302HB "Fat Strat" review by Memphis

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  • Features: 7
  • Sound: 8
  • Action, Fit & Finish: 4
  • Reliability & Durability: 6
  • Overall Impression: 8
  • Reviewer's score: 6.6 Neat
  • Users' score: 7 (1 vote)
Memphis: 302HB

Purchased from: Guitar Center

Features — 7
Ah yes, I'm back again with another Asian made plywood-era monster, this time it's not what you'd expect though. This one comes from Memphis guitars, one of those "Pawn Shop Brands" that nobody sees anymore and seemed to use the same factory as Harmony and as Kramer did in 1989 with their wacky sunburst plywood strat copies (precursor to the VT111 Focus) with the pointy peghead and pyramid logo, I believe it's Guyatone or Samick who manufactured these. Let's get on with this...

- 1987, made at the Korean Samick or Guyatone plant, same on as the Kramer VT111 Focus, Harmony H-80 Strat Copies, and some later Hondo stuff, Pau Ferro or some other off-species Rosewood fingerboard.
- 21 jumbo frets, 25.5" Scale neck, pointy headstock angled back about 10 degrees, inexpensive tuners with plastic press-fit bushings, no string guide, black plastic nut, and a headstock-end truss rod with black plastic cover.
- Plywood Body, smells like some type of Mahogany species wood for the "Sandwhich" (common on '80s plywood electrics, Stratocaster style with contours but edged like a Telecaster (sharper corners)
- Metallic blue finish faded to metallic teal on top from UV rays (must have spent some time in a store window... some REAL time)
- Originally it had one of the cheap old Stratocaster style trems they put in the Harmony H-80 guitars in the late '80s, instead of the standard trem block, it has a metal plate stamped into a C shape with a welded on threaded tube for the vibrato bar, which yields a rather warm tone, currently it has a aluminum block trem out of a Hohner Rockwood RPG-150 in it.
- Passive standard '80s "Fat Strat" electronics (5-way switch, 1 volume, 2 tone), I added an additional "tone switch" that gives me the extra two non-standard pickup options + puts the tone control into the circuit to add a bit of capacitance for more lows as this guitar has 500K Pots in it.
- SSH pickup configuration, 2 Guyatone not-really-strat-but-looks-like-it-from-the-top-of-the-pickguard single coils, and a DiMarzio hex style humbucker in the bridge with a coil tap in the style of an EMG Select humbucker.
- Came with a hardshell case with some '80s vintage Fender picks in it, a green strap, a short cable, and a whammy bar from what looks like a friction fit Jackson/Ibanez setup.

Overall, a seven, sure it's got some detractors - no shielding, the two single coils for the neck and middle are not reverse wound/reverse polarity, and were wound out-of-phase with the bridge humbucker (a common anomaly with Memphis guitars), and the tremolo design strength is dependent on the weld quality for the bar mount (which was not as good on this one as a Harmony H-80 strat I had in high school). But otherwise, it shines through, has great tone, and can get the job done.

Sound — 8
My general style is rock spanning the sub-genres a bit. This guitar is well suited to my style for this reason. At the time, I did not know I Was going to get it, I though me and the wifey were just having fun at GC checking out what's in stock - she picked it out on color, I picked it out because, through a Line 6 Spider head, I was getting a SICK Van Halen tone out of it, strange a 25 year old BUDGET guitar could get the brown sound so well.

It gets an even better sound through my home recording rig (Behringer V-AMP Pro w/ Digitizer Pro 204P in the stereo effects loop), and live rig (Bugera 333XL with a pile of pedals at the front end, going into a Peavey 412M Cabinet with Celestion GKB-85s Speakers in it).

The upside on this guitar is it's super versatile, and sounds great, especially the bridge humbucker, which has no markings to indicate a replacement unit or a boutique/high end replacement, and it's got a few indicators of being cheap, but sounds amazing.

