Superstrat is a name for an electric guitar design that resembles a Fender Stratocaster but with differences that clearly distinguish it from a standard Stratocaster, usually to cater to a different playing style. Differences typically (but not necessarily) include more pointed, aggressive-looking body and neck shapes, different woods, increased number of frets, usage of humbucking pickups and Floyd Rose tremolo systems.
There is no formal definition of a superstrat; the categorisation is still largely left to popular opinion and depends greatly on the artist(s) associated with a particular model and how it is marketed. Superstrats are generally suited for heavy metal music played with high-gain distortion.
Genesis, custom modifications
With the increased popularity in heavy metal music during the early 1980s, guitarists began seeking out guitars more suited to the new style, both in terms of looks (more "pointy" aggressive designs) and playability (ease of playing and fatter tone that sounds good with hi-gain amplification). Guitarists such as Ritchie Blackmore, Uli Jon Roth and Dave Murray had used Fender Stratocasters, but each had minor modifications made to his instrument to suit his individual playing style.
Eddie Van Halen was one of the first to build a guitar with superstrat characteristics. Dissatisfied with the performance of then-available commercial-off-the-shelf guitars, Van Halen sought to create a hybrid instrument that would suit his acrobatic playing style. The stock pickups of a Fender Stratocaster were noisy, and lacked the output necessary to drive an amplifier into hard distortion (characteristic of the Van Halen sound), but the body shape and wide pitch range of the Fender fulcrum tremolo appealed to him. An avid tinkerer, Van Halen assembled a Boogie Bodies Stratocaster body with a thin, 21-fret maple neck and a humbucking Gibson PAF in the bridge slot. This guitar, known as the "Frankenstrat" was featured on Van Halen's debut album Van Halen, and pictured on the album cover. It was later repainted with a top coat of red, and has had different humbucker pickups over the years, some of them custom-wound.
While many believe Van Halen's Frankenstrat to be the first Superstrat, Michael Hampton of Parliament-Funkadelic often used a sunburst stratocaster with 3 humbucking pickups and a reversed headstock during the band's tours in the mid-to-late 70's. This guitar can be seen on the DVD George Clinton: The Mothership Connection, which was filmed in 1976.
Soon, other guitarists and luthiers would also apply similar custom modifications to their instruments. Many sources cite Grover Jackson as one of the first (and most influential) guitar makers to have crafted custom shop guitars with all the features of superstrats, doing so as early as 1981. Later all these improvements were integrated in factory-produced Jackson Soloist model.
Starting about 1983-1984, companies such as Kramer, Jackson, Charvel, Yamaha, Aria, Ibanez, and Hamer started mass production of superstrat design guitars due to growing market demand. The rising popularity of heavy metal music led to a new generation of guitarists that employed fast and complex techniques, previously only heard in bluegrass and jazz, which demanded thinner and more versatile guitar necks and stable tremolo systems. Some examples of guitars marketed to this specific audience include:
- Kramer Baretta (1983–1991) — an early guitar with Floyd Rose, one slanted humbucker, but more traditional neck and body contours. Baretta has a close connection to Eddie Van Halen's Frankenstrat — it was designed to be marketed as Van Halen's signature model, but Eddie never endorsed the Baretta in terms of playing it on stage.
- Dean Bel Aire (1983–1984) — an early HSS guitar dubbed "superstrat", despite still using bolt-on neck construction with 22 frets and vintage tremolo).
- Jackson Soloist (officially produced starting August 28, 1984) — HSS guitar with neck-through construction, 24 frets and Floyd Rose/Kahler bridge — the fullest embodiment of Superstrat features to date in a mass-produced guitar, considered by many the first "definitive" superstrat.
During the rest of the 1980s, due to the style's huge marketing success, most guitar companies had at least one model of superstrat in mass production.
Fender responded to the superstrat fashion in the mid-1980s, producing a number of models based on the standard Stratocaster.
- Fender Contemporary Stratocaster Japan (1984–1987)
- Fender Performer (1985–1986)
- Fender HM Strat (1988–1992)
- Fender Prodigy (1991–1993)
- Fender Showmaster (1998–2009)
Gibson also produced some models inspired by the superstrat:
- Gibson WRC (1985–1986) — an early and rare Wayne Charvel model, a line of guitar manufactured exclusively by Wayne Charvel and branded as Gibson.
- Gibson US-1 (1986-1991) — first Gibson mass-manufactured try at the superstrat market
- Gibson U-2 (1987-1992) — second Gibson's superstrat, a somewhat stripped down version of US-1, featuring basswood body without a figured top, dot inlays, and regular pickups.
- Gibson Q series
- Gibson M-III (1991–1994; reissued 2013)
End of superstrat era
In early and mid-1990s, heavy metal and particularly shredding declined in popularity, in favor of grunge, nu metal, alternative metal and other styles. The popularity of superstrats also declined, in favor of guitars more suited to these new styles. Companies that relied on superstrats as a major part of their target market suffered heavy losses and went out of business or were bought by larger corporations:
- Guild exited the solid-body guitar business in 1988. Only hollow-body instruments are still manufactured under the Guild brand after its acquisition by Fender in 1995.
- Hamer was acquired by Kaman Music Corporation in 1988, which in turn was acquired by Fender in 2008. As of 2008[update], Hamer reduced their superstrat selection to just one model, the Californian.
- Dean was sold to Tropical Music in 1990. Superstrat production was resumed by its new owner in Korea.
