The Physics of the Fender Stratocaster

The Washington Post reported in June that annual electric guitar sales are down from 1.5 million to less than 1 million. Fender and Gibson, two of the largest manufacturers, are in debt. These numbers surprised me because I see the electric guitar as the cornerstone of rock music. Most fans could name a song with an iconic guitar riff in five or fewer notes (game show idea.) Some of my favorite songs with unforgettable riffs include Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” and Guns ‘n Roses “Sweet Child of Mine.” Guitar riffs are part of our musical memory, dopamine-inducing electrical signals stored in the auditory cortex of our brains.

If you live in Austin Texas and want to buy an electric guitar, you drive to the Guitar Center on Anderson Lane. I decided to buy a used electric guitar, but the selection overwhelmed me. Then I saw it, the black and white Fender Stratocaster. Is it a coincidence that four guys designed a guitar that looks like a woman’s body? The curves, the cutaway top, and the black-white yin yang symbolism spoke to me. My Fender Stratocaster is a Squier model mass-produced in a factory in Indonesia. The first time I held it, I was surprised by its weight compared to my acoustic guitar. The guitar body is solid and laminated with a thick lacquer finish. After a few months of lessons, the scientist in me wondered, how does it work? Two words: electromagnetic induction. Does the name Faraday ring a bell? Unless you are a scientist or studied physics at some point in your life, maybe not. Michael Faraday conducted an experiment in 1831 that linked electricity and magnetism. He noticed when he moved a magnet in and out of a coil of wire, it induced a voltage and a current was produced. Without Michael Faraday’s discovery, there would be no electric guitar. Maybe it’s time for a Faraday Fender Stratocaster.

So how does electromagnetic induction work in the electric guitar? When a guitarist picks the string, the vibration is sensed by the electric guitar pickup. A pickup consists of a magnet wrapped with several thousand turns of copper wire. The pickup converts the string’s vibration into an electric signal that flows into the amp and through a speaker to produce sound. Unfortunately, a single-coil pickup can also amplify nuisance electrical signals that result in an annoying hum. Enter the humbucker pickup. Some words are their own definition. In 1934, Electro-Voice, a South Bend Indiana audio company discovered that if you place two pickup coils next to each other, wound in reverse, the nuisance electric signals are canceled out which “bucks the hum.” Many Fender Stratocasters are outfitted with three single-coil pickups, but my Squire Stratocaster has two single-coil pickups and a hot bridge humbucker. What does it mean when a pickup is hot? Get your mind out of the gutter. The answer is more science. The stronger the signal that is sent to the amp, the higher the output of the pickup, which means the sound will be easier to distort and thus “hotter.”

I recently discovered that Fender sells a Tex Mex Stratocaster pickup. Makes perfect sense to me, eat a chicken Del Pueblo taco at Changos on Guadalupe and work on some sizzling guitar riffs. Fender also sells a Jimmie Vaughan Tex-Mex Stratocaster. I’ve been a good girl this year, Santa.