Talking Fender Trash With Jonathan Richman


(Editors note: Mark Kozlek, Tarnation, Chuck Prophet and Jonathan Richman (speaking only) will be performing June 3, 2006 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in a benefit for the West Memphis Three defense fund. A Fender Stratocaster will be auctioned off. The guitar was hand picked by Chuck and Jonathan.)

"Like gasoline in the sand, Fender Stratocaster/Like a motorcycle at a hotdog stand/Oh and the sound so thin it's barely there/Like a bitchy girl who just don't care/Fender Stratocaster, well there's something about that sound." --Jonathan Richman

I was in a creative slump. Not sure where I got the idea but it hit me that the answer to all my woes could be a new guitar. After playing the same Telecaster since the 80's, I thought switching to a Stratocaster might be the sea change I needed. It's pretty radical, I know it.

Like a lot of sensitive people, guitar shops tend to overwhelm me and I can short out pretty fast.  So I decided to bring an expert consultant to help me through the experience. Who better than the man who wrote the song Fender Stratocaster? Jonathan Richman.

I agree with Jonathan. There's something about that sound.  Don't take our word for it, ask Buddy Holly, the Ventures, or that bloke from the Floyd. Not to mention, Hubert Sumlin—arguably, the first guitar player to play that out-of-phase Stratocaster sound that I thought Richard Thomson invented—or Curtis Mayfield, Tony Joe White, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan. Every-old-body.  And listen here kids; when a seriously tweaked Neil Young turns to Robbie Robertson during the Last Waltz and says"They got it now, Robbie..." what kind of guitar do you think Robbie was playing? You guessed it. A Fender Stratocaster.

To avoid the "Waynes World" vibe—or what Jonathan calls the "Toyota dealership" like atmosphere of the bigger chain store in town, we agree to meet up at Haight Ashbury Music.

We meet up across the street and make small talk about weird and off the beaten path gigs, (a passion of ours). Jonathan writes in my notebook: "Place You'd Love: The Nyabingi Dan Centre in Youngstown Ohio". Name sounds like: Champagne, sportcoats, art matron, and `ethnic' culture. Really is: Old bar run by mechanic-guys with AC/DC on the jukebox and the club in the backroom with lights that they tape up with duct tape.

I pull out my Sony Walkman (a songwriters best friend) and we get down to talking some serious Fender Stratocaster trash over Chai Tea (Jonathan) and carrot juice (me).

 CP: About the Fender Stratocaster. The other night we were talking about Dick Dale. What do you know about Dick Dale?

JR: Dick Dale is one of my favorite guitar players. Dick Dale to me is a dramatic guitar player. There are other guys who can play those progressions that he... fine guitar players. They're fine, they're technical. But what he has for me is drama.

CP: Doesn't he play a Stratocaster with the strings on backwards and crazy high barbwire like action?

JR: Yeah, I've played that guitar. Funny thing is I've heard him play on that guitar two nights in a row. And depending on his attitude it sounded totally different. So, it's not always the guitar, it's the player too.

CP: Ever notice when you play a Stratocaster that the springs in the box of the guitar actually vibrate and breathe, creating a kind of organic reverb?

JR: Not really, but you noticed it. Now that you mention it, I can hear it. And feel it.  Maybe it makes it more like an acoustic box feel. I don't know.

CP: I play a lot of electric guitar not plugged in. So I like that extra psycho acoustical enhancement.

JR: Yeah, and they are all different too. You can play fifty of the same model and they will all sound different and feel different.

CP: Those early Fender guitars were all assembled by little old ladies back in the 50's and 60's. Those housewives got handy with soldering irons during WW2.  We're not talking mass produced instruments. They're all unique.

JR: That's why I like Flamenco guitars. Each one is so different.

CP: You don't seem attached to any one guitar. Like Hendrix, they're just like disposable Bic lighters to you.

JR: It's not the guitar, it's the player. In fact, uh, my most recent Flamenco guitar isn't even a real Flamenco guitar. It's not made out of the right woods. Made out of walnut. It's twangy. I bought it and I, uh,  I like it.

CP: I believe you, those CYC (Catholic Youth Camp) guitars will surprise you. They say Leo Fender made all the right mistakes. Do you think there is any way that the Fender Stratocaster can be improved?

JR: No way. I can't even think that way. It's just... to me you don't improve on a 1953 Studebaker GoldenHawk. That's what it was.Ya know a 1956 Ford Thunderbird? I ain't going to mess with that.

CP: It's amazing isn't it? Many have tried and many have failed to improve on Leo Fender's vision. They put the fat pickups in there, and they rip out the springs. Can't blame them for trying. 

JR: Inspiration. You can't mess with it. It was one of those days. When someone gets that inspired to do something, you don't mess with it afterwards. Don't mess with success (laughs).

CP: Fender guitars have more tension.  The scale is longer so you really have to tweak them to tune them up to the note. They say that's where the twang comes from.

JR: It is? Huh. I didn't know.

CP: They also say the Fender Stratocaster is the most successful guitar. I bought my first Stratocaster at Guitar Center on Sunset boulevard with my paper route money. I just knew I'd get a Stratocaster.  Aside from witnessing Hendrix play Wild Thing and light his Strat on fire in that clip from Monterey Pop that I'd seen on TV,  and my sisters Beach Boys records. Not sure why, but somehow I just knew. I had no desire for a Gibson. Fender Fender Fender.  Anyway, what about the colors?

JR: Well that's something I do know about... the colors. One of the best guitars I ever had... I walked into a pawn shop in New York in Times Square. Saw a bunch of junk guitars all over the place. I saw one for 36 bucks with no name on it. It was a fake Telecaster.  Don't know what brand it was still. It was blue and white and maybe like an inch thick guitar. Probably weighed like three pounds. A friend was with me and he knew by the way I was looking at it that if it made any sound at all I was gonna take it home. It's one of those guitars. Don't know much about it. All I know is that it was great. Like  I say, I liked that blue. So that's what I wanted.

CP: Maybe someone just made it.

JR: No. It was made by a real factory. Had a name like St George. That's one of the best I ever had.

CP: I have an irrational attachment to my Telecaster. I'm convinced I can't play without it.

JR: There's a reason to that. A Telecaster can do something a Stratocaster doesn't. It's got a little more, what do you call it? Ah, percussion! So you can do something in a band with a Telecaster. Lotsa reasons... does that make any sense?

CP: Yeah, want to walk across the street to the store and check some out?

JR: Okay.

(Upon entering, Jonathan immediately heads for a gold Squire Stratocaster and starts playing the rhythm lick to "I Can See For Miles and Miles" by The Who).

JR: I like that Pete Townsend shattered glass sound. Yeah. (Jonathan throws the toggle switch to the treble position). Here's where you get that percussion. It's a solid body... you can't get that ultra dark tone and the percussion at the same time. At least I don't know how to do it.  (Now he's in the bridge position). I like that dark green or purple tone.

CP: I thought that was a kind of brown tone.

JR: Could be. I like this gold  guitar. I always end up preferring the cheap ones.

Time flies like an arrow and fruit fly's like a banana. Mike, our music store clerk, was a swell guy and let us play as many guitars and make as much noise as long as we wanted. We didn't play every Stratocaster in the store, but we played a lot of them. And eventually settled on the first one we picked up. The gold one.  Coincidently, right around this time, my old friend Angelo decides to give me a Stratocaster as a gift. I've decided to turn around and donate the gold one to the West Memphis Three auction. So if you happen to be in San Francisco June 3, come on down to the Great American Music Hall and put in a bid. It could be yours, it plays and sounds pretty great. We can vouch for it.