The Ash Stratocaster. Stringing and first setup.

First job is to fit the nut. The nut is made of bone, and came supplied with the neck – so it’s already a good shape, and a good fit to the nut slot. It sits quite high however, and a quick measure shows I can safely file about 1mm off the bottom. I mark a line, clamp the nut in a vice and then evenly remove material down to the line. It’s important to keep the bottom of the nut flat and level. Once enough has been removed, a quick clean up and polish with fine grit paper means it’s ready to fit back into the slot. I use a small dab of shellac to do the job. It dries quickly and holds well enough. It’s also quite brittle, so the nut can be easily tapped out sideways if any work or replacement needs doing in the future. Frankly – it seems a more logical idea than using superglue. Just a little shellac is needed to stop the nut from wandering – one little blob is usually enough – avoiding, of course, any shellac seeping up the sides where it may attach to the fingerboard or headstock finish. I don’t want to cause any damage to those if I have to remove the nut later.

I’ve got a string tree to install next. It’s a simple job. The idea of the string tree is to increase the break angle of the string over the nut at the headstock. A sharper angle is supposed to be better for tone. The strings which need adjusting the most are the B and high E strings, which have a longer distance to travel to their tuner posts. A longer distance means a shallower angle – so the tree is installed to pull the strings down at a point closer to the nut. A check shows that to match the angle of the thicker, bottom E and A strings, I will need to install the tree round about in line with the the A tuner. It looks like I’ll probably need another tree for the middle two strings also – but I’ll see how it goes, and I can always put one one later.

It’s a simple matter of marking a hole location, drilling the right sized hole and then screwing the post and tree in place. The main thing to watch is that the clear coat on the headstock face doesn’t crack as it’s drilled. I use a new, sharp HSS bit and my old hand drill for control. It’s a good idea to turn the drill bit the wrong way at first to scratch a mark through the lacquer, before drilling the hole. The tree is then screwed down, on top of it’s post. The “butterfly” string holders sit out to the sides to hold a string on each side.

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Strings. They’re quite a personal thing, with many different brands, materials and gauges available. I’ve owned a Telecaster way back from my days in the Citizens, and always used Ernie Ball Slinkys. They did the job, and I didn’t have to think about anything else – other than I liked the light 10 gauge. Then, a few years ago, I bought an Epiphone Sheraton semi-acoustic – which came fitted with a set of D’Addario 10’s.  I got caught up with Kerly Kues too, for a while – but they’re hard to get hold of and when I did, eventually, find some at a good price – they looked like they were old stock. Strings “go off” over time. I’m using up the last of that duff batch here. After this it’s probably back to D’Addarios. Maybe it’s the bass player in me – but I like a “heavy bottom” set. There’s something about the extra twang and spank that you can get with a slightly heavier bottom end.

Anyway – the strings are fed through from the back of the tremolo and are then attached to their respective posts. It’s important to make sure that there are enough windings round each post, so I normally cut them about 2, to 2 and a half, posts further on than the one they’re going round. Once all the strings are in place – they’re roughly brought up to tune, which puts the neck under approximately the right tension. Now’s a good time to look at the neck deflection. It should look pretty straight, with an ever so slight bow. Fender have their set specifications for neck deflection – but this isn’t a Fender neck, of course. It looks OK to me though. I’ll have to see how it settles in – but this isn’t a bad start.

For a normal setup, I look at the nut first, then adjust the string height or action, followed by adjustment for intonation at the bridge. There’s usually a bit of to-ing and fro-ing as the guitar gets more finely adjusted, but that’s the usual order of attention. First is to check how the strings sit in the nut slots, (which in this case are, conveniently, already cut).

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A good action is required here, so that the guitar is easy to play in lower positions – but the what happens here, also has an overall effect on string height and on overall intonation. A basic thing like a barre chord can be stupidly tricky, with an over-high action. It’s pretty simple to check the nut action. It helps if you work with the guitar side on, with a light above you and slightly in front – that way you can see the shadow of the string on each fret. Fretting each string at the 12th and then 3rd fret shows how the string moves vertically. I want the bottom of the string to sit deep enough in the slot so that it just clears the first fret when the string is fretted at the third fret. (Obviously, the string then is stopped by the second fret, and you have a tiny strings’ length from the nut to the second fret). We’re trying to check that the string clearance over the 1st fret is at the most optimal).

Some players recommend a clearance of 0.010″ – but I usually go for about the thickness of a thin business card, or decent piece of paper. If the string is too high – special shaped nut files are used to cut the nut slots down to the correct depth. Don’t use one of those Swiss Army knife looking, Chinese made, soft metal pieces of nonsense. Proper nut files are specially shaped for the job, and are available to match each string size. They’re worth the money for what they cost, and will eventually pay for themselves in the lack of hassle you’ll get from replacing badly cut nuts. It’s important that the strings are properly supported in position, and that they don’t bind, or move about excessively in the slot at all. It helps if the nut slots are cut at a slight angle –  falling away in a gentle curve towards the headstock. That way the contact point at the bottom of each slot correctly adresses each string, and the break angle for each string is clean.

