Customised Fender USA “Original ’60’s” Jaguar. Fitting a nut, and stringing

I’ve had this Jaguar neck custom built by Musikraft, although I’ve finished the headstock myself with a Candy Apple red paint job, to match the body. When I put the original spec together for the neck, I could have had Musikraft cut and fit a nut at the same time – but instead, I had the nut slot left empty, and masked it off during the re-finish. Now, I just need to check the dimensions, and fit my preferred bone nut. Then, I can string the guitar, and prepare it for the fuller setup process.

Fender Jaguar Setup – Oiling the fingerboard

The first task before stringing is always to give the fingerboard a good drink of lemon oil. I use Crimson Guitar’s “Fingerboard Restorative”. A little goes a long way – so you can afford to be generous, without applying too much. After the whole board has been lightly slicked with oil, any excess is wiped away and the residue left to sink in. A couple of applications leaves the rich, dark rosewood of this Musikraft neck looking well conditioned, and even darker than it previously was. Once the final application has had plenty of time to soak in – any excess oil which pools out onto the surface is wiped away, and the board is given a gentle buff with a soft cloth.

Musikraft Jaguar Neck – Nut required

The nut slot is shaped to take a “standard Fender nut” – but I don’t know if that means the base of the slot is curved or flat. I plan on using a HOSCO bone nut, which comes pre-shaped and pre-slotted, and which has a small tab in the centre of the base. This allows the nut to sit in a flat-bottomed slot or, with the removal of the small tab, to fit a slot with a “vintage-style” curved base. My profile gauge shows me that the slot, in this case, is flat-bottomed. So no need to remove the small tab.

Musikraft Jaguar Neck – Fitting a HOSCO bone nut

The nut comes pre-shaped, and is 3.3mm thickness. (By pre-shaped – I mean that the high side of the nut is gently sloped back towards the headstock. This provides a better contact point at the front edge – but I’ll still, ideally, have to adjust the nut height after the string slots have been lowered). After checking with a set of digital calipers, the slot in the neck measures at just under 3.10mm. This means I’ll have to remove a little of the thickness of the nut, in order to get a good, snug fit. Since the nut is shaped to “fall away” towards the headstock side – all excess material needs to be removed from the front, fingerboard, side of the nut. By pressing the nut down onto a piece of 320 grit wet and dry paper – a circular motion helps remove an equal amount of bone across the face. I make regular checks with my calipers to ensure the nut’s thickness stays consistent, and within tolerance, whilst the nut is reduced to the required thickness.

Once the nut will fit snugly in the slot – I check it’s overall length, and carefully shape the curved ends so that they blend into the contours of the edges of the neck. If any material needs to be removed, I take an equal amount from each end – so as to ensure that the string spacings to the edges of the fingerboard remain equal, on both sides of the neck. It’s important to shape the outside edges without removing too much material, otherwise the outside string supports can become thin and fragile. A gentle curve is all that’s required to keep the nut feeling smooth under the fingers.

Fender Jaguar Setup – Stringing with Flatwound Strings

The shaped and fitted nut is given a polish with ultra-fine grit paper, and then pushed into place. It’s tight enough to hold firmly without any glue, and yet it can still be easily knocked out sideways with a drift, and a few light taps with a pin hammer – without damaging either the nut, the fingerboard, or the binding.

As with my other Jaguar, I want to take advantage of the warmer tones, and slightly greater string tension, provided by a thicker than usual, set of flatwound strings. I’m using another set of D’Addario ECG24’s here – just like on my Olympic White Jag. These chrome flatwounds have an 0.11″ top E string, and are sized 0.11″, 0.15″, 0.22″, 0.30″, 0.40″, 0.50″. Whilst more modern trends have led players to use thinner and thinner string sets, the Jaguar dates from a time where thicker strings were the norm. Thicker strings provide just a little bit extra downwards force over the bridge, and help keep things stable. Flatwounds also don’t have quite as much “fizz” and “sizzle” as roundwound strings, and they help keep the additional sounds created by finger drags, to a minimum. The Jaguar pickups already produce a fair amount of “papery” treble frequencies, and I like to keep some Jazzy warmth to thicken my tone up a little.

The strings fit in the usual manner, onto the vintage style tuners. I like to leave string tails at the post end long enough to span two to three post spacings. This provides enough extra wire to wind round each capstan properly – helping providing a solid hold around the tuners, and good stability. I thread the string ends down into the tuners’ central hole, bend the wire round the split capstan, and then wind the slack onto the posts so it spools onto the posts from the bottom. This pushes the paths of the strings down, and will help provide the best break angle across the nut.

