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Adjust Saddle Height
Next, set the action by adjusting the height of the saddles. Saddle screws can vary, so use the wrench that came with your guitar. For this Strat, I used a .050" hex key.
1. Tune the guitar to pitch.
2. Place a capo on top of the 1st fret.
3. Measure the action at the 12th fret using an action gauge or precision metal ruler as described in Step 1.
14. Setting individual string height by adjusting the saddles.
4. Beginning with the 1st string, turn the height adjustment screws located on either side of the saddle to raise or lower the string to your preferred height (Photo 14).
For a modern Strat fretboard with a radius of 9.5"–12", such as on this guitar, official Fender specs are 4/64" for both the 1st and 6th strings. However, string height is personal, so this measurement will vary according to your technique and string gauge. After each adjustment, retune the string you’re working on and re-measure the action at the 12th fret.
5. Repeat this process for each string until you have the action where you want it. The goal is to keep an even arc across all six strings that matches the radius of your particular fretboard. (Many repairmen and players eyeball this, but if you want to be precise about matching the fretboard radius, stewmac. com sells metal radius gauges designed for this purpose.)
For this guitar, I set the action at the 12th fret to 3/64" for the 1st string, graduating to 4/64" for the 6th string. These measurements are a little higher than I typically use, but the action felt comfortable to the owner and worked perfectly for his beefy .012 gauge set.
Adjust Action at the Nut
Okay—we’re making progress! After setting the saddle height across all six strings, we shift our attention to the nut. It’s important that the string height is correct here too. When the action is too high at the nut, the strings will go sharp when you fret them and the guitar will be hard to play.
1. Remove the capo.
2. Tune the guitar.
3. Beginning with the 1st string, measure the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the 1st fret. The height should measure 1/64" for the 1st string and graduate to 2/64" for the 6th string. Each thicker string should be slightly higher than the one before it.
15. Deepening the 2nd-string nut slot with a properly gauged nut file. Notice how the file angle matches the string’s descending angle toward the tuner post.
4. To lower a string, you’ll need to cut its slot deeper in the nut (Photo 15). For this job, use a correctly sized nut file. (Nut-slotting files are available from online suppliers, including Luthiers Mercantile, Stewart-MacDonald, and even eBay.)
Slowly cut the slot, paying very close attention to the angle of the nut file. It should match the descending angle of the string, from the face of the nut to the post where the string attaches. If you cut too shallow or too steep of an angle, the string won’t seat properly in the nut, causing both tuning and sonic problems.
Make sure the string doesn’t stick in the slot. It should move in and out freely without binding. If it sticks, gently roll your file from side to side in the slot to open it up. After a few passes with the file, place the string back into the slot, retune, and again measure the action at the 1st fret.
5. Repeat this process for each string with the proper nut file for each gauge.
Because our bench Strat was now equipped with heavier strings than before, I needed to widen several nuts slots, but it didn’t take long to get the strings to sit where I wanted them.
Adjust Pickup Height
Pickup height is commonly overlooked during a setup. If the pickups are adjusted too close to the strings, they can cause string rattle and intonation problems. If the pickups are too low, you’ll end up with a weak signal.
Here are the measurements I use for each pickup on a Strat:
And here’s my system for proper pickup adjustment:
1. Fret the 1st string at the last fret. Using a 6" machinist rule, measure from the top of the corresponding pole piece on the bridge pickup to the bottom of the string (Photo 16). Adjust the pickup height by turning the screw on the treble side of the pickup.
2. Fret the 6th string at the last fret, measure, and adjust the screw on the bass side of the pickup.
3. Repeat the process for the middle and neck pickups (Photo 17).
16. Measuring the distance between the pole piece and 1st string to determine the correct height for the bridge pickup. 17. Measuring neck pickup height.
18. Moving the saddle to adjust the 1st string’s intonation.
Once the pickups are at proper height, it’s time to adjust intonation. Note: Unless the strings are fresh—as they were on this guitar when it arrived at the shop—install a new set before going any further.
This final setup step involves moving the saddles closer to or further away from the nut. The saddle-intonation adjustment screw is located at the rear of the trem assembly. Using a small Phillips screwdriver, move each saddle forward (by turning the screw counterclockwise) or backward (clockwise) to shorten or lengthen the vibrating portion of the string (Photo 18).
1. Armed with a high-quality electronic tuner, bring each string to pitch. But this time, instead of playing an open string and tuning it, strike the 12th-fret harmonic and tune it to pitch.
2. Starting with the 1st string, play the 12th-fret harmonic and then fret and pluck the same note. If the fretted note is sharp compared to the harmonic, move the saddle away from the neck. Conversely, if the fretted note is flat, move the saddle toward the neck. Make small adjustments—and retune the harmonic each time you make an adjustment. Continue comparing the 12th-fret note to its reference harmonic until the former matches the latter.
3. Repeat this process until all the 12th-fret notes on all six strings match their corresponding 12th-fret harmonics.
At this point, the setup is complete and it’s time to take your Strat for a test drive. After a few days, you may find you want to adjust something, such as the trem-spring tension, pickup height, neck relief, or saddle height. And that’s great—the Strat is a supremely mechanical beast that will accommodate your tweaker’s urges.
But as you dive into any re-adjustments, remember that changing one thing can affect something else in the setup equation. If you find yourself chasing an adjustment or discover that you’ve caused your Strat to drift out of whack, put it down, take a deep breath, and review the 10-step setup process outlined in this article. You can always start back at the beginning and confirm each adjustment as you move through the list.
In time, you’ll develop a sixth sense for how all the elements interact, and this knowledge will allow you to continue to fine-tune your Strat for ultimate playability and tone. It’s a skill worth developing!