I’ve repaired the neck joint on my 1998 Nashville Telecaster, and I’ve made a few upgrade adjustments to bring it slightly closer to the original specification again. That three-saddle bridge experiment didn’t pay off in the way I thought it might. So I’ve reverted to the original bridge specification, and I’ve made a couple of adjustments built around an upgraded tone circuit. This should swing the balance of the 5-way switching options more towards classic Telecaster territory. Since I’ve not made any changes to the actual architecture of the guitar – other than stabilising the connection at the neck joint – I shouldn’t have to do too much work on setting-up the neck anew. Most of the setup adjustments will therefore revolve around issues arising from that replacement bridge.
Re-stringing the guitar is straightforward. I’m using D’Addario EXL110’s. They’re about as light as I’d go on a Telecaster – maybe even a shade too light – but they should play well with a good setup. The strings are stretched out and brought to tune, and I can then assess the neck action. I straightened the neck completely, in order to level the frets – so I need to reinstate a little back-bow, by adjusting the truss rod. Fortunately, on these Fender “Deluxe Series” necks, the adjustment is via an opening at the headstock end. No need to detune, and remove the neck in order to access a heel-adjustment nut. Instead, an allen key can be inserted and turned, whilst the neck still remains under string tension.
A quarter of a turn clockwise tightens the truss rod, and compresses the neck slightly. This forces the headstock back slightly – thus reducing the neck action further down the neck. The resulting action can be measured by fretting the strings at both extreme frets, (1 and 21), and then measuring the distance between the bottom of the low “E” string, and the top of the 8th fret (half distance between 1 and 21). The strings are clamped at the first fret with a capo, and I can fret the low string with one finger, whilst measuring the action with a fret gauge. I’m looking for something on the low side of 0.010″. My feeler gauge tells me that the current adjustment is just slightly under 0.008″ – that’s worked before, and is spot on where I want it.
I think this might be the original, factory-installed nut – in which case, it should be made out of Fender’s “synthetic bone”. )Then again – I may have had a bone nut replacement put in as part of a pro setup way back in 2001. Things are hazy… you know…) After so many years – I really can’t tell the difference, although maybe the squareness of the nut makes me think it’s the original from Fender. Either way – I’m inclined to stick with what I’ve got, for now. The slots already seem well adjusted for easy action at the lower frets, and I will have further reduced the fret height slightly, during levelling and polishing. However – notes played on the guitar have always had a slight “fizz” to my ear, so perhaps the slots could do with a clean out and a polish? Some fine grit paper is used to smooth the insides of each slot, and a correctly-sized nut slotting file confirms that each slot is cut accurately, and is gently sloped away towards the headstock. The break angle over this nut is so shallow, that unless the slope is cut correctly – the strings may not sit securely at the front of the nut, where it really matters.
Attention then turns to the bridge. The outside “E” strings are adjusted in height, until they are 1.8mm above the 17th fret on the bass side, and 1.6mm on the treble. The other strings are then adjusted so that the set follows a 9.5″ radius curve. (Once set, I normally raise the “G” string by raising each grub screw, a fraction of a turn). Unfortunately, Fender don’t supply adjustment grub screws in sizes which allow for fully-recessed screws to be used on each saddle. In most places, and increasingly so towards the middle – spare metal is left sticking up in an unsightly manner.
The Fender “Nashville”, six saddle bridge can be a bit troublesome, and I’d earlier taken the decision to swap it out completely, in favour of a traditional three saddle bridge. (However – the original bridges do come with their own intonation problems). Having worked to tame a similarly notorious and “rattly” bridge on my “1962” Jaguar – I thought I’d restore the original Nashville pattern bridge, and see if I can “firm things up” a little bit from stock. Once the bridge is successfully set up, I’ll look to stabilise some of the bridges and grub screws with LocTite.
But for now, setting and establishing the action is paramount. With the saddles set so that the strings follow the correct, 9.5″ radius, I then check each saddle in turn, to make sure that it’s “balanced”, and isn’t leaning slightly off to the side, and against an adjacent saddle. Leaning saddles can buzz up against each other, and create unwanted vibration and resonance. With these Nashville saddles, it’s usually possible to set the string height properly, and then tweak individual grub screw settings slightly, so that both screws are under equal compressive downforce from the taught string. In some cases, they almost seem to “splay out” a little, and with the slightly angled, trailing intonation screws connecting the saddles to the bridge plate – the combined string support components together, become much more stable. If one screw is even slightly longer than the other, then the saddle becomes unstable, and can twist and vibrate.
