The Ash Stratocaster – Strip down, and some extra bits to pick up on.

The only way to upgrade, is to first strip the guitar down. But ideally, you only want to dis-assemble things as much as you absolutely need to. It always helps to be methodical, and to collect all the bits that are going to be re-used, in small bags or boxes. Even the stuff that’s being replaced is likely to come in handy somewhere else – so it’s worth bagging bits up, with notes if necessary, so you know exactly what the bits are. I usually keep a separate project box for most of my builds. It helps to keep the immediate stuff to hand, and keeps things in one place. There’s nothing worse than putting something down somewhere, and then spending half a day looking for it.

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As I begin to srrip the guitar down – I’m looking for things which might need picking up along the way. Little details which got past quality control last time – but which I can sort out in the rebuild. After the strap is removed – the first focus is on the spring chamber on the back of the guitar. Removing the cover panel, (and the padding I’ve put in to mute the spring reverberations) – I’m immediately reminded that the tremolo block appears to be  binding slightly, on the top side of the body rout. This wasn’t a problem previously, since the tremolo was blocked off – but since I want to set the tremolo up properly this time, I’ll have to make a bit more room by sanding or cutting some of the body wood away. I probably won’t have to remove too much – but to make sure I don’t go too far, I mark the extent of the area covered by the rear plate, with masking tape. That will give me a visual cue, and a warning to stop me removing too much.

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I’d already noted that the existing scratchplate seemed to sit very close to the tremolo plate. Turning the guitar over, I can see that there’s not much room at all, and that it’s possible that the new plate will need to be checked, and possibly modified – so that it doesn’t bind in the same way. The strings can now be removed – so they are detuned and cut with wire cutters, so that they can be more easily taken off. This releases tension on the tremolo block from the string side, but the tremolo plate is still fixed in place – held by the two pieces of wood I’ve used to stop the tremolo operation.

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With the strings off, I can then quickly check the fit of the new neck. The body is a Fender replica – by guitarandbassbuild.co.uk – and I’ve already noted a couple of places where measurements appear to differ slightly. You can usually depend on Fender components to fit well with each other, but you can never take the fit at the neck pocket for granted with a replica body. When I offer the new neck up – I’m pleased to see that it fits pretty snugly. There’s perhaps a very slight difference in the curve of the neck heel – but maybe I’m being over picky. The scratchplate will cover it anyway. The neck is pre-drilled for both three and four bolt configurations – so the next check is to try the neck plate screws – to see if they’re properly located. The two screws nearest the body are fine – but the other two are a few millimetres out, and are going to have to be re-drilled. It would probably be best to check the neck for straightness before re-drilling these holes – so for the time being, the neck is removed and set aside. That’s a couple more steps to add to the neck installation part of the upgrade, and two holes which need to be filled – next time I have the two-part filler out.

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Back in the tremolo spring chamber,and with the string tension now removed – I can get on removing the tremolo springs to release the tremolo block completely. The tremolo claw needs to be unscrewed first, so that the springs are slackened, and then each spring is released and removed in turn. I’d originally installed all five springs – where three seems to be more the norm, and I’ll rebuild the tremolo, afterwards with three – set in the splayed configuration shown. Having five springs creates a lot of tension, and also seems to cause a lot of reverberation. Whilst this is, in some ways, part of the character of the Stratocaster sound – setting the tremolo up with five springs was way too lively for me, and I had to take the step of damping the springs with a bit of foam. Hopefully, the three spring setup will be better.

While I’m removing the springs – I can see that the grounding wire which runs to the main control panel is a part of the Ironstone scratchplate installation. The Ironstone Gilmour plate came with ground and jack wires already in place, and was designed as a “drop-in solution”. This meant it was relatively simple for me to install – but I originally put in a little separate grounding point, in the rear chamber, to link my claw grounding wire with the Ironstone ground wire. Since I’ll be re-wiring the whole circuit this time – it makes sense to remove this extra screw lug, and to provide a central grounding point inside the main control cavity. To help remove the Ironstone plate, I take the lug off the green, grounding wire – so that the wire is free. I heat up my soldering iron, and apply some heat to the solder joint between my little stub of grounding wire, and the tremolo claw. It takes a bit of encouragement – but the wire is fairly easily removed – ready for a new, single length of ground wire to be installed – all the way through to the main control chamber, once I get the scratchplate off.

Turning the guitar over again, I can now unscrew the scratchplate. The jack plug wire is a co-axial type – again part of the original Ironstone installation. In order to free up the wire, and so that the entire scratchplate assembly can be removed – it’s first necessary to remove the jack plug socket plate, and to de-solder the two wires from the output co-axial there. I’ll eventually build in a new wiring run for the ground and hot wires from the jack, and twist and route them both into the main chamber. My existing solder joints might have been a bit flaky, and the proximity to the sides of the copper lined cavity had given me a few crackles and shorts when pushing in the jack plug. (I think this was my first attempt at soldering in anything like this, and I’m embarrased at just how flaky these first attempts were). In the upgrade – I’ll make sure the wires are properly soldered, properly routed and properly insulated at the plug end, with shrink tube.

The Ironstone scratchplate and pickup assembly can now be removed, and stored away for future use. I’ll probably re-wire it at some point, and look to upgrade the wires and switches. The pickups are great – but I’d like the  pots and switches to be CTS and CRL, quality components. I’d like to swap out the thin, plastic covered coaxial pickup wires for separate, “hot” and “ground”, vintage-style cloth wires too. Looks like this might be the ideal basis for another build, sometime in the future.

