Back to the Set-Up

mark-150So last month we finished part three of tremolo modifications and we’re all done with tremolos right!!!  Wrong! Funny thing, I was in a local music store this weekend and a guy was picking up his Dean “Dimebag Dime O Flame”.  The local tech had just modified the Floyd Rose on it, to convert it to a non-floating tremolo. The guy was using a lot of different drop tunings live and was having a problem keeping the Axe in tune. (It’s pretty hard to get the Allen key out in the middle of a set and adjust your Floyd!). The dude looked like he was still in school, so my guess was he didn’t have the $cashola$ to have different axes tuned for different songs. So as a temporary fix, the guy was unlocking the strings at the nut and tensioning the tremolo springs like crazy to get the tremolo to dead-end against the body. By doing this, he was trying to convert his Floyd into a non-floating tremolo. Now anyone that has ever had a Floyd knows this will just not work. The geometry of a Floyd will be totally F%cked up by doing this. The Floyd will lean on a negative angle back into the body pocket, or onto the face of the body itself. It also makes it hard to properly adjust your string action.

So here’s a tried and true method for converting a Floyd into a fixed tremolo without screwing it up for the future. In other words, these changes can be reversed and the unit can be made back into a floating tremolo if you want.

A) First, remove the spring cover plate from your Axe.

B) Second, with the strings unlocked at the nut, tune your Axe and adjust the return spring tension to get the action you want with the tremolo plate parallel with the top of your body.

C) Third, take a six inch steel rule and measure the gap distance from the front of the tremolo block to the edge of your guitar body in the spring cavity. Now, let’s say that distance is ¼” (6mm).

Measure the gap between the body and the tremolo Block

D) Now go to your local hardware store and get some 1/8” (3mm) thick X ½” (13mm) wide steel bar stock. You will only need about 6” (150mm) of the stuff. Now cut two pieces 1 ½” (38mm) long and glue them together with Super Glue so they make a one plate that’s ¼” (6mm) thick by 1 ½” (38mm) long. This is the shim plate you will use to convert the Floyd to a fixed tremolo.

E) Now using a marker put a line on the tremolo block at the same level where your spring pocket finished near the block, i.e., level with the top of the spring pocket. This is where the shim will be placed. That way the block shim plate will always rest on the body when returning to its fixed position.

Mark a line here, level with the top of the spring pocket for the shim.


F) Now remove your Floyd tremolo unit from your Axe and using a 2 part epoxy, glue the shim plate to the tremolo block below the position line you marked earlier (i.e. so the ship plate will fill the ¼” gap and rest on the body). The cool part of the epoxy is that you can remove the epoxy and the shim any time you want, and by doing so convert you tremolo back to a floating unit.

G) Re-install your Floyd and tune everything to pitch. Adjust the springs so there is sufficient tension to keep the tremolo block shim tight against the body and there you go, you now have a fixed tremolo that keeps the unit parallel with the body no matter how you set your string height. The geometry will always be correct. The added benefit is you will also get more sustain out of your Axe because there is more of the tremolo in contact with the body!


Now, Back to the Set-Up!

So we’re finished with all that pre-setup stuff, so go ahead and remove the strings from your Axe.

Get That Neck Clean

Before we put new strings on we are going to do some fret board cleaning. If you play a lot you should be wiping down your strings after each time you play. At the same time, wipe your fret board down to get any sweat and grime off. This is something you should get into the habit of doing; it will lengthen the life of your strings and keep your fret board clean. If you don’t regularly wipe your strings, or you’ve never cleaned your fret board, it’s time to do it.

The first step is to get any crud or buildup off the fret board. You will be surprised at how much crap can stick to your neck! What you clean your fret board with, depends on what the fret board is made of. What you use for cleaning a maple neck is different from what you will use to clean a rosewood or ebony neck.

For a maple neck, the best thing to use is a little bit of lighter fluid with a soft cotton rag. This, with a little elbow grease, should remove even the cruddiest buildup. Just go easy on the lighter fluid and be sure to use your fingernails along the sided of your frets to make sure you get all the grime off.

