Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster. Setup

I just need to load the strings, and then setup my self-built Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster, and that should round off another project. I can then clear the decks and crack on with some of the finishing jobs I’ve been putting off, (and which tend to be a little messier). Since the neck I’m using on the build has already been setup for use on my previous Jimmy Page Tele – some of the usual setup procedures will already have been taken care of. On the Jimmy Page Dragoncaster – I managed to get the action down incredibly low, (>0.005″), and since I’m thinking of using a slightly heavier than usual string set on this replica – there should still be plenty of headroom, to allow for a good feel, despite a slightly higher neck action due to increased string tension.

D’Addario XL strings – EXL110’s, 140’s and 115’s

Over the past year or two – I’ve gradually settled on a couple of D’Addario string types as standard for most of my builds. These have “shaken-out” of my experiences of daily playing and reflect my technique, and the kind of response and sound I’m trying to get from an instrument. I mostly use EXL-110’s as standard – a “light” string gauge, which has served me exceptionally well for daily play. The D’Addario strings feel slick, the gauge allows me to pull off full-tone bends easily yet, since my technique isn’t usually too strum-heavy, I don’t seem to break many. (Perhaps setting the guitars up properly, also helps).

As a bass player originally, who has migrated toward more six-string work over time, I do sometimes have a fondness for playing with my fingers, without a pick, on slightly heavier strings. I have experimented with EXL-140’s in the past – which are a “light” string set with the bass strings beefed up. Effectively, that gives you a half set of “10’s” for the higher strings, and a half set of “12’s” for the lower strings. The extra mass of the thicker bass strings gives a little extra definition and “twang” to the lower strings. Very useful if you’re fond of mixing bassy blues licks in with your rhythm playing, and therefore just the sort of thing I, perhaps, should be considering, for a guitar which is more than a nod to Wilko’s own. Of course, upping the higher string gauges might make it slightly harder to judge bends initially – but I’m already used to using 11’s on my acoustic guitars – so I’m no stranger to that little bit of extra wear and tear to my left-hand finger-tips. I’ve no idea what gauge Wilko actually uses himself – but there’s no doubt that heavier strings do seem to carry slightly more “punch” than lighter ones. Since my setup for the neck has already been successful with a set of 10’s installed, I should easily be able to switch to a set of 11’s here – with no need to make any alterations to the neck action, or to the string slots at the nut. It might even be possible to move up to 12’s, but I think a gradual change would be the best approach. I’ll go with a set of EXL-115’s, for now.

Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster – Getting it right at the machine heads

Stringing the Telecaster is easy, (and, incidentally, if you want to see how it’s done halfway through a gig, without scaring the punters – just watch Wilko show you how it’s done – here). There’s still a few things to get right however, and a few tips which can help to maximise the stability and accuracy of the tuning. The main tip is to trim the strings to the correct length first, and then to wind them onto the machine heads in the right manner, and with sufficient turns around each post.

With these vintage style tuners – the string is trimmed to length and the end is pushed down into the hole in the middle of the tuner post. Once the string is pushed as deep as possible – the string is bent sharply inside the notch on the post, and then held in place as the tuner is wound up, and the slack string wire wrapped around the post. It’s important that the string is held, so that the wire winds tightly around the post, with the string eventually leaving the tuner clockwise off the post – towards the nut – and at the lower part of the post. Eventually – this all becomes second nature, but importantly – winding the strings like this ensures that the string doesn’t “cross itself” as it winds down the post. This means it can’t crimp or weaken itself, and the contact between the string and the post is even, and maximised. In this position – it’s difficult for the string to move on the post, and tuning is therefore much more stable.

It also seems to help the tuning stability, as well as the vibration transfer, (and therefore the resonant character of the guitar), if the strings wrap a few times around the posts. Since the strings are slotted into the posts before being wound on – this means getting the string lengths right to start with. Obviously – if the strings have a heavier gauge – then more length is required to complete a full turn around a post. For the top “B” and “E” strings – I usually trim them two tuner post spacings longer than the posts they’ll be wrapped around. For the middle “D” and “G” strings – I go just over two tuners, and for the lower, heavier strings – I trim them just under three tuners longer. For the top strings, this means making an estimate – but the distance between the tuners doesn’t change, so you can use whatever tuners you want as a visual reference. The most important thing, is getting the right length for each string – no matter how you do it.

