Stroke of Genius

Albert Hammond Jr's oddball Strat inspires a new Fender signature.
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Fender’s newly released Albert Hammond Jr. Signature Stratocaster ($874.99 list) has an interesting genesis. The Strokes guitarist obtained the original instrument when he was 18, used it exclusively throughout that band’s phenomenal trajectory, and continued playing it for a solo career that began with his 2006 release, Yours to Keep. Three albums later, Hammond still works his mix of powerhouse rhythms and intricate melodic forays on the same modified, 1985 reissue of a ’72 Strat that has been his mainstay since 1998.

“It’s a crazy story,” Hammond says, explaining how he acquired the guitar. “I was 18 and walking around New York City trying to get my guitar fixed, and someone told me to go to Matt Umanov’s shop. I went there and they said it would take, like, three months. I couldn’t wait three months, and I was walking back when I met this guy who said he made original handmade strings. So I went to his apartment and got some strings. I asked him where I could get a guitar set up, and he said, ‘Go to Richie’s Guitar Shop on 11th Street between [avenues] A and B.’

“I was expecting a real shop, but it was another apartment. And where you sat down and talked to him was actually his bed folded up like a futon. We kind of hit it off, though, because I used heavy-gauge strings, like .012 sets for rhythm playing, and he liked that I did that. I also asked him for a guitar teacher and he introduced me to a guy named J.P. Bowersock, who became my teacher and also Julian’s [Strokes singer Julian Casablancas]. He kind of mentored us during the first two Strokes records. I was getting a lesson from him one day and he said, ‘Have you seen that white Strat at Richie’s? You should try it out, it’s really nice.’ So I went and tried it, and it was nice. I bought it for $400, and it’s been my guitar ever since.”

The cream-colored Fender Hammond purchased became as singularly associated with him as Lucille was with B.B. King. “It’s weird. When I play anything else, fans get mad,” Hammond relates. “Even in the early days, if I tried something else, everyone would say, ‘No, go back!’ It became a staple of our early sound. All the driving chords I do, or the lead lines that aren’t really solos, are based on those ceramic pickups. It just has this extra push. Normally a Strat sounds a little lighter, but this one is more aggressive. Mix that with my playing style, which is pretty heavy handed, and it kind of drives the intensity of it. I really do believe that this guitar and the way I play was a big part of the sound of our early records.”

Hammond’s guitar had some interesting tweaks that Fender needed to duplicate on his signature model, including a customized wiring scheme in which switch-position four activates the neck and bridge pickups simultaneously, while positions one and three are reversed from the traditional Strat configuration. Hammond emphasizes that, although the guitar has answered his needs over the past two decades, he hopes others will find his signature model to be an inspiring template for their own avenues of expression.

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“My guitar’s a strange beast to begin with, and I just happen to have used it for so long that it’s started to create its own myth,” he explains. “The development of the signature model proceeded very organically, and I’m very proud of the result. It’s as close as I could imagine getting to the original guitar. Part of me is happy that you can’t duplicate it exactly, because the point I was trying to make is that it’s a great guitar to do your own thing with.”

Asked about what inspired the nonstandard wiring scheme, Hammond explains, “Those are tweaks from when I was on the road. I used the middle pickup a lot, and my guitar tech rewired it so that the middle setting was all the way back, so that I wouldn’t hit it out of position when I was playing. Also, I don’t know if the guy who owned it before me did this, but the pots for the volume and tone controls were all different, and that created different output levels than it would normally have.

“The bullet truss-rod nut was huge for me, and I also like the look of three bolts on the neck plate instead of four. I think when you first start playing, a lot of what you gravitate to is the look — before you even know what sounds good or what you want to do. Part of why Fender is so strong is because they have very cool-looking instruments.”

Clearly, the Albert Hammond Jr. signature model required a lot of involvement with the Fender design team to ensure that no aspect was overlooked, and that the final result would be a valuable addition to the company’s line of Artist Series guitars. It’s a process that Hammond obviously took very seriously, and with measured optimism.

“In anything you do, it’s always a compromise, because you can never get things exactly how you want,” he says. “And that’s the point of life, because you’re constantly trying to do that. So I was saying to Fender, ‘It sounds really good, it feels really good, but it would be better if it was a little hotter.’ I love the neck pickup. It’s very warm, and if you roll off the tone and put on a heavy distortion, you get a very cool sound.

“The whole point is that I didn’t want a museum piece. I wanted a guitar that’s going to be used and carried around and broken. And hopefully, 20 years later, someone’s going to go, ‘I discovered myself in this.’”

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