Stratocaster General Setup Guide

Setup your Fender Stratocaster or any Guitar with a Tremolo.


This is a handy guide to setting up your Fender Stratocaster guitar or basically, any guitar with a tremolo fitted. We will go through the most critical points and adjustments that affect the playability of your guitar.

Before you begin:

  1. Be sure that you take measurements of all settings before you adjust anything. You will want to remember where the guitar started out just in case you run into problems later on.
  2. Remember it’s as much about using preferred settings from the factory as it is about personal preference and feel. Sometimes to get things intonated you have to do things that may be counterintuitive. Every guitar and every player are different.
  3. You can go to some of our other posts about Factory Setups and other common setups to get a starting point for your own.

Tools you will need for this task:

Tremolo Adjustment

The two most common types of tremolo found on Stratocasters are the 6-screw Vintage tremolo and the Two-Point Knife Edge tremolo found on the American series of Stratocasters.

You will first want to adjust the front edge of the bridge so that it is level with the top of the pickguard roughly 1.5mm. Having the front edge flush to the body can cause problems and dig into the finish of your guitar. To counteract this I set the front edge level with the top of the pickguard.

On the Two-Point tremolo system simply adjust the pivot screws until the front of the bridge is level with the pickguard. To get a good view of this you can pull back on the tremolo until the bridge is flush with the body and then look at the front edge of the bridge.

Here’s a good performance-enhancing tip for the 6-point Vintage synchronized tremolo. To level the front of the 6-screw tremolo pull the tremolo arm up until the back of the bridge is flush with the body. Then loosen all six screws at the front edge of the bridge plate until they measure 1/16″ (1.6mm) above the top of the bridge plate. Then tighten only the two outside screws back down until they’re flush with the top of the bridge plate. This will make the bridge pivot on the two outside screws while leaving the four inner screws in place for tremolo stability. It’s a way to simulate the action of the more expensive two-point tremolo.

After you have the front edge of the tremolo adjusted you will want to adjust the back edge of the tremolo. To do this, remove the plate on the back of your guitar to access the tremolo springs if it’s there in the first place. Then adjust the screws that secure the tremolo claw to the body tighter or looser to change the gap at the back of the tremolo. Fender recommends a 1/8″ (3.2 mm) gap between the body of the guitar and the bottom of the bridge. You will have to adjust the spring tension with the screws on the spring claw, re-tune the guitar and then check the gap at the back of the bridge. It may take several adjustments and tunings to get the gap right. Remember, if you ever change string gauges you’ll have to perform this adjustment again.

This can be a time-consuming process, just remember to stretch your strings out first if they are new otherwise you could be there for an eternity.

Truss Rod Adjustment

Next, you will want to adjust the truss rod. Most Stratocasters and modern guitars will use a Bi-Flex or double-acting truss rod which allows you to correct neck curvature in either concave or convex directions.

To check the adjustment make sure the guitar is tuned properly and then affix a capo behind the 1st fret of the guitar. Have the guitar in playing position and with your feeler gauges check your relief using the figures and directions below:

Neck RadiusRelief “(mm)
7.25″.012″ (0.3 mm)
9.5″ to 12″.010″ (0.25 mm)
15″ to 17″.008″ (0.2 mm)
Table Neck Relief

Most Fenders use the 9.5″ to 12″ radius so you’ll be shooting for a .010″ (0.25 mm) gap.

With your feeler gauges .009″, .010″ and .011″ and the capo set behind the 1st fret, hold down the low E-string at the last fret on the neck. Then slide each gauge between the top of the 8th fret and the bottom of the sixth string.

The .009″ gauge and the .010″ gauge should slide through with no resistance while the .011″ gauge will slightly move the string. If you need to adjust the truss rod do it in 1/8 turn increments and then recheck the adjustment. Sometimes after you let the instrument sit overnight the adjustment will change slightly as the neck settles in.

Please remember to never force the truss rod! If you do encounter excessive resistance during this adjustment of your truss rod then there is an issue or your truss rod is maxed out. If this happens you may have to take your guitar to either an authorized Service Center or a good luthier you trust.

Having the correct truss rod adjustment will greatly increase the playability of your guitar.

String Height (also known as Action)

After you’ve adjusted your tremolo height and truss rod it’s time to adjust your Stratocaster string height. String height, or action, is highly customizable on the Fender Stratocaster. That’s good because almost every player needs a custom string height to suit their own personal playing style. I am very aggressive with my lower strings when I play rhythm so I like my low strings set at a higher action to get rid of unwanted buzzing. I also like to play very lightly and quickly when I solo so I like my higher strings as low as possible for increased speed. You can see the recommended Fender adjustment for string height in the table below. I would suggest using that as a starting point and then listening to the strings as you play the guitar unplugged. If you hear the strings buzzing and vibrating a lot, then simply raise the action on that string.

