Used Squier Inspection & Setup

This is a Squier I bought off of Craigslist or Marketplace – I don’t remember which, several months back. I finally have time to check it out and mod it into a Super Squier, so come along and let’s see what we’ve got.

I like the pearloid white pickguard and the guitar looks good overall. When I plugged it in to check out the pickups and controls, everything worked fine – no scratchy pots, tone had just enough oomph to quelsh the highest trebles without going muddy.

Next, I checked all screws and nuts to be sure everything was snug. If the neck screws are loose, it could affect everything. Same with the 10mm nuts that secure the tuner keys. Those things are always loose!

Be sure and check strap screws. Often you’ll need to plug and redrill those holes to make the screws hold securely. We don’t want our player dropping his guitar!

The output jack was loose. Very loose. In fact, any looser and the nut would’ve fallen off! I unscrewed the “boat” (curved metal plate that holds the jack), turned the connectors so they wouldn’t hit the body and make it hard to plug our audio cable in, then I tightened the jack enough to hold it for a few years!

Like your doctor takes your temperature, weight and blood pressure before anything else, we want to get our basic measurements for this guitar because that will tell us a lot about the guitar’s “health”.

Measurements for neck relief and string height are dependent on having the correct tension between the truss rod and the strings, so the first thing we do is tune the guitar. You don’t have to be fussy about the tuning. Within five cents sharp or flat is good enough. Once you’ve tuned all six strings, do go back and check again though.

Measure Relief

I’ll put a capo on the first fret and use my finger to fret the highest fret (up at the body), then measure the distance between the string bottom and fret top at the seventh fret. It measured 0.02″ – that’s twice as high as it should be.

We do want a bit of “relief” (i.e.: bow in the neck), because the strings swing wider in the center and if we have a little bit of bow, we can then get our string height a tad lower than we would otherwise be able to, and still avoid buzzing.

This guitar has a 4mm truss rod hex nut, and it took less than half a turn to get relief down to 0.010″ – and that visually brought the string height lower, but not nearly low enough.

I check relief at E (low E) and e (high e) because sometimes there is a twist and you might have 0.020 at E but just under 0.010 at e. You don’t want to get into a backbow situation where you have negative relief and I prefer to have relief at least greater than 0.005 at the lowest (height-wise) string. So there are times when you might accept 0.020″ relief on one side to avoid going below 0.005 on the other.

If your twist is greater than that, you need to stop and address the twist issue before proceeding.

Measure String Height

Capo at 1st fret, string height measured at 17th fret

String height is measured separately for each string with the capo on the first fret, measuring at the 17th fret (for Strats). I aim for 0.065 at E and 0.060 at e. More than 95% of my customers are very happy with this setting. Depending on playing style, a few customers prefer a little higher or lower setting.

This guitar had 0.130″ at E and heights varied between that and 0.100. The guitar was unplayable for all practical purposes!

I hate to think what would have happened if someone else had bought this guitar, intending on learning how to play. I doubt they would have continued more than a week, then give up, thinking that guitars are very hard to play!

Sure, guitars are hard to learn, but not THAT hard! LOL! Or at least, they shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, even buying a brand-new guitar is no guarantee of getting one that is properly setup and intonated. But buying a used guitar has many more hidden “gotchas”.

Now I know I’ll need to adjust the saddles and lower the string heights, but since I’m going to put the bridge and saddles into my jewelry cleaner (ultrasonic) machine where the set screws will likely “go nuts”, I’ll wait until later.

Bridge: Float, Deck or Block?

Besides, there’s another factor deciding our string height – bridge float. A tremolo bridge is floated so that the guitar player can work the tremolo arm in either direction for the initial motion.

Floating a bridge introduces more challenges to tuning stability though, and most players are satisfied with being able to work the tremolo in just one direction (then back, etc.) for the initial motion. That’s why we generally “deck” the bridge.

