In my 18+ years of playing Fender Strats, I've come to know a few real world solutions for fixing some annoying basic setup problems that I would like to share with anyone who might be facing similar issues and scratching their heads about it. The beauty of the Fender Stratocaster is that one of Leo Fender's foremost considerations in it's prototype design in early 1954 was that it be easily serviceable, and it remains so to this day. You can't say that about a lot of other modern versions of consumer products.
As a disclaimer I'm not a luthier/repairman and the only experience I have working on Strats are the 9 or 10 that I own at any one time. Once you own this many enough problems can appear that you can see a variety of issues that you might not notice with only owning one instrument. If you have a problem with your guitar and it needs repair and you have no experience in dealing with it, you should first try to find a qualified guitar tech in your area! BUT if you own 2 or more Strats why not use one to learn on ? Get yourself a good repair book, such as that written by Dan Erlewine from Steward McDonald guitar repair in Ohio, and learn the basics. Then these tips I have listed below will have a more valuable context.
Also it would be good to review Fender's official setup guide for Strats located here:
Action, Radius and Relief.
Every guitar player, sooner or later, has to understand these concepts if they want to get the most out of their instrument.
is most simply understood as the height of the bridge saddles in relationship to the fret board. The higher the action the higher the strings will measure off the fretboard. You will commonly hear most players wanting or praising a guitar that has "low action." Low action guitars are commonly viewed as easy to play, and therefore desirable. It is not surprising that many if not most manufacturers ship their guitars from the factory with an action that is more likely low rather than high. Some players want them even lower and will have them adjusted for this by lowering the saddles with an Allen wrench. The problem with a low action is that you are much more likely to get strings that buzz against the frets. A lot of guitar techs and repair books on this subject will say that it's not a problem with an electric guitar if you can't hear it through the amp. And to an extent this is true - if you can't hear it or it doesn't bother you then it is not a problem! However, in my experience I can typically hear buzzing through an amp and if you are recording you may not want to hear that in your mix! TIP: Use the correct gauge Allen wrench (it can vary with different Strat models slightly, so I buy the sets you can find at auto parts stores and hardware stores) to raise the offending saddles higher to minimize the buzz. A lot of pro players with good tone play with high action. Yngwie Malmsteen is someone for example who plays with high action and also very fast, so it's a myth that you can't play fast with high action. High action is just something you get used to. I personally believe that high action gives better coupled tone because the distance from string to fret is increased, yielding a greater punch or impact when the strings hit the frets, much in the same way (but to a lesser degree) that thicker gauge strings generally have better tone than thinner gauge sets. Its subtle, but I can hear the difference on my Strats when I record them.
can be understood most practically as the contour / curve of the bridge saddles so that they match the "radius" of the curvature of the frets on your fretboard. Fender typically has two radiuses: 7.25" and 9.5". Although some newer models like my Custom Shop Design Mexican Built 60s model has a 12" radius! Typically Vintage spec strats are 7.25" and American modern models are 9.5", however if you are not sure, consult the Fender website for your model. The larger the radius, the flatter your strings are in relationship to each other. Shredders typically love flatter radius guitars- that can be anywhere from 10" - 16" in radius, such as you would find on many Ibanez models or compound after market necks, which become flatter the further down the neck you go towards the bridge. The old 7.25 radius is viewed by many as very comfortable for chording, but not very good for lead work, for the simple reason that the curve of the frets can "choke" out a note as you bend it wildly. Since I'm something of a contrarian some of my best lead work is done on 7.25 radius Strats. So if you have a 7.25 strat . . . TIP: flatten the radius of your bridge saddles again by raising the offending bridge saddles on the treble side (typically E and B strings) so that this "choking" out does not occur. A lot of pro players will do this - use Strats with 7.25 radius necks but with bridge saddles that look a lot more like 9.5 or even 12" ! You can measure your radius with radius gauges that can be purchased at Stewart McDonald guitar Supply, or if you are like me, get them in one of Dan Erelewine's books (they came as plastic punch outs - very handy!).
