Customised Fender USA “Original ’60’s” Jaguar – Setup

The Jaguar can be a fiddly beast to string and setup, at the best of times. Normally, I follow a fairly similar process for all guitars. It’s just that there tends to be a lot more to-ing and fro-ing with a Jaguar. Since a decent setup is primarily about achieving proper balance across a number of adjustable parameters – the fact that the Jaguar just happens to have some parts installed on top of others, (bridge over mute plate, on top of scratchplate), means adjustment can sometimes be a, “one-step forward / two steps back”, kind of affair. Especially when sorting things out around the bridge, and compounded by the fact that the truss rod adjustment nut is located on the heel of the neck – within the neck pocket. Consequently – it’s usually the case that my planned, ordered, procedure tends to play out more as a constant refinement. Once the basic perameters have been set – I can then do all the fine-tuning I want, as I take time to play the instrument in. Along the way – if any major changes are made to the initial setup – it’s always wise to ensure that they haven’t knocked something else out of alignment somewhere else.

Fender Jaguar Setup – Assessing and adjusting the neck action

Having cut the nut and strung the guitar previously, I’ve already set the bridge to a useable height, and the action at the lower frets is “OK” (Playable – but a little bit on the high side). The neck hasn’t been touched, (apart from oiling), and the neck relief is stock and “flat”. Normally, with Jaguars, the playing action benefits from having a shim in the neck pocket. This creates a slight back angle between the neck and the body, and the bridge sometimes has to be set quite high to compensate. Having a high bridge isn’t necessarily a bad thing on a Jag – especially if using an old-style offset bridge, (where increased downforce from the strings can help sort out some of the usual rattle), or if there’s a mute plate in use, (which needs a little clearance under the bridge, to operate properly).

Although I do have a mute fitted in this case – I’m also using a StayTrem replacement bridge instead of the, reputedly unstable, “vintage-style”, original Fender offset bridge. The solid, and more deeply grooved, saddles of the StayTrem can usually cope with a lower bridge position, and a much straighter string path. With all that in mind – I’m not really sure if I’ll need a shim or not. An additional factor is that this USA “Original 60’s” body, appears to have a slight angle already built into the pocket. Fitting the mute may have provided a need to raise the bridge, and will therefore raise the action – but is there already enough range of adjustment factored into the body?

As it is – the neck, with it’s stock relief and with the mute and bridge in a workable position – already seems to provide a reasonable action – so perhaps the the first thing to do, is to actually measure the current neck relief, with the neck and fingerboard “as supplied”. By applying a capo at the first fret, and then fingering the low “E” string beyond the highest fret – the string is stretched in a straight line between the two extreme frets, and it becomes a level gauge. The neck relief can be measured by checking the clearance between the bottom of the string, and the top of the 8th fret, (the mid-point of the neck). This measures out at 0.015″. For a neck with a 7.25″ radius like this one, Fender normally recommend a clearance of 0.012″ – but since I’m not too heavy a player, I often set my neck relief a little lower than this. Somewhere between 0.007″ and 0.010″ usually works out OK for me. If I dial in a little back bow on the neck – this will lower the nut slightly in relation to the heel of the neck, and for that, I’ll have to remove the neck first, in order to access the truss rod nut, which is set into the heel. Even a slight alteration to the geometry at the nut end, will have a much greater effect further towards the bridge. A quarter of a turn, or less, should be enough to lower the neck action to somewhere just below 0.010″.

Fender Jaguar Setup – Assessing the need for a shim

While I’m at it, and while the neck’s off – I may as well see what happens to the geometry if I do happen shim the neck. Having strung the guitar already – repeated removal of the neck can be a real hassle, and I really don’t want to have to do it too many times. It is usually possible to preserve the existing strings – but it’s important not to introduce any kinks or weak spots anywhere – especially where the strings wrap and coil around the tuners. Strings always weaken where they are bent, and if they’re bent repeatedly – they will inevitably fail. I find it useful to slide a piece of masking tape under and over the strings at the first fret, before detuning and removing them from the tuners. This keeps the strings together, stops them from tangling and, providing they’re draped carefully off to the side, re-stringing is usually then just a matter of re-inserting the strings into the tuners and carefully re-tensioning them, as the slack is rewound onto the posts.

I have a spare StewMac 0.5 degree shim to check out here. The shim is already pre-shaped for a Fender neck pocket, and requires only a slight trim at the thick end, until it’s just the right shape. Just less than a quarter turn clockwise on the truss rod nut, and the neck is re-attached with the shim in place. Once the neck bolts have been tightened again, the strings are set back on the neck, across the bridge saddles and over the nut. One by one, the bent and coiled ends are re-located on the tuner posts, and the guitar is brought back to tune.

Immediately – I can see and hear the difference. The angle between the heel of the neck and the neck pocket is increased – so much so, that the strings now barely clear the frets, and they’re grounded at the heel. A little of this will be down to the slight back bow I’ve just dialled into the neck, but much more of it will be due to the shim. I could raise the bridge to compensate – but if I raise it too far, I’ll also have to raise the mute off the body so that it too will operate properly against the underside of the higher strings, (providing there’s even enough available adjustment there). Either way – I’ll have to remove the pickguard, and that just seems like a major backward step for now, and a huge hassle. I really don’t think the shim will provide much, if any, benefit. I decide to take the neck off one more time, and remove the shim. This time, I don’t have to remove the strings from the tuners, and simply detuning to remove the tension from the neck, is enough to allow me to pop it out temporarily, and retrieve the shim.

