Two of Nacho Baños’ Stratocasters arrive from Valencia, Spain and we dig deep into the unmistakable craftsmanship and artful mojo that makes these guitars so stunningly good…
Our November 2019 issue on the Stratocaster chronicled the development of the Stratocaster and its uncertain future throughout the ’50s and early ‘60s in great detail. After a tepid reception by working guitarists that lasted ten years, the guitar languished until Jimi Hendrix arrived in London and set the world on Fire… The Stratocaster has since become a ubiquitous fixture in rock & roll, liberally copied, with so many different iterations created by Fender that it is nearly impossible to catalog them all.
Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Baños resides in Valencia, Spain and his publication of The Blackguard Book and his creation of replica blackguard Telecasters has propelled him to the very top of those designing and building vintage Nocaster and Telecaster reproductions. His work in creating these guitars is simply unparalleled and they are highly prized by collectors and players alike.
Not long ago Nacho began creating Stratocasters in the same spirit and image of his original Teles, and the results are stunning in their authentic look, feel and sound. We received two of Nacho’s Stratocasters for review— a ’50s hardtail and mid ‘50s tremolo model, and we spoke with Nacho at length about the creation of his guitars. Simply stated, the two guitars we received are recreated time pieces that mirror the actual appearance, feel and tone of these historic instruments in obsessive detail Valencia Magic and utter perfection. The aging is indistinguishable from the natural wear that occurs over 60 years of use; the neck shapes are faithful to the V shapes of the originals; the finishes are identical to the ‘50s 2-tone sunbursts: the guitars are proper featherweights with ash bodies, and fret work and playability are flawless.
The trem version of Nacho’s Stratocaster we received weighs 7.3 lbs. with a mid-fifties two-tone ash body— these days that’s very light for an ash guitar. The V-shaped neck is a healthy handful, deep at the back, nicely rounded with a softer V and nearly uniform along its entire length. It’s meaty. The frets are medium-large with a perfect crown producing great sustain and effortless playability. If the neck shape on a guitar is important to you, this one would win you over after three chords. The mildly aged maple neck also reveals vertical grain along its entire length. The aging on the ash body is artful to the extreme, with the finish rubbed off front and back from arm wear and old blue jeans. The nitro finish shows super fine finish checking front and back, and while the back of the neck is aged, it’s smooth as glass. Even the tremolo springs are lightly burnished… You’ll find serial number 4928 on the neck plate, the body and neck date is 9/54 with control cavity tape that reads “Gloria.” All components have been aged. Pickup resistance readings are 5.77K neck/ 5.78K middle/ 6.05K bridge. No detail has been overlooked in putting this guitar together, and it is an entirely believable “relic” that succeeds far beyond the usual appearance of an artificially aged guitar.
The hardtail #7377 sent our head swimming— a nostalgic trip back to 1999 when we owned a vintage ’56 hardtail Strat, only we think we like the neck on this one even better. It’s a harder V, a joy to play, and indicative of one of the great necks carved by Tadeo Gomez (‘TG’) in the mid ’50s in Fullerton. You just can’t do any better. And of course, this guitar is a featherweight at 6 lbs.13 oz. A lot of the original ’50s swamp ash Strats were in this weight range, but that wood has largely disappeared in production guitars today. This guitar succeeds in embodying everything we came to love about our original ’56. The aging on the back of the neck is virtually indistinguishable from a played authentic ’54, the fret work is perfection, and the distress and wear on the ash body is exceptional in its fine detail and execution. It simply looks like an old guitar with no hint of ‘artificial’ aging. In addition to the artfully aged control knobs, Nacho has also reproduced the slightly rounded original pickup covers that do not share the hard edges of current Strat covers, and yes, the pickup pole pieces are aged, too, but not rusted! Pickups read 6.23K, 6.47K and 9.88K ohms. Serial number 7377 is stamped on the neck plate, the body date is TG 9/54, neck date TG 11/54, and the control cavity tape reads Gloria 11/9/54.