is the amount of curvature in the neck, because strings under tension naturally create a pull/bow on the neck. The truss rod inside the neck is set to counteract this action. Most guitars are shipped with straight necks for good reason. Tightening the truss rod will straighten the neck, i.e. reduce forward bow caused by the string tension. Loosening the truss rod will do the exact opposite, creating more relief in the neck - most noticeable as a bow in the neck in the middle frets area. When you loosen the truss rod you are in effect causing the strings to be higher off the fretboard in that portion of the neck that is bowed. Again, because some players don't like a high action they look unfavorably on having relief in their neck. But the benefit of having some relief in the neck is that because the strings are higher off the frets in the controlled bowed section, the string angle across the fret behind (or in front of depending on your viewpoint) the fretted string there will have slightly higher clearance, thus potentially reducing the amount of buzz you are going to hear on the strings. Tightening a truss rod too much can ruin your guitar, so be careful, however if your guitar came from the factory and you have never adjusted it, loosening it will probably not hurt it and you will not need much of a turn to do the job and see some results, and remember that the neck may continue to adjust for 24 hours somewhat as the strings are stretched back into tension. But you can loosen the rod so much if you keep turning it that it will come apart, and you don't want that to happen!! Truss rod adjustments are best left to a professional repair man, but I own many Strats so I assume the risks! This is where a good reference book like Dan Erlewine's "How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great" becomes essential to first time truss rod tweakers.
The important thing is to see how the relationship of Action, Radius and Relief all go together to affect the way your strings will sound on your frets. Getting them right (for you) will go a long way to solving wound string buzz on the frets. If your guitar is buzzing everywhere on the wound strings, then exploring the setup of your guitar with respect to Action, Radius and Relief is something you should do. Isolated buzzing (one or two places on the neck) are typically unrelated - either rattling hardware (metal can do that), or bad fret work, a discussion that is beyond this blog.
Buzzing on Open Strings
If you hit an open E, A or D string (typically its a wound string, but I've heard open string buzzing on G strings too) and you get a buzz then what is happening is that the strings are hitting the first fret. The most common explanation for this is a nut that is cut too low, however other things can have a minute impact on the relationship of string clearance (in my opinion, such as the tremolo/bridge fulcrum setup, i.e. overall bridge height off the body, irregardless of saddle height). Its entirely possible that you have raised your action, and loosened for some relief and you still have bad buzz not only on the open strings but on other frets on the wound strings as well. The problem is the nut! You can have another nut cut for you, have a luthier back fill it, buy some pre-cut blanks in the hope they are better, or do what I do, shim it! With the strings off the guitar, get a pair of decent needle nose pliers and pull and shimmy and gently rock the nut out of the seating. If it's bone, I've never had one break on me . . . but be careful. There may be some glue underneath holding it, but it should unseat from that seal fairly easily, as it was designed to be removed for replacement or service over time. On some newer Strats I've noticed they are not even gluing the nuts anymore! CNC routing must be really tight!* (* I should mention that this technique mainly applies to rosewood board strats- on maple necks the finish is typically sprayed over or around the nut so that pulling out the nut is much more difficult. You can try scoring around the base with a razor blade but if that doesn't enable your pliers to get a grip on the nut and loosen it, then this is when I would stop and take it to a luthier, for fear of chipping the nut.)
