Posted on 8th April 2020 by Callum
Fender’s philosophy has long been in mass-production. Their guitars are made from many components, manufactured separately and then assembled at the factory. This means that you can swap out parts, making the Stratocaster a perfect base to upgrade. If you buy one of the cheaper Stratocaster models, you can actually get a lot out of it with new parts and a bit of elbow grease. We’re looking at the Strat as it’s one of the most popular models out there; some of these upgrades are Strat-specific, some are universal. We cover the most popular upgrades and a few of the potential pitfalls to look out for! See what you think of our Top 5 Strat Upgrades below…
We’re starting with the easiest and most routine bit of maintenance every guitarist should be able to do. From the factory, Stratocasters ship with 9-42 gauge strings. Interestingly however, Custom Shop models arrive fitted with 10-46. If you play regularly, your fingers will get stronger and you will feel more comfortable going up a gauge. Heavier strings mean higher tension, so note bends will be a little more difficult and you will have to adjust your bridge tension to compensate.
If you’re happy with the gauge, you can try a different brand of strings. Fender’s Bullet End strings have ends shaped to fit snugly inside the Stratocaster bridge, reducing the chance of slipping or shearing. They also make a variety of strings, designed to give different tones from vintage through to modern. D’addario are often considered brighter and more lively than other brands, and Elixirs are coated which increases longevity.
It’s not a huge cost or time expense to change the strings on your guitar, give it a go and see what you think!
From the easiest upgrade to one which is probably the most tricky for a novice, pickups can make a big difference to your overall sound. Stratocaster pickups are most commonly Alnico with the polepieces themselves being the magnets. On cheaper models a ceramic magnet is stuck to the back. Both work fine but give different tones, ceramic tending to be harsher and a little less articulate – but sometimes that’s what you want!
Original pickups in the ‘50s were deemed low-output by today’s standards, but of course back then that’s all they had. If you want to try and get a more vintage feel to your guitar, put some ‘50s style single coils in there. On the other end of the spectrum, a common upgrade is to use the single-coil sized humbuckers such as Seymour Duncan’s Lil ’59 or Hot Rails in the bridge position. This can turbocharge your output and turn your Strat into an undercover monster.
If you’re not so handy with a soldering iron, you can always buy a pre-loaded pickguard. As all the electronics screw directly onto the Stratocaster’s pickguard, this is an easy change to make and all the soldering is already done! You will just have to solder at three points; the bridge claw and 2 on the jack output.
Swapping pickups is a service we are more than happy to do for you in store – just book in with us and we’ll do all the work for you.
One of the places that cheaper guitars save money is on the tuners. Not to say that they’re anything wrong with them, but you can get better ones for not a massive outlay. Perhaps the most common choice is to put locking tuners on a Stratocaster. This improves tuning stability as there’s zero chance of the strings slipping, and also makes changing strings super easy. Fender’s locking tuners are a pop-in replacement for the majority of Stratocaster, and relatively easy to change. Lots of manufacturers also make tuners specifically to fit the Stratocaster, which can give you more tuning accuracy or simply a different aesthetic.
Another place where manufacturers makes on cheaper guitars is the bridge. Similar to tuners, there’s not much wrong with the standard bridges, but you can usually still get a better one! Stratocasters have a ‘synchronized tremolo’ bridge, held under tension with springs from the back. The block itself is what carries most of the weight, which is what gives the stability. On cheaper guitars the bridge is lighter which can make your tuning wobble around a bit. A straightforward and cost-effective upgrade on a Squier is to put one of Fender’s Standard bridges in there; a much bigger block and you can have confidence that this is what’s on more or less every Strat right up to the high-end guitars.
If you’re into using the tremolo on your Stratocaster, you’ve got to have a slippery nut! Whenever you move the tremolo or bend a note, the strings will slip and slide through the nut slots. Any friction here will catch the string and can cause your guitar to go out of tune. Traditionally animal bone was used, and still is on certain models. GraphTech TUSQ is a fantastic option, specially designed to be slippy and low-friction. You can get pre-cut nuts or blanks. Blanks are a better option as can be cut exactly to fit your guitar and personal preference, although you will need specialist tools for the job.
Please be aware that most modifications you make to your guitar won’t increase its value. If you put all Custom Shop components on a Squier, it’s not suddenly going to command a Custom Shop second hand price. You may make it better for you in terms of sound, playability or looks, but in terms of the average re-sale value it will be lower in the second-hand market.
Not all parts will fit all Stratocasters. If you’ve got a Squier or Fender they should be pretty close, but things like the pickguard screw holes or bridge may not fit exactly. If you use another brand’s guitar or parts of a similar shape, be aware you may have to re-drill to get things to fit.
And if you’re not sure, it’s always best to let a professional guitar tech do any work for you. We are more than happy to do any of the modifications above for you in the shop! There can be a lot of specialist tools and know-how required, so if you do want to have a go yourself make sure it’s on a cheap guitar that you don’t mind making mistakes on.
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