There seems to be some confusion among guitar players between floating, decking and blocking a tremolo bridge, so let me clear things up –

  • Float – back of the bridge is about 3/32″ above the body surface so the tremolo can be pulled up or down in the initial motion
  • Deck – bridge sits firmly against the guitar body and the tremolo arm can only be lifted initially
  • Block – the tremolo is prevented from moving altogether, simulating a “hardtail” bridge

In our case, this bridge has been floated, but the rear of the bridge is a little higher above the body than the 3/32″ that I prefer. Even worse, the bridge screws are several turns loose, allowing the entire bridge to lift. The bridge screws should only be 1/4 to 1/3 turn loose. This is contributing to our string height issues, and will be resolved when we deck the bridge.

If you’re considering a floated bridge, think about what happens when you bend strings. The non-bent strings will go flat because you’re loosening those strings! For a great, in-depth article covering guitar tremolo bridges and floating, decking and blocking, read article by Kyle Kienitz.

Guitar Nut Slots

Let’s measure our nut slot heights. It’s actually kinda rare to find a guitar that doesn’t have at least a few high nut slots. This is the main cause of sharp notes and chords in the “cowboy frets” (first five frets).

Using a guitar string as a feeler guage

When you fret near the center of the fretboard, you pull string equally behind and in front of your fretting fingers. But when you fret in the cowboy fret area, you’re mostly pulling string between your finger and the bridge, causing the note to be relatively sharper. But if the nut slots are high, you have to pull more string than normal causing even more sharpness.

There are several ways to measure the heights of your nut slots, but many require a higher degree of accuracy than most of us are capable of. My favorite method is to fret at the highest fret, then measure at the 1st fret. I use a fret height ruler to “ballpark” things, but I’ve made “Go” / “No-Go” gauges out of guitar strings, that give me positive feedback better than even magnified 70 year-old eyeballs can manage.

“Why a guitar string instead of a ‘real’ feeler gauge?” – A ‘real’ feeler gauge is smooth and it’s likely you’ll move the measured string a bit higher before you can actually feel the pressure. But will you be able to see that 0.001″ (or greater) movement? Possibly not.

A piece of wound guitar string has enough ‘roughness’ that you’ll feel contact with the measured string more positively and probably sooner, making it a much better tool than an automotive feeler gauge. But even unwound strings make better feeler gauges because they will bend when they meet resistance.

The cheap ring of files in the center is almost useless!

It’s important to understand that only a proper nut file will do! When I decided to get back into guitar repair, several years ago, I desperately tried to avoid having to shell out nearly a hundred bucks to StewMac for guitar nut files.

I threw money away on several nut file candidates before breaking down and paying the “ransom” to SM. I will say that the cheap ring of files was ok for widening slots if a customer is going say from nines to elevens, etc. But other than that, it was useless.

Don’t bother with that trick of turning feeler gauges into nut files. The process of cutting teeth into each gauge will make teeth edges that cut wider than the desired thickness and they’re too flimsy to work properly.

So, either dig deep and shell out to SM or pay less to a guitar tech and get the whole job done (hopefully) correctly.

File a slant toward the tuning peg, then round the back edge

There are lots of methods that can be used here. Some people like to measure fret height, then add 0.020″ and draw an arc on the face of the nut as a guide to prevent cutting too deep.

That method works, but it tends to be rather rough. I use the “devil may care method”, which saves time and depends on my experience to know when to stop and re-measure. Admittedly, I buy a lot of nuts! No, really, I rarely mess up any more. But you could argue that the one mess-up costs as much time as all the measuring would have cost.

I’ll file each slot down to 0.020″, slanting down toward each peg and rounding the back edge just a bit. I start by measuring. If I have more than 0.005″ to go, I’ll usually take about 15 strokes before retuning the string and measuring, then loosen and file some more. Rinse and repeat. Your mileage may vary. It all depends on the length and pressure of each stroke, of course.

If you try to always use the same pressure and stroke length, you’ll soon get a feel for how many strokes it takes to remove a certain amount of material. Of course this will vary a lot depending on the material the nut is made of and it will vary a bit depending on the thickness of the file.

