Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Stringing (or re-stringing) a guitar

There are many ways to string a guitar. After twenty-five years of replacing strings on all manner of steel-string guitars, this is the method that I’ve settled on. There are, of course, other methods, and you are more than welcome to try them out. For this blog post, I will be stringing a Fender Stratocaster, but this method works for pretty much all steel-string guitars, both electric and acoustic. That said, there are some locking tuners or split shaft tuners that should be strung in a different way. For that reason, I should state that the following instructions are intended for standard tuners. Remember that if you have a 3-a-side headstock (there are three tuners on each side instead of six on one side), you will have to string the G, B and high (thin) E strings in the opposite direction to what is shown in this post.

Firstly, connect the ball end of the string to (or through) the bridge of the guitar (I usually start with the low (thick) E-string. Obviously this step varies enormously, depending on the type of guitar you are stringing up, but it’s usually pretty simple. I plan to put a post up soon specifically talking about acoustic guitars and their fiddly bridge pins, but in the meantime I will have to assume you can handle this part.

Rotate the tuner to a position where the hole that the string passes through is perpendicular to the neck. Then feed the string through the hole in the tuner, from the center of the headstock to outside of the headstock, as shown here:

Continue to pull the string through the tuner, as described above, but leave enough slack that you can raise the string off the fretboard by about 3 or 4 inches (75 – 100 mm). As a general rule, the thicker strings don’t require quite as much height here, so let’s go for 3 inches for the thick E-string, gradually moving to 4 inches for the thin E-string.

Pull the string back on itself, as shown here:

Feed the string under itself like this:

Now pull the string back in the other direction over the top of itself, being careful to keep tension on the fretboard end of the string using your other (probably right) hand. This tension is important for two reasons. Firstly, it will keep the ball end of the string tight against the bridge so you don't get any surprises once you start tuning up. Secondly, it will give you a nice tight "knot" where the string tightens over on itself at the tuning peg. If this is slack in any way, you may end up with some string slippage when you are not expecting it. There's a real trick to keeping tension at both ends of the string here (unless you have three hands), but I find that pressing down with my (right) thumb on the string just above the nut, while pulling UP on the string with the rest of my (right) fingers will get the job done.

While still maintaining tension with your right hand, rotate the tuner in an anticlockwise (counter clockwise) direction to start tightening up the string. Before you tighten the string to pitch, make sure it goes under any string retainers, etc. In some exceptional cases, you may actually have to feed the strings through the string retainers before they get to the tuners (you may be able to get around this by loosening the retainer a bit then tightening it back down once the string is under it).

Once the string is tuned to pitch, grab it and pull it up a bit to stretch it. You can do this a few times, but be careful not to over-do it, risking string breakage (especially for the thinner strings).

Cut the string ends to leave about half an inch (12-13 mm) sticking out. Alternatively, you can just cut them as close to the tuners as you can (a lot of pros do this), in which case you can skip the next step. I prefer the method I use because I have a couple of small children and prefer not to have any sharp ends, even if they are mostly recessed (the strings, not the kids).

Now, using some pliers, fold the end of the string in half so that you do not have any sharp ends.

And that’s you done. You should find that this method will prevent string slippage and help to keep your guitar as in tune as possible.

As usual, feel free to ask any questions or leave any comments below.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Setting up or adjusting a Fender Stratocaster tremolo

Today's blog post deals with setting up a Stratocaster tremolo unit only. Everything else related to setting up the saddles, etc., can be found in the "How to set up an electric guitar" post here: http://diystrat.blogspot.com/2011/03/how-to-set-up-electric-guitar.html. If you’re going to adjust both the tremolo and the saddles, then do the tremolo setup (this post) first.

Let’s have a look at the Fender Stratocaster tremolo (also known as the whammy bar or the vibrato, and often misspelled as "tremelo"), as originally patented by Leo himself (as with all images, click on the picture for a bigger version):

It’s really quite a simple mechanism, engineering-wise. Looking at it from the side (FIG.2) we can see that it pivots on the screws that hold it to the top of the guitar body (the screws are marked "16" in the patent drawings). The tension from the guitar strings pulls the unit forward, but this tension is counter-balanced by the springs hidden below the unit (found under the cover at the back of the guitar), hence “floating” the tremolo unit. This is where you, the player, come in. To lower the pitch of the note(s) being played, push the tremolo arm towards the guitar body, thus adding to the string tension. Alternatively, pull the tremolo arm away from the guitar body to add to the spring tension and increase the pitch.

For such a simple mechanism, it really shouldn’t be difficult to set up. Unfortunately, there are many reasons why these are famous last words. One of the problems is that not everyone uses a tremolo in the same way. Some people like to both decrease AND increase the pitch, whereas others prefer to just lower it. Some want the tremolo to move really easily, while others prefer it to be quite stiff, so that it doesn’t move unintentionally (either from leaning on it accidentally, or even from the increased string tension caused by bending strings).

Another problem is that not everyone uses the same string gauge, so a tremolo unit that might be perfectly set up for light-gauge strings will probably not be set up well for medium or heavy gauge strings. Lastly, the starting position of the tremolo unit is a bit of a personal choice. Some people (usually the ones that only want to lower the pitch, or even not use the tremolo at all) prefer to have the tremolo unit sitting flush against the body of the guitar, while others prefer a gap, leaving enough room to pull pack on the tremolo arm, increasing the pitch of the note(s) being played.

Taking all of the above into account, this post will take you through a typical setup for an average player who likes to both raise and lower the pitch and uses fairly standard strings. You can, of course, feel free to adjust this setup to your liking.