What you want to do is cut a shim that matches as closely as possible the base of the nut seat. It should be out of a thin material. I use, oddly enough, copper shielding tape from Stewart McDonald that I use to shield my component cavities (I leave the paper backing on when I cut it and place it). The good thing about this is that it is easily cut with scissors and can be removed easily later should you decide the shim doesn't work for you. The bad thing is that the nut might move once you put it back, but typically this is a minor movement and you can push it back into place. Using a one or two ply approach this way, I have been able to cure the open string buzz issue completely. Open string buzz is something you DO hear through an amp because typically we like to hit those power notes hard! If you do proceed with the shim, thus raising the nut, remember that the rest of the string clearance will also be higher, thus effectively raising your action. This might make the guitar very uncomfortable to play . . . because we are used to having some relief but not necessarily higher string clearance across the entire length of the fretboard uniformly, aside from that caused from raising the bridge saddles. So if you raised the bridge saddles to create higher action and shimmed the nut and its uncomfortable to play, I recommend lowering the action a hair to see if that helps - this is what I've done with my guitars and for me it is the best compromise I've found for my Strats.
so my setup formula for my vintage 7.25 strats is typically: slightly flattened radius + high action + considerable relief + nut shim (if needed) - action adustment.
EXTRA TIP: DRONING G STRING
If you have a vintage spec strat you may notice that there is only a string tree over the high E & B strings, while an American Standard and many like models has them over the G & D strings as well. This improvement was made because the G string can ring sympathetically (like a harsh sounding harmonic) even after you have muted the string. Some guitars are simply worse than others. I have some strats where it doesn't bother me, but my Sonic Blue custom design strat rings quite loudly, enough to show up in recording. The solution is a string tree, but if you want the quick and fast solution for recording (and you don't have to devalue your instrument or mod it any by putting a string tree on it), then take some masking tape and wrap it over the strings behind the nut. That dampening will stop the ringing pretty effectively! You can also steal one of your wife's or girl friend's hair scrunchy thingies, and it will stretch over the headstock, past the machine heads and mute the ringing completely.
Some people wonder why a guitar player needs multiple Strats . . . but if you are a player, composer, etc., having a few guitars of a similar type allows you to experiment with different setups, switch guitars and figure out what setups are best for your needs, then instantly go back and forth between them so you can really get real time data on your playing impressions. In my case I have a couple of Strats with lower action for easy blazing play, and of course those suckers buzz so I only use them with higher gain settings. Then most of my rest are setup to my real preference and are a bit "stiffer" to play than normal but those are the true tone monsters. Also on the days when my left wrist is acting up its easier for me to go back to the buzzier and low action setups than it is to play on the high action setups, even though those guitars clearly sound better to my ears.
EXTRA TIP 2: SHOPPING FOR STRATS
With all this in mind, I never buy my Strats online, because I have to play them before I decide whether its going to be a "player" for me. Luckily LA has so many great places to buy Strats and great selection of them too. The first thing I do with a Strat in a store is check it for buzzing vis-a-vis the aforementioned issues of action, radius and relief. If the guitar does not buzz too badly with the factory setup, then I'm reasonably certain that the tweaking I do to it after I get it home will help things a lot, and turn a good Strat into a potentially great instrument. However like any mass produced item, any guitar from any manufacturer, each is a little different, so you have to examine them. But the quick test is - if the guitar is really buzzing badly in the store, a guitar tech might be able to get it better, but it will never (in my experience) go away the level that you might wish it to. If you are nutso about these things like I am, or recording, this could be a serious issue- do you really want shell out several hundred or more dollars for something that isn't totally right? How bad do you want that other color, if the guitar itself isn't that great? So that's why its important to start with a guitar that is a minimal buzzing offender. After you play enough Strats and start tinkering with them you begin to get kind of Zen about it and you will be able to tell fairly quickly which guitars are good. In this way you can also save yourself A LOT of money, because in my experience where a guitar is made or the retail price increment has very little to do with whether a guitar is a serious player or not in terms of setup potential or things like build quality - coupling tone. A lot of guitar players will disagree with me on this, but that's okay! It leaves more middle priced guitars for me to look at it!
I'm not an expert in this stuff, and I'm sure most guitar techs know a lot more than I do, but the main thing I wanted to convey here is that ultimately you are the player and you have every right to tinker with your guitars to get them exactly how you want them! When guitars play right to you, they sound even better!