Handcrafted basses

How to improve a cheap Strat

You may ask yourself: Is playing guitar my thing?
you haven't discovered your talent yet, you just wanna try if playing guitar is something for you. So you don't want to spend lots of money, right? It's very likely you spot a cheap Strat somewhere and you have set your eyes on one.
9 out 10 electric guitars for beginners are Stratocaster knock-offs. No wonder there, the Strat is cool.
But as a beginner, you'll be better off buying a guitar without a tremolo, because this cool dive-bomb thingy has it's own set of problems, particular on cheap guitars, with inferior parts and poor setup.
Hard to play because of high action, often out of tune, noises that shouldn't be there, bad tone, buzzing sounds, that really can put you off. It's not for nothing that a lot of guitarists wedge their tremoloblock with a piece of wood and remove the tremhandle, and play it as a fixed bridge.
Also a "down-only" setup is often done, the springs are turned a lot tighter, and the tremolo is only allowed to go note down, not up. The tremolo is no longer "floating", i.e. balancing between the tension of the strings en de springs, as it was originally intended.

Nevertheless, We take on the challenge and improve our cheap Strat into a halfway decent guitar.

Bought a second hand guitar

A SX Stratocaster copy. Already a very nice guitar for the money. Nice solid woods, Alder body, Maple neck.

Little fretwear, quilted maple fretboard, abalone dots, very nice!

Flamed maple neck, straight, trussrod working. Great! The neck is a little thicker than an original Strat, i don't mind that.
With a few improvements, this could be a great guitar!

The neck
The most important part of the guitar is the neck, so that deserves some attention. Right after disassembling the guitar, I turn the trussrod to "neutral". Turn it loose, until the trussroad has no tension left. You can wiggle the screw a bit.

Leave the neck alone for a day or so. You have to be sure the neck has it's natural shape before you start leveling the frets.

Protect the fretboard with tape.
Note: First check if some frets are a lot higher then the others. You can check with a metal ruler or a "fret-rocker". If it is the case, level those individual frets first with a file! Sometimes the frets are not hammered in properly in the first place. Correct these big issues first. The sanding of the whole fretboard is only meant as a final leveling!

I give the frets a color on the top, with a marker. That way i can see if all frets are evenly being sanded.

Sanding the frets with 180 grid sandpaper. NO! not with that block!

That's better, you need a long straight block for this. Just a few strokes with 180 grid are enough. until you see that all frets have sanding marks. After that, some sanding with 400 and 600 grid. Use the marker to check all the frets are being leveled.

You can see all the frets have a flattened top, that's fine.

Finish the frets with 600 grid sandpaper and steelwool. I use the metal fretboard protecter with that.

Smooth and Shiny Frets, nice!

Tremolo terror

Out of tune after using the tremolo is one of the biggest problems on guitars like this. Where are the problem areas?

- Bridge: the strings have to be able to move over the saddles. Sharp edges or rust may cause problems. Smooth saddles are the solution, roller saddles might be a good idea
- Nut: again the strings are moving back and forth a bit during the use of the tremolo. When the slots in the nut are too tight for the string, tuning problems are bound to occur.
- String retainers, or "string tree". Problems if these are rusty or have sharp edges. - Tuners: When the strings have only have 2 or 3 windings on the tuner post, you will pull the strings loose. Especially the unwound g, b, and e strings. Assuming you don't have locking tuners of course.

To assure the straings are able to move back and forth over the nut, the slots have to be wide enough. Applying graphite ion the slots als helps as a lubricant.
Just scrape some from a pencil.

Brushing the graphite in the slots...

Like that.

Often, the strings are wound just 2 or 3 times around the post. You may just get away with that on the thicker strings, but it's not enough for the thinner strings.

Approx. 3 fingers of string length, make a little dent in the string, and that is the mark where the string goes through the hole.

And that gives you 7 or 8 windings around the post. 5 or 6 windings for te thicker strings.That should do the trick.
I have also replaced the old stringtrees with roller types, letteing the string move back and forth better.

The springs need some attention too, these can cause some weird sounds.

A piece of foam solves that.

Now to the tremolo itself. The handle wiggles in the bridge, that's really annoying. Buying a better quality bridge would be the best solution, and i probably will. But for now i want to solve the problem cheaper.
There are a few options:

Wrapping the thread with Teflon. That works. It tends to wear off, so you have to renew this regularly. But the tremhandle doesn't wiggle anymore, and you can still move it towards or away form you.

O. That shows, have to do that a little better. But it works.

Another solution is to wrap a little spring IN the threaded end of the tremolo handle. This gives you a slightly thicker threaded end.
I got this from the internet. Succeeded in getting the spring in the threaded end, but it didn't function very well.

A rubber ring and a screw. This works great if you have enough room on the tremolo, and enough threaded end on the tremhandle.
Neither of which was the case on my guitar, so this option didn't work well.

Adjustments and final touch

The new pickguard had a few holes in a different place. Put wooden pegs in the old holes and made new ones. Be aware when you buy a replacement pickguard for your Strat. There are different pickguards available, depending on the age of the Strat. A vintage Strat has different screwpositions than the newer ones.

THis is a crude way of checking the optimal neck curve. push the string down on the lowest fret (I did that with a capo), and on the highest fret. The deepest part of the curve should be atround the 7th - 9th fret. A business card should just fit between the frets and the strings, with no room to spare.

This guitar had a high action (i.e. the strings where high above the neck), and I couldn't get the saddles of the bridge any lower. In such a case the can be "shimmed", by putting a thin plate in the neck pocket. I did that with 2 slices of veneer. By putting this under the end of the neck, it caused the neck to tilt back just a little bit. Result is that the strings run lower over the neck, so lower action.
Some pieces of veneer work fine for this, you won't see it, and it doesn't affect the sound.

Under 2 millimetres string action. Nice!

After mounting the new pickguard, the pickups had to be adjusted. This was too low.

That's more like it.