Strat Set Up, Part One
By Daniel Brooks
It seems a Stratocaster is always one minor adjustment away from perfection. Whether you just got your first new one as a holiday gift, or you are still in love with that well-worn old Strat you’ve played for decades, you’ll find the ideal set-up is often a work in progress that seems to evolve as you continue to better know your guitar. You may also find, as you become more experienced (and may we all become more experienced), that the set-up you had a few years ago is no longer a good fit for your style and technique. Here are a few ways to tweak and adjust your way toward that ever-elusive perfection.
The first thing to consider is your strings. Most of the adjustments you’ll make to your guitar are best done in conjunction with one of your regular string changes, and a new set of strings always restores any guitar’s tone to its optimal, well-defined brightness. But it is also a good time to consider the gauge and composition of your strings. Whether you use traditional nickel strings, newer stainless steel, a nickel/stainless hybrid or one of the new alloys such as iron/cobalt or maybe a coated set of strings, the simple rule remains: Heavier strings sound better. There are those who disagree, but the laws of physics side with heavier strings. Bigger string equals bigger sound as the increased mass of a heavier string moves more air, and exerts a greater effect on the magnetic field of your pickups. It is, of course, up to you to find the balance between this and the comfortable playability of a lighter string, but if all else is equal, always go with the heavier string.
When your Strat is unstrung, unbolt the neck and look at the surfaces where neck and body meet. If there are any inspection tags glued to the neck or the body, carefully take them off and clean off any glue residue. It may seem insignificant, but that a little piece of paper it prevents the neck and body from being in full contact, and it dampens a small but noticeable amount of resonance that comes from the interaction of neck and body.
Some Stratocasters feature a micro-tilt adjustment that lets you change the angle of the neck to the body. Unless your Strat is radically out of whack, you’ll never use this for its intended purpose, but you can use it to increase the resonance of your guitar. Before you bolt the neck back on, find the correct allen wrench and, in a counter-clockwise motion, unscrew the micro-tilt a turn or two. Bolt the neck back on to the body, as tightly as it will go, but don’t force it, and screw the micro-tilt clockwise until it is firmly in contact with the small metal plate imbedded in the neck. This will help transmit vibrations between the neck and body for better resonance.
Now, restring your guitar and tune it. If you are going to consistently use something other than standard tuning, then tune it to that. It is important to know that differences in tension between heavier and lighter string gauges and higher and lower tunings will affect the position and function of your tremolo tailpiece, if your Strat has one. Look at your bridge. If the difference in string tension has pulled it up at an angle to the body, effectively raising your string height, then you need to adjust it.
Take off the back cover plate. You may want to consider playing for a while without this back cover plate. Many Strat players swear it opens up the guitar and lets it breathe and resonate with noticeably better tone. Try it and find out for yourself how it sounds, you can always put it back on. For the moment, however, let’s return to our setup.
Look at the cavity on the back of your Strat. You should see at least three springs connecting the tremolo to the body. Four springs is better and five is best. More springs will stiffen your tremolo’s action, but it will also make it a lot more stable. Your bridge will not move as easily in response to vibrating and bending strings. To adjust the springs’ effect on the bridge, tighten the two screws, an equal number of turns, to pull the tailpiece down until it is parallel to the body, or loosen them if they’re too tight. Some guitarists like having the tremolo pulled tight against the wood. It gives additional resonance at the expense of being able to bend chords up with the whammy bar. Feel free to experiment, it is easy to adjust it back without changing the strings.
Once you’ve adjusted the springs for your desired bridge angle. Retune the guitar and look down the edge of the neck to see if it is straight. One string gauge or two will probably not affect the neck, but if a slight bowing occurs, give your truss rod an eighth to a quarter turn, clockwise, then retune and recheck. The truss rod will resist a bit, but it is designed to be tightened and loosened to adjust the bow of your guitar’s neck. Unless you are freakishly strong, or your guitar has some hidden defect, or you just can’t stop tightening it, you are unlikely to break your truss rod with an allen wrench.
The next thing you want to address is your action, or, the height of your strings above the frets. If you play with a light touch, a lower action will work for you, but slide guitarists and players with heavier hands will probably benefit from raising the action a bit to avoid fret noise. Tune your guitar and then measure the space between the 17th fret and the bottom of each string. Fender specifies an optimal clearance of 4/64th of an inch, which translates to 1/16 of an inch, or 1.6 millimeters. By comparison, the thickness of a US penny is 1.55 millimeters. Each bridge saddle on any model Stratocaster will have two allan screws that let you raise or lower the height of each individual string. Be sure to give each allen screw the same number of turns so that the bridge saddle remains parallel to the bridge plate. Failure to do so will affect the sound and performance of your guitar.
Once you have adjusted the tremolo spring tension, the truss rod and the action, then you’re ready to fine tune the intonation. Ideally, the 12th fret should mark the exact halfway point between the nut and the bridge. The fretted string is then exactly one half the length of the tuned, open string, it will vibrate with exactly twice the frequency of the open string to play the note an octave higher. Of course, the diameter and the height of each string will affect this ratio, so we have to adjust each string accordingly.
To set the intonation, tune the guitar. Use a tuner to be as precise as possible, and to get a visual representation of the note which will make life so much easier (well, this aspect of it, at least). When every string is in tune, pick any string and play a harmonic at the 12th fret. Just lightly touch the string, without fretting it, above the 12th fret and pluck it with your other hand. It should make a pure, beautiful bell-like tone. Then fret the same string at the 12th fret and pluck it again. It should make the same note. If the fretted note is a higher pitch than the harmonic, then the distance between the bridge and the 12th fret is shorter than the distance between the bridge and the halfway point of the open string. Lengthen the string. Turn the screw at the far end of the bridge clockwise a whole turn. Retune the string (check all the strings) and repeat until the harmonic and the fretted note are exactly the same pitch then adjust the next string. Each string may take a few turns, but no matter how far out of intonation your Strat may be, it is designed to never be more than a few sixteenths of an inch from where it’s supposed to be. You’re always almost there, one minor adjustment away from perfection.