writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: Telecaster v Stratocaster

Serving the Song: or, Noodling the Knopfler Way

guitar magazine april issueI bought a guitar porn magazine the other day (be still, gentle reader, I just mean a guitar magazine, called, with devastating originality, Guitar Magazine). The visual image that drew me to it was Fender’s new Acoustasonic, but at £1,799 it’s unlikely to be troubling my bank balance any time soon.

Like the other industry I mentioned, the world of guitars and guitar people has its own annual convention where you can interact with the models of your choice and, no doubt, see performances: but the other thing that drew me to the front cover was the ’50 + Pro Tips from the biggest names in guitar featuring Gilmour, Vai, Beck and more…’

Many of these were entirely sound and sensible, without being particularly ground breaking. However, the one that struck a chord (doh! unintentional pun, honest!) was Vince Gill, sometime guitarist with the Eagles, who said: ‘the real purpose behind the guitar playing on a lot of those classic records was to serve the song. It wasn’t just somebody out there blowing a bunch of riffs over some changes. All the guitar parts were beautifully thought out, very well composed and unbelievably memorable.’

Well said, sir – which leads me to my unexpected  purchase the other day, and its unintended consequences. I’ve blogged before about the relative merits of The Stratocaster and Telecaster models of guitars, and how, for various reasons, my heart lies with the Tele.

However, when the Redoubtable Mrs F drew my attention to a Rockburn Strat copy going for 30 quid in a charity shop in town, I had to have a look. And there she was, languishing in the window, with the handwritten caption of ‘£30 worth £100;’ the hundred being a mite ambitious for a Rockburn, according to my post-purchase internet research.

However, she was definitely worth the 30 if she played at all. It was always going to be a brief relationship: my original idea was to stick it on a Facebook group for 50 quid, giving the proceeds to charity; but she’s now going to Jefffest007 – le concert dans le jardin in July, where she’ll be raffled off to a bunch of folk with more guitars than sense in aid of Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH).

Back home after work, I plugged her in and gave her a try. She sounded pretty much like a Strat, and the action was good.

Here’s the thing. If you look closely at both guitars, even those of you who don’t play will see differences. They have different pickups – the means by which the sound of the string resonating against the wood is picked up by the electrics for further amplification. The Tele has two knobs, the Strat three. If you lay hands on them and fiddle about with the selector switches, you’ll see that the Tele has three switch positions, while the Strat has five. In many ways, these differences are a result of the Strat being developed 4 years after the Tele. It’s a bit more of a sophisticated design, to be fair.

Does any of this matter? I hear you ask, stretching and yawning. To an extent, no: in the end of the day, all both sets of electrics are doing is producing a signal, which can then be manipulated in any number of ways by amplifiers and pedals. With the right pedal, you could make either of them sound like a Hawker Harrier jump jet taking off if you really want.

But. Played unadorned and with minimal amplification, they do sound different. I’ll not drone on about the different settings and tones, because if you’re a player you probably know all of that already, and if you’re not, it’s frankly probably not that interesting. However, the one setting which is of interest here is on the Strat, and it’s the second switch position from top.

I had this song, you see – ‘the Silence In Between,’ which I’d written early last year, and I was pretty keen on. However, when I shared it (amongst others) with a couple of close confederates, it wasn’t the one they picked out. I kind of knew why: it’s at heart a country song, and my original demo just had my voice and some fingerpicked acoustic guitar. It needed something else.

In an ideal world, what it needed was some understated pedal steel guitar – preferably by someone who could really play pedal steel guitar, rather than me just giving it a bit of a go – but in the absence of either, the song sat at the back of the queue for some time. I wasn’t serving it properly.

Then, the night I acquired the Rockburn, I had some free time to play it, and hit on the idea of some gentle noodling on it being the answer to the song’s problems. If you’re not familiar with the instrument, you’ll still, I think recognise its tone in the second-from-top switch position: it’s a particularly sweet, sound, which you can probably hear in all sorts of artists’ work, but which I associate most with early Dire Straits records.

Mark Knopfler isn’t quite the megastar he was these days, and is reportedly all the happier for it. However, I still maintain some of his best songwriting is on Dire Straits’ first album, where he played, almost exclusively, a Fender Strat, without much in the way of effects pedals or anything else. And I’d say one hell of a lot of his solos were on that second position from top setting. (He was subsequently to get his own guitar designed for him that was a hybrid of Strat and Les Paul. But that’s another story).

Now, I wouldn’t for a single second compare my noodling on this to one of the best guitarists in the world’s playing, but, in spirit at least, it’s meant to evoke the same feel to the track. And to serve the song, which, let’s just say, is meaningful to me at least.

Enjoy – and don’t be shy of adding your feedback. This may well not be the final version. Particularly if I can lay hands on that pedal steel player.













The Microphone that turned into a Guitar: or, ten years a slave to acoustic

I had a microphone that turned into a guitar the other day. No, it’s true I tell you! Selling a surplus to requirements Røde M2, the only offer I got was from my old mucker Jeff Sniper, the epnonymous organiser of Jeffest: he had a Telecaster, and did I fancy a swap?

