Photos by Ariel Ellis
Recently, one of my clients brought in an American-made 1990
Fender Strat hot-rodded with a custom pickguard, Fender-branded
Schaller locking tuners, a set of Lindy Fralin single-coils,
and a passive, 16-step ToneStyler tone pot. It was a workhorse guitar—and it was in desperate need of a custom setup.
Most guitars come from the store with a generic factory setup.
Many players are satisfied with this, but the key to having a great
guitar is to personalize the setup for your specific needs. This
includes a number of details, including optimizing the instrument
for your preferred string gauges, tweaking the action for your fretting
and picking style, and if the guitar has a tremolo system, getting
it to respond correctly to your wang-bar technique.
Strats can be tricky to set up, because many of the adjustments
are interactive. In other words, when you change one element, it
can affect others. In large part, this is due to the tremolo system.
The trick is to approach the steps in a logical sequence, and in this
article I’ll explain exactly how to do this. Although your string
gauges, action, and trem response may differ from those described
here, the step-by-step process and the tools and techniques apply
to virtually all Strat-style guitars equipped with a standard, nonlocking
tremolo system and three single-coils.
So settle in for a good read as I take you through the process of
setting up a Strat to play like a dream—your dream.
Structurally, the Corona-built Strat on my bench was in excellent
condition, but my client had several special requests. First, he
wanted to tune the guitar down a whole-step. Low to high, that’s
D–G–C–F–A–D. [This is often referred to as “D standard.” For
a detailed explanation of this tuning, visit premierguitar.com and
read the guest Tuning Up column in the December 2011 issue.]
To accommodate this dropped tuning, the owner specified a hybrid
string set gauged .012, .016, .019, .032, .044, and .056. As with a typical
.010 set, the bottom three strings are wound and the top three are plain.
He arrived at these particular gauges by studying Ernie Ball, D’Addario,
and GHS sets that were either considered jazz medium gauge or designed
for dropped tunings. So, if you’re considering tuning one of your solidbody
electrics to D standard, these gauges are a good starting point.
He also asked for a floating tremolo, meaning he wanted to lower
and raise the pitch of his strings to add gentle vibrato to chords,
intervals, and single notes. He wasn’t concerned about raising the
pitch any more than, say, a quarter-tone—just enough to create a “shimmer.”
But in his initial attempts to
set up this guitar himself, he ran into
tuning issues caused by the trem not
returning to pitch. As we’ll discover in
a moment, there was a reason for this.
Fortunately, I was able to fix the problem,
but it required some ingenuity.
Before I grab any tools, I always ask
my clients several questions about their
technique. After I’ve completed repairs
or modifications, this background info
helps me dial-in the custom setup.
For example, I’ll ask: What tuning
do you use? What styles of music do you play? What gauge strings do
you use? How hard do you pick and strum, and do you play with a
light, medium, or heavy fretting-hand touch? Do you use a flatpick? If
so, what size and thickness? If you play fingerstyle, do you attack the
strings with your nails, fingerpicks, or fingertips? Do you use a capo?
In this case, the owner had already answered the tuning and
string questions, but the answers he gave to the other questions
helped guide me through each stage of the setup process.
Evaluate the Guitar
The owner had already installed fresh strings, so after my initial survey
I tuned it to D–G–C–F–A–D and began taking measurements.
This information serves as a baseline for subsequent adjustments and
also helps pinpoint any problems.
Here are the four primary measurements you want to take.
Write these measurements down, so you can refer to them at any
time during the setup process:
• Action at the 12th fret
• Neck relief
• Action at the 1st fret
Let’s go through these procedures, one at a time.