It’s so easy to cut too deep here – so I try to err on the side of caution. If a string is slightly too high and it bugs me later – it’s a reasonably easy fix. If I cut too deep – I’ve ruined the nut. If I do go too deep – the strings will buzz in open position, and it sounds horrible. You can always fill a too deep slot, in an emergency – but the only real fix is to cut a new nut. Save yourself another job and go easy.

[UPDATE]: I’ve sort of developed a method wherby I can use a depth gauge to help stop cutting too deep. It’s changed my nut slotting procedure a fair bit. It’s now hopefully a bit more mathematical, and a little less trial and error. I’ve detailled the process on some of my other projects.

With the strings at the right height at the nut, I then re-tune each string to pitch. This time I give each string a gentle stretch by slipping a finger under each and pulling away from the fingerboard. This helps adjust the strings quicker. If you don’t stretch the strings, you’ll find you have to retune them countless times, until they eventually stretch out and hold tune. Obviously – you won’t want to pull the finer strings too hard – especially if you don’t have a spare string, (we’ve all done it), – but you can normally detune each string by something close to a full tone with a good stretch. Once the strings are settled and holding tune – I can have a look at the playing action.

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Fender normally advises something like  4/64″ measured at the 17th fret as a guide – but it all depends on the sound you get, and how heavy you play. String height is adjusted by raising or lowering the individual string saddles at the bridge, and by turning the paired hex-screws with a small allen key. I usually adjust the strings to the rough height required, and then go by how the guitar plays. If there’s any fret buzz – especially up the neck – you have to raise each string a little. It’s worth trying a few different styles of play – depending on how you normally hit the strings. Retune after each adjustment and repeat, until each string is at the desired height for comforatble play.

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With the saddles at the correct height – they now need fine adjustment to echo the radius of the nut and neck. (The picture above is taken before this refinement). This is a flattish, 12″ radius neck, so the line of the saddles needs to reflect that. You can get special, under-string gauges to check this – but I usually just sight them along the neck until it looks about right.

The final string adjustment is to check the intonation of each string. As I’ve changed the geometry of each string with previous adjustments – it’s highly likely that the string is now not the exact correct length. Normally, an open string will vibrate with nodes at the neck and nut, and with a wave showing maximum deflection or amplitude at its’ mid-point. This should coincide with the location of the 12th fret. To check intonation you need to ensure that each tuned string is also in tune at the 12th fret. The 12th fret should coincide with the strings’ exact mid point, and it’s first harmonic. To check this accurately – I like to use a chromatic tuner – I use a Boss TU-3. Each string is struck in turn and fine-tuned to exact pitch. The string is then struck again, fretting at the 12th fret and checked again with the tuner. If this harmonic is flat, then the string is slightly too long between the 12th fret and the bridge. The intonation screw for the particular string saddle needs to be turned slightly clockwise to shorten that distance. (The string adjustment screws can be seen in the photo above). If the string is sharp – then it’s an anti-clockwise adjustment, to lengthen the string slightly.

Since the string has been lengthened or shortened overall, the string now needs to be checked again by sounding the string open, and retuning as necessary. Again the 12th fret tuning is checked. This process continues for each string until each is in tune and holds the correct intonation.

I usually follow tuning across the neck by locating enharmonics, and by checking some regular chord shapes. A properly tuned guitar should be in tune across the whole instrument. Of course it’s the nature of wood and wire to expand and contract – warp and twist – so tuning can go in and out. This is particularly true of new guitars, and this process may have to be repeated a few times until the instrument seems almost to settle-in. Some necks are just built slightly wrong. If this is the case, it’s sometimes necessary to tune the guitar so that particular chords or relationships are OK, at the sacrifice of certain others.

With the strings now feeling comfortable and in tune, and since this is a first setup, I now have to check the pickup heights – so that they sit at the right distance away from each string. Again, specifications and measurements are normally recommended – but ultimately it all comes down to ear. If the magnets in the pickup are too high and close to the strings – then they will “grab” the strings and affect their vibration. I usually set the pickup heights to about the recommended settings, and then strike each string in each of the main pickup positions – listening for any phased vibration or modulation of the note produced. You want a clean, unwavering tone. Anything which sounds like it’s wobbling slightly means the pickup is too high. Use the adjustment screws at the side of each pickup to lower or raise the height. Pickup height adjustment will also affect the volume attack and sustain of strings, as well as the related bass/treble response across that pickup. It’s another personal thing, where it can take a bit of experimentation to find the sweet spot – but I’m generally looking for consistency of character across the strings, and between each pickup position. There’s a definite Strat sound – and that real McCoy, sweet spot sound, normally emerges out of these fine adjustments. These Ironstone pickups are a little hotter than standard Fender pickups – so I have to back them off a little bit more to avoid the ice pick trebles I so hate in badly adjusted Fenders. But there promises to be an awful lot of fun to be had here – I can tell that already.

It’s built. It’s playable. It’s in tune. What else am I going to do for the afternoon?

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