Ken Strong and his Fender Stratocaster Plus Deluxe

Ken Strong is lead guitarist and musical director for tribute band Dreams: The Fleetwood Mac Experience and covers duo Toucan. Recently, Ken received the 2017 New Zealand Entertainment Academy Award for Top Musician, so I caught up with him to chat about his background and, most importantly, his favourite ‘axe,’ the Fender Stratocaster Plus Deluxe.

At the start

Ken’s introduction to learning an instrument came in the shape of piano lessons at eight years of age. He soon lost interest in the piano, though — back in the 1950s, piano teachers seemed to take delight in whacking students on the knuckles to discourage mistakes. Ken wasn’t into that, so he switched to guitar.

“My brother, who is four years older than me, talked our parents into buying a guitar. He got lessons from a guy called Alec Paget, who was quite big in those days and played in the Al Paget Sextet. When my brother came home from lessons, I’d grab his manuscript and guitar and look at what he had learned.”

Ken’s first guitar was an Antoria acoustic. His first live performances, though, were as a youngster playing ukulele at family parties — his dad was the youngest of thirteen, so there were plenty to play at.

Slowhand

While learning his craft, Ken says Eric Clapton had a significant impact.

“I listened to him in the early days and took note of what he was doing and worked out the boxes (the areas of the neck Clapton plays on). Apart from Clapton, my favourite band is Steely Dan, particularly from the Aja album.”

Going semi-pro

At 13 years of age, armed with his first solid-body electric guitar, a Hofner, Ken began playing semi-professionally.

“I formed a duo with a guy called John Bush. Our fathers knew each other, and John had just started learning and was looking for someone to play with. We called ourselves the Starlighters, but when we found out another band had the same name, we switched to Ken and John.”

The duo played on Friday and Saturday nights at some of Auckland’s top clubs and restaurants, earning, in today’s money, about $20 — quite a lot back then.

Then, in the early 1960s, Ken joined his first band with the unusual name Unameisfinx.

“We were having trouble coming up with a name, and someone said ‘you name us.’ So, we put that together, and then someone else suggested adding the word ‘finx.’ That’s how the name came about.”

Unameisfinx played pop and rock songs from the sixties era, such as Beatles, Monkees and Young Rascals, and often supported other bands like Larry’s Rebels.

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Favourite axe

The Fender Stratocaster has been Ken’s guitar of choice since purchasing a ’64 model in 1965. His current main guitar is a ’91 Fender Stratocaster Plus Deluxe with an ebony fretboard and a mother of pearl pickguard. It is fitted with the following pickups:

  • Neck: Blue Fender-Lace Sensor
  • Mid: Silver Lace Sensor
  • Bridge: Red Fender-Lace Sensor.

“The bridge pickup, though not a humbucker, has a humbucker-type, dirty trebly sound. I usually stick to the middle pickup, though.”

Surprisingly, Ken says he’s not a big fan of the true Strat sound, and he usually dials back the tone control for his bridge and middle pickups to half.

“The tone control knob has a notch on the halfway point, which makes it easy to set without looking. I can fatten the sound by dialling the tone right up when I need a rockier sound.”

Like other Plus Deluxes, Kens guitar has lockable tuners and rolling nuts, which help keep it in tune.

If you’d like to get hold of a Start Plus Deluxe, you’ll have to be satisfied with a second-hand model because Fender stopped producing them in 1998.

Backup guitar

All guitarists, particularly those playing in big-production bands like Dreams, need a backup. So, should he break a string, Ken has a Fender Squire (a Strat copy) on standby. Also, to achieve the warm Fleetwood Mac sound, he alternates between two acoustic guitars: a K.Yari and a Godin.

“They sound quite different to each other. The K.Yari has an authentic acoustic sound; the Godin, on the other hand, with a solid centre top and thin body, doesn’t sound as acoustic.”

Thanks to sophisticated electronics, the Godin does allow for wide variations in tone.

“There are four cavities inside with separate pickups to emulate four types of microphones. It also  has a Piezo bridge pickup.”

Amplification & effects

Ken plays through a Fender Mustang modelling amp, which offers a wide choice of amp sounds and guitar effects.

“I mainly use overdrive sounds, and I stopped using chorus a while ago. With my duo, Toucan, I sometimes add a tremolo effect, and with Dreams I often use delay.”

Strings

Ken puts light-gage Elixir long-lasting guitar strings on his guitars, which, incredibly, he says last him about a year.

“To keep track of when I last changed my strings, I normally write the date on the packet.”

Advice for aspiring guitarists

So, what is the key to learning to play the guitar? Well, sorry, but, according to Ken, there are no quick hacks for becoming a proficient guitar player.

“It takes practice, practice, practice.”

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Andrew Healey

Editor

Andrew is an Auckland-based writer and musician.

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