With the neck re-attached again, and the strings re-tensioned once more – I can check the neck relief again at the 8th fret. That quarter turn has brought the relief down to 0.008″. That should work fine for my style of play, and I won’t have to do any major surgery to the bridge or the mute. Bonus.

Fender Jaguar Setup – Checking the string heights

If you’re ever looking for an example of a guitar which clearly demonstrates the complexties of the nut / neck / bridge / body relationship – you don’t need to go much further than a Jaguar. Once you realise, and can see how the set angle of a flat neck can work in conjunction with the adjustment of the bridge height, to create ideal string heights all along the neck – you’re part way there. However, dialling in that little bit of extra back bow tends to drop the nut a little further – providing plenty of clearance at the lower frets, but adding another geometrical perameter to the equation. Too much back bow, the heel of the neck becomes too much of a hump, and the bridge may need to be raised to compensate. The whole thing is a balancing act, and one which involves a certain element of personal preference set against the basic physics of the thing. Like the slot heights at the nut – my personal preferences have evolved over time, and they’re based on previous setups that have worked for me. Now that I have my nut set where I want it, and I’ve dialled in my usual neck action with the neck set at a fixed angle to the body – I’ve fixed two of the variable perameters. The strings are now largely in line with the neck along it’s full length. It’s now time to set the string action, (the height of the strings above the neck), by adjusting the bridge height.

Since I’m using a StayTrem bridge – the string saddles are already machined to follow the curve of the 7.25″ fingerboard radius. All I need to do is to accurately measure the heights of the two outside strings, above the 17th fret – where the neck joins the body, and where the “moment of neck rotation” is roughly located. For this, I use a stepped gauge, and I can immediately see that the strings are already slightly lower than I’d prefer to have them.

Fender Jaguar Setup – Adjusting the playing action by raising the bridge

With the stepped gauge still in place, and positioning the guitar so I have a light source behind the gauge, I can use the hex key provided with the StayTrem bridge to slightly raise each side of the bridge, until the playing height is exactly at the height I want it. Since I’m not usually a heavy player – for me – that’s 1.8mm on the bass side, and 1.6mm on the treble. Apart from it’s stability – the one great advantage of the StayTrem bridge, is the ability to set and adjust the action easily. The adjustment points directly affect the heights of adjacent, outside, strings – and the fixed radius saddles take care of adjustments to all of the other strings proportionally.

With the bridge now at it’s “ideal” height – another perameter is fixed – and I can check the tuning and actually feel the playing action myself by playing the guitar acoustically. The strings certainly feel a little thicker than roundwound 10’s – but then the Jaguar’s shorter scale is already, naturally a little “slinkier” than, say, a Stratocaster. That serves to compensate the string tension somewhat. I like the current feel, and the clean acoustic sound of the Jag is encouraging. Checking each string at each fret – there are no obvious high frets, and no clear buzzing further up the neck. Bent notes don’t seem to choke anywhere. The neck has been well finished, and the frets feel smooth – no rough edges at all. Nice job Musikraft! The only thing that I notice, is the usual, slight, “deadening” of the sound of the strings, upwards of the 12th fret. This is more pronounced on the lower strings, and it’s something that almost seems to be a typical feature of the Jaguar sound. The “deadening” of the tone isn’t the buzzing sound I’d normally associate with high frets. Instead, it’s almost as if a thin piece of paper has been lightly draped over the strings. It’s literally a “papery” sound – almost like a chorus effect in some ways. I think it’s to do with the height of the strings as they pass over the pickups. When played on the higher frets especially, the strings are pressed down extremely close to the pickup poles. That chorus sound is probably down to the magnetic field dragging the strings, and slightly choking off their natural vibration.

Jaguar pickup magnets themselves aren’t normally very powerful, (although these Creamery variants are slightly overwound from standard), and so the poles don’t normally drag at the strings too much. Consequently – the pickups can normally be positioned quite close to the strings. The thing is – at the neck pickup, there’s usually considerably more deflection in the strings when they’re played at the upper frets. Considerably more than at the bridge pickup. The fact that the Jaguar pickups and claws are quite tall, coupled with the limited range of adjustment allowed by the depth of the pickup rout, means that the neck pickup has to be screwed virtually all the way down to the deck, in order to meet the “recommended” Fender standard. By the time you consider all of the various internal wires which also pass under and around this pickup – there’s really not that much room for adjustment. Certainly not enough to eliminate all of the drag. It looks like the neck pickup particularly, will have to be set high enough to maintain a strong signal when the strings are played open, but also set low enough to allow for suffficient clearance when the strings are played up the neck.

