Hank Marvin Inspired, Fender “Classic ’50’s” Stratocaster. Setup, and the VML “Easy-Mute” tremolo arm.

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With the wiring complete, it’s tempting to screw down all the covers, front and back, and admire the look of the finished job. But it’s wise to check the wiring first – if only at a basic level. Of course, to test it properly, you need to string the guitar up, but that’s not necessary at this stage. To perform a basic test, just connect the guitar to an amp, turn the volume up a bit, select one of the pickups with the 5-way switch and then touch one of the poles on the selected pickup with something metallic. A screwdriver does nicely. A reassuring “clunk” tells you things are, (more than likely), hooked up correctly. You can even get a basic idea of how the pots are working by repeating the test whilst operating each, in turn.

You can also tell a bit about how well the guitar is shielded, and if the components are soldered together correctly, by listening to any general circuit noise. Any wild buzzing or crackling tells you something definitely isn’t right, and it’s time to retrace your work – checking for cold solder joints, and making sure that every wire is soldered in at the correct place.

Usually, the pickups “clunk”, and all’s well, or there’s buzzing and it isn’t. This new wiring job is dead quiet. Nothing.

And immediately, I think I know what the problem is. There’s usually some sort of signal – even if you’ve messed up pretty bad with your soldering. If a guitar circuit is totally silent – then it’s most likely a short to ground somewhere. Now it’s always possible that something’s not wired in properly, or a stray wire end is arcing through to ground somewhere – so the usual thing to do is to go through the entire circuit – every solder joint in turn – to make sure the circuit is correct. If it is – then double check every joint to make sure the solder is clean and shiny, that there’s actual metal to metal contact, and that there’s no tail ends shorting anywhere. If everything checks out – the last thing to check is, usually, to make sure nothing is moving and shorting when the scratchplate is placed in position.

In this particular instance however, I noticed something suspicious when I plugged the guitar in. The jack plug seemed particularly stiff, and it was quite hard to push the jack plug in for the last millimeter of travel. I’ve seen this before…

When the plug goes into the jack socket – the “hot” terminal acts like a spring – to retain the end of the jack plug. In doing so, it flexes back a little but, in this case it’s just pushing against, and shorting onto, the sides of the copper-foiled interior of the jack socket rout. It’s a stupid design flaw – easily avoidable – and it becomes a problem especially when the “boat” shaped plate is located more towards the back of the rout, than the front. That seems to be the case here. When I check inside the cavity, I can see that the copper lining is slightly ripped, and the side of the cavity is slightly indented. It’s a simple fix. Sometimes you can adjust the switch socket to move the entire jack spring contact part, a little further out. Sometimes there’s a washer you can lose to gain a couple of crucial millimetres. In this case – there’s not much more to play with – so I resort to a more basic solution. A piece of electrical tape is cut to stick over, cover and insulate the area. (Good old-fashioned “Gaffa” tape, will do the job too). To make doubly sure, I pick away a small area of copper foil back to the wood first – so that if the electrical tape does comes adrift over time, there shouldn’t be an unexpected, (and potentially untimely), recurrance of the problem.

With the insulation tape in place – I check the circuit again, and all seems well. A definite “clunk”! I can finally screw down the cover plates and begin to make final adjustments and set up the guitar.

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I’ve noticed a few of the frets seem a little bit sharp and unfinished at the edges. A special fret file – triangular in section, and with curved, tapering faces – like a really long pyramid – is used to file and round any rough edges. The very edges of the file are rounded, and the filing matrix is smooth along these edges – so that there’s little danger of scratching the fingerboard when filing over and around the ends of the frets. That said – it’s wise to go slowly and methodically. This is a Fender Mexican neck, and the quality’s not bad. There aren’t too many rough edges as it stands – but I might as well make it as comfortable and slick to play, as I can. Once the rough fret ends are filed round, I polish all of the frets with three grades of fine wet and dry paper. A metal fret shield helps keep the abrasive away from the fingerboard finish.

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Once all the frets are polished with the wet and dry paper – I fine polish each with four, progressively finer, grades of fret rubber. This really shines them up. The neck is new, and I’ve no reason to believe there’s a need for any more complicated fret levelling at this stage. Fender normally do a good job, and there’s never any point in removing too much fret metal unless you really have to.

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To begin the guitar setup – I turn attention to the tremolo bridge. On previous setups – I’ve mostly been following Fender standard setup guidelines. However, recently, I’ve been able to refer to a copy of Phil Taylor’s book about “The Black Strat”, and I now have a suggested configuration based on Dave Gilmour’s preferred setup. I’ll be reconfiguring my own Black Strat with these refined specifications – but I think I’ll give them a bit of a try on this build first – to see how they work out, and to see how the guitar suits a nice, low action.

