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Adjust the Truss Rod
With the guitar strung to the client’s specs and tuned to D standard, I was ready to tackle the neck relief.
1. Locate the correct tool for your guitar’s truss rod (the size and type of nut can vary according to Strat model, year, and manufacturing origin) and insert it into the truss-rod nut (Photo 4).
2. Adjust the truss rod. Turn the wrench clockwise to tighten the rod and reduce forward bowing, or counterclockwise to loosen the rod and reduce back bow. Go slowly, making very small adjustments (1/8 to 1/4 a turn at a time). Check the results each time you move the rod—and be patient.
By tightening the truss rod, I reduced relief from .022" to .015". This was the proper amount of relief for the owner’s playing style. Any less relief and the strings would be likely to rattle against the frets.
Earlier, I mentioned that the custom pickguard was obstructing the tremolo (Photo 5). This is one of those little “surprises” that can and will occur with any guitar. To allow the trem to tilt forward, there needs to be a small space between the trem base plate and pickguard. To create this clearance, I determined that the guard had to be trimmed by about 1/8".
The process involved removing the pickguard (Photo 6), examining the plastic to see where it was contacting the trem (Photo 7), using a mechanical pencil to mark the material I wanted to remove (Photo 8), and carefully scraping away the unwanted plastic with a precision tool (Photo 9).
For this type of job, I use stainless-steel scraper blades (available from stewmac.com) that are designed to smooth plastic bindings and contour wood surfaces. Scraping takes time and a lot of patience. If you’re not confident in your ability to do this, consult an expert. Even with more than 25 years of experience, it still took me three tries to get it right. Ultimately, I was satisfied that there was sufficient space between the base plate and guard to allow the trem to tilt forward freely (Photo 10).
4. When tightening or loosening the truss rod to control neck relief, go slowly and make very small adjustments. 5. Because it’s butting up against the tremolo base plate, the custom pickguard is obstructing trem action and needs to be removed and trimmed. 6. To prevent a screwdriver from slipping out of the screw head and scratching the finish, use your free hand to guide and secure its tip. 7. If you look closely, you’ll see two indentations at the edge of the pickguard where it was pressing against the trem posts. 8. Using a mechanical pencil to mark about 1/8" of material to remove from the pickguard. 9. Scraping the pickguard to create a space between it and the trem assembly. 10. Now the trem can tilt forward without hitting the pickguard.
Adjust the Tremolo Spring Tension
Now it’s time to adjust the trem unit. I noticed the tremolo claw held five springs, and their tension was holding the bridge base flush to the body. Before going any further, I needed to adjust the springs and claw to allow the trem assembly to float. Here’s the process:
1. Tune the guitar to pitch, then check the tremolo base plate to see if it’s floating, flush against the body, or lifting up too much at the rear.
2. Turn the guitar over and rest it on a soft surface, such as a towel. Remove the trem cavity cover.
3. Using a medium Phillips screwdriver, equally adjust the two screws holding the claw to the guitar body (Photo 11). Loosen the claw to create more “float” on the tremolo. Tighten the screws to pull the tremolo closer to the body.
Always retune after every adjustment and check your progress frequently. This process is very painstaking and will require at least several attempts to get the trem adjusted parallel to the body with the tension the way you like it.
I removed two springs from the claw and re-aligned the two outside springs to attach toward the center of the claw. After adjusting the claw several times—and always retuning whenever I tightened or loosened the springs—I finally got the tremolo floating parallel to the body with just enough clearance to pull the tremolo up a bit and raise the pitch slightly, as the owner requested (Photo 12).
11. Adjusting the spring tension to allow the tremolo to float parallel to the body. 12. A floating trem has sufficient clearance from the body to both lower and slightly raise string pitch.
Adjust Basic Bridge Height
13. Adjusting the overall height of the bridge to allow the trem to move up and down, while also providing enough leeway to fine-tune string action by raising or lowering the individual saddles.
Once the trem base plate was parallel to the body, my next task was to adjust the overall bridge height by raising or lowering the two screws located on either side of the bridge (Photo 13). Note: Vintage Strats or vintage-style reissues use six screws, rather than the modern two-post system, but the principle of adjusting the bridge height remains the same.
1. Tune the guitar to pitch. Then using the appropriate screwdriver (this will be a Phillips or flathead, depending on the model), adjust the bridge plate to provide enough clearance to operate the tremolo.
This is a balancing act: In the next step, you’ll adjust the six saddles to set the action. But if you raise the bridge too high at this point, even with the saddles set flush against the plate, the Strat won’t be playable. But if the plate is too low, the trem will hit the body as you gently raise the strings’ pitch. The trick is to find the sweet spot that allows a floating trem and gives you ample room to raise or lower the saddles to get the action the way you like it.
2. After adjusting the bridge height, retune the guitar and inspect the tremolo to determine if it needs more adjustment—it probably will. Again, the goal is to keep the trem parallel to the body. Tightening the springs pulls the trem tail down toward the body, loosening them allows the tail to lift up.