Candy Apple Red H/H Fender Jaguar. Setting the neck, and test-fitting the tremolo bridge

The recent warmer weather has been punctuated by a few days of heavy rain. No good for lacquer spraying at all. Way too much humidity and moisture about. Since I’ve sealed, primed and begun the base coat for the candy apple red finish on my H/H Jaguar – now would be the ideal time to test-fit and drill the tremolo bridge instead.

Attaching the neck

I’ve already finished the neck for the H/H Jag – it will be re-purposed from another project, and its’ candy apple red finish replicated on the body here. The neck has been custom built by Musikraft, with block markers and a fully bound, dark rosewood fingerboard. I’ve painted the headstock myself, and will be using the exact same painting schedule for the body. The partially completed application of Shoreline Gold on the H/H body so far, is the first stage of the CAR basecoat, over the sealer and primer. The body requires drilling for the tremolo bridge at some point – and now is as good a time as any. Doing it early, means I’ll be able to lessen any risk of the finished paint job either splitting or flaking, as I drill through it. In order to ensure that the tremolo is fitted absolutely straight and true – it really helps to be able to test-fit the neck at the same time – to check the string alignment all the way along, from from tremolo to nut.

“Placeholder” Fender neck plate

The neck has been prepared to standard Fender specifications, and the body is a direct copy of a Fender re-issue Jaguar. I’m expecting these to mate exactly, and I’m pleased to see that the heel of the neck fits the body snugly. In fact – it’s perhaps just a tiny bit too snug. By the time a few coats of lacquer have been applied – the join will be exceedingly tight, and the edges of the paint finish around the neck pocket will be at severe risk of cracking and flaking.

I make a small adjustment to the heel, so that the fit is slightly looser. Equal amounts of excess material are taken off each side of the neck heel – using some 120 grit paper, over a firm, flat block – to keep the edges of the neck flat and square. Just enough material is removed, so that the neck is at less risk of binding on the edges of the pocket – but I’ll be sure to check the fit again, once the final lacquer coat has cured and shrunk-back. There may yet still be a need for further adjustment.

However – the neck is clearly seated well, and the pre-drilled bolt holes correspond exactly to the pre-drilled holes in the body. I can now fix the neck using four stainless steel bolts, and a temporary Fender neck plate. I’ll eventually have a slightly thicker, custom plate made, with a personal serial number. The neck bolts are lubricated with a little candle wax, before being driven in to “nip” the plate and neck firmly in place. Don’t ever overtighten the neck bolts.

Fender Jaguar/Jazzmaster Import Tremolo

Since I’ll probably not be using the actual tremolo function much – there’s no point shelling out on an expensive, USA Fender Jag/Jazz tremolo. The Fender import version here, (Fender parts number 026-4248-000 – obtained from Custom World Guitars in Amsterdam), will still “lock off”, and provide me with a suitable, fixed tailpiece. There’s no need to upgrade the collet either. If I can find a good way to blank it off – I may even remove the redundant collet entirely.

Centering the plate

I want to ensure that the plate is fixed centrally on teh body of the guitar – so that the strings run straight, through the bridge, and down along the full length of the neck. I’ve fixed a few tremolos now, with my various offset projects, and I’ve found the best way to do this is to “temporarily” locate the plate with the top two holes first. Once they’ve been placed, (and their positions adjusted if necessary), the plate can be firmly held in teh correct position whilst the four rear screw holes are accurately marked, countersunk and drilled. For the procedure to work well – the two top holes need to be accurately placed to begin with. The best way to do this, is by acurately locating the centreline of the body – through the bridge, to the neck – and then measuring and marking the offset of the tremolo plate at each side.

The centreline is lightly marked on the body with a pencil. The mark will eventually be cleaned off with naphtha before any further spraying – but it’s always a good idea to only mark the body where it will be concealed – either under the scratchplate, or tremolo itself. Where any mark is made on the open face of the body – it should be exceedingly light – so as not to leave a visible crease in the eventual lacquer finish.

