Jimmy Page “Dragoncaster”. Setup (with HOSCO neck)

I need to take the scratchplate off, in order to get to the height adjustment screws for the neck pickup. But to set the height right – I need to string the guitar up first, to take measurements.

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To setup the guitar – I run through the, now familiar routine:

  • Stringing (and preliminary tuning to tension the neck)
  • Neck action measurement and adjustment (under proper string tension)
  • Nut adjustment, slotting and polishing
  • String height adjustment (saddle height adjustment and neck radius matching)
  • String intonation checks and adjustments
  • Pickup height adjustments (rough check followed by fine adjustments through an amplifier)

I use a set of D’Addario XL110, nickel wound strings for the job. These are a more standard type gauge, in that they have a slightly less heavy bottom end than the XL140’s I use on many of my guitars. The “Dragoncaster” is strung through the bridge and “over” the body, rather than by using the through-body grommets. This is reputed to make the playability a bit “slinkier”. I’d like to see how accurate that claim is – so a more regular set of strings should help me pick up on the “bendability” of the various strings in different locations on the neck.

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With the strings loaded, stretched out and brought to tune – I check the straightness of the neck. I’m looking to set the guitar up to match the standard, Fender recommended specifications for Telecasters. The geometry of the guitar is typical Tele – so the standard settings should work well, although I’m pretty sure I’ll need to experiment with the pickup heights – Especially, given the strength of that bridge pickup.

The neck is still pretty flat, and at the 8th fret – at a point halfway along a straight line drawn between the tops of the first and last frets – I need a gap of exactly 0.012″. I use a feeler gauge, and find the gap is more like 0.007″. The neck’s too flat, and it’ll likely buzz and slap towards the top frets. I therefore need to slacken the truss rod slightly, to let the strings pull the neck a little more, and so that it develops a bit of extra bow. A quarter turn anti-clockwise on the truss rod adjustment screw should do it. However – the adjustment point is on the heel of the installed neck. I don’t have an angled thingummy-bob to get in the small access gap on the body. Nothing for it – I have to slacken the strings, unbolt the neck, and then re-assemble – having given the adjustment screw my best guess of a twist.

Actually – it takes two attempts – but on the second attempt, it looks like I’ve got the adjustment spot on. Well – it looks like I’m between 0.011″ and 0.012″. That’ll do for me. With the neck re-installed and the strings brought back to tune – I can now move on to look at the nut.

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Since I first fitted the bone nut, I’ve made a vital purchase. A half decent, set of digital calipers now makes measuring nut slots and nut widths an absolute, breeze. And they’re super accurate. After this – I’m pretty unimpressed with my previous efforts at fitting a nut. I take a fresh HOSCO, pre-slotted, bone nut blank – and file off the little tab underneath the lower curve. This being a HOSCO neck – the curve matches the curve of the nut slot well. Furthermore, the nut is shaped with a fallaway to the rear. All I need to do is to reduce the nut thickness by about a tenth of a millimetre, and then shape the ends by removing a millimetre, or so, at each. With the help of regular, accurate caliper measurements, I’m able to fit the nut so that it pushes into the slot and stays firmly in place. The fit is so good, I don’t really need to use any adhesive. If the nut needs fixing in place, I’ll use a couple of drops of shellac – just to make sure there’s no lateral movement.

The nut slots are already started – but need to be slotted to the correct height above the first fret using special, gauged, nut-slotting files. Once again, the digital callipers give me an accurate fret height measurement in all string positions at the first fret. The radius looks reasonably consistent – I’m looking at a fret height of 0.042″ to 0.044″ above the fingerboard. So that there’s no risk of cutting too deep – I’ll settle at 0.044″.

The slots are cut with the help of my StewMac “Safe Slot” tool. To make sure that the strings fall in a gentle curve across the neck, and so that the string clearance height above the first fret varies from 0.020″ at the bass side, to 0.018″ on the treble side – I cut the string slots in pairs:

The final measurements, (first fret height + string clearance height), are 0.064″ for the E and A strings, 0.063″ for the D and G, 0.062″ for the B and E.

The “Safe Slot” tool makes cutting the slots much less of a gamble. There’s always the tendency to try and push things to get a little more depth, “just to get it nice and low”. The trouble is – if you go too deep – the strings buzz, and you simply have to start all over again. With six strings to slot – that’s six times the jeopardy. The “Safe Slot” helps you get each slot bang-on, and you can focus on getting the slot angle, width and rear taper smooth and accurate.

The strings are slackened and eased to the side of the finished nut – so that the nut can finally be polished with fine grit paper. Once the guitar is setup and bedded in, I’ll return and file the top of the nut down a bit – shaping it so that there’s not too much excess nut material showing above the high strings. The thicker, bass strings sit nicely in their slots, but it looks like I’ll need to reduce the height of the nut slightly from the middle, out towards the treble side. There shouldn’t really be any extra nut height above the tops of these fine strings. I usually mask the fretboard and pegboard off with a bit of masking tape, and use a emery nail board to fine-shape the nut. A little polish, and it’ll be super shiny, and good to go. A little drop of silicone “Nut Sauce” in each slot always helps too.

