Tash Sultana talks to us about their new album, Terra Firma, and—wuhoo!—returning to the stage in 2021.
Australian guitarist Tash Sultana's demeanor suggests that they have always known who they are. There's no shyness about how they speak their mind—cursing freely in interviews, declaring what they're passionate about, and frankly—though not abrasively—stating when they're not willing to speak on a topic. That freedom of expression is matched only by their devotion to their craft—which involves picking “over everything."
The new album Terra Firma is a product of that devotion. It also makes a bit of a departure from the loop-based jams Sultana is known for, exploring new combinations of styles across several genres. It's dreamy, undulating, and amorphous, weaving R&B, funk, folk, rock, and hip-hop textures across 14 tracks with moods the depth of oceanic trenches. Pun intended, as, mid-interview, Sultana expressed appreciation for a Frank Ocean comparison. Much like Ocean, the guitarist achieves something that speaks to their artistic vision alone.
Sultana is a self-described loner. That makes total sense, since they're a multi-instrumentalist who plays 20 instruments including trumpet, flute, and saxophone, and typically writes, performs, records, and produces all of their own music. Which is why it's notable that on Terra Firma, they invited collaboration for the first time, namely with fellow Australian Recording Industry Award-winning musician Matt Corby and New Zealand-based producer Dann Hume (Courtney Barnett, Amy Shark, Angus & Julia Stone). Together, they spent 10 days writing—an endeavor that resulted in four songs on the album—“Crop Circles," “Greed," “Beyond the Pine," and “Pretty Lady." They come in that order following the first track, helping to set the hybrid-genre, soulful, ethereal tone that continues throughout the rest of the album.
We spoke with Sultana over Zoom—and Australian fauna could be heard chirping in the background—10 days before Terra Firma was released. They were preparing for the live shows—yes, actual live shows—allowed in Australia and planned for the album's release week, and were “really fucking stressed about it."
“It's a little bit daunting," Sultana said, “because you have to relearn all the ropes that you know, but have got cobwebs on." But, when asked if they would be nervous, they replied, “No. I'll be a little fucking firecracker. I'll probably literally fucking explode or some shit." Read on see why that description fits right in with Sultana's unflinching, audacious energy.
So, tell me about the process of making the album.
It was the best fucking thing that I've ever done in my life, actually. I've never, ever tried so hard to achieve something, ever. Like, for real. I mean, the whole international lockdown was, for me, an experience that I really needed. Because initially what last year was meant to look like was…. I was meant to have a record out in May. And I was also meant to do six months of overseas touring in between trying to record this record. And that would have been absolutely fucked. The record would have sounded like absolute shit. The record probably would have had two songs on it, with the time I [had] to get it done. So the slate was wiped clean, and I spent more than 200 days on Terra Firma. From October until the following October, I was in the studio four to six days a week. Sometimes, I'd get there like 10 in the morning and leave at 2 in the morning, or I'd come in midday and leave at 3 in the morning, and I'd do that constantly. That was just what I ate every single fucking day.
Is that usually the way you like to work?
I'm a bit of a studio rat, to be honest. I'm a bit of a loner. If I'm going to spend time, I like to spend it kind of alone. I'll go for a surf, then commit to a full day of jamming or recording or rehearsing—that type of thing. I suppose sometimes it gets a little bit stressful because I've got this full-on OCD attitude when I do stuff. I don't do anything half-assed.
Would you say that idea of being a loner is reflected in how independent you are with your music?
Yeah. Well, I think anyone can do it. It's just about where you put all your passion, time, focus, spirit, energy … all of that. Which direction are you going in? For me it was just music and it was just about getting better. It's this thing that I'll never ever fully achieve, because the finish line just keeps getting further and further away. It's about being better than you were a week ago. Or acquiring more knowledge than you had a week ago, or a month ago, or a year ago. That's what it's about, and realizing you're not the best and you're not better than anyone else. It's just a personal journey, and that's it.
I know that this album was the first time you opened yourself up to collaboration, and you wrote with Matt Corby and Dann Hume. How did that happen?