Do not use lighter fluid on a rosewood or ebony fret board neck.

For a rosewood neck use a bit of lemon oil, and when I say a bit I mean a bit. Put a dab of oil on a clean cotton rag and work it into the fret board between each fret.

Any Lemon Oil will do. This is What I Had nearby for the Photo.

The oil is just to loosen the dirt and grime. Now using a 1” (25mm) wide plastic scraper or a radius gauge, gently scrape the fret board between each fret in the direction of the neck (i.e. with the wood grain). Be careful, don’t apply too much pressure to the scraper, just enough to get any buildup off. Once you have finished scraping, use a clean cotton rag to wipe the crud off. Remember if you wipe down your strings and fret board every time you play, you will only need to clean your fret board like this about once a year.

Polish Those Frets

Now that you got all that gunk and crud off your fret board, why not go ahead and polish your frets as well. A good fret polish will make your Axe play like butttttter. There are a number of ways to polish your frets. Many people use steel wool for polishing their frets. The only problem with steel wool is that it can leave fine bits of the wool in the fret board along the edge of the frets. Personally, I prefer to use special polishing papers from 3M for fret polishing. These special 3M papers are on a cloth backing and range in grit from 400 all the way up to 8000. If you can’t find these at your local auto parts place, you can get them from Stew Mac.

Before we start polishing, you will need to protect your fret board. Get your hands on some 1/2” (13mm) low tack painters tape; the blue or green stuff is fine. Now, tape off the fret board between each fret.

J Bass Neck All Taped Up for a Fret Polish

You’ll need to do this on all neck types to protect the board during fret polishing. If you are going to use steel wool, use 0000 only, nothing else is fine enough. If you’ve gotten your hands on some of the 3M papers’ start with a pink 4000 grit (3 Micron) and work up to the white at 8000 grit (1 Micron). Here’s a trick for you, get yourself a white Mars pencil eraser and wrap your steel wool or polishing paper around the eraser.

Mars Eraser with 3M Polishing Paper

Then, using the eraser wrapped in the steel wool or the paper, polish the frets in the cross neck direction. This will save a ton of wear and tear on your fingers, and the eraser is flexible enough to get around the crown of your frets, doing the top and sides of your frets at the same time.

Polish in the Direction of the Frets

Now, when you think you are done, turn your Axe around 180o and polishing each fret again. (No one ever said doing it right was going to be easy). Now you’re done! Go ahead and remove the masking tape.

Final Fret Board Conditioning

If you have a maple neck, skip this part.

For rosewood or ebony necks, there is one last step to do before you are finished. Get the lemon oil out again and dab some on the fret board.

Just a Dab of Lemon Oil Goes a Long Way

Work it into the wood and then wipe down the entire fret board with a clean cotton rag. You should do this step every time you change your strings.


There is nothing more important to your personal tone and sound, than the strings you are playing on. There are a ton of things that you should take into account when you decide what gauge of string you will use on your Axe or Bass. How thick a sound do you want? How strong are your hands? What type of music will you be playing? Will you be doing a lot of big (SRV Blues Type) string bends? Etc., etc.

If you are just starting out on guitar, you may want to use an extra lighter gauge (.008 to .038) until your hands get used to playing. Maybe your style includes lots of blues bends but you also want a heavier bass tone, so use a thin/thick set (.010 to .052). Or, maybe you have been playing a long time and want a thicker sound, so go to a heavier string (.012 to .052). There are a lot of different guitar gauges to choose from, so experiment with different ones until you find the one that is right for you. If you think picking a set of strings for a guitar player is hard, wait till you see what a bass player has to go through! On top of choosing a string gauge, they have to choose between different string types, Round-wound, Flat-wound, Half-rounds, Core-contact or outer string contact? Again experiment with different types until you find one that works for you.

