It’s tough to cut great tracks if your guitar lets you down.
My guitars get used every day. Not all of them of course, but quite a few of the workhorses get a lot of active duty. I don’t do any of my own fretwork or electronics, but I try to keep each guitar tuned up.
With Stratocasters, I restring one string at a time, so as not to take all the tension off the neck. I’ve had a few guitar techs tell me it doesn’t matter, and that wood has a memory, but I’m a little superstitious about that. If the guitar sounds good, there’s a certain voodoo I refuse to mess with. I use a bit of lube in the nut slots, and stretch out the strings with a few good tugs before checking the intonation.
Plugging into a quality tuner, I play the high E on the first string at the 12th fret. If the note at the 12th fret is sharp of the 12th fret harmonic, the string length is too short. If that is the case, I turn the screw at the back of the bridge clockwise with a Phillips screwdriver to pull the saddle backwards. After a few tweaks, I get the fretted note to be perfectly in tune with the harmonic of the same pitch, and then intonate the other strings the same way. Next I use my Allen wrench to “stair step” the saddles in an arc that matches the neck radius. I’ll bend a few notes to make sure my action height is perfect.
Then, I turn my attention to pickup heights. The amazing thing about Strats is that even a slight adjustment can make a huge difference. If the bass side is too high off the deck you’ll get a nasty wobble on low-E string notes from around the 11th fret on up. I find the perfect balance is where I have just enough sonic girth from my neck pickup without rendering the Eb through C (frets 11 through 19) useless. I need those notes!
The “in-between” sounds on a Stratocaster (5-way switch positions 2 and 4) are affected by pickup height, too. I want my position 2 (neck and middle combination) to be warm and jazzy, and I want my position 4 (middle and bridge combo) to have maximum cluck. My criteria for the other three sounds are as follows: The neck pickup should be fat and woodsy, like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s tone. The middle pickup should sound glassy like a lot of the things Jimi played. The bridge pickup played clean should be a bright, Tele-like tone.
Every guitarist has his or her desert island amp, and for me it’s a 1964 Blackface Fender Princeton Reverb. I actually own three of these, as they are my ground-zero tweaking amps. I sit directly in front of a Princeton and make my instrument sound as good as possible. Only then will I know it will sound great on stage or in front of a microphone.