Strat Set Up, Part Two
By Daniel Brooks
So, you’ve removed your strings and improved the contact between the neck and the body for better resonance. You have, maybe, reconsidered your string gauge before restringing your guitar. You’ve added or adjusted the tremolo springs, adjusted the truss rod, reset the action and fine tuned the intonation. Now what?
Well, most of the time, you can leave it at that, call it a successful set up, and get back to playing in pursuit of the next great musical inspiration. But we are Stratocaster players, and there is always another adjustment or modification that will elevate the quality of our instrument and our ability to play it.
The first of these is a height adjustment on your pickups. As with all parameters of the Stratocaster, there is a considerable range of adjustment, and each end of the spectrum offers a different effect on your sound. Typically, a pick up positioned farther away from the string will give you a lower output with a mellower tone. A lowered pickup also has a physical impact on our playing since it is less likely to snag one’s fingernails, which can be a real distraction for those of us who use our fingertips. For guitarists who prefer a brighter tone, a few turns of the mounting screws will bring the pickup close to the string as possible for a more powerful output that can, with the right pickup, push the balance of guitar and amp toward distortion. Both extremes have their adherents. It is not uncommon to adjust each pickup according to our use, with, for example, a neck pickup lowered a full turn for playing rhythm guitar parts and the bridge pickup heightened as far as it will go for brighter, higher output solo work.
To adjust the pickup height according to Fender’s recommendations, fret the high E and low E strings at the highest fret. Measure the distance between the bottom of each string and the top of the magnetic pole piece beneath it. For pickups with the traditional amount of output like the Standard Single-Coil or the Standard Humbucker, Fender recommends a gap of 4/64” or .0625”, which is a hair thicker than a US Penny. For higher output pickups, like the Texas Specials or the Noiseless Series, Fender recommends a gap of 8/64” or .125” on the bass side and 6/64 or .093” on the treble side.
In the interest of precision, it is well worth the money to buy a feeler gauge. For less than ten dollars at any decent hardware store, you’ll get an organized collection of thin metal leaves, each a precise, specific fraction of an inch thick. You can combine leaves of different thicknesses to get an exact reference for any job that requires a professional level of accuracy, like more precise truss rod and string height adjustments.
To more accurately adjust the truss rod, tune the guitar and capo it behind the first fret. Finger the note on the highest fret on the high E string while measuring the clearance between the string and the 8th fret (C#), which is about half the length of the fretted, capoed string and the point of highest clearance. For guitars with a modern 9.5” to 12” radius, adjust for .010” clearance. If you have a vintage or a reissue guitar with 7.25” radius, adjust for .012” for slightly more curve in the neck to keep your bent notes from fretting out. Inversely, you can get lower with flatter fretboards, as close as .008” for modern, custom guitars with a 15” to 17” radius.
And that’s all there is to a good professional set up. Of course, there are always additional modifications one can make for even better sound. These often involve replacing parts or altering the guitar. You can always try replacing the nut with one made of bone, brass or stainless steel, all of which have better acoustic properties than the plastic synthetic bone used to make the standard nut. At the other end of the string, recognize the role the old bent steel bridge pieces had in shaping the vintage Stratocaster tone. If your Strat has one of the newer designs, and you like that old vintage sound enough to make it worth the effort, then consider replacing your bridge saddles.
It is easy, if not exactly inexpensive, to replace your pickups. Fender makes a variety of replacement pickups, many using the same materials and specifications as the original vintage gear, and some others that deliver much higher output and different tonal responses. Like many Strat fanatics, I have always thought that if the original was good enough for Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Robin Trower, Mark Knopfler, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a thousand other greats too numerous to mention, then I’ll take my chances. But if you insist on placing that much importance on your pickups, then it is worth the substantially lower investment in time and money to also consider the electronics. Most stock Fender parts are wired with good components, especially on their high end models, but if you’re playing an imported Strat, or one that has been modified by a previous owner, you might want to examine your wiring, jacks, switches, potentiometers and capacitors and, if necessary, replace them with better quality parts.
If you are really into modifying your Strat, eventually you’ll want to give some attention to the finish. This may seem to be a bit more of a commitment but it is a simple thing to strip away the finish where the tremolo meets the body. Just as with the neck/body connection, the finish adds an unnecessary layer of material between the bridge and the body, absorbing a small but significant fraction of the resonance that comes from the interaction between the two. And while you’re at it, consider removing the finish from any part of the guitar the audience doesn’t see. The next time you take the pickguard off of your Stratocaster, try sanding away the finish in the body cavity. It will allow the wood to breathe and resonate a little better. Some committed players who have one of the modern Strats with the polyurethane finish have gone as far as to strip away the finish altogether, either leaving the wood bare or repainting it with nitrocellulose. This may be a bit off the deep end for most guitarists, but it might not seem so when you’re just one more modification away from Stratocaster perfection.