As usual, I’ll be setting up the Telecaster by following a logical sequence. I’ve already covered the Jaguar setup in another post. This will cover much of the same ground:
- Rough tuning
- Neck relief check and adjustment
- String height check and adjustment
- Pickup height check and adjustment
- Nut slot cutting to provide correct string clearance (assumes nut is in place and already pre-slotted)
- Fine tuning
- Intonation check and adjustment
As always, there may be a period of settling in after the first setup, and I usually allow a few weeks to “play in” a little before checking everything over again. There’s never usually too much tweaking to do if it’s done properly first – although it’s more likely, if adjustments have to be made to the neck relief via the truss rod.
The Tele has been strung for a while now with a “new” set of Kerly Kues KQX-1052’s. I’d recently been impressed with Kerly strings, having had a really nice set of 1048’s on my Epiphone Sheraton. I don’t know if it’s a supplier thing though, but Kerly strings can be hard to get hold of and, having managed to track down a few sets – they were tarnished looking, with dark marks here and there along some of the strings. They don’t play badly – it looks cosmetic more than anything – but I suspect these are old stock. It’s back to D’Addarios for me. I’ll keep the Kerly’s on for now, (at least they match the overall, road-worn look of the thing), but I’ll cut the nut slots for D’Addario’s closest matching set, which looks to be the EXL140, Nickel Wound .010″ strings. “Light top, heavy bottom” (.052, .042, .030, .017, .013, .010).
String manufacturer aside – with the current strings, the guitar plays well enough – although the usual issues with nut height and intonation are apparent. I’ve already adjusted the string heights a little, and there’s currently no sign of any fret buzz anywhere.
The fretboard is a 9.5″ radius – so the neck relief should follow the same height specifications as for Fender 12″ radius necks, and that’s 0.010″. With a capo fitted at the first fret, I fret the bass “E” string with one finger at the last fret, and test the gap between the bottom of the string and top of the 7th / 8th / 9th frets with a feeler gauge. Same again with the treble “E” string. Both strings move ever so slightly as the gauge goes under. It looks like the neck relief is probably a bit lower than the ideal – but I’m not going to worry about that. Taking the neck off and adjusting the truss rod is a lengthy job with a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing likely. Not worth it for a thousandth of an inch.
String heights are adjusted on this Telecaster via six, individual string saddles. Each saddle has two, small grub screws which can be turned to lower or raise each side of the saddles. Each saddle is then mounted on another screw, which attaches it laterally to the bridge plate. Each string saddle can be adjusted to lower or raise the individual strings to match the Fender specification string height. I use a special string gauge, handmade by Chris Allsop Guitars, which allows a really accurate measurement – down to 1/10th of a millimeter. String heights are checked at the 17th fret, and the gauge is positioned so that the ideal string height on the gauge is positioned over the top of the fret. The string can now be lowered or raised until the line of the bottom of the string just breaks the angled line of the gauge at the 17th fret point.
In the image below, you can see the 17th fret in the centre of the picture, with the gauge aligned to indicate the recommended 1.6mm clearance on the bottom “E” string. (it’s the black dot, just to the right of the left-most red dot – It’s difficult to see, but take my word for it). This measurement can be repeated across the fingerboard, ideally for all strings.
Once the string saddles are at approximately the right height in relation with each other, I adjust the angle of each saddle to allow the line of the bridge to follow the curve of the frets and fingerboard. This 9.5″ radius needs to be followed at the bridge and at the nut, to allow for consistent relative string heights across the full length of the neck.
The curve is refined with the help of a set of radius gauges. These are shaped to reflect the various common radii, and can be used above or under the strings, as required. With the strings now set to follow the fingerboard radius – final fine tweaks can be made to the individual string heights to obtain the standard, recommended string height specification of 1.6mm for all strings. Having set the strings to standard specification – they can be fine tuned to personal preference later on, and as the guitar plays in. Once the saddles have been set – the action is checked so that there’s no fret buzz in any position.
Fender specifications have the pickup heights as 2.0mm on the treble side, 2.4mm on the bass side. As you can see on the image above, the Alnico III centre poles are staggered to allow the response to closely match the curve of the fingerboard and bridge radius. Measurements probably need to be worked out from there, in order to give the ideal clearance. I’m also mindful that the output of these pickups is a little hotter at, (a matched), 7.2K impedance – contrasting with Fender vintage values of anywhere between 5.7K and 6.2K . Since hotter pickups may need a little bit more clearance to avoid the infamous “icepick” tones – I’ll sort the pickup heights once the rest of the setup is complete, and then fine tune each pickups’ height to provide the best sound and matched output.
As usual, the first job is to check the fret height at a point where a straight edge held on the frets, along the line of each string meets the nut. The value is tested with feeler gauges across the neck and this gives me a value which varies between 0.047″ and 0.049″. I’ll use the higher value of 0.049″ for the rest of the calculations. This is a new, bone nut, which is already pre-slotted – and it appears to have plenty of height, making playing at the first fret quite heavy on the fingers. It also, noticeably, affects the intonation and tuning at the lower frets. I’ll need to cut the slots quite a bit deeper, and then remove a fair bit of material from the top of the nut, so that the resultant slots aren’t too deep. This might cause the strings to bind, and lead to tuning problems.
The usual Fender clearance, to be added to the measured fret height of 0.049″, is 0.020″ at the bass side and 0.018″ at the treble side. I cut the nut slots to provide a 0.020″ clearance for the bottom “E” and “A” strings, with a 0.018″ clearance for the top “E” and “B” strings. This allows me to take the median clearance of 0.019″ for the middle, “D” and “G” strings.
The nut slots, need to be filed down to a point whereby they clear the fret height at the nut, by the recommended clearance.