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Like the nut slots – the string saddle heights are set in pairs. The grooved bridges allow the outer saddles to be slightly angled, without the strings slipping sideways. I set the outside string heights by adjusting the outer saddles, so that both the outer “E” string heights when measured at the 17th fret are at 1.6mm. I use a special, custom-built gauge for the job, which allows a little light to pass through between the string and the angled base of the gauge. When the string matches the correct height – the light is blocked by the string and stops showing through. This method is really clear to read – so much so, that I can even set the string heights to 0.1mm accuracy with my dodgy eyesight. If only all measurement gauges were this easy to read and use.

With the two, outer, strings set correctly – the inner four are set using a curved string gauge which matches the 7.25″ fretboard curve. All three saddles are set very low, and so in order to safely raise the heights without stressing the strings too much – it’s adviseable to slacken them off a little first. Once the string heights match the curve of the gauge – it’s time to check the string intonation.

The strings are returned to tune using a Boss, chromatic tuner. Then, the fundamental, open note for each string is checked against the harmonic at the twelfth fret. If the note at the 12th fret is sharp – then the distance between the mid-point of the string (at the 12th fret) and the bridge saddle, is slightly shorter than the distance between the nut and the 12th fret. The two need to be identical – so if the 12th fret note is sharp – the string length needs to be lengthened slightly, and you do this by slackening off the appropriate saddle adjustment screw at the back of the bridge. Of course – if the note at the 12th fret is flat, then the opposite applies. This process is repeated gradually for all strings until the open notes and fretted octaves are identical. As long as the nut height has been set low enough, and the frets have been placed properly – then the strings should be in tune and intonated all across the neck. It’s worthwhile checking some of the  regular tuning points with the chromatic tuner – just to see how well the neck is set up.

Of course – on Telecasters like this – with three, paired string saddles – the intonation has to be “balanced” to some extent. It’s always a bit of a compromise, especially at the “B” string. There’s always a bit of a compromise, and a bit of give and take. Ultimately – the guitar will tell you when it’s setup right.

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With the strings set, I have a chance to fit the last two bits of outstanding hardware. I use and early 50’s style string tree alongside the second tuner – carefully marking the position and drilling the hole before tightening the tree down. (Add a drop or two of “Nut Sauce” in the string slots under the tree). The installation of a black, plastic, “barrel” type switch tip on the control panel is the finishing touch.

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With the strings installed, I can check the pickup heights and adjust them. Because of the strength of the bridge pickup – I’m pretty sure it’ll need fine tuning after the event. It’s the neck pickup which can be a pain – since it’ll need the pickguard removing for any, subsequent, adjustment. Before I install the pickguard for the final time, I fret the strings at the last fret, and measure the height from the bottom of the strings to the top of the neck pickup. I’m looking for around 2mm at the treble side, and 2.4mm at the bass side. With the height set using the screws at either side of the pickup cutout, I plug the guitar into an amplifier and check the sound with the neck pickup selected, (position 2), and the tone control full up.

A slight pulsation on a sustained note tells me that the pickup magnets are pulling at the string a bit too much. I need to increase the clearance. It actually helps to hold the guitar in a playing position while checking the pickup heights, since the slight effect of gravity can make a subtle difference to the way the pickup poles “hold” each string. Eventually, with the neck pickup backed off to 3.0mm at the treble side and 3.5mm at the bass, the sustained notes are sweet and powerful – yet there’s no sign, (or sound), of “pull”.

The bridge pickup is absolutely immense. Real Tele tone. Now I see what all the fuss with Don Mare pickups is all about. He must have a time machine, and do his winding in another age. The way he gets his pickups to sound so authentically like that classic Telecaster sound of the 50’s and 60’s is astonishing.

The huge difference in power between the neck and treble pickups is noticeable too. (I know the neck pickup poles are artificially aged to match the “tired-out” pull of Jimmy’s old Alnico magnets). I think I’m going to have to experiment to find the best pickup height at the bridge. It’s possible it’ll be “on” all of the time. Who knows if I’ll ever really use the bass side of the “Dark Circuit” anyway. For the time being – I opt to set the bridge pickup to a reasonably standard height. 2.00mm below the treble side, and 2.5mm below the bass. This is one powerful pickup. I want to check it out with a distortion circuit and with some serious volume. I’m just not sure how important getting a good, clean, unwavering held note might actually be, in the scheme of things.

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A white, Jimmy Page style “Stained Glass” pattern strap by Souldier finishes off the build. Plugging in the guitar, and turning up the volume – this has all the immediate impact I hoped it would. The first thing I notice, (and after a sustained period of mostly playing a Stratocaster), is just how different a Telecaster actually feels to play. The strings certainly feel slinky. The setup feels a lot like my other Telecaster. Familiar – but this feels like a much more finely-balanced instrument. It also sounds astonishingly authentic – but I realise just how long it’s been since I’ve really let rip, volume-wise. I’m immediately aware of a certain amount of self-conciousness, as I realise just how messy some of my electric guitar playing actually is. I need to up my practise and try to get out of this domestic setup, every now and again.

Sounds like it’s going to be fun expanding my skills though. Apologies to my neighbours.

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