One thing though and don’t forget this, your Axe or bass and your personal tone will always sound its best with a new set of strings! Here’s the funny thing about strings THEY DIE! THEY DECEASE! & DECAY! You play on them and they wear out faster than you think even without you noticing.  Keep in mind we are talking here about something that is made of steel. Take a piece of single strand wire and bend it back and forth and see how long it takes before it breaks in half. You are doing the same thing with your strings, just not bending them in half. You are causing them to lose their temper, and that’s what makes them sound dead. It makes them harder to tune, harder to bend and get the right note and they lose that crisp pop that they should have. It’s the same thing for bass strings. Now I know “we players” are a cheap bunch, but spending $5.50 on a set of new strings is the cheapest way to make your Axe sound its best. By the way, the Bass players now are even cheaper but they have reason. Their strings cost 4 times as much, but it’s still the best investment you can make in your sound so change your strings.

Before you install your strings take a closed box wrench and make sure all the tuner hold down nuts on the front of your headstock are tight. At the same time, tighten the screws on any string trees and all the tuner screws on the back of your headstock. Loose hardware will always cause annoying rattles and buzzes when you least expect it, so always check that all your screws and nuts are tight.

Installing Your strings

Sounds pretty simple right? Well there are tons of different ways out there on how to install strings right. It seems every expert out there has his or her own way of installing strings, right, so we are just going to stick to the basics. Again most of us have done this hundreds of times so we will go over this for the newbies out there. Open the pack of strings and check them for rust spots. I cannot tell you how many times I have opened a new pack to find rust spots on them, most times on the unwound strings. If they are rusty bring them back to where you bought them and get a new pack. Better yet find a new brand!!

First thing to do is make sure all the string holes in the tuner posts are in line with the direction of your neck, if not, just turn your tuner buttons until they are all in line with the string direction. Install one string at a time starting with the bass E. Feed the string through your bridge or tailpiece and pull it up towards the nut. Make sure you get the string in the proper bridge saddle and that it is in the correct string slot at the nut. Now for your E and A strings, measure a length 2 tuner posts past the tuner you are going to use and cut off the string there.

Measure 2 Tuner Posts Past the One you Will be Using for the E and A

Next, insert the string into the hole in the tuner post from the opposite end of the hole (i.e. from the end of the neck side. Insert it enough that 1/8” of an inch (3mm) of the string sticks out the hole on the other side.

Insert your String from The Head End, 1/8” (3mm) Hanging out

 Then pull the long part of the string down towards the bridge causing a sharp bend in the string.

Pull the String back 180 Deg. so you have a Sharp Bend in the string.

Then, while keeping tension on the string, start turning the tuner button to wind the string on the post from the top down. You want to try and get at least three complete windings on the tuner post for your E, and A strings.

3 Windings on the Post.

For your D, G, B and Treble E measure a length 2 ½ to 3 tuner posts past the tuner you are going to use.  Cut off the string there and follow the same procedure for winding the strings on their posts. Once you get all the strings on, tune them to pitch. Now while holding each string down at the first fret, gently pull up on each string to pre-stretch them one at a time. Re-tune your Axe and repeat the stretching again a couple of times until they stay in pitch. That’s it!

Oh one thing, a lot of guys think it looks cool to use the complete string length when installing them. They leave the extra un-wound portion of the string hanging off the end of the headstock looking like a porcupine. A word of warning, do this only if you want to increase your chance of getting electrocuted on stage! All you need is one ground loop between you and the P.A. system.  You touch your mike with those strings and it may be the last thing you do. So cut them off!

Next month, we will go over the correct way to install strings on a Floyd Rose equipped Axe and then on to the final set-up steps.

In the coming months we will be changing the format of “Axe the Builder”.  Just like Loud Guitars we will be going all high-tech and doing this in front of a HD Camera. So stay tuned!!


Cheers, Be Good to Each Other and Remember

 “You’re always learning about this thing, every time you pick it up”  “Keith Richards”

Cheers, Mark


To read more about Mark click HERE


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