Gold leafed Hardtail Stratocaster. Working towards the perfect setup

I’ve been holding back on stringing my hardtail Stratocaster, for a little while – just to finish up a spot of touching-up on the gilding. I needed to fault a small area, re-gild, let the oil size dry, and then re-lacquer the affected area all over again. It’s not exactly the best weather to be spraying lacquer, and it takes a long time to set up and warm up the workshop enough – just for, what amounts to, a couple of seconds to spray… a day or so to dry… and repeat… and repeat…

But with enough lacquer now built up over the faulting, I can continue whilst the lacquer cures, and return to polish the repair out at a later date. Stringing and setting up the guitar now, is a relatively straightforward process – especially so, since there’s no tremolo block to balance. Despite that – setting up will follow my usual train of processes, although many of the settings will probably be fine tuned over the next few weeks, as the guitar “plays in”.

The standard run through, goes something like this:

  • Fit new bone nut, string and bring to tune
  • Check and adjust neck relief
  • Calculate and cut string slots at nut
  • Shape and polish nut
  • Check action, and adjust string heights
  • Fine tune, check and adjust intonation
  • Check play, and adjust pickup heights

Fit new bone nut, string and bring to tune

New, polished bone nut

The neck for my gold Hardtail, is a 2019 Fender “Classic Player” (Fender parts number: 099-1102-921). It’s an all maple neck, with a “Soft V” profile and 9.5″ radius fingerboard and 21 medium jumbo frets, (truss rod adjustment at the heel). It has a high gloss urethane finish which matches well with the gloss of the polished nitro body clearcoat. The tuners came pre-fitted, with the neck, and are standard , vintage style units – probably stock keys manufactured by Gotoh. Like most mid-range Fender necks, there’s a “synthetic bone” nut already fitted, but I always prefer to replace these with a polished bone replacement, at the first setup.

The polyurethane finish appears to have been sprayed while the original nut was in place. If I tap it out straight away – I’ll risk chipping the finish. It’s tricky with my vision, but it’s always best to score around the outline of the nut with a sharp blade – so that when you eventually tap it out sideways with a small hammer and drift, it comes out clean without dragging the surrounding lacquer. Once the original nut is removed, I test the profile of the nut channel with a shape gauge and then carefully shape a pre-slotted bone blank to fit. The bone blank is shaped to fall away slightly at the headstock side, and has string slots pre-cut, but only for location and spacing purposes. These will need to be cut to the proper depth during the setup.

Most of the bone blanks I have, appear to be cut for 7.25″ radius necks – but there’s enough scope for adjustment for a slightly flatter fingerboard. However – first, the base of the nut has to be carefully shaped to follow the bottom of the nut channel properly. The width of the nut is gradually reduced until the nut fits firmly in the slot without the need for any adhesive. It really helps to have an accurate set of callipers to hand, to measure progress as you work. Once the nut beds in properly, the overall length of the nut is carefully adjusted so that it matches the neck width exactly, (you need to treat each side equally – to keep the strings at the edge, equidistant from each edge). The transition between nut and neck is adjusted until it blends almost seamlessly, and the shoulders of the nut are eased until they are soft and rounded – but not encroaching too much on the outer string channels. the nut can is quite exposed here, and can be prone to damage.

Once the nut has been roughly shaped, the guitar is strung. The strings are stretched out gently with the fingers, and brought to tune using a chromatic tuner as reference. I’m using a set of D’Addario EXL-110’s for now, with string gauges at 0.010″, 0.013″, 0.017″, 0.026″, 0.036″, 0.046″.

Check and adjust neck relief

Once the guitar is brought to tune, the neck relief can be measured by fitting a capo below the 1st fret, and another just above the 21st fret, (although usually, the string can be fretted at the top fret with a spare finger). With the bass “E” string now stretched between the tops of the first and last frets – the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the 8th fret can be measured with a feeler gauge. (The 8th fret is chosen since it’s physically halfway between the two fulcrums).

The strings exert a tension upon the length of the neck. In the case of these EXL-110’s – that force is just over 100lbs. The fingerboard, ideally, should remain flat or display a slight backbow despite this loading. This will allow for the best playing action. Obviously – the wood of the neck, and the design of the construction is usually enough to allow the neck to stay perfectly stable under such loads, (otherwise the neck would bow dramatically). There’s a metal truss rod inside the neck to help control some of these forces. The truss rod can be gently adjusted to provide a little bit more backwards bow, if required – so one of the first jobs to do on a setup, is to check the situation once the strings are in tune, and the guitar is in equilibrium.

For 9.5″ radius necks – Fender suggest a neck relief of around 0.010″. I’ve managed to set up super-low actions before, by reducing the relief to around half of that – but anywhere around, or just less than 0.010″ should provide a good starting point for a setup. My neck relief here measures at just under 0.09″. Since adjusting the neck will require me to remove the neck, adjust, re-tune, and re-check, (possibly multiple times) – I’ll leave the neck as it is, and continue with the setup, without any adjustment to the truss rod.