BRIDGE ONLY - clean and distorted is VERY Edward Van Halen circa 1978, playing the riffs to "On Fire," "I'm the One," and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" almost sound dead on, and it cleans up nicely using the volume for gain control, and clean it gets a very good traditional humbucker sound. The pickup itself is around 12.7K Ohms resistance and is probably a ceramic magnet, but it does a fairly good job of emulating an overwound PAF. Split it's tone falls more into the CBS strat tone, bright and twangy, with not a lot of mids, works really well for '80s pop stuff like The Fixx or U2 (think Jamie Scott-West Oram or The Edge).

Single Coils - These are around 6.4K Ohms and are NOT Reverse Wound/Reverse Polarity, they are also 180 out of phase with the bridge humbucker, requiring me to flip the wiring around using the shields as hot leads on the singles to get them to be in phase with the bridge pickup, this also makes them a tad more noisy, which some shielding will alleviate. The humbucker by contrast, is dead silent except when I'm playing, or if I'm using enough gain to make them microphonic.

Again, the tonal variety is in the '80s rock end of the spectrum, it's closest mate tone-wise in my collection is my Japanese Matsamoku built Hondo Paul Dean II tone-wise, they are very close, but the Paul Dean is less microphonic and does not have the phasing problems the Memphis did.

Clean, plays out like this:
- neck only, very Hendrix, a bit buzzy with hum, tight and round
- neck+mid, think Derek & the Dominoes era Clapton
- middle, sounds a bit like an old Kay Vanguard
- middle plus bridge (full HB), Paul Dean clean tone circa '85 ("Lovin' Every Minute of It")
- middle plus bridge (single HB), "Moving Pictures" era Rush
- bridge (Humbucker), clean part of "Aint' Talkin' Bout' Love"
- bridge (single), it's "The Sign of Fire"... or Jamie Scott West-Oram

- Neck, again, Hendrix, think "Purple Haze"
- N+M, more like SRV on "Cold Shot"
- M, sort of Sonic Youthy, "Junkie's Promise" comes to mind
- M+B (HUM) - Super chubby and fat with a bright top end and no mids
- M+B (SNGL) - Paul Dean again (Loverboy), think "Lady of the '80s"
- B (HUM) - Edward Van Halen's brown sound all the way, '78 era
- B (SNGL) - "Turn Me Loose, Turn Me Loose"... guess who

Action, Fit & Finish — 4
This is where this guitar falls short, but I kinda wanted it as a fixer upper because I saw some REAL potential in this one given it's tone and even with a crappy fit-and-finish and okay setup it still played more than well enough for me to be comfortable gigging with it. 

I got this used so I don't know about the setup from the factory. As it came to me, Guitar Center did great with what they had, but after dropping it down to. 009 gauge strings I had to raise the action to cure some buzzing at the upper frets. I later remedied this by leveling the frets. A common problem with guitars from this factory is that the fretboard itself is not perfectly level (though not visibly so to the naked eye), and the frets are never leveled properly either (probably the wire is just stamped in by machine and that's it). After leveling the frets, it's on par with some American Stratocasters I've seen, and plays really fast and great.

The other major issue is the trem unit. The trem units on guitars made at this factory were initially made using a C-shaped piece of metal with a threaded tube for the tremolo bar welded on - instead of the usual cast-aluminum block in back containing all string mounting. This design has the following issues...

- Restringing can be a pain b/c the strings don't have a defined path after the initial hole they go through, they have to go through the top hole in the C, and then the bottom hole in the C, then out through the bridge saddle, which can be hard on the higher strings if you use light gauges.

- The welding job on the whammy-bar mount determines the longevity of the trem unit. If it's BAD the mount will break loose and you will be unable to use the trem bar anymore to any great effect.

- The body is routed with a "step" on the pickguard side of the trem rout that prevents the tremolo from being perfectly seated up against the pickguard without the trem bottoming out on the step and going flat. I will be repairing this in the future for cosmetic reasons, and possibly updating to a 2-point trem as that's my preferred style of unit.

