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DIY: How to Set Up a Fender Stratocaster

DIY: How to Set Up a Fender Stratocaster

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.

Project Overview
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 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.

Preliminary Survey
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
• Intonation

Let’s go through these procedures, one at a time.