Calculate, and cut string slots at nut

The nut slots need to be cut to the correct depth – so that each string just clears the first fret, when each string is fretted at the second. In practice, I measure the height of the top of the first fret above the fingerboard, with a digital caliper. (If the dimension varies – I take the largest value). I then add on Fender’s suggested string clearances, which range from 0.020″ at the bass side – to 0.012″ at the treble. Since the strings fall in a slight curve along the full length of the neck, this means that the strings will tend to fall gradually closer towards the frets, from the thickest to the thinnest strings – from Bass “E” to treble “E” – 0.020″, 0.018″, 0.016″, 0.014″, 0.012″, 0.012″. (The thinnest two strings are usually more prone to buzzing – so I even out the spacings across the other four strings, and leave the top two strings the same).

These values need to recorded, and added to the fret height measurement at the first fret. This gives a series of nut slot depths, and these represent the height of the bottom of each nut slot above the fingerboard. In this case – the first fret is 0.045″ at it’s heighest point. By adding this value to each of my ideal clearances – I can calculate the slots for this setup as, (from low “E” to high “E”), 0.065″, 0.063″, 0.061″, 0.059″, 0.057″, 0.057″.

The slots are cut using a StewMac “SafeSlot” clamp, and some special nut slotting files by Hosco. The “SafeSlot” allows accurately sized metal shims to be held in place while filing, and these give a precise indication when the proper depth is achieved. Since all of my shims are of “even” values – I’ll round all of my required dimensions down by a thousandth of an inch. (0.064″, 0.062″, 0.060″, 0.058″, 0.056″, 0.056″). While filing – the headstock side of each slot is cut to fall away towards the tuners, and to gradually flare out at the rear. This ensures that the actual string contact area is precisely cut, and focused toward the forward, fingerboard side of the nut. The less “meat” of the nut that is in contact with the string – the better the vibration transfer, and the less chance there is, that the string can move around and buzz. A more precise contact point also helps reduce friction when the strings are bent sharp – allowing them to return to tune more accurately.

Nut slotting is best done with the strings well out of the way, although it’s not economical to completely waste a set, just to set the neck action. I tend to detune them, and detach them at the headstock side only. Sometimes I tape the ends together to stop them getting tangled, and then I just lay them off to one side, where they won’t get kinked or distorted. (It’s one of those things that you get better at, the more you do it. Re-attaching strings by re-fitting their shaped coils around the tuning posts – and then re-tuning without kinking them, is something of a knack, but it’s a useful one to have if your neck proves fiddly to set up, at first).

The special cutting files are sized, so that the slots are cut just wide enough for each, individual gauge of string. With the “SafeSlot” in place to avoid the risk of cutting the slot too deep, (which will cause string buzz against the frets), I can concentrate on getting the slots perfectly vertical, in line, and on shaping them properly. Once the file rasps against the metal shim of the clamp – it’s time to stop cutting. A little fine grade abrasive paper can then be used to clean out, and gently polish each slot to reduce friction with the strings.

Shape and polish nut

Marking the top of the nut

With the nut slotted – the slots are clearly far too deep. Ideally – the low strings should sit with just half their diameters sitting “above” the nut. The treble strings should sit with their full gauge, just below the top of the nut. Since this changing relationship will result in a falling, curved line across the length of the nut – the “SafeSlot” clamp can also be used, with a specially shaped insert, to mark off the ideal top curve of the nut. To mark this line – the string gauges can be added to the nut height values from before. (Half the string gauges for the three thickest strings). Once this line has been marked on the front of the nut with a pencil – the fingerboard and headstock are protected with masking tape, and the nut is gently filed and sanded, to remove excess material.

Shaping the bone nut

The nut is shaped so that the front, (flat) face is reduced down to the marked pencil line. Behind that, at the headstock side, the nut is filed so that the height is further reduced, and so that the nut gradually “falls away” towards the headstock. The shoulder transitions are smoothed and – once the desired shape has been achieved – ultra-fine papers are used to gradually work up a polished shine.

In this case – there was a considerable amount of bone to remove. Especially towards the centre, where the nut needed to be adjusted to follow the flatter radius of the 9.5″ fingerboard. Shaping was done with 400 grit paper, with a clean emery board and 2000 grit paper for final polishing. The shaping has been done “conservatively”, in that there’s still a little bit more “meat” than absolutely required, (especially at the treble side). Nevertheless – it’s considerably closer to the desired shape than it was originally, and I’ll look to possibly refine it further, if required, at a later date.

