This is the Don Grosh Bent Top Custom HSS. Gorgeous piece of work, fantastically finished, and probably plays like butter. This is the modern epitome of the superstrat – AAA+ quilt top, false binding, mahogany back.
It sells for $4000 in the States – but clearly you get what you pay for in this world and it is an exquisite example of the modern superstrat.
But hang on just a minute, as wonderful as it is, (and it is wonderful), have we forgotten how this guitar, and thousands of others, came in to being? What is the Superstrat? Where did the modern superstrat evolve from, and just when did it become a boutique instrument?
The superstrat comes from humble origins – and perhaps the earliest of the hot rods isn’t really a strat at all –
This was the guitar that Seymour Duncan hot rodded for Jeff Beck. It’s basically a Telecaster, given a kind of ‘Les Paul’ kick. So why didn’t Jeff just play a Les Paul? I can’t tell you his motives precisely, but I can guess at them.
Firstly, it’s about weight. A telecaster is lighter than a Les Paul. A lot of players prefer a guitar to be pretty lightweight, and in fact it seems to be one of the things always sought after in a strat. I’m only a little fella and it’s never really bothered me, even as a vocalist, but there’s no doubt that it’s a consideration for many.
Secondly, it’s a tone thing, or more specifically a ‘Twang’ thing. Tele’s and strats are 25.5″ scale length, Gibsons only 24.75″. The difference that makes is quite marked. The extra tension makes for a very different string response. I notice it most when the neck pickup is played up around the 12th fret – there’s a chime to the sound that even a Les Paul with p 90s doesn’t really get.
Third, feel. The tension, balance and neck of a fender is very different to a Gibson.
Lastly, Harmonics. On a Fender length instrument, it’s much easier to get the harmonics to sing out, especially in the places where they don’t exactly coincide with the fret wires. So we’re talking about the really high up ones, the dog whistle stuff so beloved of Metal players in the 80’s.
So what makes a great superstrat?
Well for me, I like the point where it all started: And for most of us that was the same point – and it was this one guitar in particular:
Yep – Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat. It’s a Charvel body and neck, purchased as factory seconds from Boogie Bodies (the body had a knot in it). It’s only 21 frets, it’s probably about a 9″ radius (as it was purchased in 1974 and we hadn’t got to the flatter radius yet). Most importantly, the trem is standard fender, and the pickup standard Gibson (from a 335).
It’s basically junk, bolted together as an experiment. Eddie got a bit sick of the paint job being copied, so in 79 he painted it red – but carried on playing it live until the Diver Down era, when the Kramers with locking tremolos came along.
So is that the ultimate SuperStrat? Probably not, because it didn’t really stay in tune, even after Eddie had put a brass nut on it! Floyd D Rose made a gift of one of the original Locking Tremolos to Eddie, and suddenly the tuning issue was gone. And that’s when the superstrat craze finally took off.
Yes, that is the same guitar – the one from VH1.
Then everyone else dived in – Kramer, Charvel, Ibanez, Jackson, Washburn – pretty much everything you could buy had a daft headstock and a locking trem.
Pretty much the only two guitars that still emerge with massive street cred at the end of the (actually rather short) production boom of the superstrat were the Ibanez (RG & Jems made famous by Satriani and Vai), and the Charvel (especially the San Dimas guitars). Charvel was played by just about everyone in the Rock & Metal scene, even if they didn’t play them live. From Richie Sambora (who endorsed Kramer in the 80’s, but played a lot of his most famous stuff on a Charvel in the studio) to George Lynch of Dokken (who later moved to ESP). Even Allan Holdsworth used Charvel.
So why have they remained so sought after? Well they were very well made for a start. For their time, the necks were incredibly slick and straight, and they took a hammering without much complaint.
But most of all I think it was the simplicity of them. The original ones seemed to stick very closely to the spirit of the thing. They weren’t particularly fancy, they were hot rodded strats. They had stuck to Van Halen’s original idea and just made the best of it.
But the production superstrat isn’t really the best superstrat. The best ones were the ones we built ourselves, mainly because we were broke.
I remember my first. It was a Vesper Strat. This is how it would have started out:
I purchased for about £70 from Thetford Music – and a reclaimed Floyd. I used a Kahler top lock that I found on an old Washburn that had been stripped for parts, and a Super Distortion that I bought for £20 from a friend. I stripped all the finish off the maple neck and attempted to dress the high spots on the fretboard. Then I disconnected everything but the volume control! I never bothered with the tremolo arm, I just stuck my hand under the fine tuners and lifted the bridge off the wood to shake it. I came across some video on Facebook a while back of me actually using it. Abusing it actually – the thing screamed. And while I had owned a Jackson Dinky and a Washburn at various times, this was the guitar I remember most fondly from that era – despite that on the stand behind me in the video was a 1969 Les Paul Deluxe that I’d also hot rodded with a Seymour pickup.
So the first project of this year in the Workshop is to try to return to that ‘essence of superstrat’ – to build a run of three guitars that take the best of the features of that era of great superstrats. Not only that, I want them to feel like relics of the original era – worn in.
If you’d like to get your hands on one of these, then get in touch….I’m off to start cutting wood!