Matt and I have known each other for quite a few years, and initially it just started out as a jam session back in 2016. And then he sent me a track a couple years later, of his, and he said “I would love for you to be the person that finishes this." I was really honored by that. I did that collab and shortly after that I did a similar thing with Milky Chance. That was the beginning point where I was like—that's actually really fun, to get all your minds together and get a fusion of styles and create something because it's the essence of everybody in the room.
TIDBIT: Sultana's new album was kickstarted by a 10-day writing spree with collaborators Matt Corby and Dann Hume. Sultana calls the result “a fusion of brains in the room."
Then, when it came to the beginning process of writing and recording, I had a couple of songs that I didn't really think were good enough. And we planned to do a 10-day writing session. It wasn't even for the purpose of writing anything for the record. It was just literally to get together and have some fun. And whatever happens in the room, I'll just decide later what I would like to do with those songs. And there ended up being four. Some of them I'd already written but there were some things that I couldn't figure out, and that all just fleshed out when we were together. It was a really awesome experience. The fact that we got that much done in 10 days is fucked. But yeah, Matt's just a really nice spirit; he's a really lovely guy and an incredibly underrated musician, really and truly.
We got the bones of something in the 10 days, and then I was left with everything for months following, so I changed a lot on some of those songs. Like time signature, key, tempo, flipped verses, changed choruses, changed the drums—I did a whole bunch of shit. But I wouldn't have even got to that point without the fusion of brains in the room in the first place.
What song on the album are you the most proud of?
“Blame It on Society."
Because of the message?
That I'll never give away. That's going to be fun for everyone who starts interviewing me after this record comes out, because I'm not giving away the rest of the record.
[Laughs] Ok, fine with me. Did this album have a broader concept behind it?
I wrote the entire record as a piece of music, so they all flow from one to the next. I started it off with an instrumental with a sonic palette that I've used in every single song. I introduce the horns, strings, drums, beats, guitar, and synths. That set the pace and the sonic palette for the following songs.
What program did you use to record?
I use Pro Tools for this, but I also use Ableton Live and a lot of MIDI as well. Predominantly the entire record was done in Pro Tools.
I find Ableton to have a very unintimidating interface.
It's not intimidating until you start getting into [Program Change and Control Change] fucking messages, as in MIDI mapping and all that type of shit. Because all of the stuff that I use for my live rig, that's all custom and MIDI, and that shit is confusing when you're trying to program your fucking macro effects on a bloody keyboard and then you start hearing the kick drum coming out of somewhere that it shouldn't be. You're just like “Oh my god, what the fuck have I just done."
What's your live setup like?
[Laughs] I don't even know where to begin with that. I've been in the studio for the last few days with my production manager, just programming some new shit. It's turning these studio tracks into the live versions of themselves. But I suppose, in a very general sense, it's a custom design to have full separation across everything that's played—all effects, all instruments. Everything. And all of the sounds are entirely digital. I do not use any [analog] amps ever.
Sultana's main guitars are three Fender Custom Shop-built Stratocasters. Wanna know what makes these instruments special? That's Sultana's secret.
Another thing to be wary of is what is in your signal chain. What is first, what is second, third, fourth, and all that type of thing. That's really important in determining how things sound. But for me, I've got a hybrid analog and digital pedalboard. It's analog pedals at the beginning of the chain, and then it turns into digital at the end of the chain. The analog pedals are the obvious analog stuff, and the rest is all digital effects processing, so I have amp emulations. And I use a MIDI pedalboard, so every song is its own preset. If I'm playing “Big Smoke," it's going to load the sounds that I've made on the record, and then if I go into “Mystic," it's going to load those sounds. So every song is a different preset to match the tones and effects that I use on the records.
What is your main guitar and what do you like about it?
I've got three main guitars and they're all custom-built Fender Strats. They have a certain fretting and neck radius, and they're also made of a certain wood and they have a specific internal design as in pickups and what not ... but they're all secret [laughs].
