The Black Strat. Stringing and setup. Floating another tremolo.

Since this project is intended to be a reasonably faithful, kind of “NOS”, reproduction of Gilmour’s original Black Strat. – I should probably use a set of authentic, Gilmour “Signature Series” strings from GHS.

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The GHS Boomers come in a  10-48 configuration, with strings measured at, 0.010″, 0.012″, 0.016″, 0.028″, 0.038″, 0.048″ making up the set. I’ve not used GHS strings before, and usually prefer a slightly heavier, “bottom end”, but since the project is all about trying to capture the Gilmour tone, as well as the look of the Black Strat – I’d be missing a trick if I didn’t use the same gauge strings, as on the original.

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I first set the tremolo claw at a relatively loose tension, by slackening off on the two securing screws. The guitar is strung, the strings stretched out, and brought up to an approximate tuning. At this point the angle of the tremolo bridge plate against the face of the body is assessed. I want to float the tremolo just enough so that I can get a full upwards tone shift in pitch when I pull back on the whammy bar – but no more than that. With the guitar in approximate tune – I can check to see how the plate sits, and see how much it needs to move, to allow for this full-tone shift.

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At first – this approximate equilibrium clearly shows too much angle on the tremolo plate. When I check the action of the tremolo, I’m getting almost three semi-tones – so there’s more movement than I actually need. The strings are exerting too much pressure, and I’ll need the internal springs to exert a little more pressure to help pull the plate down. This is achieved by tightening the screws on the spring claw, but this in turn throws the guitar sharp, and the whole system requires retuning. It takes a bit of back and forth adjustment to get the bridge plate in the right place, but once I can get a clean tone rise in tone, I know the strings and springs of the guitar are in a state of equilibrium.

Once this point of equilibrium has been reached, I can fix a shim in between the block and the back of the chamber. I can then use the string tension alone, to hold the block in exactly the right place. I make up the temporary shim from coins, wrapped in masking tape until it is exactly the right width to hold the plate exactly where I want it. In this case, it’s £3.70 in coins of the realm, together with a few wraps of paper tape. I drop the shim into place, and leave a tail of masking tape to stop it from accidentally dropping further into the body of the guitar.

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With the block firmly held in the correct place, I can then remove the middle spring. That way, the block is pulled even harder against the temporary shim, as the string tension now overpowers the balancing pull of the springs. For a while – the focus of the setup is now all about the strings. Now that the guitar is effectively “blocked”, any adjustments to the strings can’t be pulled out of line by the counter-action of the springs. With the bridge held at the equilibrium or, “floating” point – I can sort the strings out first, before bringing the springs into the equation later.

So, to begin the setup. First I return the strings to concert pitch, using a chromatic tuner. I can then make a few measurements to check the action of the neck. With a capo at the first fret, and a finger at the last fret, I can check the action of the low “E” string with a feeler gauge. The action is the distance netween the bottom of the string, and the top of the 8th fret. It’s tight. Fender recommend 0.012″ for a 7.25″ radius neck, and this looks slightly less that 0.010″. I have to slacken the strings off and remove the neck, in order to give the truss rod about a quarter turn anti-clockwise. That reduces any back-bow. With the temporary shim keeping the equilibrium point, all I need to do now, is re-fit the neck and then retune the strings – before I can recheck the neck action. A quarter-turn is all it needs to get me the correct 0.012″ clearance.

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I can now set the two outer “E” strings to the correct height, by adjusting the individual grub screws in the saddles, and checking the string height, at the 17th fret, with a string gauge. Fender recommend 5/64″ (2.0mm) at the bass side, and 4/64″, (1.6mm) at the treble. With the two, outer strings set to the correct heights, I can then set the other strings to follow the curve of the fingerboard and frets, by using a string radius gauge. It’s especially important to maintain this curve on small radiused necks, since you want to be easily able to bend strings across the curve, without the notes choking off.

