ, the room can be more of a defining moment. It should be noted, however, that the height adjustment of any Fender Noiseless pickup is of critical importance (often differing from Fender's own recommendations). There are those who have shunned these pickups simply because they weren't set up correctly.

In any event, the question may be beckoned, does this arrangement - no matter how versatile - justify the high cost of a Fender Custom Shop offering? In a word no - not as viewed in isolation. While this particular array of pickups isn't offered in any contemporary, off-the-rack Fender (nor even as a 'stock item' from The Custom Shop, currently), the pickups are certainly available as a 'part', with yet other stock, wall-hanger Fenders incorporating noiseless pickups of some sort. Further, the pots and switches used for traffic regulation are standard issue, Fender fare. Perhaps pots are individually selected for the smoothest electrical taper, but I really tend to doubt that.

For modifiers, in particular, the entire array - inclusive of switching options - can be rather easily replicated at a lower cost. I suppose the Nashville-formatted Telecaster would be the easiest starting ground, with the body already milled for the central pickup - along with the additional pickguard cutout to accommodate the same. (NOTE: I hear there are Telecaster bodies out there that already have the milling for the central pickup, below the two-pickup guard. They may just exist in some of the Mexican Telecasters - I really don't know. But make a mental note of this, in any event).

But there are yet other considerations ...

The crew at The Custom Shop get to pick the best wood samples from the shed pile. Actually, there's another staff that selects the pieces for them - separating samples as 'Custom Shop', 'American Standard', 'Mexico' kind of like that, as told. The Asian Squires, I believe, are farmed locally. But know that some of the selection is based upon grain aesthetics, it should be noted. Still, my Custom Shop is denoted as having 'premium ash' in its body construction, while the neck is a single piece of birdseye maple, more figured at the headstock, seemingly more 'flamed' as one moves up towards the body. Quite attractive, really - and is a visual hallmark that separates this Custom Shop Telecaster from the rest.

The body is finished with a notably thin coat, described by Fender as 'Transparent Blonde' - even though I would describe it as, perhaps, more translucent in character. I prefer to refer to it as 'Naked Blonde' because - you know - I'm a pig. But in any event, the Ash grain remains quite visible below the finish.

But there's a reason I first audition electric guitars 'dry', without amplification I'm listening to the guitar's innate resonances, inclusive of its sustain. Understand, not all of what you hear will translate through the pickups, but aiming for a 'nice sounding acoustic' in an electric - yes, even in a solid-body - can be telling of its more common, amplified character. It was here, as it related to this guitar, that I heard 'more'. More resonance, more sustain - no matter how subtle (relative to other Ash bodies). It could have been the 'premium ash'; it could have been the thin finish layer; it could have been the number of pieces used in the body's construction. Perhaps, it was a little bit of everything. But this does raise a consideration

American-made Fenders have bodies that are formed with two or three pieces of wood. One piece bodies are notably uncommon out of the Fender factory - with most dating back to the early days. Mexicans can have between 3 to 5 pieces used in their construction (though three is seemingly more common in more recent Mexicans, I'm told. The selection of a natural, clear coat finish assures it). The low-end Squires from Asia are typically made up of 5 to 7 pieces, explaining why they're only available in opaque, paint-like finishes.

My particular sample is comprised of two pieces, as is common out of The Custom Shop. There may well be a reason for this Whenever a glue joint is imposed between two pieces of wood, there's a change - an 'interruption' - in mechanical impedance ... that which would tend to partially impede a 'continuous-run' resonance. To the chagrin of many reading this - no, this isn't a matter of online, 'Guitar Forum' opinion. It's a law of physics. And the more one imposes differing mechanical impedances, the less resonance - and sustain - one may expect. After all, high-end luthiers often select - or concoct - their adhesives to impart the least amount of suppression. There are a host of yet other factors, it should be noted.

That said ...

There are those who would favor the more common, three-piece construction - and such an argument could have merit, certainly within the realm of the academic In a three-piece construction sample - where the outer two pieces form the 'wings' of an electric - this means that the neck, the pickups, and bridge plate are all mounted on the same, centrally located plank of wood. This, if in theory, could have advantages relative to the bolt-on components riding a center-split glue joint. Like I said, this perspective has merit as a point of consideration. What isn't known is if such an advantage might be offset by the additional glue joint required for its construction. I say, have a listen (better realized 'dry'), as there are no consistent formulations between any two pieces of wood - or pieces of joined wood.