This bridge does have a pro in that it's light weight and lesser mass coupled flat to the body gives it a very very warm resonant tone that is unlike any other style of Strat trem.

Lastly is the electronics, and those two out of phase and not-revers-wound-reverse-polarity single-coils. In order to put them in phase, I had to flip the leads around 180 from stock - so the shield is the hot wire and the white wire goes to ground, also, the bridge pickup was wired up like it had a traditional coil-tap, which did not work as the bridge humbucker has EMG Select style wiring (i.e., 3 leads, one to ground, the other two go to a single pole double-throw switch with the hot leads on each side lug, and the output to the selector switch in the middle, one wire is "Single coil" mode, the other is "Humbucker mode").

Stock I give it a 4, there are electronics that don't work, a trem of questionable quality, and the fretwork, while properly dressed on the edges, is improperly leveled making playing a chore. Also, the pickups need wax potted for live work as they are microphonic, the single coils especially. But all of these are easily fixed by someone with some guitar setup, fret-leveling, and electronics work under their belt. Overall, I've maybe only spent 2-3 hours max working on it.

Reliability & Durability — 6
The guitar will withstand live playing assuming one goes through the time to look it over and set it up. Typical of a cheap guitar, the tuners and bridge will NOT last under super-heavy/pro use, but are pretty easily replaced with modern, inexpensive replacements of much better quality. Eventual plans are to put a 2 point Strat Trem, roller/graphite nut in, and replace the tuners with Kluson split-post Tone Pros. All that stuff is not high priority though. The primary areas of interest to road-ready a Memphis is to do the following...

- reverse the wiring polarity on the neck and middle pickups if you have a SSH model
- file the nut slots (usually have string winding marks inside that cause tuning problems)
- level the frets (usually 2-3 passes does a great job)
- relcoate the vibrato and/or remove the "shelf" from the pickguard end of the trem rout.

Overall Impression — 8
I generally play rock music, spanning the genres, currently I'm in a Seattle based metal band called Zombie Jihad that I play in professionally. I also write and record my own stuff that has a very heavy 80's influence (As should be obvious by some of the musicians cited in this review).

I've been playing since I was 12/1995, so that's about 19 years now... my god has it been that long!?!? No questions I wanted to ask about the product either. I already had previous experience with a Memphis strat almost like this one in High SChool (except it was an earlier Matsamoku/Japanese made version), I almost bought one back then, a metallic white one, built at one of plants Hondo used in the '80s, and always felt like I Dropped the ball on it's rewiring job.

This one is one of the ones I guard closely, because it's the first guitar my wife had a hand in the purchase/modification of, that makes it special. I only bring it to local gigs where I can keep an eye on it at all times, and it does not get out much otherwise.

What do I love, the tone, that was the #1 deciding factor for me, and the color scheme, it's very '80s. Also, the neck/body combo and assembly job makes it feel like a shorter/faster guitar than it actually is, I think the neck is set into the body a little deeper than normal, giving the guitar more of a 24" Scale feel with a 25.5" scale, which I'm more comfortable with as I'm primarily a Jaguar/Jag-Stang player. My only issues have been those outlined earlier in the review, and most of them are pretty standard changes for anything I have, even my Jag-Stang, my #1, has had some of these parts replaced, old guitars have parts that wear out eventually under hard/heavy use, this one is no exception.

As for comparison, I actually compared it to my first electric, a red Kramer Focus 3000, which this one is replacing, as I retired the Kramer quite a few years ago, and wanted a good all-arounder strat style guitar that could cover a lot of tonal territory, and with the addition of my tone switch, it gives it that ability with a less complexifying switch layout, and I have a non-locking trem, which is a plus for me as I hate hauling around extra crap just to tune my guitar. It had the same HSS configuration, was a tad bit fatter than my Kramer was when I got it, and felt closer to the offsets I'm used to playing than the Kramer did due to the neck's resting location.

2 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Very nice playing.Sounds great.I have one just like it, only it's red.Thanks again, Tom