So – Checking the pickup heights here – I deck the neck pickup, (having first trimmed a few millimeters off each adjustment screw. They really do seem to be quite long to drive all the way down). I’ll adjust the neck pickup later, and will try and position it so that the various selection positions are sonically balanced – both for volume, and for tone. For now, I drop the bridge pickup so that it’s visually positioned at about the same distance from the strings as the neck pickup is, when the strings are fingered at the top fret. The “papery” tone still persists slightly – but it’s only really noticeable on the thicker bass strings, and I doubt I’ll be that high up the neck there too often. The thinner strings hold their sustain well when played acoustically, and the comparative tone across the set sounds good.

Fender Jaguar Setup – Checking and adjusting the string intonation

Moving on then, to intonation. Since the bridge rocks backwards and forwards slightly, as the tremolo is used – the strings naturally lengthen and shorten slightly and the tone is modulated with the characteristic tremolo “wobble”. However – getting the intonation spot-on, depends on establishing a fixed default position. Some players push the bridge all the way back, and then set the intonation there. If things go out of tune during play – the bridge is just pushed all the way back – restoring the default position. The correct intonation should then be re-established, and the guitar can be tuned again in the normal manner. Personally, I prefer to push the bridge back, and then flex the tremolo a few times with a few pull-ups and dive-bombs. In theory – this allows the bridge to settle and find its’ own default position.

But to adjust anything – first, I need to fit the tremolo arm. Ensuring that the lock button is engaged means I can be sure that there’s some resistance to push against, instead of pushing against the tremolo spring. I’ve already fitted a StayTrem collet to the plate, and the StayTrem tremolo arm simply pushes into the tightly engineered nylon sleeve on the collet. This stops the arm flapping about when not in use – but it takes a really good shove to get the arm all the way in, and down to the mark indicated on the metal.

After checking and adjusting the tuning again – the bridge is pulled back as far as it’ll go under the strings, and I give the tremolo arm a good waggle up and down. Once the bridge has settled and found it’s own position of equilibrium – I check the tuning with a chromatic tuner, and make any required, fine adjustments. I can then check the intonation of each string at the twelfth fret, and make any further adjustments to the saddle positions – using the supplied hex key.

The StayTrem bridge is much better engineered than most other alternatives, and this example has small plastic discs to help keep the saddles stable, and to further cut down on unnecessary rattle. These can sometimes work their way out of position however – so it’s always wise to check the online StayTrem documentation, to make sure you’re adjusting the thing properly. Once the guitar is intonated correctly, I do a final check on the operation of the mute, and then finally slip the chromed cover onto the bridge. This is a Fender produced cover – but strangely, it fits somewhat better on the StayTrem bridge than it does on an actual Fender bridge. No modification at all required, and a good, push on/pull off, snug fit.

Having now fixed all of the setup perameters – I slide the tremolo lock button across to the “lock” position, and adjust the spring tension by tightening the central screw positioned just below the lock. This raises an internal stop under the plate, into a position just a fraction of a hair under the position of the lock switch itself. Because the strings are now in a tuned state, and are in balance against the tremolo spring – operating the tremolo and allowing the equilibrium to re-settle again, should always result in the strings falling back into tune.

Normally – if a string should break during play, then the remaining strings will lose their fight against the tremolo spring, which will then pull everything sharp. In the middle of play – that’s potentially a disaster. However – by ducking the strings flat with the tremolo, and then sliding the lock switch over to the “engaged” position again – the “shelf” provided by the lock button acts as a stop exactly at the position of equilibrium. In fact – the tremolo spring itself pulls the block solidly up against the stop, and the remaining strings are returned to tune, and intonate properly. It’s simple, but accurate. Furthermore, although it means that you can’t pull notes sharp with the tremolo – you can still duck the tuning. Just as long as you gently release the tremolo again afterwards. (Let it go, and it’ll knock back against the stop with an audible bump).

The only rules of the tremolo lock are, firstly, you can only set the equilibrium point after every other perameter has been fixed. Change anything, and you need to reset the reference point. Secondly, after setting the lock button position – the button should be set to the open, unlocked postion, for regular play.

Fender Jaguar – After completed setup

Finally – I fish out my chosen Souldier strap, and set about checking the instrument over in play. This re-visits just about all of the setup points, but I can now make any required changes to the pickup heights, check the tuning stability and revist the playing action, from a more practical point of view. I check again that there’s no extraneous buzzing or rattling from the strings or the bridge, and make a few, small adjustments to the string heights so that they feel right to my fingers – even if they’re dropped below the original settings. Finally, I reset the tremolo lock button, and slide it across to the “unlocked” position.

Providing the setup feels and sounds right – and providing the strings intonate correctly, don’t ground out anywhere on the upper frets, and hold their tuning, even after using the tremolo – I’m calling it a success. Setting an instrument up is all about finding it’s internal balance. Following a predictable procedure, and setting perameters to standard, recommended settings is key – but just gets you to a point where you can begin to make the fine adjustments which eventually personalise the instrument to your particular way of playing, and the sound you want to make with it.

2 Replies to “Customised Fender USA “Original ’60’s” Jaguar – Setup”

  1. Thanks for all of the detail in these posts! Very helpful as I finish my own jaguar build. That’s one beautiful guitar—enjoy


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