The only other thing of note – is that I prefer to use the old style, “button” or “disc” string trees. I just prefer the way they look and, providing the string channels are perfectly in-line with the nut and the string posts, they’re not much different in terms of performance, than the “butterfly” ones. That said – a little silicone lubricant is always a good idea. Use the tip of a pin, or something similar, to get a blob of it underneath the disc, and into each string channel.

Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster – Adjustting the, (Callaham), string saddles

As I say – the neck action should already be adjusted. However – with the string saddles in their “as-supplied” positions – the lower strings are right on the deck. The string saddles will need to be raised, by screwing down the small grub screws at either end of each saddle. Normally – I adjust the neck action before adjusting the string heights – but this time, I need to get the strings to the correct height, before I can check the neck action properly. Since raising the saddles will drastically increase the break angle over the saddles – it’s a good idea to slacken the strings slightly first – just enough to allow for the saddles to be raised easily, whilst checking for the required string height, using a height gauge at the 17th fret. I’m normally looking for 1.8mm for the low “E” string, and 1.6mm for the high “E”. Once the two outer strings are set correctly, the four inner strings are set to the correct height – so that they follow the curve of a 7.25″ radius gauge, placed between the two, outer “E” strings. Once all of the strings are set correctly – the guitar is tuned up to pitch. It always helps to gently pull each string away from the neck, and over the fingers. This “stretches-out” the strings, and helps get to stable tuning, quicker.

Assessing the neck action. Capo-ing at the first fret

Normally – straight after setting the string heights – I’d check the general play of the guitar, and see if there are any obvious high frets, especially towards the top end of the neck. However – I still need to check that neck action, and since any required changes to that, will throw the whole setup out again – I need to sort that first. I place a capo at the first fret. (This saves having the need for a third hand). Then – with the thickest “E” string fretted just beyond the highest fret, with the index finger of my right hand – I can check the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the 8th fret, with a feeler gauge in my left hand. I’ve already successfully set this neck up with an action of >0.005″, (Fender suggest a normal target of 0.010″ or 0.012″). Even accounting for a slightly larger neck bow due to the higher string tension from these strings – I should still be well under the Fender target, and still in “super-low action” territory…

Well, what do you know?… 0.008″. That’s just about perfect – with no need to tweak anything at the truss rod.

I check the tuning again, and now I can assess the action by playing the guitar acoustically for a while. I check each string at each fret, to ensure there’s no fret buzz anywhere, and also check the strings with individual notes, and strummed chords in open positions. Any buzzing open strings might indicate a nut slot cut too low. However – I clearly did a decent job, last time I set this neck up. There’s no fret buzz anywhere, although the “G” string does begin to bloom slightly beyond the 15th fret. A slight adjustment to the height, on that side of the middle string saddle does the trick, and any offending slight contact, is pushed further up the neck, where it simply won’t be encountered in any sort of “normal” play.

Adjusting the intonation of the strings (Callaham bridge)

With the neck action and string height set – I can now check the intonation by comparing the tuning of each open string, with it’s tuning at the twelfth fret. Since this is the mid-point of the string, the tuning at the twelfth fret should be the same – only an octave higher. The string saddles are positioned, pretty much as they were supplied. The higher strings are just about in the right position – but the middle and lower string pairs are progressively sharp at the octave. That means the bridge-side half of the string is slightly too short, in relation to the overall length. The middle and lower string pair saddles need to be moved slightly back, to correct the intonation.

Adjustment is done with a screwdriver turning the adjustment nuts at the back of the bridge plate. Again – slackening the strings whilst adjusting, helps make the adjustment easier, and stops the grub screws from scratching-up the bridge plate. It also helps to protect the lower bout of the guitar body from possible scratches or marks from the screwdriver handle. (Note to self: A longer handled screwdriver would be a really good idea).

