Setting Up A Stratocaster
Many of our readers will no doubt at some point or other either have tried or contemplated the job of setting up a Stratocaster. In this the first of E&MM's articles on guitar care, we will attempt to save you both time and money by guiding you through the various steps required to complete this job. Our resident guitar repair man N. J. Charlesworth is the man in the hot seat, and this month he'll show you how to save £15-£30 which is the average price charged for this type of work. The tools for this job are literally all available from Stentor ((Contact Details)) and will cost you about £20. Neal has been a guitar repairman for eight years now and during this time has worked for Rossetti, R. J. Cooper, and John Birch.
To begin, with the aid of a string winder (or 'woggler' in the trade) slacken off the strings, remove them and then proceed to remove the four neck screws which bolt the neck on to the guitar. Now that the neck is off we slacken the truss rod screw situated at the bottom of the neck until this is loose. It should protrude approximately 2mm below the end of the neck.
Next, by placing a heavy steel edge (available from Stentor in two sizes) along the length of the fret board, check for fret height irregularity, i.e. frets that sit proud of the others. When you've located these frets, take a single cut 12" file (thus called because it files in one direction only) again available from Stentor, and file down the neck from the top fret to the nut. Before using the file please remember to check with your steel edge to ensure that your file is perfectly flat. If it isn't you are likely to have problems. Whilst filing your frets, it is important to remember to keep checking the fretboard with the steel edge, otherwise you may end up losing more fret than you need to — then you'll need a complete refret!
Assuming that your frets are level, you next need to use a foam rubber sanding block (available in most hardware stores) to round and smooth off the frets. You can use a contour file but Neal does actually recommend the rubber sanding block for a better quality finish.
Next you'll need some carbon rubbing down paper and we recommend you use 3 or 4 gauges from 320 up to 1200 gauge.
And now, after filing, sanding and papering, we give a final touch to the frets by taking a rag soaked in Brasso and rubbing it up and down the frets. Not only will this give your frets a super smooth feel but it will also make the guitar neck faster and easier to play. If you don't believe me, ask Eric Stewart of 10cc who applies it to his frets every time he steps on stage!
With a refurbished fretboard glistening in your hand, tighten up the truss rod just enough to allow your steel edge to rock slightly when placed up the length of the fretboard. This means that you will now have a fine convex curve in your fretboard which will be transformed into a concave curve when you replace the neck and strings. Ignore the people who tell you that a guitar neck should be perfectly straight, they are wrong. If a guitar neck is straight there's a chance it will develop a convex curve and straightening convex necks is a real problem.
The neck is now ready to be bolted back on to the body via the four neck screws, but don't tighten up the screws all the way yet. Replace the strings and check the top end of the fretboard for neck fit. If the neck has been replaced at the wrong angle, one of the two E strings will be literally hanging off the fretboard. As this is obviously undesirable, apply a little pressure in the opposite direction of the offending string (i.e. to the right for bottom E, to the left for top E) and when you're finally satisfied with the angle, finish tightening up the neck screws. When making the final few turns to these screws it is important to keep the screw pressure even for a good neck fit.
Taking the steel edge, place it on the end of the neck so that it comes to rest on each bridge saddle in turn. It should be possible to adjust the saddles either up or down and if this is not the case, the neck will need a couple of shims packed into the neck socket below or to either side of the neck for correct adjustment. After tuning the guitar to correct pitch it is now time to correct the intonation of the instrument. We do this by placing the steel edge parallel to the top E and marking off the distance between the nut and the centre of the 12th fret. The distance between the centre of the 12th fret (i.e. wire) and the point where the string leaves the bridge saddle should be equidistant. Repeat this process with each string in turn, staggering the saddles from left to right with an approximate distance of 7mm between the first and last strings.
Checking by ear or preferably via a Korg or Conn tuner, last minute adjustments to the harmonics are made as follows. Play the harmonic on the 12th fret by dampening the string and pulling off as you strike the note. If the note is flat, move the bridge saddle forwards, if the note is sharp move the bridge saddle backwards to the back of the guitar.
And now for the really interesting part — setting up the tremolo, which is a job that is often either ignored or performed very badly.
First, remove the back plate that conceals the tremolo and then proceed to remove two of the five tremolo springs. We're working on the theory that you use light or medium gauge strings, but if you do use a heavier gauge it is preferable to remove only one of the five springs. When you've done this, turn the guitar over and the bridge/tremolo unit should be sitting approximately 5mm proud of the guitar body. If this is not the case, adjust the two tremolo block securing screws (situated in the tremolo well at the rear of the instrument). Turning to the left will increase the height of the bridge/tremolo unit from the body, and turning to the right will decrease the same.
Action adjustment is effected by taking an Allen Key to each bridge saddle in turn in order to select the desired string action, be it super close or otherwise. Whilst carrying out this job it is worth checking the fretboard for dead spots, i.e. notes that cutout when you bend the strings right across the fretboard a la Eric Clapton. All the notes you play/bend should sustain. Contrary to myth, a lot of people do not go in for string bending, but if you do, this is the trick to follow. Either raise the top E and B strings a little higher than the rest or when you're filing the frets, take more off the centre of the frets. Both processes will effectively cancel the camber of the neck and allow you to bend pure notes ad infinitum.
For final action adjustment, depress each string in turn at the first and last fret and tap the string with your thumb in the middle of the neck. This should result in a 'ping' as the string is depressed towards the fretboard and the ideal gap between string and fretboard is 0.5mm. If your string does not 'ping' it is sitting too close to the fretboard. Slacken off the strings and adjust the truss rod by a quarter anticlockwise. Alternatively, if the string is sitting too high off the fretboard give a quarter turn in a clockwise direction.
Lastly, we check the action at the nut end of the fretboard. If you depress the top E at the third fret, the string should 'kiss' the first fret. Repeat the process on the bottom E and there should be a slight gap at the first fret the thickness of a sheet of heavy paper. The closeness of each string to the first fret should be graduated from the bottom E to the top E. This can be achieved by taking a jewellers saw to the nut for the bottom two strings, and working up to the middle pair with a V-shaped file, to a fine jewellers saw for the top two strings. By careful sawing and filing of the nut with these tools (all available from Stentor) you will achieve the final adjustment to string height at the nut.
One Stratocaster set up. Next?...
Our thanks to the Soho Soundhouse for the kind loan of one Fender Stratocaster.
Feature by Max Kay
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