The first task on the setup, is to study how the plate is flexing and moving about as it lifts forward and back, and I can see that there’s still a little travel against the screw heads in both directions as the plate pivots. The four inner screws are already backed off a little bit, and since I want the two outside screws to do most of the work, I adjust each of those first – until the tremolo plate moves smoothly – without any slippage or other, unwanted motion. The four inner screws can then be tightened up by approximately 1/4 of a turn, without still quite coming into contact with the bridge plate at any time during the operation of the tremolo. The next thing is to fix the pivoting bridge plate in the position it will ideally be in, once the strings pull it up – under tension. This creates a short distance of travel to allow the player to pull back on the whammy bar – raising the tone. (This can be fine-tuned later to ensure there’s a full semi-tone or tone available, and to suit the particular player). Phil Taylor’s setup for Gilmour’s Strat gives an exact height dimension of 1.5mm at a particular point towards the back of the plate, and so I recreate this with a stack of business cards – taped into place to stop them shifting about.

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Turning the guitar over – I can now insert a suitable wedge of wood into the gap between the tremolo block and the back of the tremolo cavity. The tension screws on the claw can now be tightened so that the tremolo plate is pulled down against the business card spacers. The timber wedge effectively locks the block and plate firmly. It’s pretty secure – but I tape it in with some masking tape, just to keep it there.

The guitar is then laid on its’ back, and I fit a set of my favourite D’Addario, Nickel Wound – EXL140 strings, ( .010 .013 .017 .030 .042 .052). They’re stretched out, and roughly brought to tune. I can now check the neck relief by placing a capo at the 1st fret, and fretting the highest fret. A feeler gauge under the string at the 8th fret, (the mid-point of the neck), shows the relief. Usually, Fender recommends 0.010″ – but Phil Taylor sets up Gilmour’s Strat with just half of that! The neck has access to the truss rod adjustment nut at the headstock end – so there’s no need to take the neck off. Turning the nut clockwise, (tightening the truss rod), applies more force and pulls the headstock end down, relative to the heel. A couple of minor tweaks is all it takes to pull the neck relief down to just under 0.008″. That’s about half-way between Fender’s recommendations, and Gilmour’s setup. I think I’ll see how that works out for me. I’ve previously had decent results with anything around the 0.007″ mark.

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With the guitar tuned up again, I turn my attention to the Tusq nut. I’ve managed to get hold of another of StewMac’s time saving devices. This does the job of firmly holding stacked feeler gauges, right up against against the nut – leaving both hands free to properly hold and support a nut slotting file. After checking the fret height at the first fret, (a consistent 0.040″ across the neck radius), I add the desired string heights above the first fret, for each string in turn – placing the correct, stacked gauges – and then using them to accurately guide the slot file depth. The setup tapers the string heights from 0.020″ at the low E, down to 0.010″ for the high E. Adding the fret height to these values gives me target slot heights ranging, in 0.002″ steps, from 0.060″, (Low E)  to 0.050″, (high E).

The slots are filed with a gentle fall away towards the pegboard, and are opened out slightly, at the rear, to prevent the strings from binding. It’s important to stop filing, the second the file first comes into contact with the stacked gauges. You can hear and feel a slight, metallic scratch. This indicates that the cut is at the exact required height. Stop now. Carry on filing, and you’ll wreck the nut and have to start all over again.

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With the nut slotted to the correct depth, I then check both of the outside, E, string heights – by using a gauge at the 17th fret. I’m looking for 1.8mm at the low E, 1.6mm for the high. Both strings are adjusted by turning the small grub screws in the saddles – lowering or raising the strings as required. Once the outer srings are set, the other four saddles are raised so that the strings follow the correct 9.5″ radius along this Fender Classic player neck. There’s a tendency for some, to angle the saddles so that they follow the curve – but I’ve learned to resist this. Keeping the saddles level seems to help stop the strings slipping when the tremolo is operated, and it seems to help the strings stay in tune better.

With the string heights set, the tuning is checked again and then each string is checked for intonation. Each strings’ tuning is checked when an open note is played, and against the octave at the 12th fret. If the octave is sharp, then the string needs lengthening slightly until the octave occurs exactly half way along the string length, at the 12th fret. (The opposite applies if the octave is flat). The individual strings are lengthened and shortened by moving the saddles back and forth – and by turning the adjustment screws at the back of the bridge. Using a chromatic tuner makes this all a relatively easy process – and it always helps if the saddles have been pre-set in their approximate positions, as is the case here.