This said ...

Be aware that Fender produced some guitars with a continuous veneer glued over a pieced body. I don't know which ones they may have been, but be conscious of their existence. With all of that glue wrapping the body, they would be the ones I would most shy away from, frankly. The 'veneer issues' should not be confused with the limited-run, 'George Harrison, Let It Be' Telecaster, with a thin core of maple, wrapped in solid  (relatively thick) rosewood, front and back. This 'lamination' can't really be regarded as a 'veneer', per se. But here, you'd be dealing with a guitar with yet another tone, entirely, in any event. A very different animal. And it still may not be a particularly resonant guitar. I really don't know. I've never played one.

Let it be said, by the way, that any single plank of wood will have varying mechanical impedances across the sample. But these are not the functional equivalent to a glue joint and should be considered differently. The impedance variations across a single piece of wood are part of what defines the 'overall'. Glue joints contribute nothing. Or, more precisely, nothing positive.

As to the Asian Squire owners, incidentally, don't become overly fixated on the above. If you have found 'your sound' with a below-the-surface construction that resembles a butcher block, you're entirely good to go. Play on So many of you are finding your 'tone' and 'sustain' by other means. And there are, indeed, some accomplished guitarists who keep a Squire on hand for their particular timbre (though often times retrofitted with other pickups).

But this two-piece Ash body does display the fast-attack and distinctive high-end associated with the wood - yet rounded by the maple neck, smoothing the curve somewhat. This is why solid maple is often mated with the ash bodies. Rosewood on the fretboard, say, would harden the upper register to the point of brittleness (not true when mated with an alder body where maple or rosewood becomes a matter of tonal preference). Naturally, the actual neck profile also comes into play. My Telecaster has the more modern 'C' profile, with a 9.5 radius, which is my slight preference for playability. That said, I've always been able to adapt to most anything, and there are those who prefer the tonality of the 'D' profile. For me, the presence of either wouldn't be a deal-breaker.

But one of the most alarming things about this guitar upon first encounter is the sheer weight and mass of the instrument. Think almost 'Les Paul' heavy - likely yet another contributor to its sustain. For the live, stage player, I imagine it could become quite fatiguing. But for those of us sitting on a stool in a studio context, you simply poise it on your lap. Here too, the lack of the Strat rear cutaways - implemented by Leo Fender to reduce 'rib compression' - doesn't matter much in the studio easy chair. Still, when I picked up a friend's Strat in these recent days, made with an alder body, it felt like it was made of the balsa wood used in the old model airplanes of childhood, such was the weight contrast. Inversely, I imagine a longtime alder Strat player would be alarmingly unprepared for my guitar as they pulled it from the stand. While I haven't put them on the scale, at least the subjective difference prompts a real sense of 'wow'. For some, perhaps 'ouch'.

But beyond this, the Custom Shop Fenders do sport an absolutely impeccable fit and finish - and seemingly do so consistently, across the run (well, except for those fucking 'Relics'). Even the tortoise pickguard - that which I don't often favor - has a particularly nice pattern, almost like a carefully controlled paint splatter in a medium red. It keys in quite nicely with the 'Naked Blonde' finish, in any event, and I have little temptation to switch it out to basic black. The 'aged white' cover on the central Strat pickup also plays well, visually, against the Naked Blonde. Good thing, too You definitely don't want to swap covers on a Fender Noiseless pickup The packing density of these pickups are so tight, attempted removal of the cover can damage the coil with relative ease.

But more significantly, the setups of these guitars are generally first-rate. I only had to ever-so-slightly tweak the intonation on the low-E. And a micro-tilt adjustment aperture is there at the neck plate, should that ever be required. In truth, as it relates to playability, this may just be best Fender guitar I've played - if by a relatively small margin (assuming a proper setup). But, on the other hand, I haven't played dozens of these things like my friend, Doug.

And while there are those who may not favor the high-buff gloss of the birdseye maple neck - front and back, inclusive of fretboard - I found that it in no way impeded whatever I wanted to throw at it based upon what I play. If I was sweating on stage - or playing this back when I was 16 - it might be a different story, however. Still, as of this day, it all comes across as effortless (even with the .011 strings I often load).