What would you say is the guitar's role in your music?
It's the home base. It's the beginning, usually. There's a few songs that are beginning on the synth and whatnot. But that's minimal. In a looping world, it's generally around the guitar. That's the foundation of everything. I also grew up playing so much guitar from such a young age and I just thought that in modern music the guitars were the lacking essence of songs. Like, people were making songs that didn't even have guitar in it, and I just found that really strange.
What's your creative process like?
It really depends on the day [laughs]. I'm literally so many fucking people in one. So that can be conflicting sometimes. It changes the process. If I'm feeling really chill, everything's in the moment. Whereas if I'm feeling stressed, it's kind of like an over-analyzation of shit and that's usually when I do the worst work. But it depends. It all comes as a little thought bubble, and sometimes they all marry up in the end. So I could be humming something and that hum could be the bass line. It'll stem from the guitar or the keys or from the bass or sometimes the beats. They come from different angles and they all meet in the middle.
What are your influences on guitar?
Jimi Hendrix, 100 percent. More so for effect than technicality. I just like that tube scream and the wah type of tinny screeching guitar. But as in like a technical aspect, I would say that John Mayer is a big inspiration—just that jazzy blues approach to playing. Then if you look at the acoustic guitar—when I was younger, well, I still am, but when I was younger I was very inspired by how John Butler played the acoustic guitar. He's fantastic and he's also a really lovely person.
With Sultana's rock 'n' roll energy, wide stylistic embrace, and exciting playing, they have redefined the concept of what a one-person show can achieve. This shot's from Shaky Knees 2019. Photo by Chris Kies
What are your influences in general?
To be honest, actually, Frank Ocean. I think that is some really strange, new age, ethereal kind of funk soul. I don't know what that is. I love that shit. I love Erykah Badu. And Bon Iver. Then, if we go back in time, I really love the arrangements and composition and sounds of '70s funk. I like Aretha Franklin and I like the Isley Brothers, and Marvin Gaye, and all that type of stuff. That's the type of drums that I like to hear.
I know you busked as a teenager. How did that inform your musicianship?
It was more like, “take no shit," to be honest. Because ... you're on the street, right? You're literally performing a show that no one fucking asked for. It's about winning the crowd over. And you come across all walks of life. So you'd have your business people, drunk people, people that were high on whatever the fuck they were high on, school students, elderly. And it used to be the best part of the day, bringing all those groups of people together to stop for a moment during their commute or whatever the fuck they were doing or wherever they were going. That was the best—that forced oneness. We all went in it, we all enjoyed it and it was some of the best parts of my life.
And that oneness you then recreate with the audience that chooses to be there when you do your live shows.
Which is also really sick, to be honest. There's nothing higher than the feeling that I get when being onstage. That's the highest point. There's nothing higher than that.
Adjusting pickup height sounds simple, but pickups that aren’t adjusted properly can cause problems.
Guitars with two or three pickups offer lots of sonic variety, but they also introduce a particular problem that single-pickup instruments—such as Fender Esquires and some Les Paul Juniors—don't have. When you switch pickups on a multi-pickup guitar, you can experience volume differences between one position and another. This can be rather annoying when you're in the studio or playing a gig. Just as frustrating is when your treble strings sound weak, but the bass strings are ridiculously loud. In both cases, the fix can be as simple as adjusting your pickups.
Guitarists often overlook this tweak, either after a setup or replacing pickups. Adjusting pickup height sounds simple, but pickups that aren't adjusted properly can cause problems, which I'll describe in detail below. Fortunately, all these problems are correctable.
To show you how to adjust pickups yourself, we'll look at two guitars—a Stratocaster and a Telecaster. Both of these project guitars sport single-coil pickups and both are terribly out of adjustment.
1. This Strat needs the height of its three single-coil pickups adjusted for optimum sound. 2. Our project Tele's two single-coils also need to be adjusted for proper height.
Step 1: Gather your tools and prepare your workspace.