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Now – with all the springs out – I can remove the tremolo block by unscrewing the whole bridge plate assembly on the front of the guitar. With no tension at all on the tremolo block now – it’s a simple task to prise the two bits of wood out which were originally used to block the tremolo. Before removing the bridge, I mark the outline with masking tape – to provide the same visual guide – in case I need to remove some of the body material. I don’t want to see anything from the front. With the tremolo out – I can finally have a look inside, and see how much the block is binding on the body.

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I painted the inside of the tremolo rout with black casein paint. I seem to recall this was a cosmetic decision, more than anything else – but it’s made it easy to tell where the tremolo block is rubbing slightly. The casein paint dries to a nice, flat finish – but shines up if it’s rubbed. Looking into the rout – you can clearly see where the steel block is binding. The actual problem doesn’t appear to be too bad. The block doesn’t rub enough to remove a whole layer of paint – just enough to make the tremolo operation slightly sticky. This could interfere with the guitars ability to return to tune properly. A targeted rub down with some coarse sandpaper should be enough to free the block up.

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In the end, I just roll up some 40 grit, and use it like a rasp – working away at the end of the rout until I’ve rubbed away a couple of millimetres. After checking the tremolo block is now free from rubbing, I dust the tremolo rout out, and repaint the sides with fresh, black casein paint. While I’m at it – I also fill the little lug screw hole, in the spring cavity, with two-part filler – knock back the excess once the filler’s dry, and then paint over with fresh, black casein paint. (And while the two-part filler is out – I also fill those two neck screw holes which need re-drilling).

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While the paint dries – I can look at fitting the tuners to the new neck. Once again, the neck comes pre-drilled for tuner hardware – so things should fly together. The tuner bushings push snugly into place, using just finger pressure. A few are a little stiff – but all it takes is an extra bit of effort – using a small bit of stripwood over the bushing, to help spread the pressure. (Just make sure the headstock is flat, and well protected on the work bench first).

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With all the bushings in place, the tuners are screwed in, on the back of the headstock, using some stainless steel replacement screws, instead of the stock chrome plated ones supplied. The screw holes are already drilled, and are well located. A length of masking tape, or a metal straight edge can help to visually check tuner alignment – but there’s not much adjustment needed. The screws are tightened to finger tightness – enough to hold the tuners securely – without the risk of stripping the threads on the screw holes.

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The tremolo block and bridge can now be re-installed. The bridge plate screws on the Callaham tremolo are tightened in turn, just to the point where the back of the bridge plate begins to lift. If you tighten and slacken the screws slightly around this biting point – you can adjust each screw to the point where each holds the plate in place – but doesn’t appear to exert any load on the plate. In theory – the screws should all act equally as pivots. However – once all six screws are all at this point of “perfect adjustment” – I back the two outside screws off just a tiny bit. I want the bridge to pivot on these two points alone. The inner four screws are then backed off a half a turn. This should help smooth the tremolo operation, and avoids any binding of badly adjusted or mis-aligned screw heads against the tremolo plate. In a way, it begins to duplicate the function of the, more modern, two pivot bridges which are common on more recent Statocasters. It’s a principle which works really well on the, superior, Jaguar tremolo system too.

With the tremolo block back in place, a quick visual check confirms that it isn’t rubbing on the side of the rout any more. There’s at least a couple of millimetres clearance. I fit the three springs I’ll be using into place, and then tighten the tremolo claw slightly – just enough to stop them flopping out.

I then solder a new length of black, cloth covered wire to the back of the claw, loop it slightly to provide a bit of slack, and then run it through the small conduit hole, and into the main control cavity. I poke a hole in the side of the cavity with a bradawl – enough to locate a small screw into the side of the copper lined cavity. This will be my central grounding point. I locate it just under where the bridge pickup rout meets the main control cavity. I solder a new lug onto the end of the claw grounding wire, and screw the wire into place. The other ground wires will converge here later.

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Now that the bridge is back on, and the tuners are attached to the neck, I can easily check the straightness of the neck at the body joint, and mark where new screw holes need to be drilled. The neck is attached using just the two screws nearest to the body, and I then run two slack strings in both of the outer “E” positions – to check the straightness of the neck at the body joint. This is where you can find a use for all those part-set strings you end up keeping, after you’ve broken up full sets to repair single-string breaks. The strings only need tightening enough so that they run true and straight – and so offer a good visual guide of how they run, in relation to the edges of the fingerboard. This new neck seems good and straight, and appears to sit true in the neck pocket – so the positions of the new holes can be marked by simply pushing a new neck screw through the plate and body, and rotating it with some pressure – so that it leaves a guide mark at the correct location.

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The new holes are drilled using a drill press, and a sharp wood bit. It’s always sensible to double check the depth of your drill stop – or to mark the required depth of drill with a bit of tape. You really don’t want to drill too deep and run through your nice, new fingerboard. I usually double check the level of the drill bed, and make sure the neck is clamped level, and securely in place. This ensures a straight, true tap – which shouldn’t pull the neck out of alignment, or risk deforming the neck screws.

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The neck can now be properly attached to the body. As usual, I wipe the screws with wax before tapping them into place for the first time. I also try to make sure the screws aren’t overtightened, and that the neck plate stays as flat as possible – without distortion. Since there have been so many, fiddly little tasks to get in the right order – I’ve reached a point where it makes sense to stop for the day. I fit the new scratchguard into place, but leave the protective plastic on. I also re-fit the rear cover and jack socket. This just keeps all the components together, and reduces the risk things will get mis-placed. It’s good practice to tidy down properly in between jobs – and it means I can keep the guitar together – safe in its’ own case – when I’m not working on it.  With luck, that’s all of the body mods and “construction” tasks, out of the way. Next tasks will be focused on the pickups and switch circuit.

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