Hello fellow gear heads and guitar lovers one and all!
I wanted to do a quick tone public service announcement for all the Stratocaster players out there. Like many of you, the Fender Stratocaster was my first electric guitar. It was my first guitar love and as such it’s what I’m most comfortable playing on a daily basis. It’s the first guitar choice when I reach for one out of my collection. I always get asked about the small things I do to my Stratocasters by my students and I wanted to take the opportunity to clear up one of the most common questions:
“Why does your guitar not have the plastic part on the back?”
That’s a really good question. For starters all of my Stratocaster heroes like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix did it, so at first it was a simple matter of copying anything they did. I was very impressionable as a kid and thought that if you copied what Hendrix and SRV did you could eliminate as many tone variables as possible and get a good tone out of your guitar playing. As I became a better guitarist, it was one of those things that I never changed. It was always automatically a thing that I did to my guitars. I later learned three important tonal changes it did to my instruments.
Tone Change #1: You Can Change Strings Easier!
On Stratocaster guitars the plastic backplate tends to get in the way of putting fresh guitar strings through your tremolo cavity and into the string holes in the bridge. The plastic backplate actually forces you to bend strings to fit them through the plastic plate. Potentially this can bend the string and damage the string core which could ruin the tuning stability of your fresh set of strings. Some players remove the backplate each time they change strings, but this can add a ton of time to the activity, and if you’re doing a quick string change at the gig this means more time changing strings and less time playing music. Just do yourself a favor a leave it off all the time. You’ll be able to breeze through string changes with ease, and you won’t put off doing it because of having to deal with the annoying backplate. Remember having fresh strings on a regular rotation on your guitar will make a serious difference in your overall guitar tone!
Tone Change #2: You Can Play with the Springs!
The real reason I believe Leo Fender installed a backplate to his Stratocaster guitars was to prevent players from touching the springs inside the back cavity of the instrument. It does make sense because the springs hold the guitar’s bridge snug to the body and Leo wouldn’t want players unfamiliar to his product messing with internal components that they didn’t know how to fix. However, it is commonplace nowadays for players to have competent guitar techs who can fix any accidental mistakes you might make when playing with your backplate off. So don’t let that stop you from experimenting with tone changes!
One cool advantage players have to playing with the backplate off is that now you do have access to the tremolo springs from a tone point of view. When you touch or pick your tremolo springs it is audible, and anything audible on your guitar can be amplified through your instrument’s pickups when you are plugged in. Whether or not you want to use that in your music is entirely up to taste, but many players like Jimi Hendrix, to Stevie Ray Vaughan, to Eric Johnson, to John Mayer all have utilized their tremolo spring noise in their playing! And when used in conjunction with your whammy bar on a Strat it can make for a lot of fun. Jimi Hendrix used his springs to get interesting noises to come through his in playing when using a whammy bar, or when experimenting with feedback. So, get creative and see what you can do with it!
Tone Change #3: You Increase the Overall Resonance of Your Guitar!
Your Stratocaster’s plastic backplate covers the back cavity of the instrument, preventing players from being able to touch the springs and mess with the ground wiring. However, the plastic does prevent the small amount of acoustic sound vibrations produced while playing from escaping from the back of the instrument. The cavity of your Stratocaster is essentially a small sound hole much like the sound hole on an acoustic guitar. Even though an electric guitar doesn’t produce as much acoustical energy as an acoustic guitar, it does make sound waves unplugged and having a piece of plastic plug up the cavity reduces the number of soundwaves that can escape the instrument. Plugging the cavity up with a plastic backplate actually causes the soundwaves at certain frequencies to be reflected back inside the instrument. The remaining frequencies that come out of the instrument are extremely thin and sound hollow. When the backplate is removed you get all of the frequencies to sound outside the guitar. And anything that sounds good unplugged will sound even better plugged into your favorite amp.
One last idea to think about is taking in this idea in regards to your guitar’s finish. This is much more noticeable through a Stratocaster finished in thin lacquer finishes because the instrument already has superior resonance due to having a finish that bonds with the wood. While you can certainly hear the backplate difference in instruments finished in polyurethane finishes, it is certainly much more apparently in lacquer finished instruments.
So, try this simple trick out and see what it adds to your tone! The subtle nature of the added resonance is great but having access to your guitar’s springs in a jam and having easy access to change strings will definitely improve your playing!