10 Guitars You Need to Know #5: The Superstrat!

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The Best Guitar in the World? The Evolution of the Strat to the Superstrat

Could there be such a thing as the perfect guitar? Especially during the speed and shred movement of the 80s, the hunt for the ideal guitar was on. Guitarists were stretching their technical prowess to the limits of what is physically possible. A guitar that allowed them to concentrate on highly complex playing whilst simultaneously rocking the show with stage acrobatics led to the emergence of the Superstrat.

A guitar that allowed them to concentrate on highly complex playing whilst simultaneously rocking the show with stage acrobatics led to the emergence of the Superstrat.

Preferred by the likes of Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Steve Morse or John Petrucci, the Superstrat is more like a style of guitar, rather than a model or brand – and a bit like the term “sports car” – can be applied to many different types of cars that share a focus on performance.

There are many manufacturers specializing in such guitars (Jackson, Ibanez, ESP, Music Man, etc.), but the focus is always on playability and sound – kind of the opposite approach to guitars like Flying Vs, which emphasize visual style. And as so often is the case with guitars, the superstrat traces its origins to the 1950s. We guitarists are a traditionalist bunch…

As the name implies, Superstrats owe their design DNA to the Fender Stratocaster. When the Strat was released in 1954 it marked a mini-revolution for guitarists, in that it simply ticked all the boxes of a great guitar:

An original Fender Stratocaster from 1954
An original Fender Strat from 1954
  1. Tone
  2. Sleek Design
  3. Comfortable playability
  4. Versatility
  5. Character
  6. and in true Fender fashion, value for money

Certainly in the 50s, during the birth of popular music, this combination of features quickly made the Strat into arguably the most iconic guitar ever. Popularized by the likes of Hank Marvin and Buddy Holly, the Strat ended up in the hands of Jeff Beck, Clapton, SRV and David Gilmour (to name just a few). And of course Hendrix – it is no coincidence that the High Priest chose a Strat to burn at the sacrificial alter of Monterey Pop.

So what made the Strat such a success?

Apart from great value for money (drawing on a production-oriented approach similar to the Telecaster) the Strat looked beautiful, with a sleek, clean aesthetic drawing from 1950s car designs. It introduced the widely copied synchronized tremolo design, which gave rise to an entirely new form of playing. Hendrix pioneered the “dive bomb”, where the string’s pitch is lowered suddenly to make it sound like… a falling bomb.

Hendrix pioneered the “dive bomb”, where the string’s pitch is lowered suddenly to make it sound like… a falling bomb.

Jimi
Jimi Hendrix performing onstage, in the late 1960s.

The Stratocaster was the first guitar with three single-coil pickups, giving it a wider range of sounds. Each pickup on its own will give the typical, bright single-coil sound, whereas selecting two pickups simultaneously will result in a very distinctive tone known as a quack, whose squashed mid-frequencies cut through in a mix fairly well.

You can hear it on “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits.

Another innovation was the double-cutaway body, with two “horns” either side. Their purpose is to give easy access to the higher frets, but still give the Strat optimal balance. This is because the strap should be attached at around the 12th fret for a comfortable standing position; and when sitting down, it helps to slot the guitar over your leg, hence the lower “horn”.

For added playability, the body of the Strat had an ergonomic, contoured shape that wraps itself around your torso. Stratocasters of the late Fifties also had an Alder body (lighter than Ash, with a strong and balanced tone).

Frankenstrat is born

The Stratocaster became known for its versatile sounds and ergonomic playability, the go-to guitar for anyone playing highly technical, fast and complicated stuff. But with its low output single-coil pickups, the standard Strat was less suited to driving amplifiers into heavenly distortion, which was increasing in popularity during the 70s and 80s. This is where the Strat received an extra dose of Kryptonite and became… the Superstrat.

This is where the Strat received an extra dose of Kryptonite and became… the Superstrat.

There is no definitive superstrat model. Essentially, it’s a Stratocaster adapted for a faster, more technical playing style, often with the addition of humbucking pickups for a more high-gain sound and a more advanced vibrato system*. The blueprint for the Superstrat was created by Eddie Van Halen – his iconic red/black/white guitar, pieced together out of lots of other instruments, became known as the Frankenstrat.

He took a standard Strat body and stuck a Gibson PAF humbucker on the bridge position, which helped deliver better distortion and a thicker sound. And to stop the guitar going out of tune from his aggressive use of the whammy bar, he put in the recently-invented Floyd Rose Locking Tremolo. This is an advanced vibrato system that locks the strings at the saddle and nut – this keeps the tension exactly constant so the guitar will stay in tune even after extensive dive-bombing. The monster was created!

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Superstrats hit the music shops

Combining playability with thick, easily distorted sounds became increasingly popular in the 1980s metal wave, and soon other manufacturers started producing their own Superstrats. The Jackson Soloist or the Ibanez JEM are good examples. Essentially, they look like a Strat, but with some features to optimize performance for faster, clearer, more accurate playing at higher levels of distortion.

Common Superstrat features are:

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The Ibanez Jem
  • A thinner, “fast” neck, which facilitated finger movement and accuracy – ideal for shredding
  • 24 (or more!) frets, to expand the range and get those high, soaring notes during the ecstasy of the solo
  • Neck-through-body designs, where the neck follows through the entire body. This increases note sustain as well as smoothening the joint between neck and body for added comfort
  • Different tonewoods. Basswood was a favourite, being extremely light in weight but with an aggressive, gnarly tone.

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    The Jackson Soloist
  • Humbucker and single-coil pickup configuration. The single humbucker gave the beefy tone and high-gain output for better overdrive, while the single-coils maintained the bell-like clarity
  • A sharper, pointier design, visually representing the speed, aggression and precision of the shredding genre. Sleek modern paintwork completes the look. And the Ibanez JEM, designed by Steve Vai, also has a characteristic handle cut into the body

Naturally, many of these improvements have drawbacks. For example, the neck pickup on a Fender Stratocaster is located at the third harmonic point where it picks up particularly rich overtones. This is right under the 24th fret, so most superstrats will compromise on this. Or if you prefer chord-work and a more relaxed playing style, you might get frustrated with the superstrat speed-machine, whose sleek necks are made for sweep-picking arpeggios… Ultimately though, it’s a question of playing style.

The best guitar in the world?

The question itself is absurd, because we all have different bodies, hand-sizes, musical and aesthetic preferences. But for those seeking optimal playability, balance and comfort for complex shredding and finger-tapping, a powerful and versatile tone that drives an amplifier into powerful distortion while retaining definition and staying in tune, the Superstrat, in its many forms and variations, is the way to go!

Vibrator or Tremolo?

There is much understandable confusion over these terms. Technically speaking, a tremolo is a change in note VOLUME, whereas a vibrato refers to a change in PITCH. But somewhere along the way, guitar manufacturers confused the words, applying the term tremolo to the pitch-change and vibrato to a modulation effect that changes the note volume (a bit like a Leslie Rotary Speaker). So for the more pedantic people such as me, a whammy-bar should really be called a vibrato effect, not a tremolo…