Guitar manufacturers have long offered “signature” models: instruments based on those used by famous players or built to their specs and then marketed to the public. Indeed, one the most iconic and enduring electric guitars, the Gibson Les Paul, introduced in 1952, literally features famed guitarist Paul’s signature on its headstock to this day. More recently, everyone from Brian May (Guild) and Randy Rhoads (Jackson and Gibson) to Robert Smith (Schecter) and even Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel (Ernie Ball Music Man) have lent their names to distinctive guitars.
Fender’s first signature model was its 1988 Eric Clapton Stratocaster, which remains in production, and such artist-affiliated axes — including Jeff Beck, Billy Corgan and Merle Haggard models — have become staples of the American company’s line. Its latest artist model, however, offers an interesting take on the signature concept. In collaboration with the legendary guitarist’s estate, Fender has created the Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster which, rather than mimicking his instruments exactly, aims to retain their good features while discarding the bad.
Hendrix was one of the early high-profile fans of the Fender Stratocaster. However, he played left-handed, and southpaw Strats were hard to find in the mid-1960s. His solution was simple but significant for his instantly recognizable tone and technique: He used right-handed Stratocasters flipped over “backwards” and restrung for left-handed playing (i.e. with the bass strings at the top and high strings at the bottom).
The drawbacks of this novel arrangement were the longer upper horn of the guitar’s body now being positioned on the bottom, thus impeding access the higher reaches of the fingerboard, and the volume and tone knobs, pickup selector switch, and tremolo arm (or “whammy bar”) becoming awkwardly arrayed beneath the wrist of the strumming hand.
“I think mainly Jimi Hendrix adapted to the guitar. I don’t think the guitar being upside-down was any sort of advantage,” says David Neely, a veteran Hollywood guitar tech whose clients have included Keith Richards, Metallica, Chet Atkins and U2. “I think that he figured out that he liked the sound of the pickups and liked the whammy and then he would just tolerate everything else.”
An Upside-Down Guitar for Righties
What Fender has essentially done with the Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster, 45 years after wildly innovative guitar hero’s death, is to offer a right-handed Stratocaster with the model’s normal body shape and contouring, but with a reversed headstock and pickups. The design focuses on “inverted” factors that actually affected Hendrix’s sound while retaining the familiar playability and comfortable ergonomics of a regular right-handed Strat (over 90 percent of guitarists are right-handed).
Fender’s Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster press release claims that the Mexican-made guitar’s reversed, 1970s-style headstock “produces a longer string length for the bass strings, creating a tighter playing feel along with easier bending and vibrato on the treble strings”. However, because these altered string lengths occur above the nut (the slotted spacing device at the top of the fingerboard), any change in string tension would be imperceptible to a player’s fingers.
“The [string] tension, theoretically, stays the same,” says Neely.
But the Differences Aren't All Cosmetic
The Jimi Hendrix Strat’s “flipped” pickup configuration certainly impacts its sound. The staggered heights of the magnetic poles (i.e. the respective gaps between each of these and their assigned string above) in its three pickups are arrayed in reverse compared with those of a regular Stratocaster.
“There is a certain resonant frequency that the B string likes … most guitars have this resonance, but it’s more pronounced in the Fenders, especially the Stratocaster,” Neely explains as he examines the Jimi Hendrix model. “To kill some of that resonance, which was a voltage spike, [Fender] submerged the [pickup] magnets so that would diminish the output of the B string … to balance overall [output] string-to-string.”
On the new Jimi Hendrix model, the “submerged” B-string pole is beneath the A string and the overall staggering of all six poles is back-to-front. How noticeable the resulting change in relative string-to-string volume was when the guitar was being shredded through a Hendrix-style fuzz box, wah-wah pedal and raging Marshall amplifier is debatable, but the difference is undoubtedly there.
Perhaps the most tonally significant feature of the new Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster is the reversed slant of its bridge pickup. This puts the pickup closer to the bridge (where the strings are tauter) beneath the bass strings, rather than vice versa on a conventional Strat.
“The positioning of the [bridge] pickup is critical,” says Neely. “It’s going to make it maybe have, just like Jimi might have had, a little more edge to the bass.”
Sorry, You're Still Not Hendrix
So will the Jimi Hendrix Stratocaster make mere mortal right-handed guitarists sound like the man himself?
“No! Because it’s all in the hands. … The Jimi Hendrix approach is not something you can just mimic by putting a guitar together like this,” Neely insists.
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“[But] I think anybody that wanted to give [Hendrix-style playing] a go, that this would give them an edge. If they’re a Jimi Hendrix kind of stylist, I think they should try this.”
Or maybe hardcore right-handed Hendrix purists can simply buy a left-handed Strat and flip it over.