In Search of the Perfect Guitar

There are a lot of guitars out there. Millions of them. Trying to find a good one can be a difficult and a never-ending task. Obviously, guitarists have their own preferences too. So, it helps to know what to look for. I decided to investigate this more closely.

Not enough electric guitars

Being a bit of a nerd, I made a spreadsheet of measurements of each guitar I own, from weight to fret size. The logic was that I would probably find clues buried in the data, and a pattern would emerge.

Half of my guitars have a Fender scale, the other half a Gibson scale. I seem not to care. Using 10-gauge strings, Gibson scale guitars tend to be slightly slinkier, but that’s a double-edged sword where you trade lightness for grip sensitivity. However, all of my guitars have Rosewood fretboards. So I can definitely tick that box.

The number of frets seems not to matter. I have a mixture of 21, 22 and 24 fret guitars. I generally don’t get up that high. But what about the frets themselves? After straining to check, it seems that I have acquired a mixture of Jumbo, Medium Jumbo, Medium, Modern (tall thin), and Small.

Nut width seems to be pretty consistent around 42.2mm to 43.2mm. I doubt that 1mm makes a lot of difference. If anything, the neck profile is more important, and I think that I’m very much in the slim ‘Oval C’ camp. My guess is that the neck has to be comfortable in your hand, and I have a nastly habit of wrapping my thumb around. A satin finish helps with mobility too. Gloss necks can be a bit sticky.

I had thought that fretboard radius would be important, because I love the 7.25″ radius of the 1960-style Strat. But it turns out that 9″, 10″, and 12″ fretboards can be just as nice to play.

What about string spacing? The narrowest is 49mm and the widest is 55mm. That’s a 1.2mm difference in string gaps at the bridge. That’s quite a lot, though I’m not so sure it matters. I’m starting to think that I’m missing something.

What about tonewood? Besides the rosewood fingerboards, it appears that maple necks and mahogany bodies are a common factor — apart from the alder Strat and the ash 12-String. Maybe we’re getting somewhere. Or maybe they’re just the most common tonewoods.

I know, weight. The Les Paul and 335 style guitars are both almost 9 pounds and have great sustain, but so does the SG, which comes in at a rather skinny 6.6 pounds. Hmm.

Looking at three single coil guitars and three humbucker guitars, I decide to quit while I’m ahead. Finding the magic formula is harder than it seems. The only commonality betweeen my guitars is the neck profile (slim/oval C) and fretboard material (rosewood). I am disappointed that the results of my experiment are so uninteresting.

On the other hand, I’d look pretty silly if all my guitars were the same. Vive la difference!


Fender Custom Shop ‘1960 Super Relic’ Stratocaster

I’m ending my mini review series with the guitar which helped get me back on my musical journey — the Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster. It’s the guitar I never wanted. Ever since my youth, I’d seen the Strat as a symbol of Rock machismo, and the choice of Guitar Heroes around the world.

Fender Custom Shop 1960 Stratocaster in Shell Pink

So what changed my mind? I actually played one.

Well, I played a few, to be fair. They were unremarkable, but this one was a completely different ball game. It felt like it had been designed specifically for me — apart from the colour. I might have chosen something other than pink, but when I found myself playing Shine On You Crazy Diamond in the shop, Pink seemed a strangely appropriate colour.

Nearly 2 years on, and I wonder what it is about this guitar which makes it special. It’s not just me too. The shop salesmen all commented that it had been getting a lot of praise and admiration from the punters. They were a little sad that I bought it, because they wouldn’t be able to play with it when the shop was empty. So, what is it?

The first thing I always notice when I pick up a guitar is the neck, and this one has an unbound oval C profile maple neck with a worn-in satin clear nitro finish, a dark rosewood 7.25″ radius fretboard, 21 medium frets, and a 42mm bone nut. It fits my left hand perfectly. Rhythm and lead styles work equally well, and I love the vintage radius.

The Strat’s belly cutaway was a revelation when I first tried one, and cannot be underestimated for a person who equally enjoys pies and pints. Relearning the guitar after 30 years was definitely made easier with the Strat’s ergonomic touches.

The 2-piece alder body also has a nitro finish. There is something special about the weight, solidity and resonance of this guitar which seems to help with its tone. Maybe it’s the alder. Maybe it’s the nitro. Maybe it’s the ideal weight, at just over 8lb. Maybe it’s the custom shop builder’s attention to tonewood selection. I can’t put my finger on it.

The pickups are vintage 60s style, and look nothing special. Like the rest of the guitar, they are made to look older than they are, and this includes the vintage pole piece stagger, which has the side effect of boosting the 3rd plain string. Looks can be deceiving. They sound amazing, and have bags of chime, warmth, and character.

The bridge is a vintage style 6-point floating tremolo with cast steel block and saddles, just liked you’d want. The saddles are artificially aged, but this doesn’t seem to have affected their capacity for fine adjustment. I’m not a fan of tremolos, but they do seem to add a certain character to the tone, even if you don’t use them.

The rest of the hardware is pretty standard for a 60s Strat. Vintage Kluson tuners, 5-way pickup selector, witch hat pots, and a triple-ply white pickguard (which has gone a bit green), concealing a neck-butt-end truss rod screw.

To complete the illusion of age, the finish is what Fender calls Super Relic. I do feel that this can be likened to buying pre-ripped jeans, but I can appreciate that the pale green plastic, tarnished nickel, eroded finish, and scratches and dents galore, gives the guitar a certain feel. And not only that, as the most expensive guitar I own, I’m not so worried about bashing it.

Next time, I’m going to look a little deeper into what maybe makes a guitar good. But will I ever find out?