Sorting Out a Used Stratocaster
Saving money through someone’s errors
Text, photos and video by Tom Hintz
Posted – 10-10-2012
Like a bunch of you I wanted to add a Fender Stratocaster™ to my collection but found myself with more desire than money. I thought about building another dream guitar, this time based on the Fender Stratocaster™ but while that yields a great guitar it doesn’t save much money.
Then while cruising my local guitar shop I noticed a used Fender Stratocaster™ that appeared to have lots of factory shine. It is a Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster™ but I have a Mexican Fender Telecaster and it is a great guitar so the point of origin didn’t scare me off. The Strat’s wood seems to be solid with a maple neck and ash (I think) body. Plus the neck looked to be straight and all of the electronics worked. The price tag was $399, not a great deal but it’s not a budget buster either.
Though I am not a big fan of black guitars this Fender Stratocaster™ remains very shinny without any major blemishes and does not look half-bad to me so I can live with it. Another plus is the factory-stock locking tuning machines. These are the first locking tuners that I have used and I like them a lot. Being able to lock the string into the peg before you wind it on is very nice. I have a new mission to have locking tuning machines on all of my guitars sooner or later.
This Fender Stratocaster™ initially played like the intonation was way off and the tuning changed dramatically after doing a dive bomb or two with the factory tremolo. Also, while tweaking the tuning Strat I heard the telltale “ping” of strings skipping in the nut. That isn’t a common problem on Fender guitars and I have no way of knowing if the previous owner had altered nut in any way. The good news is that a sticky nut is an easy and relatively cheap problem to fix.
I thought that I could hear a bit of fret buzz now and then while playing some single notes and chords near the nut. That could be indicating that there is no or too little Neck Relief or that the neck is slightly bowed the wrong way. The fact that the buzzing was minimal had me believing that I could adjust it out and perhaps fix some of the tuning issues as well.
Overall it appeared that the major problem with this Fender Stratocaster™ is the tremolo system. I noticed that the back edge of the tremolo block was tilted up off of the body quite a bit as it is when people try to adjust the return springs to “float” the tremolo to give them bending capability up and down at the handle. That might be fine with a good Bixby but with a factory stock, mid-priced Strat you are asking for trouble. At the very least this tremolo needs some serious adjusting of the springs. If all else fails I knew an aftermarket tremolo is likely to make the most sense if I want a tremolo on this Fender Stratocaster™ at all.
If you have found a fix for the factory Fender Stratocaster™ tremolo or have installed an aftermarket tremolo on a Strat that works well email me about it! I am looking for suggestions here that will turn into a story that just might help others with similar problems. Click Here to email me!
The electronics appear to be functioning properly although the pickups do have a bit of the “Strat hum” when you crank things up a little. The pickups appeared to be a bit low so along the way I check that and adjust their heights if needed. I anticipate replacing the pickups with hotter versions at some point but for now, the stock factory pickups will work.
In the Shop
I first checked the neck for relief and found that to be just under 0.004”. That seems a tick low to me so I will look at that again later and maybe make a truss rod adjustment. I also measured the clearance for the nut and found that to be a few thousandths lower than the specifications I have seen. This could easily be contributing to or causing the buzzing. Because I am also hearing the ping of the strings sticking and releasing during tuning I decided to replace the factory nut with a Graph Tech TUSQ Nut that is impregnated with Teflon® to make it super slick to let the strings slide freely.
While installing the Graph Tech TUSQ Nut the string height there was raised according to their specs and now shows 0.010” above the first fret on the base side (capo just after the second fret) and 0.006” above the first fret on the treble side.
I also rechecked the Neck Relief and found that was showing 0.005” now so I left it alone for now. Changing the nut should not have changed the Neck Relief so I want to play this Fender Stratocaster™ a while and then recheck the relief to see if it has changed again. In the little playing I did since replacing the nut the buzzing appeared to be gone. Next I checked the string action (height) and made minor adjustments to reduce the heights to about 0.073” above the 12th fret on the bass side and 0.065” at the same fret on the treble side.
The tremolo was a bigger issue and a more frustrating one. I removed the rear cover and all three of the springs were installed correctly and the claw was in fact screwed into the body so that cause for the problem was eliminated. The screws that mount the tremolo were all there and appeared to be adjusted as per the instructions from the Fender sheet I had downloaded. I was quickly coming to the conclusion that this tremolo just sucks.
I tried cranking the springs down several turns to bring the rear of the tremolo block down onto the body with the strings at tuned pressure. That means you can only dive bomb the tremolo downwards at the handle and hopefully the springs will pull the block back down to the body and restore tuning. It does work better that way but still not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.
Since I am not a huge fan of dive-bombing after the first five minutes of playing when it becomes more annoying than fun I decided to crank the springs down a little more to essentially lock out the tremolo and remove the handle. I tuned the Fender Stratocaster™ up and went through the intonation and found that some of the strings now showed flat rather than all of them being a little sharp as they were before. I’m not sure why this happened but I made the intonation changes and the Fender Stratocaster™ plays nicely.
At this point I have invested another $12.95 in the Fender Stratocaster™ for the Graph Tech TUSQ Nut. I also put on a new set of D’Addario strings just to be sure they were fresh. I will play the Fender Stratocaster™ like this for a while to see how it holds tune without using the tremolo. I also want to get used to the tone it has now and how the 5-position switch changes that.
So far the Fender Stratocaster™ is a fun guitar to play. It has a nice range of tones from the three pickups and I expect that will be emphasized when I put in some hotter aftermarket pickups later on. Stay tuned!
Note: If for some reason you know what model Fender Stratocaster™ this is, use the email link below and tell me!
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