You Set ‘em Up-Part 2

This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched.

This 58 sounded pretty good. Note how shallow the saddles are notched. Pole screws are pretty low but they don’t do that much anyway.

OK, so you’ve set the truss rod for the way you like the neck and the action and intonation are good. You raised or lowered the stop tail into the sweet spot or maybe you came to the conclusion that there really isn’t a sweet spot and that’s fine. There’s no buzzing, so the frets and the nut are good, so you’re done right? You might be but maybe the sustain isn’t quite right or the balance between the pickups seems off or maybe the A string is too loud compared to the others. The truth is that, for some guitars,  there’s a lot more to do. On others, there isn’t. A lot of it is personal preference but some of it isn’t.

One of the biggest problems with 335’s is lack of sustain and the culprit is almost always the saddles. For a guitar to sustain, the string has to vibrate freely for as long a possible. Since nearly all the vibration takes place between the nut and the saddles, you can bet the nut and the saddles are at issue when the guitar sounds dull or muffled. The wood could contribute to the problem as well but there’s no adjustment for that. Well, what could be restricting the strings? It could be that the nut slots are cut too deep or it could be that the saddles are notched too deep. Most 335’s I come across still have the original nut and while they are not without problems, deeply cut slots are usually not an issue. Slots that are too narrow are common which is why a lot of 335’s seem to go out of tune when you do a lot of note bending. That isn’t the tuners slipping. Slipping tuners will make your string go flat. A binding nut slot (which is really common) will make the string go sharp. I usually fix that wth a little graphite (from a pencil). If that doesn’t work, talk to your luthier unless you are comfortable widening the nut slots.

Assuming the nut isn’t the problem (and it probably isn’t), take a look at the saddles. I see saddles with multiple slots, slots that are way too wide and, most often, slots that are way too deep. To get the best performance out of your strings-meaning maximum vibration and sustain-the saddles should be as shallow as possible. The slots are there to keep the strings in place and it doesn’t take much of a slot to do that. On the wound strings, at least half of the string should be above the saddle, so the slot is no more than half the depth of the string. If they are deeper than that but you aren’t experiencing any problems, then leave them. If it ain’t broke… But if the guitar seems a bit lifeless, more often than not, it’s the saddle notches. It’s less of a problem on the wound strings but on the high E, B and especially the G, the difference between a really shallow notch and a deep one is huge. On the plain strings start with the shallowest notch you can cut. If the string pops out when you bend a note, then make it a little deeper and try again. If you have to get a new set of saddles, put the originals in a zip lock and put them in the case  pocket. Somebody down the line is going to want the original saddles. Try to find nickel plated brass saddles. Vintage nylon are great, too but the newer nylon ones are too soft. The vintage ones with the flatter top surface seem better to me but the knife edge ones work OK too. Vintage ones are hard to find but they are out there.

Lastly, let’s look at the pickup height. I start with them as high as they will go without interfering with the strings. That’s my personal taste-there’s no right or wrong-use your ears. If the balance between them is off, lower the louder pickup until they are closer to being equal. If the balance from bass strings to treble strings is off, raise one side of the pickup or the other until it sounds right. If a particular string is too loud or too soft, you can try adjusting the pole screws but I have to say that it really doesn’t seem to do much. I think the proximity of the magnet to the strings has a lot more to do with volume than the pole screws which are hardly magnetized.

That should get you set up properly. I’m not a luthier, so I leave any major fret issues and the nut issues to them. You might want to experiment with different string makers or different gauges. I find 335’s sound best with 11’s or 10’s. 9’s generally don’t intonate well on older guitars-they simply weren’t made for lighter gauges. I have no favorite strings. I do like Pyramids but they are expensive and they don’t last very long. D’Addarios have always worked for me as have DR and a few others. It mostly depends on what you play and how you play. I like brighter strings.

The larger point is to experiment and trust your ears. There is no magic formula.

The pickups can be set pretty close to the strings. Start high and back off to find the tone that suits you.

The pickups can be set pretty close to the strings. Start high and back off to find the tone that suits you. This is a 59 345.


9 Responses to “You Set ‘em Up-Part 2”

  1. RAB says:

    Charlie, great tips as always. Pickup height is fun to play with. Lower, as low as setting the pup cover level with the top of the plastic pickup mounting ring yields a more pure rhythm sound, blistering lead tone not so much. But if you use an overdrive for your lead work maybe that isn’t an issue! Happy tweaking!

  2. Rod says:

    My ears are not really good enough to hear the different sounds from differing pickup heights but they certainly can hear unbalanced pickups. Getting the two pickup sound balanced is much more important to me.

  3. Michael Minnis says:

    Great tips on both posts, Charlie. Thanks for taking the time to write all that up. Much appreciated by all of us!

  4. Steve Newman says:

    Charlie, you have just posted an excellent tutorial in your last two posts for setting up ANY tune a matic/stoptail equipped guitar. These are the basic steps that all good luthier/tech persons follow when doing professional set up work and it is something every guitarist needs to learn….no one can set up your guitar exactly to your personal preference but you. There is a generally accepted range for action height, feel, and tone/sustain, but the fine tuning and tweaking come down to the individual player. Great job, as usual!

  5. Joe Campagna says:

    If you want to stick with nylon,Philadelphia Luthier supply has Delrin saddles which are much harder than the new nylon junk.They look and sound great.

  6. James says:

    Awesome post Charlie! This is very useful, tried and true information. Have you ever tried using KTS titanium saddles? I know they make them for the ABR-1. If you don’t want to bother with changing saddles on a vintage bridge, they also sell them already in an ABR-1. I have wondered what it would do for an ES-335. Not having a 335 anymore, I guess I would have to wait for someone doing a demo on youtube.

  7. RAB says:

    I’ll stick with the good ole original nickel-plated milled brass saddles! The only change I make to my Classic Year bridges is to swap non-wired for wired model ABR-1s. No fun to lose a saddle on a dank, dark club floor if a string breaks don’tcha know!

  8. RAB says:

    I have been using Pyramid nickel Max Performance strings (10-46) sets for decades and they last a long time for me. That said, I am a fanatic about cleaning the strings with a soft flannel cloth after every use!

  9. Steve Newman says:

    James, RE the titanium saddles for ES 3xx family guitars, I have a modern Gibson Historic factory no wire ABR-1 bridge so equipped and have tried it on a number of different 3xx guitars. Every person is going to have an opinion about what they personally hear, but to my ears, the titanium saddles are slightly crisper, with more high end and more immediate attack on the front end of the note, and depending on the individual guitar, give slightly more to noticeably more sustain. I think the style music you are playing, the volume level you are working with, and the basic tone (clean, slightly dirty, or heavily distorted) will dictate the type saddles you would use to optimize your sound and tailor it to the specific subset of music you are playing. I love the vintage nylon saddles for lower volume jazz and blues, where you are looking for a big, clear, slightly round tone and the nickel plated brass saddles for higher volume vintage blues or rock. The titanium saddles seem to give a little more chime for indie rock or more modern pop and rock, and give a wider tonal range to the instrument, making them the most versatile in my mind. These are all subtle differences and none of the types of saddles is going to radically alter the basic sound of your particular guitar, just tweak it one way or the other, slightly. FYI, the master of tone, Larry Carlton (Mr. 335) uses titanium saddles.

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