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Squier Tele Makeover: Surf-Twang Tweak-a-Rama

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Squier Tele Makeover: Surf-Twang Tweak-a-Rama

Going back to the taped-up guitar body, I drew perpendicular lines to mark where I wanted the Bigsby’s roller guide and forward screw to be located. The exact locations are a bit arbitrary, so I chose them based on appearance and— more importantly—the spot that gave me the greatest break angle over the saddles with the limited space available. I used my centerline and perpendicular lines to get the Bigsby in position, and then I drilled mounting holes using a 3/32" bit. (Photo 5)

Next, I disassembled it so I could mill string channels in the back. To keep it absolutely still, I mounted it in a vise and then put the sanding-drum bit into my Dremel, threw on some safety goggles (a must when using any power tools), and created six gently arced pathways that are approximately 1/16" from the original top edge at their deepest point (Photo 6). When the rough cuts for all the channels were done, I switched to a polishing bit to make them both smooth to the touch and attractive to the eye.


LEFT: Photo 4. Stringing the new Bigsby and viewing the bridge from the side revealed how much metal I needed to remove from the ashtray bridge. MIDDLE: Photo 5. Painter’s tape gave me a canvas for measurements and guides. RIGHT: Photo 6. Foam protected the bridge from vise marks while I milled channels.

With that done, I installed the new brass compensated saddles—making sure I positioned them as shown (Photo 7) so that the guitar will intonate a little better than it would with standard Tele saddles. To test how the Bigsby and saddles work together, I needed to reassemble the rest of the bridge. I mounted the Curtis Novak bridge pickup in the ashtray, fed its wires through their channels, screwed the bridge and Bigsby to the guitar, and then strung it up.

When I played the guitar, I noticed two things right away. First, the strings were moving the saddles around and producing an unpleasant chattering sound. Second, the strings were creeping toward the center of the bridge, creating a narrower spacing than I wanted (Photo 8). I realized then that I needed to notch the saddles to make the strings stay at their proper spacing. So I slid the strings around, measured to find the proper location for each string, and then gave each string a good knock with a small mallet make an indentation where I need to create some deeper notches. I used gauged files to cut grooves in the saddles to keep the strings where I want them and give them a smooth, flat surface to slide over. I had to remove the bridge again in order to get at the saddles the way I wanted to (Photo 9). I cut the notches a little wide, but the strings still chattered when the Bigsby was wiggled to the extreme so I applied a little lip balm in the grooves. Plain white lip balm is a fantastic, nontoxic lubricant that helps the strings slide like glass! You can apply it with a toothpick or just wipe it on the saddles (it works great on the nut, too).


LEFT: Photo 7. Properly positioned compensated brass saddles. MIDDLE: Photo 8. The Bigsby initially causes string spacing that’s too narrow. RIGHT: Photo 9. Notching the saddles prevents inward string creep.

While I had my gauged files out, I decided to cut the nut slots to fit the heavier strings I’ll be installing. The Squier shipped with a nut that accommodates .009–.042 sets, so the .011–.052 set Shawn prefers will definitely bind up in the narrower slots. At this point, though, I only cut to get the right width for the strings to travel without binding up. I’ll cut them for depth later, when I’m ready to adjust the action.

Electronics Time
One of the fantastic things about the Vintage Modified Tele is that everything is mounted on one big pickguard— all the parts are in one spot. But it is kind of cumbersome to work with. If you recall, my first worry upon peering inside the control cavity was that the new, full-size CTS pots wouldn’t fit. To find out for sure, I mounted them to the anodized-aluminum Tone- Guard pickguard (Photo 10). They fit—barely—but I had to turn them all different ways to make sure they didn’t touch anything and short out. I chose 250k CTS pots because they’re dependable and sound good in Teles and the solid shaft will work great with the new Fender amp knobs, which have threaded bushings.

On to the pickups. The handwound Curtis Novak JM-V (neck) and TEL-V (bridge) pickups are fantastic, two-wire vintage reproductions, so wiring them up is pretty straightforward. I was pleased that the JM-V dropped right into the Tele’s humbucker route, and I mounted it with a set of P-bass pickup screws I had handy. Although I wired everything up to the same pot terminals as the stock pickups, I swapped the original tone-pot capacitor with a .022 μF polyester cap. After I added the Switchcraft output jack and mounted the Electrosocket in the jack cavity, it was time to put it all back together, string it up, test the electronics, and adjust the pickup heights. I start by setting the neck pickup 1/16" and the bridge 3/32" from the strings, and then balance their volume against each other by playing the guitar and switching back and forth between the two. Some people like a little boost on one pickup, so let your ear be the judge.

