DIY ‘Hankcaster’ Conversion
Hank Marvin’s Fiesta Red Stratocaster is still the ultimate electric guitar for so many of us. If you can’t track down – or afford – a signature model, let Haynes Guitar Manual author Paul Balmer show you how you can turn any old red Squier Strat into an affordable ‘Hankenstein’ of your very own…
In 1959 Cliff Richard bought Hank Marvin a Fender Stratocaster with gold-plated hardware – some say the first to reach UK shores. That thoughtful gift helped propel Cliff’s backing band ‘The Drifters’ to become The Shadows – Britain’s most successful instrumental group.
Hank was Britain’s first home-grown guitar hero and that Fiesta Red icon launched a thousand guitar careers. From Merseyside to Essex, Manchester to Shetland guitarists all wanted that guitar!
This Hank Marvin Signature Squier, made in Japan as a limited edition in 1991-2 is a useful starting point, you’ll find one on Reverb or eBay for around about £500. But any Fiesta Red maple neck Strat will create a similar visual impression.
To retain a vintage vibe the single-ply pickguard is already 1959-appropriate. The vintage-type bridge with pressed steel saddles are a Hank favourite (though this one should be in gold for proper early Shadows authenticity), but the accompanying ‘low mass’ economy vibrato block is worth replacing
Hank appreciates that guitar technology has moved on since 1959, and so he retrofits his Strats with Sperzel locking tuners and the Easy-mute vibrato arm.
That said he also clearly feels that not all innovations are good ones, as he’s moved back to vintage-style pressed steel saddles and 50s pickups over more modern alternatives. Above all, Hank is pragmatic about his gear, so we’re going to suggest some adoptions for a real performing guitar.
The Squier has chrome hardware so the most obvious cosmetic change is to go gold. These are obtainable from most suppliers, but we suggest going for quality, as some ‘gold’ parts are very thinly plated and soon wear through.
For this project we’ve used Stew Mac, as though not perhaps the cheapest they do offer consistent quality.
Mass helps sustain and a cold-rolled steel block or even a brass one is a good choice as a replacement
Hank currently prefers locking Sperzel tuners for tuning stability, but as the Squier is routed for Gotohs, the locking gold version by the same brand would do the job without any complex woodwork adjustment
All of the screws will need changing to gold ones, including the machine screws for the pickup selector and pickup height adjustment – these come in metric and imperial threads so make sure you get the right ones
The pickup covers here have aged nicely so we should keep those
The signed headstock is naturally a must for the hardcore Hank fan
The most urgent ‘playability’ issue with this guitar is its worn frets. It has been well used and will soon need a complete refret. In an attempt to keep costs down, we’re going to try for a final dress of the existing frets as a short term solution
We use a ‘diamond dust’ file to lose the pits in the frets, while low tack masking tape protects the maple fingerboard
The next step is to re-shape the frets with a hollow ground fret file
Next up we’re going to polish the frets with a series of ‘fret erasers’ – working from 200 grit to 1,000 grit
The neck pocket on the guitar reveals the HM designation on neck and body, suggesting this is in fact the limited edition guitar. The serial number also backs this up
The pickups are economy ‘bar magnet’ types and we would suggest replacing them with more vintage-correct units for a more authentic Apache sound, such as the Stew Mac Golden Age units we’re installing here
Again to keep costs down, we’re ignoring the economy five-way switch – ideally we’d replace this with a more substantial Oak Grigsby, but this works perfectly well as is. The pots also work fine and are full-size not the undesirabale economy micro units
We recommend the using JIS screwdrivers (Japanese industrial standard), as these work really well on Japanese guitars and have a secure grip
The gold Gotoh locking tuners are a direct replacement avoiding any routing or filling. As this guitar was a limited edition of 1,500 it does increase its value over a regular Squier, so keep the original parts for proof of provenance if you’re selling it. Japanese Squiers of this era are highly prized generally
Here are the replacement parts from Stew Mac – they are all the correct specification and should drop into place without difficulty
The Golden Age pickups are designed to emulate the sound of classic 50s single coils with a little extra screening to reduce the hum induction often associated with these early designs
The wax ’push back’ wire is practical as well as authentic in appearance. Careful labelling ensures an easy ‘like for like’ rewiring to the five-way switch. We’re using the original pickup covers which have an authentic amount of UV damage – resulting in a yellow tint to the exposed plastic
The correct spec vibrato assembly is a simple replacement however for an authentic ‘early Hank’ sound you will need a substantial steel vibrato block with five springs to counter the tension of medium gauge strings with a wound third
We’re keeping things stiff with all five springs on the vibrato. We’ll be starting out with some 0.011 to 0.052 strings
We strongly recommend applying a little candle wax on the thread of the four neck woodscrews – an old joiners’ trick – ‘easier’ joints and less splitting timber!
A felt washer on Hank’s favoured strap locks is a nice ‘old school’ touch on a modern requirement
The Gotoh locking tuners have staggered heights for more downward pressure on the nut at the treble strings – the green coded ones have the shorter shafts
Hank prefers a VML Easy-mute vibrato arm on his guitars and again be careful of the thread – the Gotoh trem block we’re using has a 10/32-inch pre-metric thread – but VML supply any thread you need including unthreaded types. This simple modification makes playing the palm mute sections of Wonderful Land a lot easier
The Golden Age pickups are one option for Shadows sounds with wax-potted AWG42 coil windings and alnico V staggered polepieces
The bridge pickup has a slightly hotter 7.6K ohms winding and they all have an extra layer of screening, which you can disconnect if required. The supplied latex washers are easier to fit and provide better acoustic isolation than modern steel springs. Hank also employs custom Kinman pickups in many of his stage Stratocasters, so there’s plenty of choice depending on which signature ‘Hank’ sound you are after
With radically different strings, a new bridge and a fret dress to accommodate, the guitar needed a comprehensive set-up. You can refer to back issues of The Guitar Magazine or the Haynes Stratocaster Manual for all the information you will need and your ‘Hankcaster’ will be ready to gig! We have to say the finished guitar looks great, plays well and sounds fantastic – we’re really tempted to perform these mods on our own USA ’57 reissue, too! Thank you to Steve Byrne for the loan of the guitar.