- Ibanez suffered heavy losses in 1991-1993 and had to undergo a major restructuring of its model lineup, adding such series as the GR ("Ghostrider"), Blazer, TC ("Talman"), RT ("Retro") guitars, and TR ("Traditional") and ATK basses. The older Iceman model and Gibraltar bridge were resurrected as part of the new "vintage" theme. This restructuring kept the company afloat, tweaking its image from a "metal guitar only company" to a more customer-appealing one.
|Stratocaster||Superstrat||Advantages of superstrat||Disadvantages of superstrat|
|Body shape||Original||May be slender and smaller than a standard Strat; May have thinner and deeper cutaways, producing pointier ends; May be arch-topped||More appealing to hard rock and metal players; Gives easier access to higher frets||Less wood under the bridge absorbs more sustain from the strings; Tone may lose its richness|
|Headstock||Traditional Fender "dogleg" design using string trees||Usually angled with a radical "hockey stick" (pointy/drooped) shape. Dogleg designs may feature a string retainer bar instead of string trees
(Some early superstrats feature more Fender-like headstocks.)
|Appearance, more sustain and purer tone on models without locking nut due to increased string angle||Larger heavier headstock can upset balance of the guitar. Shape may be vulnerable to breakage. Strings may bind in the nut on non-locking models.|
|Tonewood||Alder or Ash||Mahogany, Basswood, Alder, Korina, Koa, Ash, Poplar||Alternate woods chosen for good tone when playing overdriven; better sustain. Basswood is a light weight wood with "a nice, growley, warm tone with good mids. A favorite tone wood for shredders in the 80s since its defined sound cuts through a mix well."||Mahogany is heavier; Basswood has a limited dynamic range and is relatively soft and easily damaged cosmetically. Both are not as bright or clean compared to alder.|
|Neck||Relatively thin C-shaped neck and round fingerboard (7.25-or-9.5-inch or 184-or-241-millimeter radius)||Even thinner neck and flatter fingerboard (12-inch or 305-millimeter or flatter radius). Fretboard may be scalloped.||Comfortable playing of shredding leads and tapping||Playing with the thumb hooked over the top of the neck can be more difficult on a thinner neck. Playing chords can be more difficult on a flatter fingerboard. Lower neck mass alters tone and sustain. Thinner necks are more prone to warping and breakage.|
|Number of frets||21 (vintage) or 22 (standard)||Typically production models feature 22 and 24 frets, with 27 frets being increasingly common; some custom superstrats (EC-36, Maestro, Uli Jon Roth's Sky Guitar) feature 36 frets||Extended note pitch range — On 24-fret necks, full two octaves per string.||The harmonic content of the Strat neck pickup tone depends on it being placed directly beneath the 3rd overtone of the open strings, which is the location of the 24th fret. The original Strat neck pickup tone is therefore lost. With a 24-fret neck, the neck pickup is about 2 cm (0.787 in) closer to the bridge. It therefore samples more high overtones and has a brighter sound than the standard position. The more frets are available, the more the pickup has to move, which may lead to situations where the "neck" pickup is actually in the middle position.|
|Neck joint||Bolt-on||Neck-thru, set-in or modified bolt-on||Longer sustain; able to reach upper frets easier||Difficult to mass-produce; more expensive; more complicated to repair if broken|
|Neck joint heel||Rectangular metal plate||Contoured to be slim and smooth||Better top fret access||Complicates mass production and modification|
|String||6||6, but also increasingly reaching to 7 or 8||Wider range toward the bass-end leads and tapping||difficult; longer scale maybe required to keep it in an acceptable tune. Playing chords can be more difficult. Will require better construction due to additional strings.|
|Bridge||Vintage-design non-locking 6 or 2 point tremolo, hardtail bridge||Floyd Rose, Kahler, Schaller or Edge double-locking, Fender Deluxe Locking assembly, Wilkinson or other tremolo systems; May also have Floyd Rose locking and lower-friction nuts (LSR/Wilkinson Roller) and/or locking machine heads||Greater tuning stability; Extended tremolo range||Less traditional sonic palette; More complicated mechanism that increases the difficulty of guitar maintenance. Locking nut can weaken headstock joint.|
|Pickups||3 single-coils (Hot bridge humbucker on some models)||Humbucker in the bridge for fat lead tones. Some models have only one pickup, some have single-coils in the neck and middle positions for traditional Stratocaster tones. Newer layout designs may have an HS, HH, HSH or HHH layout. Overwinding done to increase output; active pickups on some models.||Fatter sound more applicable for hi-gain amplification used in rock and metal music; Less hum than with traditional all single coil pickup arrangement.||Overwinding causes loss of definition and chiming "vintage" tone; Greater magnetic pull of ceramic magnets on the strings reduces sustain; Active circuitry requires an external 9V (or 18V) power supply from one or two batteries.|
|Controls||3 knobs - Volume/Tone/Tone, 5 way blade switch||Various; usually simplified knobs Volume/Tone or just 1 Volume. Pickup switching may be enhanced with coil splitting and phase options.||Less "tone suckage" from wiring and circuitry components; simplified operation. Enhanced pickup switching allows a wide variety of hum-cancelling pickup combinations, especially with HSH and HHH configurations.||Less control of tone without using effects. Possibly more complicated pickup switching.|
|Pickguard||Present (may be absent on certain higher-end models)||May be absent, with pickups mounted directly to the guitar body||More sustain, as the pickups are not mounted on a flexible plastic support; Also unnecessary as picking techniques used in rock and metal music should not scrape against the guitar body.||No scratch protection; different routing of the guitar may also lead to difficulty of maintenance. Reduced ability for modification with different controls and pickup configurations.|
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