Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien’s main instrument since 1996 was an Eric Clapton Strat. But when the band began moving towards a more electronic sound with 2000’s Kid A, O’Brien felt keyboards were replacing his beloved 6-string and sought a way to “make it not necessarily sound like a traditional guitar.” To that end, he and his tech installed a Sustainer unit, and the modified Strat—which has been creatively employed on In Rainbows, Hail to the Thief, and The King of Limbs— inspired Fender’s new Ed O’Brien Sustainer Stratocaster.
The EOB is a handsome instrument, blissfully devoid of any indication of the artist’s ego on the front. Only the custom “Flower of Life” logo on the back—representing distances between the heavenly spheres as identical to those between whole and semi-tones—gives any indication of its signature status.
Lacking massive paws, I usually don’t take to beefy necks like the EOB’s, but somehow found this one quite playable, perhaps due to the excellent setup and fretwork. The JB Jr. pickup in the bridge position offered a combination of punch and clarity, much like its namesake Jeff Beck, while the Texas Special middle pickup serves up classic, if underused, Strat middle pickup tones. Still, it’s the Fernandes Sustainer Single-Coil Driver in the neck position that sets this model apart. As a “normal” pickup it may not be strictly vintage, but it is identifiable as a Strat neck pickup, and will produce the traditional tones thereof. The sustainer part of it is controlled by an on/off toggle, and a 3-position switch that offers Harmonic-Only, Fundamental-Only, and Blend positions.
To quickly clear up a couple of misconceptions: a sustainer is not an EBow. I found it more like a “Feedbacker” pedal, usually offering either a fundamental or octave harmonic feedback when engaged. According to Fender: “The sustainer works best on the wound strings and may need a little coaxing on the plain strings. If the action is high then it will be very difficult to achieve consistent sustain, and make sure that the sustainer pickup is set to be 1/16” away from the bottom of the strings when the strings are depressed at the last fret.” Though the sustainer came set up correctly from the factory, my experience was that some notes came on immediately, some needed coaxing, and some just wouldn’t sustain. Things that helped were distortion and volume, the same things that aid natural feedback, while not requiring nearly the same volume as the real thing. I found the Harmonic-Only setting worked better on the plain strings than the Fundamental setting. Learning to use the Sustainer was like absorbing a new instrument, and as I got more familiar with it the results were more consistent. In the end, I found its mild unpredictability inspiring and part of the fun.
The EOB is already worth the ticket as a standard guitar, but adding effects like heavy reverb, choppy tremolo, and long delays to the Sustainer will also allow you to fit into less traditional environments. Whatever your musical situation this guitar is a versatile, playable, sound generating machine.
Ed O’Brien Signature Stratocaster
PRICE $1,099 street
NUT WIDTH 1.65”
TUNERS Fender Klusons
BRIDGE 6-Saddle Vintage-Style Synchronized Tremolo
PICKUPS Fernandes Sustainer driver (neck), Texas Special (Middle), Seymour Duncan JB Jr. (Bridge).
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, Sustainer Volume, Sustainer On/Off Switch, Fundamental/Harmonic/Blend Switch
FACTORY STRINGS Fender USA 250L, NPS .009-.042 Gauges
KUDOS Well built, Versatile.
CONCERNS Sustainer has a learning curve.