Fender Jaguar Stringing – String tree placement

Since the tuner posts in this case are all the same height, and are staggered in distance away from the nut – the break angle is obviously most pronounced for the thick, low “E” string. The break angles then get progressively shallower for the lighter strings. To force the lighter strings down – so that the break angle is maximised and the lighter strings are prevented from vibrating within, or even leaping from, their slots – a string tree can be used to help pull the strings down a little more towards the face of the headstock. One string tree will usually be employed to pull the two lightest strings down and sometimes, a second tree will also be fitted, to settle the middle pair. The right spot for a string tree is usually somewhere in line with the “A” string tuner, and the tree height should be adjusted so that the break angle for the top two strings is brought closer to that of the lower pair. I prefer the look of the vintage, button-shaped, “Telecaster”, disc string trees, and after locating the ideal fixing point, I prepare a suitable, countersunk hole through the lacquer on the face of the headstock, and into the wood. The screw provided for this HOSCO, replica string tree is quite long, considering the thickness of the headstock – but since I don’t actually need to crank the disc all the way down – I cut a thin plastic tubular spacer to keep the disc at the correct height, and pre-drill the hole out to the required depth. Once the tree is fitted, I lightly lubricate the string paths on the underside of the disc with a few dabs of silicone “Nut Sauce”. The strings are then slipped in, underneath and the guitar is brought to tune.

Fender Jaguar Stringing – Slotting the nut

Although the HOSCO nut comes pre-slotted – the string slots are only partially cut, and they need to be filed correctly to allow for the correct action and intonation at the lower frets. I find it really helps to use a StewMac “Safe Slot” device. I’ve “blown” countless nuts before, by filing a slot too deep, and there are six opportunities to foul it up. The precise depth stops on the StewMac Safe Slot, allow a proper measured approach to ensure perfect results, every time. Cutting nut slots is a definite skill, which improves with every attempt. There are so many people out there who are vastly more skilled than me – so I’ll not even attempt to offer a definitive guide. I’m still learning – but I’ve picked up a few tips along the way.

When cutting and shaping the nut slots – the best results I’ve achieved have always been when I’ve used the proper tools, and spent more time doing the job. A perfect string slot is one which is cut to the right depth, and is also widenend to the correct gauge for the string it supports. (The slot should also flare slightly, and gently slope towards the headstock – so it’s also a matter of how you cut the slot, as well as how deep). To help achieve the proper results – the “Safe Slot” device stops you from cutting too deep, while you’re largely free to concentrate on the shaping. Correctly sized slot files are also a great time saver, and once the file hits the correct depth, set by the calibrated “stops” – you know when to stop cutting, and when to concentrate on finishing and polishing. The finished nut slots should be absolutely smooth, and provide the critical break angle for the strings right at the face, (fingerboard side), of the nut. The string should be supported firmly at this point, and the slot should then allow the string to gently fall away towards the base of it’s assigned string post. If the nut slot is cut badly, the string can bind, slip or vibrate within it’s slot – and that’s going to potentially cause buzzing or tuning issues.

Critically – each well-finished string slot must also be sunk to the correct depth. The correct depth for each string allows just enough clearance for it to vibrate freely, as the strings pass over the lower frets. Too much clearance – and the action is too high and stiff. The strings are difficult to play in the lower positions, and the intonation across the strings is out. Too little clearance – and the strings will slap or buzz against the lower frets when chords or notes are sounded in open positions. (As a general rule: If the strings are buzzing when played open – but not when fingered at higher frets – the problem is usually at the nut. If the strings buzz when fingered at higher frets, but not when played open – the problem is usually with the neck slope, or string height).

I’ve gradually refined my favoured clearances for each string and these, when added to the measured height of the first fret, give me an indication of how to set the “stops” of the “Safe Slot” device, when I’m cutting the slots with the nut files. At the moment, I’m looking for clearances of 0.020″ on the bass side, and 0.014″ on the treble, (I think Fender recommend 0.022″ on the bass, and 0.017″ on the treble) – with the strings in-between graduated to fall in a gentle curve between the two extremes. In this case, with the first fret measuring at a maximum height of 0.041″, and rounding all finished heights upwards to the next even value, (to follow the even values offered by combinations of stops) – I’m looking at cutting the slots to the following heights above the fingerboard:

0.062″ (Low E), 0.060″ (A), 0.060″ (D), 0.058″ (G), 0.058″ (B), 0.056″ (High E)

The slots are cut with a file, which is correctly sized at it’s edge to match the chosen string gauge. Even then – when cutting – the files are rocked gently from side to side. This opens up the slot a little – yet keeps the bottom at the crcuial, measured dimension. Once cut – the slots are gently polished out with ultra-fine grit paper. Any loose debris left in the slots can cause buzzing issues. The idea is to provide a smooth but supportive path for each string which will not bind, so that the tuning remains stable – even when the tremolo is used.