Having adjusted the playing action – it’s always wise to check each string at each fret – in order to make sure there are no buzzes or choking notes anywhere. Having already levelled and dressed the frets – I’d be gutted if there were significant problems at this stage. As it happens – the guitar plays nicely, and there are no signs of any buzz at all – in any playing position. However – it’s as plain as day – the intonation stinks.
The intonation is checked and adjusted using a chromatic tuner until each string is in tune, both when open, and when fretted at the twelfth fret. Adjustments are made by turning the adjustment screws, and moving the saddles individually, either closer to, or further away from the nut. This lengthens or shortens each string until the twelfth fret is exactly halfway between nut and bridge. Once the tuner tells me the guitar is in tune and intonated, I always check cross-tunings across the neck, and make further fine adjustments until the guitar plays properly, both for open position chords, and in other positons, further on up the neck.
And that’s it for now. A basic setup, to get the guitar playing well again. I can now assess how successful my modifications have really been. Clearly – that neck joint is now much more stable, and I don’t have to tighten the neck bolts much, in order to get a rock-solid joint between neck and body. That’s a huge improvement already. The new tuners are quite stiff – but the turning ratios are good, and there’s absolutely no danger of any rattling now coming from the headstock end. The strings generally seem to still have that same “fizz” when played acoustically, but I think that’s mainly sympathetic resonance coming from the long string tails over the nut. For some reason, Nashville Telecasters have the string tree placed right up at the end of the headstock. This reduces downforce over the nut, and those long tails act almost like they do on a Jaguar. The longest tail is on the “G” string – and that’s the “fizziest” sounding of the lot. The old “sock over the string tails” trick seems to eliminate most of the resonance – so I think it’s all largely down to the shallow break angle over the nut. I could move the string tree, or even install another one just to deal with the “G” string – but I stress the problem is perceived mainly when playing acoustically. Once the guitar is amplified – much of the “rattle and buzz” is lost amongst the solid spank from those “Tex-Mex” pickups.
The bridge might also have a small part to play in this. Now I’ve double-checked the intonation and action, and I’ve played the guitar in a little bit more – I can finely adjust the string heights, and then lock the saddle adjustment grub screws. With saddles that have two adjustment screws, I like to run down the bridge, and do all of the screws on one side – (all the “lefts”, first). I slacken each string in turn, withdraw one of the grub screws, and apply a dab of LocTite, before re-inserting the grub screw, and driving it down to it’s former position. Since the saddles themselves should all sit horizontal and balanced, (rather than sloped, and following the curve of the neck), I find it handy to match the screw to the one that’s remaining in it’s original position. The string is then returned to tune, and the saddle fine-tuned until any lateral motion is eliminated. Whilst I then continue with the other strings – the resin in the LocTite can harden, so that once I’ve completed the grub screws on, say, the left of the saddles – I can then repeat the job for those on the right. I’m pleased to see that the LocTite has a similar effect as when used on a Jaguar bridge. The saddles seem much more stable, and the whole bridge feels, (and sounds), a bit more solid.
Finally – once the string heights have been refined – I can adjust the pickup heights to their optimum, recommended positions. For the Telecaster pickups – I’m starting with 3.2mm on the low side, and 2.4mm on the high side. For the middle Stratocaster pickup – I’m going with 2.4 on the low side, and 2.0 on the high. These are fairly standard settings for the two pickup types – but I may have to back things off, depending on the slightly higher outputs from the overwound “Tex-Mex” variants. Ideally – the pickups need setting as high aspossible, without the magnets affecting the free vibration of the strings. Sometimes, stronger magnets in too-close proximity can make sustained notes produced by the strings “pulse”, and can even kill sustain completely, by choking off vibration.
To set the pickup heights – I find using rulers, or miniscule scale measures impossible to use these days – so I have a selection of different hex spanners which I can slip under the strings, and use them as, kind of, thick feeler gauges. The pickup magnets tend to hold the hex spanners in place too – so it’s all a lot less fiddly than trying to peer in with a measure. Once the pickups have been adjusted – fine tuning of the pickup placements can be done with the guitar played through an amplifier. Ears out, checking for those tell-tale strobing notes and “dead” strings.
And that’s it. The work on the neck seems to have given the guitar a whole new lease of life, and having set it up, pretty much as it was again – I find I’m no longer constantly annoyed by little buzzes here, little rattles there. So I must have done something right. The tuning seems stable, and the neck feels trustworthy again. The action is positive and playable – I’m looking forward to seeing how well the tone circuit upgrades may have unfettered those “Tex-Mex” pickups too. Twang-tastic!