With the string action set – it’s a good time to check and sound each string, up and down the neck at each fret – checking that there are no buzzes or choked notes anywhere. Once all the strings check out, I then usually check that the strings don’t choke at the usual string bend locations. I note that Gilmour’s setup has the G string slightly raised above the natural radius curve – so the G string here is raised so that the height at the 17th fret is 1.8mm, (same as the low E).

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The strings are now all in tune, and will exert a certain amount of tension against the tremolo plate and, ultimately, the tremolo springs. However, that action has been temporarily blocked off by the “wedge” and business cards. Also – the springs have been tightened so that they would easily “win” the balance anyway. If I were to take the wedge and business cards away now, without changing anything else – the tremolo plate would be pulled down hard at the back, against the body,

To float the tremolo properly, the springs first need to be slackened to the point where the wedge can be easily removed, and the business cards literally fall out. At this point, the strings will “win” the balance. They’ll pull the back of the plate up, and the amount of tension in the system will lessen slightly as balance is achieved again. However, although the system is now in balance, the lesser tension will mean that the strings are detuned below concert pitch. To restore proper tuning whilst maintaining equilibrium, the claw screws are now tightened, so that the springs begin to exert more tension. As they pull against the strings – more tension is shared across the system. The claw screws need to be tightened until the strings come back into exact tune. If you keep the screws tightened equally, then the strings should eventually return to tuned pitch and will then remain in relative tune.

It’s vital that you don’t retune the strings by using the tuning pegs at this stage. You just need to return the right amount of tension to the system. Once that is done – the tremolo plate should be at the pre-ordained point, and the strings should be in tune, with the system in balance. When you operate the tremolo subsequently – the system should always return to this point of balance and equilibrium. Of course – there’s usually a bit of ultra-fine tuning to be done with the machine heads – but bear in mind that any movement from the previous tuning may slightly alter the position of your tremolo plate.

The last part of the setup, is to adjust the pickup heights to the correct distance below each string. The dimensions are measured and adjusted for each pickup in turn, (with the strings fretted at the last fret). The pickups are generally set to Fender recommended specifications – 2,0mm at the bass side, and 1.6mm on the treble. These dimensions will likely be adjusted however, once the setup is tested under playing conditions, and through an amplifier. (These Bareknuckle pickups are slightly hotter than original vintage, single-coils). Ultimately, it will all depend on the strength of the pickups, and the relative volumes they produce across the various switching combinations. Quite often, the bridge pickup might gradually be adjusted a little closer on the treble side, and the middle pickup raised on the bass side. I’ll check the pickups out and adjust them properly when I give the guitar a final check over.

Easy-Mute Trem 01

Apart from pickup adjustment – the last component to setup and finish the guitar build is the whammy bar. The standard Fender bar sits way off the body of the guitar and – unlike the Callaham bar, unlike the shorter Gilmour bar on the Black Strat – the standard bar does tend to wave around and flop about. For some players – it tends to get in the way everywhere. I just can’t get over how far it sticks out from the plane where your playing hand normally rests!! Not all bars are built the same. With the other Strats I’ve built – I can actually close the cases with the whammy bar still in in place. No chance of that with this one. Certainly not without some serious metal bending, (and that can be very tricky with chromed or gold hardware). It’ll definitely need screwing on and off each time the guitar is used, and then stored away.

The usual problem is – that every attachment and subsequent detachment, gradually slackens the retaining screw thread within the tremolo block. Eventually the whammy bar flops around even more, and it’s never exactly where you want it, when you want it. I noticed, in researching Hank’s Stratocaster, that he uses a custom designed unit with a distinctive, anodized, gold tip. I was going to stick with the original tremolo bar at first – but then I discovered that Hank’s original design is still manufactured and available from Ian St.John White, at VML in Middlesex. Keen to follow Hank’s stylings a little further for my build – I put in an order.

The “Easy-Mute” tremolo is a nice snug fit to the Fender “Pure Vintage” tremolo plate and block and, at the moment at least, it stays in place exactly where you leave it. The styling is unmistakeably Hank’s, and I understand that he still uses the VML system to this day. I particularly like the way the bar is canted away from the block slightly, just where it connects. This leaves the tremolo arm in place, but slightly below the usual line – just below the high string. This means you can more easily cover the bridge with your hand – and still have the tremolo bar easily accessible without too much unnecessary movement. A quality component – electroplated with 24ct Gold – and a nice finishing detail to the build.

Considering that this project has been a bit of a restoration, and an “upcycling” type of build – it’s really come together well, and the guitar feels resonant – with a super light action. Very pleased. Time to check out the sound from those pickups.

Easy-Mute Trem 02

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