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From Point A to Point B

This may be the most important part of your tone generation. I don't care how old your wood is (insert joke here) or how hot your PAFs are (insert other joke here), if the saddles are notched wrong, your guitar will sound like crap.

This may be the most important part of your tone generation. I don’t care how old your wood is (insert joke here) or how hot your PAFs are (insert other joke here), if the saddles are notched wrong, your guitar will sound like crap.

Good news and bad news. I set up a lot of 335’s (and 345’s and 355’s). The good news is that they are very consistent and setup is usually pretty easy. When you work with the same guitar over and over again you learn what causes the various problems that can plague these guitars. The other good news is that almost all of the problems are pretty easy to fix. There is no bad news.

Typically, ES-335’s and their brethren rarely have neck problems. Most need a minor truss rod adjustment-usually they have been adjusted too tight and the neck is dead flat or slightly back bowed. A quarter turn counter clockwise is usually all it needs. The exception is late 60 and 61’s. There is so little wood between the truss and the back of the neck that they can crack, often a hairline crack in the middle of the neck between the 5th and the 9th fret. It isn’t a structural issue but it’s something you should look for. I usually dial in a bit of relief-not a lot, just enough to keep the string buzz away. A dead flat neck doesn’t work so well on 335’s.

Another issue is inconsistent output between the neck and bridge pickup. Sometimes the bridge is louder than the neck and sometimes its the other way around. I don’t find that adjusting the individual pole screws does much of anything but raising or lowering the pickup does quite a lot. there is no reason not to raise up the bass side a bit if those strings aren’t punching through as much as the higher strings. I like to start by raising the pickups are close to the strings as I can and then adjusting downward as needed. I sometimes flip the pickup ring on the neck pickup if it isn’t sitting parallel to the strings. That usually flattens it out.

The biggest and most common problem in setting up a 335 is dead strings-usually the B or the G. In my opinion, the most important element contributing to the great tone of a 335 isn’t the pickups. It isn’t the construction either. It’s the nut and the saddles. I don’t care how great the pickups are and how wonderful the old wood is…if the saddles and nut aren’t just right, it’s going to sound like crap. Call the saddles point A and the nut point B. It seems like a really small thing but if the strings don’t vibrate freely, you get lousy tone and lousy sustain. These are the things everybody chases. Getting your strings to ring out and keep ringing out is the key. It all happens between point A and point B. So, if your guitar isn’t sounding the way you want it to, the first thing to do is figure out if the problem is the nut or the saddles.

If the strings are sounding dull and lifeless (and you’ve changed them recently) you probably have a problem with the saddles or the nut or both. First, if they sound dull open but not when fretting, then you know it is the nut. That usually means the slots are binding and not allowing the strings to vibrate freely. Widen the slots slightly and see if that helps. Gibson nuts were often to tight from the factory. If it sounds dull even when fretting, then its probably the saddles. More often than not they have notched and renotched and widened a few times and changed a few times. Too deep a notch will cause the string to vibrate less freely. Too narrow will do the same. Too wide a notch will often rattle but it won’t usually cause a dead string. I make the saddle notches as shallow as possible and still hold the string in place. If the string isn’t sticking out above the notch, it’s too deep. I try to have at least half of the wound string above the notch. The plain strings are also slightly above the notch. The B and G strings are usually the worst. If the saddle is not too deep and it still sounds terrible, try widening the slot slightly. If that doesn’t work, get a new saddle and start over. You can sometimes file the saddle down to make the slot less deep but there’s a limit to that because it will affect the string height.

If this is scary for you, have your luthier or tech do it. There is no reason for a 335 from the era to sound dull. I’ve gotten every single one I’ve owned to ring out and sustain (as long as the neck is straight and the frets are good).

If the saddles are notched correctly and your guitar sounds dull on the open strings, it could be your nut (enough with the jokes). Get the nut and the saddles right and then you can worry about the rest of the package.

If the saddles are notched correctly and your guitar sounds dull on the open strings, it could be your nut (enough with the jokes). Get the nut and the saddles right and then you can worry about the rest of the package.

5 Responses to “From Point A to Point B”

  1. RAB says:

    Right on Charlie. As you note it is sometimes just a small adjustment of these elements to get things playing, feeling and sounding the way they should! Happy Hollidays fellow bloggers!

  2. Steve Newman says:

    You have just described an excellent way to get the full potential out of ANY guitar, Charlie, not just the 335. From flat top acoustics, jazz archtops, Les Pauls and stratocasters, the nut string slot depth and fit is critical for achieving the best tone and sustain. Ditto for the saddles…even Fender style strat and tele bridge saddles with round contact points (no notches) will wear a string “groove” in the saddle that must be touched up, or have the saddle replaced when they start losing their clear sustain. You could also get into the pros/cons of replacing the factory nylon nuts with upgraded bone replacements that are denser, much more durable, and sound better to most people. Also switching saddles to more exotic materials (even titanium) to search for the last 2% of sustain. And don’t forget the neck relief, each individual guitar will have a “sweet spot” that gives best combination of tone, sustain and playing feel. This is greatly affected by string gauge/tension. Well written and great overview, Charlie!

  3. Rod says:

    Bit more radical is to replace the saddles with new uncut ones. Just let the string rest on top and find its own place in line with the bridge and tailpiece. I had to do this on one guitar as the saddles had either worn or been cut very badly. I was very surprised at the very clear tone resulting so didn’t bother to cut any slots in the saddles.

  4. Steve Newman says:

    Rod, according to Gibson lore, in the old days at Kalamazoo, that is exactly what the factory workers did, except they tapped the string on the saddle with a small soft brass faced hammer to create just enough groove to anchor the strings and prevent sliding around on the peak of the saddle.

  5. Rod says:

    That makes sense. In any industrialised process workers or management will always find the easiest/most efficient/cheapest way of doing something. Reminds me of the old story about a manufacturer who had all the time and motion people in looking at every job and at the end got the laziest guy in the factory to do the job as he would find the way of doing it with least effort. I suppose this is what happened here.

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