What To Know After Buying a Stratocaster: Three Luthiers Weigh In

As one of the most iconic guitars ever made, the Stratocaster has garnered a huge range of opinions from both its champions and its critics. Its comfortable contours, classic good looks, and versatility make it a great first guitar or a great addition to any collection.

Like any instrument, the Stratocaster will play its best with regular maintenance. And those innovations unique to the Strat—like its synchronized tremolo system—will, in turn, require unique attention.

To best tell you what you need to know after purchasing a Stratocaster, we’ve talked to three of the top luthiers in the country, collecting their thoughts on proper setups, basic upgrades, and all things tremolo.

For those who might be new to the instrument, a "setup" refers to a number of actions that one should take to make a guitar play comfortably and have good intonation, where all notes up the fretboard are in tune relative to each other.

Whether you've bought your Strat new or used, a setup will address some key issues:

  • The nut's height and the width of its slots. You'll want the nut to be high enough to hold the strings just above the level of the first fret. Each slot should be wide enough to allow its string to move without being loose.

  • The amount of relief in the neck. You'll want to find a level of bow in the neck that allows the guitar to be played easily across the fretboard. This will be achieved through loosening or tightening the truss rod, a piece of metal within the neck that compensates for the large amount of pressure placed on it by the strings.

  • The action, or height of the strings. In part achieved through proper nut height and neck relief, the height of the strings is also determined by a Stratocaster's adjustable bridge saddles. You should choose saddle heights that match the radius of your neck, while allowing the strings to be low enough to be played comfortably and high enough that they don't buzz against the frets.

  • The position of the bridge saddles. An important factor in intonating your Strat will be to adjust the placement of each bridge saddle so that notes fretted at the 12th fret of each string are not flat or sharp relative to the open notes.

  • The height of the pickups. You'll want to adjust the height of your pickups to be close enough to the strings to get a powerful, sustaining tone, but without being so close that the pickup's magnets hamper the free movement of the strings. Listen through your amp as you make adjustments to tailor the response of your pickups to taste.

While these actions can be done yourself, you can greatly benefit from having an experienced luthier set up your Strat for you, especially if it's your first guitar. Over the course of the setup, a professional will also be able to see if there are any larger issues with the guitar that need to be addressed.

How many setups would you recommend per year?

Like any guitar, your Stratocaster will require care and attention to ensure that it plays its best for years to come. The woods and resins in your guitar will contract and expand along with changes in humidity and temperature. This can affect the neck relief, string tension, and more crucial aspects of your guitar, making an instrument that was properly setup and intonated in summer difficult to play come winter.

Ideally, you should have your guitar set up two to four times per year, as often as the seasons change where you live, or as you notice wear and tear."

Ideally, you should have your guitar set up two to four times per year, as often as the seasons change where you live, or as you notice wear and tear. Being able to maintenance your guitar yourself is a huge plus, but if not, you should call your local, trusted luthier for a seasonal setup.

Some guitar owners are particularly nervous to make one common change, the adjustment of the truss rod, for fear of damaging their guitar, but so long as you aren’t met with heavy resistance, you can do this simple maneuver yourself.

Chelsea Clark does emphasize that you should always detune your Strat when making truss rod adjustments, then retune and check, as adding too much neck tension in addition to existing string tension can damage the neck. Of course, with a proper, seasonal setup from your local repair shop, you won’t have to worry about hurting your instrument.

If your Strat just isn't singing like it used to, having it looked at is never a bad idea—so long as you can afford it. But Joe Glaser does warn of guitar neurosis, stating, "I have customers who bring the guitar in the moment that fretwear is visible with a magnifying glass." So while you should be mindful of your guitar’s condition, don’t worry so much you make yourself unnecessarily fret.

What basic upgrades would you recommend over time?

One of the best aspects of owning a Stratocaster is how easy they are to upgrade. Now more than ever—with the fully-carved out "swimming pool route" in contemporary models allowing for easy pickup swaps—Strats are built to be customizable.

To the effect of taste, Mark Erlewine emphasizes changing the Strat’s pickups because, "like wine, there are so many options." While the Fender single-coil tone is classic for a reason, you can take your Strat into new tone worlds by swapping a humbucker at the bridge or putting a gold foil pickup at the neck—a popular move among "partscaster" guitars.

A common upgrade to make is to the nut. Most Strats come with a plastic nut, and while that is not inherently a bad thing, many players prefer a bone nut (or graphite or brass, depending on playing styles). Erlewine notes that Eric Johnson prefered the old-stock plastic Fender nuts over bone.

A different material at the nut will affect the guitar’s sustain, playability, and perceived value, as Chelsea Clark notes. You can discuss what will work best for you at your local shop or by consulting the lively conversations on the topic on online guitar forums. Clark adds that, regardless of what material you choose, a well-cut nut that isn’t too high or too low will significantly improve your guitar’s playability.