The top two hole locations are measured off the centreline, marked with a punch, and then countersunk and drilled out to the required depth and diameter. A final cleanup with a fine countersink bit, leaves the edges of the drilled holes clean, and free from debris.

Checking the alignment of the tremolo plate

The tremolo can then be screwed down to the body for the first time. The two top screws hold it firmly enough in position to allow the two outside “E” strings to be threaded, and then run up to the nut. The machine heads have already been installed – so the strings are now firmly anchored at both ends, and can be tensioned – just enough to remove any slack. Not enough, however, to risk leaving marks on the heel edge of the fingerboard.

Checking the alignment of the tremolo plate

A bridge can be temporarily fitted – but bear in mind that there’s always a bit of sideways play there – unless the thimbles are in place to constrain its’ movement. Without the bridge in place, it’s much easier to concentrate on the precise alignment of the tremolo – since the bridge isn’t there to “tweak” the paths of the strings at all. I like to check the tremolo position first, without the bridge – and if things look right – then again, with the bridge in place. If the strings run straight and true between tremolo and nut – equidistant from both edges of the fingerboard – then the tremolo is where it should be. Fitting the bridge might slightly push the strings out to both sides – but the straight and equal string alignment shouldn’t be affected.

Marking, countersinking and drilling-out the remaining screw holes

If the tremolo is straight and true – then all well and good. Using the tremolo plate itself as a template – the four remaing screw holes can now be accurately marked, countersunk and drilled.

If, however, there’s a small side-to-side adjustment required – you can usually get away with using thin shims to reposition the plate. I usually use thin slivers, taken off off a bamboo skewer with a sharp blade. The bamboo is harder and more resistive than the alder of the body – so positioning a sliver down one side of a drilled hole pushes the screw just a little bit deeper into the softer alder on the other side. This sort of adjustment will redirect the paths of the screws ever so slightly, and will just move the plate a miniscule amount. But because of the angular difference over the length of the neck – a small adjustment at the tremolo will shift the string paths that little bit more. (If it turns out you need a bigger adjustment than that – you’re probably out of luck. Something’s been measured wrong somewhere, and it’s probably best to start again and re-fill the first two holes, before you proceed. Console yourself – At least the repairs will be hidden under the plate when you’re finished, and there’s still a few coats of lacquer to apply, which will help further disguise them).

Usually, however – if you’ve correctly identified the centreline and measured off that – the plate will be plumb centre on the neck. It may look off centre compared to the tremolo rout – but you can probably blame the CNC cutter for not using his templates properly. The important geometrical relationship is tremolo to nut, with the length of the neck and bridge as important waypoints.

Now, with the plate centred, and firmly held in place with the first two screws – the additional four screw locations can be accurately marked through the plate. The plate is removed, and the four new positions drilled out, as before. For final positioning – the plate should then be re-attached and tightened down, using the four newly-located screws first. The plate will then be held firmly in the correct position. The top two screws can then be returned. If you do happen to have made any fine adjustments, the top two screws will then tend to follow their corrected paths – with the tremolo plate held firmly in place, by the remainder.

Final checks for neck and tremolo alignment

The two guide strings can be re-tensioned, so that the alignments can be given a final check. Then – one last thing. Since the strap buttons require larger screws, (similar in size to the ones for the tremolo plate) – I mark and drill out the holes for the buttons, countersink the openings and test-fit. With everything where it should be – the neck, strap buttons and tremolo plate are removed, and stored away for later fit-out.

All of the new countersunk holes are cleaned off, and any loose debris removed and dusted away. Any pencil guidelines are rubbed off with naphtha, and the body is given a good check over to ensure that there’s no loose debris or dust anywhere in the various routs. I then clean the whole body down with a cloth which has a bit of naphtha on it. This will remove any finger grease, or other contamination which might affect subsequent coats of lacquer. The body is now ready to be returned to the spray booth for the rest of its’ lacquer coat.

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