Final Setup
No matter how good your upgraded parts are, they’re not going to sound their best if your guitar isn’t set up well, and this was especially true because the Squier had a new vibrato, notched bridge saddles, and different string gauges. I started with the neck, adjusting the truss rod so that it was pretty straight, but with a little relief. Next, I adjusted the saddles. I love 3-saddle bridges for setups: They make it easy to match the fretboard radius (9.5", in this case), and these new saddles’ compensated design enables you to get the intonation spot-on for the D and G strings (thank you, Danny Gatton!).

Having the Bigsby right behind the ashtray does make it a challenge to get to the intonation-adjustment screws, though, so an offset, Z-shaped screwdriver is a big help there (flexible-shaft screwdrivers also work). I set the overall height of the strings first, matching the fretboard radius by measuring the string height at the 12th fret across all the strings (Photo 11). That gave me an even height to start from, and I could then raise or lower each saddle as needed to make sure they were all the same height off the fretboard.


LEFT: Photo 10. Fortunately, strategic twisting enables the new CTS pots to fit where mini pots used to be. RIGHT: Photo 11. Match string height to fretboard radius at the 12th fret.

To set the intonation, I started by using a tuner to make sure both the 12th-fret harmonic and the open string notes registered the same note. Then I adjusted the saddles to intonate the string at the 4th and 16th frets. This usually keeps the intonation spot on across the whole neck. I checked string height once more after I’d set intonation, and then adjusted intonation again to be extra sure notes were in tune across the entire neck.

The New Parts

• Bigsby B5 vibrato
• Stewart-McDonald compensated brass saddles (item no. 5167)
• Curtis Novak JM-V and TEL-V pickups
• Tone-Guard gold-anodized-aluminum pickguard
• Switchcraft output jack
• Electrosocket jack mount
• CTS 250k solid-shaft potentiometers (4)
• Fender amp knobs (4)
• .022 μF polyester tone capacitor
• D’Addario EXL 116 strings

The Tools

• Sharpie marker
• Phillips-head screwdriver
• Small mallet
• Gauged nut files
• 40-watt soldering iron • Blue painter’s tape
• Hand drill
• 3/32" drill bit
• T-square
• Safety goggles
• Dremel rotary tool with course sanding-drum and polishing bits
• Stick of lip balm

After that, I cut the nut slots for depth—which takes some special tools (gauged nut files) and a bit of finesse. I start this process by pressing each string down at the 3rd fret to check how high the string is off the 1st fret (Photo 12). There are a lot of different preferences for string height (aka “action”)—players who have a light touch and want to play speedy, fleet-fingered passages tend to like action as low as possible without getting string buzz, while those who play with a very aggressive attack often need the action higher—but as a general rule, you should be able to barely slip a business card between the 1st fret and the string while holding the string down at the 2nd fret. When you’re adjusting action via nut-slot filing, remember that it’s better to err on the cautious side and do a little at a time, because after you file away nut material, it’s gone for good and you’ll have to install a new nut. Since I’m starting with a nut that’s already slotted, I use a file that’s the same gauge as the string for that slot. I’m cutting for depth—enough to keep about a third of the string thickness in the slot—so I don’t need to take much off. I mark the slots with a pencil in the bottom so that, as I remove material, I can see where I’m cutting and keep the same “ramp” angle. I want the neck side of the nut to be the top tip of the ramp, and I use long steady strokes to keep the channel nice and smooth. Cut a little, then put the string back to check it. Go slow and be precise, it’s easier to cut than to fill.


Photo 12. Press each string at the third fret to measure how much action to adjust at the nut.

Twang On!
There you have it folks—we’ve taken a few upgraded parts and some simple tools, and we turned a decent bedroom rocker into a dependable, boutique-toned instrument with a killer look! Just remember that when you’re contemplating a project like this, you want to start with a guitar that feels right in your hands. The fit and finish have to be there for it to be worth any hot-rodding—and this Squier Vintage Modified Telecaster Custom certainly fit the bill in that regard.

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