In terms of functionality, Erlewine also stresses the importance of keeping track of the shape of your saddles and potentially replacing them if they’re worn down, rusted, or encrusted from years of sweat, dirt, and dead skin. Once the plating on a Strat’s saddles wears out, Erlewine notes, you’ll find that strings tend to break much easier.

Do Strats go out of tune as much people say? Are the complaints about floating tremolos overblown?

When the Stratocaster first arrived in 1954, it included its revolutionary six-point "synchronized tremolo" system, which goes through the guitar’s body and connects with the tremolo springs in the back. (Leo Fender named called it a "tremolo" system, though it is accurately called a "vibrato" by others, since it changes the pitch and not the amplitude of the played notes.) Unlike other vibrato systems that just move the tailpiece, the Stratocaster's system moves the bridge and tailpiece together.

At the time, this invention gave guitar players greater ability to bend strings than they’d had with a Bigsby-style system, and you need only to listen to early surf rock music to hear how much fun players had with it. Nonetheless, the tremolo system has been maligned over the years by players who say it makes the Stratocaster difficult to keep in tune. (There are "hardtail" Stratocaster models available that do not include the tremolo system.)

If you have persistent tuning problems on your Stratocaster, it is likely due to those common to all guitars: the width of the nut slots and the condition and quality of the tuning machines."

Mark Erlewine points out that the technique of the player—how hard they play and how they use the bar—is paramount to staying in tune.

"You have to understand the rules of a non-locking vibrato," Erlewine says. "There are one or two things that players do. First—and you can see Hendrix doing this in film—if you’re going to bend the string manually, it’s going the reset the tuning and the vibrato arm. So you have to tap the vibrato arm to bring you back to being in tune, if you were in tune in the first place.

"The alternate way to do that is to bend only with your fingers (like on a hardtail) and then, when you use the vibrato arm, everything will come back sharp and you’ve got to quickly hand-bend all six strings. … You’ll see players do this both ways, but the Hendrix way is quicker."

Furthermore, Joe Glaser contends that once you explain the proper technique to a player, they usually never have the tuning problem again. Glaser says, "Jeff Beck is not playing a magic guitar, he’s a magic player."

If you have persistent tuning problems on your Stratocaster, it is likely due to those common to all guitars: the width of the nut slots and the condition and quality of the tuning machines.

To block or not to block?

In order to avoid any difficulties with the tremolo system (perceived or otherwise) or in an effort to get more sustain, some players will choose to "block" their tremolo. Eric Clapton is a prime example.

Blocking will allow you to use the trem arm to lower notes but not to raise them. Your guitar will stay in tune more easily after bending and in instances where one string breaks. It will also be easier to put your guitar in an alternate tuning. (With the regular, floating tremolo system, lowering or raising tension on one string affects the tension of all the others.)

None of the luthiers that we talked to expressly recommend blocking a Strat tremolo. The process of blocking a trem system by fitting a piece of wood behind the system’s spring block and the guitar’s body has been a popular practice, but our luthiers note there are ways to accomplish blocking without adding wood. They suggest either tightening or adding extra springs—a process commonly called "decking."

Chelsea Clark says, "As long as it’s done correctly, it’s good. You can’t really just shove a piece of wood in-between there because it really needs to be almost perfect or else you are going to put pressure on the finish."

However, Clark adds, "I don’t think people partake in the joy of a Strat tremolo as much as they should." With a well-cut and -lubed nut, good tuning machines, and a proper setup, using a Strat as tremolo system as Leo Fender intended will work just fine.

[Editor's Note: We've noticed some confusion about this section of the piece and about blocking and decking in general. We wanted to take a minute to clarify these terms and how we're using them.

Blocking and decking are two different ways of doing the same thing to a guitar: tightening the trem arm to the body so that it can be lowered but not raised. While blocking involves a piece of wood, decking does not involve wood and instead focuses on tightening the springs. In both cases, the trem is still usable in the downward direction.]

Chelsea Clark started her career in the shop of luthier Dan Erlewine (the widely published repair-book author and tutorial maker). She went on to work at Gibson’s Restoration Shop and LA’s Westwood Music before opening her own shop, Guitars And Caffeine, in Culver City, California.

Mark Erlewine, a cousin of Dan’s, owns Erlewine Guitars in Austin, Texas, and has become a legendary luthier in his own right. He’s spent four decades servicing guitars for some of the biggest names in guitar and music history (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson, and Willie Nelson, among others). He is also known for designing and building the now famous Chiquita Travel Guitars with Billy Gibbons.

Joe Glaser, head of Glaser Instruments in Nashville, Tennessee, is a renowned luthier, inventor, and repairman to the stars of Music City and beyond. As a sign of his early innovation and proficiency, in the late-’70s, Glaser reverse-engineered the B-Bender device made by Gene Parsons for Clarence White, even adding a paddle lever to drop the E string. When Peter Frampton’s guitar Phenix returned to the rocker decades after a fiery plane crash, Glaser was entrusted to repair it.

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