String slot dimension (bottom of slot above fingerboard) = Fret height + Clearance
This provides a series of target measurements across the strings, running from low “E” to high “E” – 0.069″, 0.069″, 0.068″, 0.068″, 0.067″, 0.067″.
The strings need to sit in a slot which, ideally, doesn’t much exceed half the depth of the string each supports. Because I’m eventually going to re-string the guitar with D’Addario’s, I’m going to allow a little extra room for later adjustment, if necessary – by allowing for slightly thicker strings at the top end. This will make the strings sit slightly deeper than optimal for now – but will avoid taking too much meat off the top of the nut. This is more critical for the finer strings, where the slots get to be as shallow as 5 thousandths of an inch. With the half-string values added to each string slot dimension – I can calculate out the ideal nut height at each string slot.
Nut height = Fret height + Clearance + 1/2 string diameter
With the strings now slackened off, and held out of the way, I can transfer the nut height dimension values for each string onto the nut – marking each with pencil, using stacked feeler gauges as a guide. The resulting pencil line shows a line, down to which I’ll eventually have to remove excess nut material.
The nut slots can now be deepened and shaped, down to match the string slot dimensions previously noted. I tend to work the middle two strings first, and then reseat the middle two strings, before shaping each of the other two pairs of string slots. Re-tightening the middle two strings in place helps hold the nut in place – It’s not glued in, and can slide around.
The nut slots are shaped using special nut files. These are profiled to cut a slot which is matched to the string width, and which also has a correctly radiused bottom. This means the string to nut connection will be solid and consistent. The string can’t get pinched by a too-narrow slot, nor can it be held above the bottom of the slot where it’s not stable. The slots should, ideally fall away from the front face of the nut – where the nut dimension is critical – to provide a gently breaking slope down towards the headstock. It can also help if the opening at the back of the nut is slightly flared to avoid the string catching.
I work each slot, one at a time, with the correctly sized file by filing away from the fingerboard. As the file works from right to left, I move the file in a shallow curve down towards the angled headstock. (Careful not to go too far and scratch the finish. Use a little padding or tape to protect the face). I use some stacked feeler gauges, set to the correct nut depth to act as a guard on the front, fingerboard, side of the nut. These make sure I don’t file too deep. Once I feel and hear the file touch the stacked gauges – I know the slot is at the correct depth.
The process is repeated for each of the other two string pairs until all the string slots are cut to the ideal depth. (In this case, from low “E” to high “E” it’s 0.069″, 0.069″, 0.068″, 0.068″, 0.067″, 0.067″). With all the slots now cut – the nut can be removed for cleaning, polishing and for the removal of the excess material.
The excess bone is removed, down to the top of the pencil line, by rubbing the nut on a piece of 400 grit, wet and dry paper. Once the nut has been lowered and shaped to the right shape, successively smoother grits are used to polish up the surface, before a final polish over with micro mesh cloth at 3200 grade.
Whilst polishing the surface of the bone nut, I take the chance to clean out the string slots with some of the finer grades. This removes any sharp edges without taking off too much more material, and minimises the risk of cutting the slots any deeper. After cleaning off the fingerboard, and clearing any debris out of the nut slot, the nut can be fitted back into place – this time using a couple of small dots of shellac on the bottom to secure it. Care should be taken not to spread the shellac too far, or up the sides of the nut channel. It should be possible to remove the nut with a sharp, sideways tap – if required. With the nut re-attached and secure – the guitar strings can now be refitted and brought up to tune.
Tuning can now be checked with a chromatic tuner. Tunings between strings can be checked across the neck, and fret-by-fret as required, to check that the nut adjustment has eliminated any of the tuning issues at lower frets. But for best results, the guitar’s intonation now has to be adjusted properly.
Intonation adjustments are made by adjusting the lateral position of each string saddle to a state where the string length between nut and bridge is exactly twice the distance from nut to the 12th fret, and from the 12th fret to the bridge. Tunings are checked with a chromatic tuner for the best accuracy. First the overall string tuning is checked and adjusted until the tuner indicates the string is at perfect pitch. Then, the tuning is checked at the 12th fret. If the 12th fret is sharp, then the distance from the 12th fret to the bridge is too short, and the saddle must be moved back slightly. Of course, this now puts the overall string tuning out, and this should be restored, before again checking tuning at the 12th fret.
Once each string can be demonstrated as being in tune both open and at the 12th fret, then the guitar should be correctly intonated. Once every string has been checked and adjusted – confirmation tunings can be taken across the neck, and at each fret to double-check inter-related string tunings eg. at the 5th and 7th frets. Any problems here would probably indicate frets cut in the wrong positions. It’s important to note that any adjustments to the guitar – even changing string gauges – can put the guitar intonation out. It’s therefore usually the last part of the setup process.
Pickup height (Revisited)
I’ve got to return to the pickup height issue here though. By testing the sound of each string, (making sure there’s no perceived “choking” or pulsing on sustained notes – and that the sustain is long enough), and by adjusting the height of each pickup, and of each side of each pickup – I eventually settle on a balanced position for each pickup which carries a slight volume boost for the bridge pickup over the neck pickup, and which balances the bass and treble characteristics of each pickup to the range I’m looking for. If you like, it’s setting the “character” of the guitar. I’m not too bothered about getting the pickups too close to the strings – I like the amplifier to do the work anyway. I just want to get a nice, clean signal from the pickups, and for the guitar to sound like a Telecaster. I plug the guitar into my Fender Blues Junior, which is set to produce a good, level, old-fashioned Fender tone – and then tweak the pickup levels until it sounds good to me. The pickups end up way lower than the Fender specifications – but they’ll do for now. I can play the guitar in properly, and make subsequent adjustments as I get to know the pickups.