Did I not just! The last electric guitar I’d owned was ten years back, and it was a CMI (anyone heard of them?) Stratocaster  copy that I disposed of shortly after Tribute to Venus Carmichael got going. There were three key reasons why I’d got rid:

1. It wasn’t very good. The whammy bar was long gone. Some of the pickup positions didn’t work at all: I’d bought it off a guy in Dundee in the 80s for £40, and occasional attempts to get its electrics repaired had foundered;

2. Most obviously, the whole Venus Carmichael schtick was going to be built around plangent acoustic sounds, not soaring Hendrix style fuzz-soaked soloing (even if I’d been good enough to do that);

3. Tony Blair.

This last one perhaps needs more explanation: around that time, Blair had made it known by the usual media that he’d bought himself a red Strat. Now, in the interests of political balance, I should stress it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been Blair, Alex Salmond, Paddy Ashdown or Iain Duncan Smith who’d made that announcement: it would still have pushed the poor old Strat out of any realms of cool it had once inhabited into the distinctly tepid. And yes, I know Blair had actually played in a band at Oxford, another fact he was somewhat desperately keen to play up. It was called Ugly Rumours, apparently. Yeah, I know.

To be fair, it wasn’t all about Blair. Although the Sainted Jimi had played one, other former guitar heroes who did had kind of gone down in my estimation in recent years: step forward Eric Clapton, who may have the status of deity to some, but whom I’d seen during his heroin years at Edinburgh’s Playhouse, and was sorely disappointed. Step forward, also, one Mark Knopfler, although I keep saying his reputation’s due a reappraisal. Then I listen to one of his solo albums.

(I should stress that some very fine guitar work has been, and continues to be, done, on Strats, including by Isaac Brutal’s lead guitarist, Graham Crawford. If you want a proper considered comparison between these two legends of Fender you could do worse than this one.)

The Telecaster, on the other hand, is espoused by Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. And, on my trip to Nashville in 2011, if I was in any doubt about its prominence in country music, the massive Tele in front of the Grand Ole Opry’s radio HQ was a bit of a clue.

And then, of course, there’s Dylan. I knew he’d favoured Telecasters on that fateful 1966 tour when he went electric: I’d even been moved to poetry about it:




Pictures with Meaning: Bob Dylan with Liverpool kids, 14 May 1966

Tiny rock jockey

coming up on the rails

the zeitgeist

riding his coattails

cup final afternoon in Liverpool

parents watching

Everton come back in black and white

the kids drawn

to the big car

the man

in a floppy hat

Feinstein fusses: at last they settle

suddenly still

jammed in a doorway


Pic: Barry Feinstein

Dylan stares

dead centre

of this grubby maelstrom

the kids

one hiding his laugh

one serious, buttoned up

one snot-sweet girl, mostly smile


two streets along,

a brick falls

worked loose on a bombsite


in three days

Dylan will die

when the folkies crucify him

then rise again

new electric god

playing it fucking loud

while the kids, oblivious

use jumpers for goalposts.


What I didn’t know until recently was that the one the Bobster used was, instead of the classic cream, black with a white pickguard, at Robbie Robertson’s request. The same guitar was up for auction this year, apparently. Robertson ended up owning it and playing it till the paint fell off and he had it sanded down to the wood: it sold at the auction for $490,000. Probably Tony Bloody Blair bought it, come to think of it.

Anyway, my guitar isn’t a Fender, and it ain’t going up for auction any time soon. Here she is: isn’t she a beaut? She’s a Harley Benton copy, and she’s even got the previous owner’s iconic Sniper logo on it. I’m not taking that off: I really like that she’s already had a history with another player, and I’m not wanting to wipe that history out.


Pic: Jeff Sniper

And yep, purely by chance it’s black with a white pickguard.

Anyhoo. How much will I play her? Not as much as the acoustics, unless Mr Brutal decides the third guitarist in the band needs to go electric any time soon. Venus Carmichael will still be founded on plangent acoustic backing, so you can hold back those shouts of ‘Judas!’ But…

When Jeff handed her over, he mentioned that she was a good guitar to write songs on, and one advantage of owning her for me is kind of the opposite of what you’d expect. Because already, I’ve had reason to crawl out of bed before the rest of the household with a song idea (most of these critters come to me first thing in the morning, and if I don’t tie them down in some way they just keep on going) and play the chords through unamplified, on the Tele. Much quieter than the acoustic if you don’t plug her in!

2008, which is kind of the year that this whole journey of changing from a fiction and poetry writer to a songwriter began, seems a long time ago in many ways. I do believe that people – and guitars – come into your life sometimes for good reason. I’m never going to be the next Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Robbie Robertson for that matter. But I’m still going strongly in that musical direction I set off on in 2008 (or, to be more accurate, a journey I restarted then) and I reckon being tooled up with a Tele isn’t going to do any harm.

So thank you, Jeff, and may the Røde be with you, and serve you well. We’re both travelling the same road (see what I did there) so, for us and other dreamers who find stuff gets in the way of that dream, here’s an inspirational story from Mr Robertson about that 1966 tour, when a black and white Telecaster guitar was all that stood between them and the uncomprehending world.





















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