A few minor disappointments ... While Fender has selectively begun to incorporate copper shielding within the pickup apertures - along with the control plate well - if, in only a couple of models, none would be used in this Custom Shop. Yes, even with 'noiseless' pickups - in the recording context - if you can lower the noise floor by even a decibel or two, you go for it if only as a matter of form. But that's an easy addition as one of the most common modifications associated with Fender guitars - yeah, even with noiseless coils (read 'low-noise', instead).

But ADDITIONAL NOTE: The internal cavities are, indeed, 'screen painted'  with a flat black paint that is, in fact, conductive. But having a resistance between 50 ~ 150 ohms (depending on probe separation), it's still not the equal of copper. No shielding was present on the underside of the pickguard, it should be additionally noted. Also know that Telecasters - as a genre - aren't as hum-prone as the Stratocasters. Still, copper is in this guitar's future.

Secondly, the internal solder connections weren't entirely first-rate in their execution (though see the added 'Epilogue Amendment' at this article's close). I was compelled to go in with a pencil iron and renegotiate those connections. But I'm an anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsive when it comes to such things. Or perhaps, instead, I've merely had experience - one that has revealed some of the anomalies associated with even moderately sub-standard solder connections, if over time ... Nevertheless, I can't imagine Fender employing the solder from Radio Shack which - over the past several years - has, in my view, produced some the worst spools of silvery shit as I've encountered in my lifetime. It's usable, yes - but sometimes you really have to work at it. Again and again.

But while I was there I swapped out the provided mini-toggle switch between the control pots, installed by Fender. To me, the switch was just too light in its 'latch' - more so in one direction, than the other. While this might have been preferred by stage players looking for a quick pinkie execution - perhaps Fender's thought - I installed something more ballsy and decisive. Perhaps such is a reflection of my personality

In any event, I had originally entertained a brief overview that took a look at some of the 'jacks' I'll be plugging the guitar into, from studio amps and their microphone capture, to the much-improved and often remarkable digital 'Amp Designer' as an integral part of the Logic Studio Pro 9 software I currently use for recording on a Mac. But, upon consideration, I decided that this might be better served with a separate article, even if in short-form.

And yes, I may well pick up a Mexican Stratocaster one weekend to give you some better insights regarding this genre, following a more relaxed and thorough examination.

But with over a dozen printable pages here, I've given you enough to swallow in a single sitting, I reason.

Save one thing ...

While being of a lower price than a new, notably expensive Gibson Byrdland guitar, these Fender Custom Shops can be pricey, to be sure. And, again, one shouldn't feel 'slighted' with a more standard-issue Telecaster. Starting at about $1,000 for a 'Basic American', they're all very worthy instruments. As to my Custom Shop ... The guitar I featured above is a minty-clean, barely played, 1996 limited-run, 'American Classic' Custom Shop sample that would essentially be the precursor to the Tele Deluxe of 1998. It was secured for all of $1,350. See the logic now? I would have spent as much - or more - modifying an off-the-rack, basic Telecaster to this Custom setup that incorporated most of the changes I already had in mind. This, while otherwise tossing original pickups, swapping out the blade switch, and adding the mini-toggle between the control pots (which would've been the most nominal part). And this, without some of the Custom Shop refinements - such as prime wood selections, perhaps.

But a lesson should be learned here ... While there have been some 'instant collectibles' among The Custom Shop offerings - such as the flower-powered, Monterey Pop (very limited) edition, these guitars - more generally - can take a sizable hit in monetary value (and only monetary value). In fact, as a percentage of value, the 'Custom Shops' may take a bigger hit than a nicely cared-for, garden-variety Fender guitar. Again, outside of a few guitars specifically designed to be instant collectibles, these are not 'investment-grade guitars', despite some promotional claims - nor should they be. Not for the artist. Let this be good news for you. It may just let you get a nicely refined guitar ... for a song.

Play on ...

EPILOGUE AMENDMENT: Upon closer internal examination, I have some tell-tale evidence to suspect that the wiring scheme may have been temporarily modified by the original owner -- then switched back to the as-intended configuration. If so, it would likely explain the somewhat sub-standard soldering work I felt so compelled to clean up -- this perhaps not as a reflection of The Custom Shop handiwork, after all.

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