With the string heights set, the nut slots can then be filed down to the correct depth. I’ve previously replaced the stock Fender nut with a pre-slotted bone nut, on which the slots will need to be adjusted to the correct depth. I’ve already covered the process enough in previous posts, but to quickly summarise – I like to use stacked feeler gauges to help locate the bottom of the slots, so that there’s minimal clearance at the first fret. Once the strings are at the correct height across the bottom frets, the intonation of the neck is usually much more accurate, and the guitar is easier to play in open positions. I can now also check the intonation of each string, by comparing the tuning of each open string with the harmonic at the 12th fret. By adjusting the lateral position of each string saddle, the length of each string is fine-tuned so that the mid-point of each coincides exactly with the 12th fret. Cross string tuning is then double checked, so that open chords and barre chords further up the neck sound correctly in tune.

With the setup roughly complete, it doesn’t take long to quickly re-do all of the setup measurements , and to fine-tune any minor knock-on changes which may have been brought about during the previous procedures. With the tremolo still effectively disabled, I can then finally plug the guitar into a handy amp, and check the sound for the very first time.

Well… there’s a lot to take in… but it sounds immense. That 50’s neck pickup sounds awfully familiar, and that Seymour Duncan Custom SSL-1C-DG has way more spank than the SSL-5 which I recently put into my Ash Strat. The SSL-5 is the standard upgrade to achieve Gilmour-like bridge tones, but the SSL-1C-DG, (which is the original pickup the SSL-5 is supposed to be modelled on), clearly has some extra fancy windings or layers of magic wax, or something… It’s just got so much more character – and a massive punch compared with the neck and middle pickups. But then, I’ll have to play around with it all later on – there’s still a setup to complete.

I take the opportunity, while the guitar is amped up, to set the pickup heights. For now, I’m dropping them slightly below the Fender recommendations of 6/64″, (2.4mm), on the bass side and 5/64, (2.0mm), on the treble side. This eases the poles’ magnetic pull on the strings slightly, and reveals a little more of the bell-like tones you’d expect from high-quality single coils like this. I still need to set the heights so that the outputs are balanced, and I can’t wait to try this out with effects, and a little overdrive. All things considered, I think the pickups will probably finally end up getting set a little higher – but I like what I hear already.

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With the setup completed on the string side, all that remains to do is to free up the tremolo, and to re-establish the balance point, by adjusting the claw springs.. The third spring is reattached, and that makes it a bit easier to withdraw the temporary shim. The tremolo block can now swing again, as the tension from the strings pulls the block towards the back of the chamber. The guitar detunes. With the guitar connected to a chromatic tuner, the tremolo claw is then screwed into the body, bit by bit. This increases the tension exerted by the springs – counteracting the string pressure, and moving the block and tremolo plate back towards the floating point. The guitar pitch is gradually raised. Once the guitar is brought into tune again, by adjustments to the tremolo claw alone, then the block must be back in the exact position of equilibrium, as previously dictated by the temporary shim. This time however, it’s all down to a balance in the pressure exerted by both the springs and strings, rather than due to the shim. The tremolo is truly floating. The guitar now usually requires a few, minor, adjustments to restore a pitch-perfect tuning – but such adjustments should only be made once every attempt has been made to bring the guitar to tune using only adjustments to the claw. Anything you do via the tuners will affect the final position of your tremolo plate.

And that’s it. The Black Strat project is finally “complete”. As with all build projects – it’ll take time to fine-tune it, and begin to discover the true personality of this guitar. But for now – it’s time enough to step back and assess how the build has gone. Another Black Stratocaster for the world, but a very special guitar for me. This one might not be worth $3.4 million – but in essence, it’s as close as I can personally get to the original. The guitar looks brand new – as if Gilmour’s evolved Black Strat had been entirely crafted from new. I’m still interested in doing a proper replica version – with modification routs, dints, scratches – the lot – but my version gets me somewhere towards investigating the specifics of Gilmour’s tone – whilst at the same time, satisfying that constant desire for a brand new, shiny Fender. The GAS, (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome), is strong in this one.

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If I do eventually get round to working on a proper, reliced, replica version, I’d really need to get hold of a copy of Phil Taylor’s, “The Black Strat.”, book. I’m holding out for a reprint in the not too distant future, since second hand copies regularly go for close on £100. For this version, I’ve worked from a copy of the Christie’s Auction Catalogue, together with a recent “Guitarist” magazine article on the Christie’s show. The article featured a few detail photos which I’ve “reproduced”, featuring my new Black Strat. Original photos on the left – my project on the right.

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