You only need two tools for this project, but it's important to use the correct ones. Here's what I use when adjusting pickups:
- 6" precision machinist ruler
- Phillips head screwdriver
Step 2: Measure current pickup height.
First tune the guitar to pitch and then start taking its current measurements. These baseline measurements are very important because you need to know where the pickups are now in relation to where they should be.
Here's how to measure a pickup's height:
- Press the 1st string onto the last fret and hold it down.
- Using the 6" machinist ruler, measure the distance from the top of the pole piece to the bottom of the 1st string. Write down the measurement.
- Repeat this process with the 6th string, again holding it against the last fret and writing down the measurement.
- Now repeat the process with the remaining pickup(s).
- At this point you'll have measurements for both the treble and bass sides of each pickup.
How did our project guitars measure up?
The Strat's bridge pickup was 6/64" on the treble side and 8/64" on the bass side. The middle pickup measured 8/64" on both treble and bass sides, and the neck pickup measured 2/64" and 4/64", respectively, for the treble and bass sides. As we'll see in a moment, these distances are way off. The project Tele was also out of whack, with its bridge pickup measuring 4/64" and 2/64" (treble and bass) and neck measuring 2/64" and 4/64".
Not only were the heights of these pickups all over the map, the Tele's neck pickup was loose and wobbly. That's a tell-tale sign that the rubber compression tubing (which acts like a spring) over the pickup screws had either shrunk or was too short to begin with. To correct it, I had to remove the strings and pickguard, and then separate the pickup from the guard. After installing new tubing, I was able to adjust the pickup without it bobbing inside the guitar.
When you finish recording the baseline measurements on both the treble and bass side of each pickup, you're ready to adjust them to their ideal specs.
3. Using a machinist ruler to measure the distance between the top of the pole piece and the bottom of the 6th string on our project Stratocaster's bridge pickup. This pickup is too low. 4. The bridge pickup is set too high on our project Telecaster. 5. Adjusting a Telecaster bridge pickup. In addition to setting its overall height, the three adjustment screws let you control the pickup's fore and aft tilt. For maximum sustain and power, make sure the top of the bridge pickup's pole pieces sit parallel to the strings.
Step 3: Correct the pickup height.
There's a lot of debate about what constitutes "correct" pickup height, but conceptually the goal is simple: Set the pickup height to give your guitar optimum volume, clarity, sustain, and treble-to-bass balance.
Setting the pickups too high doesn't further this cause. In fact, when Fender-style single-coil pickups are too close to the strings, the pole pieces—which are cylindrical magnets—will pull the strings out of tune, causing intonation problems and reducing sustain. If the pole pieces are high enough, they can actually collide with the strings, especially when you play open chords. When a pickup is too close to the strings, its output signal can be too hot and overload the preamp stage in your amplifier.
Yet when the pickups are set too far away from the strings, the result is a weak signal. This will cause the guitar to sound thinner and brighter than normal.
Furthermore, when the pickups aren't balanced correctly from the 1st to the 6th string, the result is uneven volume as you move from the treble to the bass strings. Fortunately, we can prevent all these problems. The tables in Fig. 1 show the measurements I use for each pickup on a Strat and Tele.
Using a Phillips head screwdriver, raise or lower the pickup by turning the adjustment screws located on either side of the pickup. (Some single-coils use slot-head screws, in which case you'll need a straight screwdriver.) Make small adjustments and go slowly. After each adjustment, again hold down the 1st and 6th strings at the last fret and take new measurements. Repeat this process for each pickup until it matches the corresponding specs in the tables.
Tip: Running out of screw length before you're done adjusting the pickups is one of the "little surprises" that can occur when altering pickup height. If this happens, remove the pickguard and replace the screws with longer ones.
Step 4: Testing—1, 2.
After you adjust the pickups to spec, it's time for the final test, which is to plug into your amp and play. So you can hear the full range of your pickups, don't stand too close to your amp. Instead, move back a good 10 feet or more.
Be sure to test the pickups with the guitar's volume wide open. Listen carefully to the balance between bass and treble strings, and switch between all the positions on your pickup selector. The goal is to hear equal volume from each pickup, even though the tone will change dramatically from pickup to pickup.