Check action, and adjust string heights

Polished nut, with strings fitted. Still room for further adjustment

Once the nut is where I want it – I can re-string, re-tune and check the actual string heights at the 17th fret. I use a special visual gauge for this, and aim for, at least, the standard Fender specifications. In this case – I’m looking for around 1.8mm for the low “E”, and 1.6mm for the high “E”. Adjustment is made, if so required, by turning the small grub screws at either side of the appropriate string saddle, with a fine hex key. The two outer saddles are adjusted to the correct height, and so that they sit level, with the strings stable, and passing across their mid-points.

Once the outer string heights have been set – the remaining strings can then be adjusted so that they follow a 9.5″ radius curve, as traced by a curve gauge. The gauge can be used at various points along the neck, to ensure that the strings continue to follow this curve along the full length.

Fine tune, check and adjust intonation

Stratocaster – Tuning and intonation adjustments

The strings should now be in the ideal relationship with neck and frets and, once tuned, the action should be correct – with no fret buzz for open strings, or anywhere else along the neck, when the strings are fretted. I check each string’s tuning with a super-accurate chromatic tuner, and then double check that against the tuning at the 12th (octave) fret. If the octave is sharp – then the overall string length needs to be lengthened slightly. This is achieved by moving the saddle backwards (“tightening” the intonation adjustment screw). If the octave is flat – then the string needs to be shortened, and the saddle needs to be moved forwards slightly (“loosening” the intonation adjustment screw).

Checks and adjustments are repeated for each string, until each open string and octave is exactly in tune. Cross-tunings can then be checked across the neck, and various chord shapes played to assess the overall tuning. Sometimes – even when the scope tells me something is exactly in tune – it just doesn’t sound right. Fret placements might just be a fraction out in places, and minute twists and humps along the playing surface can sharpen and flatten tones just enough, for them to sound “off”. Once the precise, “scientific” adjustment has been done with the chromatic tuner – I usually spend a fair bit of time adjusting to played cross-tunings, and continue fine tuning until my ear tells me I’m in tune. Setting the intonation gets the critical tunings for the open strings right – where it seems to matter most. If something’s out by a microtone, further up the neck – then I’m not so worried. No-one will hear a microtone tuning variation on a run, or a riff – but everyone will hear a badly tuned open “C” chord, for example.

Check play, and adjust pickup heights

Pickup heights adjusted to balance volume and tone across pickup selections

There’s really only one way to assess fine tunings and pickup heights – and that’s to play the instrument. String heights might be adjusted many times before the instrument finally feels exactly “right”, and drastic changes might even require the intonation adjustments to be repeated – but things by now, should be in pretty good shape generally. Sometimes, once the strings are on “for good”, I unscrew each neck bolt by about a quarter turn, to allow the neck to be pulled – firm and straight – back into the neck pocket. This gives really good wood to wood connection, and (apparently) maximises vibration transfer. Sometimes however – this can knock string adjustments out of whack slightly. There’s only one way to find out – and that’s to play the instrument, and to keep adjusting where necessary.

While I’m first assessing the tuning stability and overall “feel” of a setup instrument – I usually like to do this without any sort of amplifier. That way, I can focus on the acoustic sound and the natural vibration of the strings. Sometimes, I find that individual strings require just a little extra adjustment somewhere – to iron out details, more specific to my playing style. For example – I tend to find that my “D” string sometimes needs to sit a little higher than the rest.

Once the instrument sounds, and feels good acoustically – there are still, sometimes, a few wierd “blooms” on some strings and on occasional notes. These can sometimes be due to the effects of the magnetic poles on the pickups, “dragging” at the strings. In severe cases – the effect can even cause “pulsing” notes or “choking” sustain. If you can’t seem to find the cause of a stray buzz, or a strange “bloom” to any particular string – even after a thorough setup – don’t overlook the possibility that it’s the pickups which might need adjustment.

The individual pickups are raised and lowered by turning the sprung adjustment screws to either side of each unit. It’s quite usual to angle the bass or treble slightly towards particular registers – although with vintage style pickups, there’s often a “stagger” on the magnetic poles to compensate for the curvature of the string plane, and to keep the spacings optimal. These noiseless pickups are particularly deep, and the neck pickup grounds out on the bottom of the pickup rout, at a particular depth. Since the middle and bridge pickups tend to naturally sit slightly further from the strings – I first adjust the neck pickup down as far as it’ll go, and then equalise the outputs across all three pickups from there. Because of the increased output – the general concensus seems to be, that the Vintage Noiseless Pickup series sound much better, if they’re set low.

Gold Hardtail Stratocaster – Setup complete

And with that – the setup is complete, and the build is complete. The guitar will now get a fair amount of daily play, with occasional fine adjustment – until I feel I can get the absolute best out of it. After all – the recommended settings are just that – recommended. Quite often – considerable improvements can be made to an instrument after a period of settling-in. It’s always more a question of feel and vibe, and getting to know the inherent personality of that thing you’ve put together, out of bits of wood and wire. It’s one of the best things about building your own guitar. You get to build it… and then you get to play it…

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