Do you really know how an authentic ’50s Stratocaster sounds? Yes, they varied due to inconsistencies in the number of turns on the coils, but in our experience we would describe the Stratocasters from this era that sound especially good as possessing great clarity. When they were good, the old pickups had tremendous depth, with deep and resounding low end, scooped mids and a very liquid treble tone on the neck pickup. In contrast, the bridge is sweet rather than brittle, still with great strength and depth on the low strings, and beautifully shaped treble tones that are lush yet bright. Pushed through an overdriven amp or a great 50 watt Marshall head the bridge pickup will tear your heart out. Played clean, the bridge pickups are also often quite jangly with tremendous harmonic overtones on chords that nearly mimic a 12-string guitar in their depth. When you hear it there is no mistaking this unmistakable sound.
When Stratocasters sound good, they are one of the most versatile guitars ever made. Three pickups provide a wide range of distinctly varied voices, and the sheer clarity and fidelity found in a good set of pickups are unique to this guitar alone. Depending on the amps you use and a few pedals perhaps, you can literally do anything with a Stratocaster… The key phrase here however, is our reference to a “good set” of pickups. Many hundreds of replacement Stratocaster pickups have been wound, and hundreds of thousands made for production guitars. And yes, they can vary to the extent that the tone of your guitar can be tangibly enhanced and uplifted… or reduced to a thin, sharp, and decidedly unspectacular tone that can render your guitar joylessly mundane. Over the years we have acquired and reviewed a truck load of Stratocasters, we built a dozen ToneQuest Strats, and we have always been very fond of the Robert Cray hardtail models in particular. That’s a hint. There is no dearth of guitars for you to choose from, and fortunately, there are plenty of very toneful pickups available. We listed many of them in our December 2019 Strat issue.
The pickups in Nacho’s guitars are, in our opinion, among the very best sounding you could ever hope to experience. Their overall tone embodies a classic ‘50s Fender sound, and even the set that measured in the low 6K range with a whopping 9K in the bridge didn’t sound remotely dark or overwound. How that was done we don’t know, because when pickups are wound with more turns of wire on the coils treble is often rolled off, and the tinsel-like clarity most of us crave is lost. Over winding can result in a muddy tone that just doesn’t work for anything except gonzo soloing through an overdriven amp. Nacho’s guitars are not remotely afflicted with such shortcomings. His neck pickup embodies the pure tone and depth this pickup is revered for, and you should know that when we evaluate pickups we focus more on clean sounds. If you can get that right, overdriven tones are invariably good. What we don’t want to hear are muddy, indistinct lows and mids, brittle treble, or a “hot” tone with trashy harmonics at modest volume levels. The pickups in Nacho’s guitars are utterly vintage Fender— bright, glistening, deep and wide. Overdriven tones are clear with excellent sustain and the harmonics don’t fade when the volume comes up. We referenced the bridge pickups sounding much like a 12-string… And they do. Once you have experienced this intense harmonic depth within chords there is really no going back— you’re hooked. And you’ll be playing the most addictive rhythm passages imaginable.
Nacho’s Stratocasters capture both the beautiful and tough, imposing tones we all want from a Stratocaster. These guitars sing with abandon and they wail with an intensity and sustain that makes solos a breeze. In other words, they tend to sound as old as they look. And they feel and present the appearance of genuinely old guitars without a hint of fakery… If not for the blank headstock and no decal, you would never know these weren’t vintage Strats. These guitars are authentic reproductions right down to the neck dates and strips of signed tape in the control cavities. If you crave a vintage ‘50s Strat but can’t or won’t tote that note, Nacho’s guitars are a cinch, and a bargain as well. The only downside is you’ll have to get in line— they never last long. But he will build more… Quest forth… TQ
Nacho on Strats
Nacho Baños is an artist, and his artistry produces guitars that can fool you into thinking you are holding a 60-year-old relic built by shirtless craftsmen working in a sweaty tin shed in Fullerton, California circa 1954. And that’s the truth.
TQR: How did you develop the specifications for your Stratocaster— did you have any vintage guitars on hand to reference?
Yes, we have three great vintage sunburst strats (1954, 1956 and 1957) in our vault here which we use as a reference for our models.