Checking Fret Level & Wear

Once I have the nut slots cut to proper heights, it’s time to loosen and remove the strings. Now, I can get a good look at fret wear and I can check that all frets are level.

guitar buyers guide
Fret wear, but these are high enough to level & crown (different guitar)

If you have fretwear that has devolved to “U-shape” or “V-shape” grooves, you’ll want to do a level and crown. It’s important to always use the proper radius block when leveling frets. For instance, it is NOT alright to use a 14″ radius fret leveling block on a 16″ radius fretboard, or vice-versa.

You don’t want to level frets below a minimum height of 0.025″ and I’d be a lot more comfortable at 0.030″ and above.

Checking fret level seems such a simple, straight-forward job that it would be intuitive to do it properly – but not so fast! Frets are ornery little things that try to trick you!

guitar setup in tampa/st pete
Checking fret level

A fret can be high from ‘e’ to ‘E’ or at one end, ‘e’ or ‘E’. A fret can be high in the center, but level at the ends. It can be high under G & B, but level everywhere else, etc., etc. A fret can measure perfectly level for one person and show up high for another!

That last line didn’t make sense to you? Well, allow me to explain.. If you check fret level by pressing firmly down on your fret rocker, you may just be pushing a loose fret back down into its slot. But, if I check that same fret with a light touch, I’ll find the critter, give him a dab of CA and a good press and he’ll be “tamed”.

You want to check each and every fret from E to e, or E to G if working on a bass, and you want to use a light touch. If you just have a few misbehaving frets, I’d use a small strip of #320 sandpaper to take a bit off the top, then round those edges off for a recrown. Follow up with #500 or #600 then #800 or #1000 – or any grits that will nicely cover that range.

One of the last steps of our setup will be to polish the frets with rouge, a polishing wheel and a Dremel tool, but right now let’s just clean the fretboard and frets.

I use #0000 steel wool and Naptha (aka “lighter fluid). We don’t want those steel wool bits getting close to our magnetic pickup poles, so we’ll tape off at least the neck pickup.

I get the steel wool thoroughly soaked with Naptha and begin with strokes that are parallel to the frets, working hard and fast and focusing on the grime that tends to collect along the fret edges.

When I finish, I’ll use a paper towel to wipe off the excess Naptha. I don’t want to use a rag that could contaminate the pickups with bits of steel wool at a later time. I throw the paper towel away immediately.

Next, I condition the fretboard with my “super-duper” fretboard conditioner. You can use “lemon oil”, which is a furniture polish that probably doesn’t contain any lemon oil, or whichever product you prefer. But note that the popular “Old English” brand can darken your fretboard and hide the grain (photo below).

The photo on the right (below) makes it appear that the fretboard is much darker and hiding grain. Polish will protect the fretboard and the steel wool has removed the corrosion from the frets. But I prefer a polish that doesn’t hide the wood grain so much, like Howards “Feed N Wax”.

Before fretboard cleaning and after

I really should have tackled the sharp fret ends earlier, but I’ll do it now with a sanding sponge of #150 and follow up with a #320.

DIY Guitar Neck Cradle

What are those books in the photos??? I’ve looked at dozens of guitar neck cradles and “rests” for supporting guitars while you work on them. I finally hit upon the idea of using my big programming books as supports, and it’s one of the best idea’s I ever had.

It can be difficult to keep your bench clean and bits of wire, solder, tiny screws and other sharp gremlins are just waiting to take a bite out of your customers’ guitars!

But it’s easy to keep book covers clean and by having four books, I can keep the body off the bench and vary the height of the neck as needed. These books are finally getting used way more than when I was a software developer!

Let’s Mod to Super Squier!

We’re finally ready to start our mods and turn this Squier into a Super Squier. You’re going to need a SPST switch. A toggle switch works nicely, but a slide switch, push-button, etc. – whatever suits your taste.

What? You don’t have a switch on hand? OK. I’ll wait until next Friday to post the rest of this article. That’ll give you plenty of time to get your switch! 🙂

(Super Squier Mod article continues Friday, October 9, 2020) LIKE my Facebook Page to be notified of future articles, or just check back each weekend.