Tuning is checked with a chromatic tuner. Once the strings are properly intonated – the tuning is checked for a final time, and then tuning relationships can be double-checked across the neck.

Fender Telecaster – Neck pickup height adjustment (Body mount)

Finally – the pickup heights are set to Fender standard recommendations. For a Telecaster – that’s about 3.2mm on the low side, and 2.6mm on the high side. The heights are checked with the outer strings fretted at the top fret. ie: when the strings are at their closest to the pickup poles. I find it useful to use a couple of hex spanners which closely match the desired dimensions. These can be slipped under the strings – where they tend to stay in place, held by the pickup magnets. The pickup heights are adjusted by turning the height adjustment screws – two each, for both the bridge and the neck pickups. At the bridge – there’s also a third screw forward of the pickup, which partially controls the pickup height, but mainly adjusts the forward and backward pitch. The bridge pickup is set first, and the pitch is set so that the top of the pickup is approximately level.

Since the neck pickup is body mounted in this case – the pickguard needs to be unscrewed, and slipped out from underneath the strings, to gain access. Once the height has been adjusted – the pickguard is replaced. It should be noted – on these vintage reissue Fender bodies – that the neck action can also be adjusted, (although it’s not required here), by using a special, cranked, cross-head tool, in the small channel carved between the neck heel, and the neck pickup rout. This means that neck removal isn’t necessarily a requirement, when adjusting the neck action.

Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster

And that’s the setup complete. The only thing to do now, is to play the guitar in, and make any fine adjustments which may, or may not suggest themselves. Since it’s a Wilko Tele – it’s supposed to do a particular sort of job. I’ll be mostly running through a few, old Dr. Feelgood numbers, and seeing how authentic it sounds – and trying to see what difference those 0.11 gauge strings make.

First impressions?… The difference with the heavier strings is barely noticeable to my fingers – but there’s certainly a pleasing amount of twang, punch and bite to the sound, which cleans up to the characteristic, bell-like, Fender “chime”, when the volume is rolled back. Everything I could hope for, and the tuning stays put. My only disappointment is with the middle pickup position. The neck and bridge pickups are fine on their own, and the outputs from each are well-balanced – however the blended, middle position is weak, low in volume and “tinny”. It has a “nasal” sort of sound. Interesting – but not what I’d expect. That can only mean one thing. The polarisation, or winding of the pickups, (or both), isn’t compatible – and the signals are interfering, and cancelling each other out.

Sometimes, Telecaster pickups are wound so that when they’re combined in the middle position – they have a “hum-cancelling” effect. When purchasing and fitting a complete set – this may, or may not be immediately apparent – but the set may be wound so that the pole orientations or coil directions of the different pickups are compatible when combined – working together to create the cancellation effect. The problem often arises when pickups from different manufacturers, or from different sets, are mixed. It’s difficult to tell what polarity pickups have, just by looking at them, and without a special tester. Even the advice that a particular pickup is “reverse wound”, or “reverse polarity” means nothing unless you know the original, intended specification, and you have the same information about the pickup it’s to be paired with. However – there’s usually a fix, whereby the hot and ground leads from one of the pickups are reversed, at the connection to the switch. This effectively reverses the signal from one pickup, and puts the two signals into phase. There’s just one complication…

Both pickups here have metal components, (a heavy baseplate on the bridge pickup, and the cover on the neck pickup), which are directly connected to each pickup ground wire, via short jumper wires. These connections have to be severed, and new ground connections created somehow, so that the original ground signal can be reconnected as “hot” at the switch – without affecting the necessary grounding of the baseplate and cover. That’s going to be a small project on it’s own and, since I’ll probably have to remove the bridge, and certainly the neck pickup from it’s body mounting – I’ll also probably have to write off a brand new set of strings in the process. Since I’ve only just set the guitar up, since I’m still playing it in, and since, (in true Wilko style), it’s probably not going to get much actual play in the middle position for now anyway – I’ll save this task for a rainy day, and come back to it when I have a spare set of 11’s back in the toolbox.

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