TQR: The V necks on our guitars are just perfect, and identical to our original ‘56… Do you vary the neck shapes on your guitars to range between hard and soft Vs, or a more rounded C shape in some cases?
Our starting point for our necks of course is the CNC program with two basic shapes (D and V) which in the case of these necks, has been modeled after our favorite 1954 and 1957 Strats. We use the 1954 for the C/D and the 1957 for the V profile. Once the neck is completed, before it gets to the lacquer booth, one of our guys hand-shapes the profile so to give it a more “handmade” feel and approach. We try to get closer to the somewhat labor-intensive operation Leo had in the early ‘50s, with guys like Tadeo Gomez doing most of the final shaping by hand.
TQR: Ash bodied Strats have become a little rare these days, and especially one in a guitar that weighs just 7 pounds… Where do you source the wood for bodies and necks?
As you may know, the current situation with the Emerald Ash Borer and new climate change conditions have turned ash to be a very expensive and hard to find kinda wood nowadays. We have been lucky to source a stock of very lightweight ash which will secure our guitar production for the next 15 years. As crazy as it sounds, one week after we bought the stock, we were offered three times the money we had paid. I am not sure what the situation may be like in a couple years from now, but if things continue to be like this, I´m afraid there won’t be many builders out there offering lightweight swamp ash bodies for their guitars. With the purchase of this ash stock and the very limited quantity of our production we hope we will continue to offer this quality and vintage correct specs at least for the next 15 years. After that we will both probably be locked up in an elderly home, and with a little bit of luck, we may be able to get out during weekends to strum a couple chords while we chat about the good ole days.
TQR: We assume the finish is nitro of course for bodies and necks? We can feel the ash grain peeking through the finish, which is obviously very, very thin…
Yes, we are shooting five coats of finish (divided into primer, sealer and gloss coat) and we sand after each coat. We believe having a very thin coat of finish is key for a good frequency response on the instrument. We have a small local supplier who is making the lacquer for us, and he came up with our own formula after analyzing some of the genuine vintage guitars we use as role models. Nowadays most of these industries are in the hands of large corporations, so we feel very lucky to have a small lacquer manufacturer nearby willing to develop tailor made formulas for us. At first, they were a bit shocked, because their aim was to come up with formulas which will prevent lacquer from chipping, cracking and deteriorating and that’s exactly what we were looking for!
TQR: The pickup covers are also the rounded true vintage shape. Where do you get them?
We buy most of our plastic parts from Hosco Japan and WD in the US. Then we hand shape the covers and knobs and we aged them to the point where they look close to the original vintage parts we see in our 1950s Strats. It’s a long a fun process to age plastic. My main professional background has been plastic injection and tooling/mold making for the last 30years, so we have some experience with that which we use in the guitar making process.
TQR: Even the tremolo springs are aged… Where do you source them and the tremolo block? What is the composition of the block?
David, I will keep the secret on the block composition if that´s okay with you. It took us many years to come with the right combination in that respect and believe me when I say this component makes a world of a difference when you are talking about a vintage style tremolo bridge on a contour body Spanish Electric guitar.
TQR: Who makes the tuners!
We source them from HOSCO in Japan. They are very good quality and we try age them so slightly so that functionality is not compromised.
TQR: The pickups sound gloriously good and very much authentic to the mid ‘50s Fender era. Resistance readings are suitably low in the 5.6K range— as they should be. Who winds them and what kind of research and R&D went into them?
We have been passionate about vintage guitars in general and Fender instruments in particular for over 30 years now. The sound of our guitars is the consequence of that obsession. The hole in our wallets is the other! My dad used to say “Nacho, please, when will you grow up and get over that guitar thing??” Well, I’m going to be 54 this December and this disease, the obsession for good guitars and good tone ain’t getting any better I’m afraid!