To check the string height first make sure your guitar is properly tuned. Then use your ruler to measure from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string at the 17th fret. Then, use the Allen screws in the bridge saddles to adjust the height of the string. Make sure you adjust each side of the bridge saddle evenly so that it stays level with the bridge or tremolo plate. Then re-tune the guitar and listen to it while you play. Make any tweaks after you play it for a few minutes and listen for rattles or buzzing. Bass side strings are the E-A-D string and Treble side strings are the G-B-E strings. I like to adjust each string a little lower as I move from bass side to treble side so they get a little closer to the fret on each string. Fender string height specs are in the table below:

Neck Radius “Bass Side “(mm)Treble Side “(mm)
7.25″5/64″ (2 mm)4/64″ (1.6 mm)
9.5″ to 12″4/64″ (1.6 mm)4/64″ (1.6 mm)
15″ to 17″4/64″ (1.6 mm)3/64″ (1.2 mm)
Table String Height

Low E String Height 4/64″
This string height is set to 5/64″. Adjust the low E String Height to 4/64″ but if it buzzes, adjust it higher.

Pickup Height

Now that your string height, truss rod and tremolo are all in adjustment it’s time to adjust your pickup height. If you have your pickups too close to the strings the magnetic pull will cause the strings to vibrate in an elliptical pattern instead of a circular pattern which results in problems with the guitar’s tone and loss of harmonics. You want your pickups close enough to have good output but not so close as to affect the vibration of the strings.

To perform the measurement simply take your ruler and measure the distance from the top of the pole piece to the bottom of the string on the first (high E) and sixth (Low E) strings of the guitar. After you make this adjustment you will see that the pickup will be angled closer to the 1st string and farther away from the 6th. There’s no need to measure the distance of each pole piece as the pole pieces are not individually adjustable.

In the table below you’ll find the Fender specs for pickup height adjustment but here’s a tip. I like to move the pickups quite far away from the strings and listen to how the string sounds through an amplifier with0ut any influence from the magnetic pull of the pickups. Then I like to raise the pickups until they are very close to the strings and listen to how the magnetic pull causes tonal changes and loss of sustain. Then I back the pickups off until I can hear that they are no longer influencing the vibration of the string. This way I know I’m getting the highest output without any magnetic influence on the string. Here’s the table with the Fender specifications for pickup height adjustment:

Pickup TypeBass Side “(mm)Treble Side “(mm)
Texas Specials8/64″ (3.2 mm)6/64″ (2.4 mm)
Vintage Style6/64″ (2.4 mm)5/64″ (2 mm)
Noiseless™ Series8/64″ (3.2 mm)6/64″ (2.4 mm)
Standard Single Coil5/64″ (2 mm)4/64″ (1.6 mm)
Humbuckers4/64″ (1.6 mm)4/64″ (1.6 mm)
Lace Sensors
Table Pickup Heights

Lace Sensor pickups have little to no magnetic pull on the string. I would suggest putting them very close to the string but don’t let the string vibrate against them. I would also suggest pulling them away from the strings a little bit and listening to the difference in sound. You may like them a little farther away from the strings.

This Noiseless bridge pickup Treble Side Height is set to 1/8″. That’s too low so it must be raised slightly to reach 6/64″. If it sounds bad that high, then lower it.

Intonation

First of all, you may be asking, “what is intonation”? Intonation affects how well your guitar plays in tune along the entire length of the fretboard.

Have you ever noticed that after you tune your guitar it still sounds off when you play chords or notes and the higher you go on the neck the worse it sounds? That’s because your intonation is not set correctly.

In theory, the distance from the inside of the nut of the guitar to the middle of the 12th fretwire should measure the same distance as the middle of the 12th fretwire to the bridge saddle. But, if you do this adjustment by measuring with a ruler it will still sound off. This is why there is normally around 1.5mm added to the bridge position to account for this and allow for proper intonation. It just means we have to adjust the intonation with a good tuner or you can simply use your ear if you have a good ear.

Before you adjust intonation make sure all your other adjustments are done. That means truss rod (Relief), String height, Pickup height and tremolo height all have to be complete before you do any intonation work.

To adjust the intonation tune your strings to standard tuning. Then starting at the 6th string play the open string and then play the note an octave higher at the 12th fret. The pitch should be the same. Your ear or tuner will tell you if the octave note is sharp or flat. If the note is sharp use a Phillips screwdriver and adjust the bridge saddle farther away from the nut or toward the back of the bridge plate. If the note is flat, adjust the bridge saddle closer to the nut or the front of the bridge plate. Adjust the bridge saddle to compensate for flatness or sharpness until the note at the 12th fret is in tune with the open string note. Do the same for all six strings and your guitar will now be properly intonated. Again carry this out in playing position for best results.

Finishing Up

Once you have completed all the above adjustments and you are happy with how your Stratocaster is playing, Go back and take a note of all settings and adjustments for reference later trust me this is a godsend if you have multiple guitars all with slightly different setups.

Now your guitar should comfortably stay in tune. Whenever you change strings I would re-check all the adjustments and adjust any that are out.

If you do these adjustments with each and every string change your guitar will always play at its very best.


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