These measurements are a base point to start from, though I wouldn't recommend adjusting the pickups any higher. If the pickups sound unbalanced after you've set them to these specs, lower the louder pickup to reduce its output instead of raising the quieter one. A quarter turn can make an audible difference, so listen carefully, and be patient.
By following this relatively simple procedure, you'll probably discover that the dynamics, sustain, clarity, and stringto- string balance will have improved on your Strat or Tele. Next month, we'll tackle another DIY project, so stay tuned.
Here, ace Nashville repairman John LeVan walks you step-by-step through the setup process and shows you how to make your Strat play like a dream and ring like a bell.
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."]
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
Step 1: Measure the Action
1. Before measuring action and neck relief, clamp a capo over the 1st fret. This temporarily removes the nut from the action equation. 2. Using a string action gauge to measure the action at the 12th fret.
1. Tune the guitar. Usually that's standard E tuning, but as we've discussed, for this setup it was a whole-step below that.
2. Clamp a capo on top of—not behind—the 1st fret (Photo 1). This creates a "zero" fret and temporarily removes the nut from the action equation, allowing you to initially focus on neck relief (the amount of forward or backward bowing in the neck itself ) and bridge and saddle height.
3. Use a string action gauge (available from stewmac.com) or precision metal ruler to individually measure the string height at the 12th fret (Photo 2) for all six strings. The distance you're measuring lies between the bottom of the string and top of the fret.
On this Strat, the distance from the 1st string to the 12th fret was 6/64", and the 6th-string gap was also 6/64". This is very high action!
Step 2: Measure Neck Relief
It's important to determine if the neck has forward (concave) or backward (convex) bow. Along with saddle height, neck relief also affects the guitar's action. Here's the process:
1. With the capo still clamped on top of the 1st fret, hold down the 6th string at the last fret.
2. Using your action gauge or metal ruler, measure the greatest distance between the bottom of the 6th string and the top of the frets. The largest gap typically occurs somewhere between the 7th and 9th frets—essentially in the middle of the neck.
3. Measure the relief at the 1st string.
On this Strat, the relief was .022"—a little more than necessary.
Step 3: Measure Action at the 1st Fret
Photo 3 — Measuring the distance between the bottom of the 1st string and the top of the 1st fret.
Playability is also affected by how high the strings sit in their nut slots. The guitar feels stiff when the strings are too high. Conversely, if they sit too low, you'll get a buzz when you play the open strings.
1. Remove the capo and measure the distance between the bottom of the 1st string and the top of the 1st fret (Photo 3).
2. Repeat the process for all six strings. When the guitar is set up properly, the gap should incrementally increase from the 1st to the 6th string to accommodate their progressively thicker gauges.
At the 1st fret, I measured a 2/64" gap between the fret and string, and for the 6th string, the gap was just over 2/64". Again, this is rather high, especially on the treble strings. Overall, this meant I needed to slightly tighten the truss rod (i.e., turn it clockwise) to reduce neck relief, lower the bridge saddles, and re-cut the slots in the string nut.
While taking these preliminary measurements, I noticed that the custom pickguard butted up against the tremolo base plate. This prevented the tremolo from moving smoothly when tipping forward to slacken the strings. When the trem arm was depressed, the base plate would get hung up on the pickguard—that's what was causing the tuning issues the client was having with the trem! Before proceeding, I made a note that I'd have to trim the pickguard before completing the setup.
Armed with the information gathered in the previous steps, now we're ready to begin the process of adjusting the action.
Step 4: Adjust the Truss Rod
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.
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).
Step 5: Adjust the Tremolo Spring Tension
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.
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).
Step 6: 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.
Step 7: Adjust Saddle Height
14. Setting individual string height by adjusting the saddles.
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.
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.
Step 8: Adjust Action at the Nut
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.
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.
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.
Step 9: 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:
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.
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).
Step 10: Adjust Intonation
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!