One thing to mention here is that there are two common Strat tremolo types. One uses six small screws to attach the tremolo to the top of the guitar body, while the other style uses two bigger screws.

Vintage-style, or "synchronized" tremolo (six pivot screws):

American Series, or two-pivot bridge (two pivot screws):

The setup for both of these styles is almost the same, with the exception of step 5 (below), which will be clearly defined when the time comes. Here are the steps we will go through to set up the tremolo:

1. Remove tremolo arm
2. Remove back cover
3. Remove strings
4. Remove springs
5. Adjust pivot screws
6. Re-attach springs
7. Restring guitar
8. Screw in the tremolo arm
9. Adjust claw
10. Replace back cover.

Remove tremolo arm

Simply unscrew the arm in an anti-clockwise (counter clockwise) direction until it comes out. Be careful not to let it fall onto the surface of your guitar and scratch it.

Remove the back cover

Place your guitar face down on a nice soft surface, unscrew the screws holding the back cover on, and remove the cover.

Remove strings

Remove all six strings. You should now be looking at something like this:

Remove springs

Note: If you have a two-screw tremolo, once you remove the springs from the back of the guitar, there is NOTHING holding your tremolo unit in place. Be careful not to let it fall out or otherwise damage either the tremolo unit or the guitar.

Place your guitar face down and carefully remove the springs. You may have anywhere from two to five springs in there, depending on how it was previously set up. There are various different methods for removing these, but with the strings removed from the front of the guitar, you will probably be able to remove the springs by hand. Just grab them near the claw end, push the spring towards the claw, and lift out. If you’re finding this a bit hard, feel free to loosen the screws holding the claw in place a little. That should give you enough slack to get them off, and will make them easier to get back on later. Alternative methods involve screwdrivers, pliers or special hooks. If you decide to use any of these tools instead of your hand, do be careful not to slip and scratch your guitar.

Adjust pivot screws (two screw model)

Note: If you like (I recommend this), you can take this opportunity to remove both pivot screws and add a little Vaseline to the threads before reinstalling them. Add a little Vaseline to the points where the tremolo unit pivots on these screws too while you have this opportunity. The Vaseline adds a little bit of lubrication, helping things to move more smoothly, and also helps to minimise strange pinging noises when you move the tremolo.

Have a look from the side of your guitar to see how the tremolo unit is sitting against your guitar top. It will hopefully be sitting flush, but if not, adjust each of the pivot screws until it does. Remember that there is currently nothing holding your tremolo in place at this point, so you may have to push it forward with your hand. Alternatively, leave ONE SPRING in the centre position to hold the tremolo unit in place. Unlike the six screw tremolo, the two-screw model is pretty much idiot proof and you can often just screw both pivot screws all the way in without raising the tremolo unit off the surface of the guitar.

Adjust pivot screws (six screw model)

Have a look from the side of your guitar to see how the tremolo unit is sitting against your guitar top. It will hopefully be sitting flush, but if not, slacken each of the pivot screws until it does. Now slacken all the screws one turn more. Finally, tighten down the outer two screws only until they are just touching the top of the tremolo unit. The unit will now balance on these two screws, while the other four will be used solely to keep the unit in place.

Attach springs

Time to re-attach the springs at the back of the guitar. Use the same method as when you removed them, but add a little bit of Vaseline to the two ends of each spring first to lubricate the contact points just a bit. In general, three springs located in the centre and the two outer locations is the most common configuration for standard string gauges.

Just a few notes about springs (since I have your attention), as follows:

1. Not all springs are the same, so if you find that you only have two springs and want to increase to three by just buying a single new one, you could end up with mismatched ones. Better to buy three new ones.

2. If you are using three springs and are tempted to place the outer two springs at an angle so that they are not parallel to the centre spring, but rather taper towards it or away from it, this will end up giving you unevenly-matched springs, as the centre one will be shorter than the other two. Generally, I would say not to do this, but plenty of people are happy with this configuration and don't seem to have any problems. You're certainly not going to break your guitar by trying it, so feel free to give it a go.

3. More springs will give you a stiffer feel. If that’s what you want, then by all means feel free to try it out. Similarly, fewer springs will give you a bouncier feel.

4. Heavy strings might require more springs and lighter strings might only need two.

Restring the guitar

Restring your guitar in the normal way. I’ll be putting a blog post up about that in a few days if you’re unsure of the best way to do that. EDIT: Here it is - http://diystrat.blogspot.com/2011/08/stringing-guitar.html

Screw in the tremolo arm
We’re going to need the tremolo arm for the next step, so it’s a good idea to screw it back in now.

Adjust the claw until the tremolo unit is at the correct distance from the guitar body

This is quite possibly the most important step of the whole tremolo setup. The claw is the fine tuner that will leave your tremolo unit sitting in just the right place for optimal balance. Before adjusting it, make sure you tune your guitar to pitch. Use the tremolo a bit while you’re at it to make sure everything is loosened up, and keep doing this until the guitar stays in tune even after tremolo use. Now look at the side of the tremolo unit and measure how far off the surface of the guitar it is sitting at. Fender recommends that it sits at about 3.2 mm (1/8").

If it is sitting too high, then tighten the two screws holding the claw in place. Alternatively, if it is sitting too low, then loosen the screws a little. Each time you adjust the screws, you will need to re-check the guitar tuning and use the tremolo a bit, then re-measure the height. Once it consistently sits at 3.2 mm and the guitar is in tune, you’re done. Be prepared to take some time doing (and repeating) this step.

Replace back cover

Like it says, put the back cover back on and replace the screws.

Well that’s the tremolo unit set up and balanced nicely. For other setup tips, feel free to go to the setup post mentioned at the beginning of this one. Otherwise, feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.