The materials (wire, flatworks, magnets…) and process we use are aimed to achieve that magical three-dimensional complex sound of a great vintage instrument. It is really hard to find the correct components nowadays and then you have to combine them in just the correct way. I have yet to find a successful pickup winder to openly disclose his operation…. where he buys his coils, magnets and fibers and how the does the winding. So, I will stop giving out clues here. But I’d like to say this. As much as the pickups are basic element for a great sound in a solid body electric guitar, they are only one of many. There are many factors combined to produce that magical sounding guitar we all quest for. And I would like to say the instrument itself (its structure, how is it built, the wood— maple and ash interacting, how the neck fits the body, the fretwork, the finish) is the most important. If you add great electronics on top of that, that’s the icing on the cake. But you got to have the good combo to begin with. The pickups are microphones. Good, bad, mediocre… but just microphones. And we all know microphones don’t make the voice. They project the voice of the instrument. A voice that’s already there. Blaming the pickups for the voice of the guitar would be like going to the music store to buy the same type of microphone that Luciano Pavarotti used, because you want your voice to sound like his. The proof is you can choose any type of pickup and it will sound different on every guitar you use. The same pickup, installed on a Strat, Tele, ES295 or Les Paul… I guarantee you, it’d be like night and day, totally different sounding. But it’ll be the same pickup. That being said, my tip of the hat goes to the guys in my team who have been working with me for so many years making these great pickups, because they are a very important part of the success of Nachoguitars.
TQR: Frets are perfect— not too narrow… what’s the specification for them?
We are using two sizes and all are nickel silver. The guitars you have come with the 95/47 medium version. We also make an 80/43 vintage style. Our fretboards are radiused at a flatter 9.5” so that helps. Marcelo, my main luthier in the shop, works the frets in a very meticulous way, so that the feel is vintage but the final adjustment is flawless. Once the guitar is assembled and completed, we perform at least 3 Q controls before it is shipped.
TQR: The aging is outstanding. How do you create the fine finish checking on the body and the wear in the edges?
This question goes back to our nitro lacquer local supplier. He is making the lacquer we could buy 65 years ago. It’s like a time machine. Then the long and tedious aging process does the rest. We take about five months from wood cutting to final assembly for making a full guitar, and most of that time is invested in curing, marking and aging the finish. Some people asked me how to age their finishes and sell the guitars by the end of the month? I say that’s impossible. One of the things I like about our guitar operation is that I don’t rely on selling guitars to pay my bills. So, we only make a few guitars every year and we take all the time that’s needed to make them the way we like them. There are many luthiers out there making great guitars and I don’t claim we are any better than anyone. I have a lot of respect for Fender, Gibson, Martin and I really like what Bill Nash, Gallo Negro, Tussart, etc., do. They are all great in their own style. We are just different. We take a long time to make one guitar. And we like to make things in a very old-fashioned way. We are four guys in the shop and we were all born in the 1960s so we are vintage pieces ourselves!
TQR: Who makes your bridge and saddles, all nicely aged?
Nowadays we are machining in-house a good deal of hardware parts. As explained my background is in tooling making, so we have applied some of that knowledge and experience into making some of our hardware when the readily available product did not suit our needs. Aside from saddles, we are making some of our own string retainers, knobs, jack cups, string ferrules and bridge plates.
TQR: What type of pots and switch are used?
The switch is the CRL 3 and 5-way, classic vintage style from WD products. For the pots, we have CTS make our own vintage style models. The current standard CTS pots have the modern 90:10 taper which is pretty useless inside a passive system. Our custom-made vintage pots have a 60:40 taper with a smooth torque that works perfectly inside a passive guitar.
TQR: You even used a proper round disc string retainer!
Thank you, David that little sucker is so hard to find out there with the proper shape, so we had to machine our own model!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you, Liz and ToneQuest Report for all the great reviews and support you have given me over the years. Your magazine is so true, focused and devoted to the mission. And you never take a short cut. You are always direct and to the point. I have discovered so many great products and makers browsing through your pages, it’s always great news when the latest issue shows up in the mail box…In a world where guitar magazines are a bunch of ads piled up together with a few articles, you should be rewarded with the golden medal of life achievement service to musicians. The fact that our guitars are getting the TQR approval stamp really means a lot to me and the guys on my team. Thank you, David and to TQR!… TQ