Playing a Fender HM Strat

Here's the thing. Few Strat players took to the much maligned HM (Heavy Metal) Strat that Fender launched late 1980s. Well I bought one and I love it! I still own it and I still play it a lot. Oh, and I still love it!

The reason for this article is to take a look at this interesting instrument and try to figure out why so many hated it while I found it to be quite the nice surprise in all areas. So let's take a look at the guitar I bought back in 1989 (at least I seem to remember it being around that time) and what I believe is right with the axe that most thought was all wrong.

Heavy Metal Axmen Dictated

What was the deal with Fender back when heavy metal was experiencing a resurgence in the 1980s and Strat clones were falling out of the sky and seriously being taken up by big name players such as Malmsteen, Satriani and Vai? I'll tell you.

Back then, when bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Def Leppard, Van Halen, (not to mention Ozzy) et al were blasting their way onto the scene in a very big way, the guitar sound and style was very much full of distorted power and whammy bar dive bombs. The standard Strat was OK but really not quite up to the abusive antics of top axmen who demanded a whammy bar that could take their style of playing.

The poor old tremolo setup on a Strat was just not robust enough for those heavy handed (and even light handed) shredders. Strings kept going out of tune with each dive bomb. And the sound of the single coil pickups just wasn't beefy enough.

Players were turning to more interesting alternatives from Jackson or Ibanez that looked like Strats but their pickups were better. And they employed the Floyd Rose trem that could handle the manic style of play.

The Meavy Metal Strat

fender hm stratFender came back with the HM Strat (mine pictured). It had a tough Kahler locking tremolo setup with a locking nut at the top of the neck and a coil tapped humbucking pickup at the bridge end with two single coils in a standard Strat configuration.

A five way selector took care of the pickup selection and a mini switch enabled the player to switch the back pickup from tame single coil to murderous humbucker with a deft flick of the finger. The scratch plate was gone while the hardware was all black on a white body.

The neck was definitely NOT a regular Strat neck. It was flatter, wider and faster than any I remember and its 24 frets were all very accessible via the deeper cutaway. When I first picked it up in the shop in Tin Pan Alley, I was actually looking at Charvels for a cheap alternative to a Jackson (which I couldn't afford at over a grand). I didn't like them much, so the guy in the shop offered me this funny looking thing he said was a US made Fender Strat.

I looked at it and nearly didn't bother because, well, you know it wasn't a real Strat. And for the price, you could only buy a cheaper made in Japan guitar which nobody really took seriously back then! Oh how short sighted was that mindset!

It Felt OK

But in any case, I did hold it and it felt OK so I plugged it into a small Marshall and played around on it a little. Immediately I found the neck strange (I was used to a fatter, slimmer Gibson neck) but I liked the trem even though it was a bit stiffer than the Floyd Rose I'd already tried on the Charvel.

On the clean setting, it sounded like any good Strat on each single pickup and the two in between settings. Flipping the coil tap switch gave a nice treble sound on the back pickup and the 4th switch position sounded really sweet with the coil tapped humbucker and middle single coil together.

But then I hit the dirty channel on the Marshall and that sealed the deal for me. The guitar came to life and begged me to make it scream. I duly obliged!

I switched to the 5th position and could help myself as I started playing faster and faster adding some tentative whammy bar bends and the guitar just played and sounded amazing. I couldn't stop myself jamming that whammy bar all the way down to the body and letting the strings bottom out and the sound was incredible.

Even more incredible for me was as I release the trem and all the strings bounced back to normal and did not go out of tune. I tried it a few times as well as pulling up hard and the tuning stayed perfect each time I let the trem return to its floating position.

I was sold. So was the guitar.

The Proof of the Pudding

It's now 2015 and I still have that guitar. Its pure white body has aged to a yellowy buff colour, but everything still works and sounds as good as it did the day I bought it AND I've gigged it a lot and it's had its fair share of bangs and knocks along the way.

These days I keep the trem in the floor position so it doesn't pull up, but while I lose out on that side of things, the upside is it doesn't go out of tune if I break a string. Playing at home it's not a problem but when you're out there on stage in the middle of a powerful solo, the last thing you want is the horrible twang telling you your remaining five strings are unplayable because the trem springs have pulled them into totally out of tune places in relation to each other!

Age has taken its toll on its looks a little (but that's a good thing, I think) and the frets could probably do with a re-dress as they've worn in places, but it still plays perfectly and I love playing it and what else is there to know?

The last snippet of grin-making info is that of course not too many of these guitars were made in the US as production was later switched to Mexico and those later models were inferior quality. So guess what? My hated HM Strat is worth a ton more than what I paid for it new!

So there's a silver lining on this particular cloud and for those that didn't want to give it the time of day, too bad folks, because it really is a superb guitar to play and enjoy.