Fender Jaguar Stringing – Shaping the nut

Once the nut slots have been cut, I like to fit the strings and check it’s all OK. There’s still a little shaping required – but I can do that by slackening the strings and taping them away from the fingerboard. The board and headstock both need a little protection whilst the shaping of the nut is done, in-situ, with an emery board and a few small pieces of fine grit paper. The same tape can be used to hold the strings safely away from the work, and will help protect the finish.

Ideally – the nut needs to be shaped on top so that each string is supported in a slot which is about half a string diameter in depth. At the moment – the bass side isn’t looking too bad, but the treble slots are progressively too deep. I use an emery board to remove surplus material from the top of the nut. The emery board allows me to angle and focus the abrasive edge, so that the nut is worked and shaped to gradually fall away towards the headstock. Once the nut is shaped just as I want it, I polish it all over with fine grit paper, and double-check that each slot is completely free from any debris. Since the tremolo needs the string paths to be entirely smooth – a little drop of silicone “Nut Sauce” can be dabbed into each string slot. Then the strings are then released, refitted, stretched out, and the guitar is brought to tune.

Fender Jaguar Stringing – With shaped and slotted nut

The strings usually need a good stretch before the tuning stays stable, and since the tremolo and bridge aren’t yet set up properly – the tuning may take a while to become settled. The bridge is already set to a high, but workable action – useable enough to assess the nut. With the strings at approximate tension, it’s possible to check the effectiveness of the nut slotting. Any minor problems can be ironed out by slackening the strings off again, and addressing the slot, or nut shaping, as required. As it turns out – I could still, probably, remove a little of the nut height at the treble side. However, the strings sit well within the slots, and there isn’t any sign of buzzing when they’re played open. I check again after using the tremolo for a few wobbles and dive bombs – but the tuning stays quite stable, and the string tones sound reasonably consistent when you listen to them acoustically, and compare each one against the other. It doesn’t look like there’s any binding evident anywhere on the nut – so I’ll leave things as they are for now, and move on with the setup. Ultimately – it’s a Jaguar – so one must anticipate a certain amount of fine adjustment, further down the line, during the setup process.

The reason I’m keen to assess the nut with the strings in place at this stage, is that if there was any buzzing on any open strings at this stage – this could indicate a “blown” nut. ie: one where one or more of the nut slots are filed too deep, and the open strings are slapping against the low frets. Normally, this would be a disaster, and the only thing to do, would be to start all over again with a new nut blank. The more times I have done this – the more confident I am with my work – but I still hate to get all the way through the levelling and polishing process, only to find it’s all in vain due to a slot being cut a fraction too deep. The depth of the cuts are critical – so I like to check those first, and the best way to do that, is to install the strings normally. Sometimes a string will buzz – even when the slot is supposedly cut to the right depth. That buzz at the low frets normally indicates a problem with the nut – but it’s not always the definitive cause. There are a couple of other things to check first, before you need to consider starting again.

If the pickups are installed – it’s just possible that the magnet poles are too close to the vibrating strings, and are “dragging” the strings into an irregular path. This can sometimes sound like a buzz. If there’s a buzz on an open string before any real setup has been attempted – try dropping the pickups a little before deciding to bin that nut. The pickup heights can always be revisited later, and you might just save yourself a task.

If, however, the buzz still persists on any particular string – the next thing to try is to check the filed path over and through the nut. Check that the fingerboard side is cleanly cut, and that there’s no debris stuck under the string. The nut needs to support the string firmly and cleanly, and the nut slot should be cut straight, and wide enough at the bottom to cradle the string. Yet not so wide that the string can freely move or vibrate from side to side within the nut. If any string sounds clean, but begins to buzz after a little tremolo work – then my money’s on the slot being the culprit, and the string is binding somewhere. Check the slot is filed out straight and smooth, and that there’s the right amount of fall away towards the headstock. Also – try a little powdered graphite or silicone lubricant under the string, to see if that helps.

If the buzz still persists on any of the open strings – the last thing to check, before starting all over again, is the line of each string over the first fret. If you capo the strings above the second fret – you should then just be able to detect a clearance between the strings and the first fret. Tap gently down, and you should pick up a slight “click” as the string taps the fret below. If the string is already in contact with the nut – then it will be obvious, and unfortunately that likely indicates a slot filed too deep, and blown nut. Tough – unless you fancy experimenting with filling and recutting a slot – you’ll have to begin again. This time, account for a little more string clearance in your calculations, and refine your approach next time. This used to happen to me a lot – but gradually, I’ve refined my ideal string clearances, and improved my technique. Of course – the StewMac “Safe Slot” device, and a good set of calibrated nut files helps too.

This time – the nut seems to be cut properly, and the guitar already sounds quite sweet acoustically. Now I need to properly look at the paths of the strings over the fingerboard, and do a proper setup.

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