The process of building my Gilmour Black Strat, and then setting it up to mimic Phil Taylor’s specifications, was a huge learning curve for me – and I now use those settings as a kind of starting point for all of my Stratocaster setups. With Strats – I’ve learned to look for a guitar which has a good, natural, unamplified sound and feel. The acoustic resonance of a Stratocaster is somewhat characteristic, and since I often like to practise unamplified – it’s important for me, to setup the guitar to suit. Sometimes when playing without an amp – I can tend to “overplay” and “dig in” a bit – (obviously to compensate for the lack of volume). I like to try and achieve a setup with which overplaying isn’t really possible, (because the string slap and rattle sounds bad). A setup which rewards sweet, accurate play with a good, natural, resonant sound seems to suit my playing style, and also seems to bring out the best of a Strats’ character.
Since this is, essentially, a rebuild – many of the settings will be pretty close to the mark already. However – my setup procedure will still follow the usual, six step procedure.
- Nut fitting, and/or adjustment
- Stringing and rough tuning
- Neck action adjustment
- Intonation adjustments
- String height and playing action adjustments
- Pickup height adjustments
The procedure is pretty much the same for all guitars – but with Stratocasters, there’s an additional, seventh step – as the tremolo is floated.
Much of this setup is pretty standard, although for once – I’m going to deviate from my usual nut material of choice, and try a pre-slotted, TusqXL example. I’ve always previously preferred bone nuts – but after putting a TusqXL nut on my, Hank Marvin styled, “Classic 50’s” Strat – I was impressed enough to feel like trying another one here. The Teflon coated TusqXL nuts seem to have good vibration transfer characteristics, and there’s less need to lubricate the nut slots every now and again. This all goes to help the tuning stability, which can sometimes go out of whack with tremolo use. The Tusq nuts also seem to be quite accurately cut and shaped. They fit well, and require minimal reshaping, and that means there’s none of that burning bone smell to endure, when filing.
There’s a small tab on the bottom of the nut – which allows you to use it with a flat-bottomed nut slot. The nut slot here is curved, and so I first clamp the nut – and then carefully grind the little tab off with a Dremel. The curve of the nut matches the slot profile perfectly – but the nut is made slightly too thick on purpose. My micrometer shows I need to reduce the nut thickness by 0.33mm, to achieve a perfect fit. I work the nut over a flat piece of 240 grit paper until I get it just right. The nut pushes tightly into the slot and holds position perfectly. No need to glue it. That’s satisfying.
The Tusq nuts are also deliberately cut a millimeter or so long on each end. I protect the neck area around each end with a few pieces of thin, but tough, masking tape – and then reduce and reshape the ends with an emery board. That lets me easily follow the curve of the neck at the headstock – without the risk of digging in too much and damaging the finish on the neck. Once the nut ends are properly shaped – a quick polish over with really fine grit paper- and the nut looks good to go. This nut has an aged white colour to it. It already looks like it’s been there for a while.
The tremolo bridge is already locked in position – with a business card shim against the body, and with the springs tightened right up. Just to make sure – I slip in a small, custom made, wooden wedge. This blocks the tremolo completely, and also provides a nice little step, which helps protect the guitar finish while it’s laying on its’ back. With the tremolo blocked – I string the guitar with D’Addario EXL110’s. Previously – I’ve used sets with a thicker bottom end – but recently I’ve been buying strings, more often, and in bulk – and it just makes economic sense to stick to a more average, “do-it-all” sort of standard.
The strings are stretched out, and brought to tune. The string saddles are already set for the previous setup, and even now – the guitar already feels quite good. A few vital adjustments are needed, however.
Since the neck is no longer shimmed – the neck action needs to be changed quite considerably, and I need to dial in quite a bit more backbow. Fortunately – the adjustment on this guitar is with a bullet screw adjuster at the headstock. No need to take the neck off. Normally – adjustments to the truss rod should be kept pretty minimal, but there’s quite a bit of adjustment required here, to compensate for the previous shim. Generally speaking – any adjustments to the truss rod should be gradual and limited. I turn the bullet with an allen key just about as many times as I feel I can push it. Even then – I’m only down to just over 0.008″, but that’s quite acceptable. It might not be as low as Phil Taylor’s recommended 0.005″ – but it’s still lower than a Fender, standard setup.
The nut slots are now cut, one at a time, using my StewMac “Safe Slot” guide, and a set of correctly sized, HOSCO nut files. The Tusq nuts seem to require minimal filing beyond the pre-slotted depths – although since the nuts seem to be pre-slotted for a 9,5″ radius, there’s a little more depth required towards the outlying slots. With the slots cut and polished out, the strings are brought up to tune again, and the necessary, slight intonation adjustments made at the bridge. Obviously – since the bridge has merely been refitted from a previous setup – the intonation should already be reasonably accurate. However, since the neck angle will have changed slightly, there are bound to be small adjustments required. I’m encouraged to see how the saddles begin to take up a typical, recogniseable, stepped pattern across the tremolo plate. Previously, the stepping had a rather uncharacteristic curve to it. That would probably have been caused by the shimmed geometry of the neck combined, perhaps, with the effect of a set of heavy bottom strings.
After adjusting the saddle heights to achive the correct string action at the 17th fret, I decide to float the tremolo – leaving the pickup height adjustment to last. I remove the temporary wedge from the back of the tremolo block, and then slacken off the spring claw screws. This lets the strings begin to “win” the battle of equilibrium, and eventually the back of the tremolo plate lifts slightly – letting the business card shim fall out.
The guitar is now, obviously, out of tune – since the strings have slackened between nut and bridge. To float the tremolo – all that is required, is to gradually screw in the claw again, and tighten those tremolo springs – until the guitar returns to perfect tune across the neck. Once this has been achieved – the tremolo is in exactly the same point of equilibrium, as when I shimmed and blocked it previously. The back of the tremolo sits up off the face of the guitar, and the flat plates of string saddles sit, roughly parallel to the body – just as intended. If this process is done carefully and accurately, (and it is here), then there’s no need to touch the tuners to fine-tune the tuning. (In fact – this would risk moving the equilibrium point again and the tremolo should, in that case, be re-floated).
As I check the tuning – I really like the resonance and acoustic sound. And the action feels really promising. This is a much better setup than before. All I need to do is check and reset the pickup heights – and my go-to Ash Stratocaster is back in service. But this time with a nicer, one-piece body – and with a much more playable setup.