Trade Secrets!

Carlos Santana's Strat: repair and setup

Issue 59 April 17, 2008

Carlos Santana's Strat
Santana Strat Saddle Setup

Working on Carlos Santana’s vintage Strat

It was a treat to have Carlos Santana send me two refret jobs last December. They turned out well, he’s happy, and we’ve got some good tips for this Trade Secrets!

Dan Erlewine signature Dan Erlewine, April 17, 2008
Photo: Dan Erlewine
Neck Jig Frankenstrat

One of the two Santana guitars was a ’63 Lake Placid Blue Strat with a neck that was twisted so badly that nobody thought it was salvageable. That neck had been given up for dead, but it came back to life on the Neck Jig!

Surrogate body plan

Surrogate body
If you use the Neck Jig for your fretwork, have you made yourself a surrogate body for it?
This is described in the instructions that come with the Jig. For bolt-on necks, it’s a stand-in for the guitar body: bolt the neck on, string up with a top loading bridge, and you’ve got easy access for adjustments. (And the vintage guitar body stays safely in its case while the work is going on.)

I use mine for bolt-on neck refrets, and I've modified it by adding the two body-shaped wings you see here. For setup work, this makes mine more lap-friendly than the simple block of wood.
Erlewine Neck Jig
Fender truss rod wrench
For adjustments, I like our new truss rod wrench for Fenders. It really fits a vintage Fender adjusting nut without slipping or damaging the slot.
Truss Rod Wrench for Fender
String Action Gauge
The other Strat was a sunburst from Fender’s mid-60s transitional period. All the bridge saddle height-adjustment screws protruded way above the tops of the saddles — measured with my string action gauge in this photo. Too-tall saddle screws are very uncomfortable: they dig into your hand. As the last step in a setup job, I shorten them and smooth their tops.

Rather than alter the vintage saddle screws, I labeled them and stored them in the guitar case. I used new screws for the setup. Fender makes these screws in four different lengths: 1/4", 5/16", 3/8", and 1/2". One of these sizes always gets me close to my goal, then I grind them to the perfect length.
String Action Gauge
Measuring Santana's intonation
A few screws were rusted in place and I needed to remove those saddles to work on them. I recorded the exact location of each saddle with a caliper before removing it just to be safe. (If Carlos is happy with the intonation, far be it from me to change it.)
Luthier's Digital Caliper
Surrogate saddle
To custom grind each screw to perfect length, I used a surrogate saddle to hold the screw — making a nick to mark the amount to be removed with my diamond nut file. (That’s an Allen wrench mounted in a wooden handle.)

Diamond Nut File
Grinding the saddle screw

Grinding the saddle screw
Then I trim the bottom of the screw to length using a stone wheel on a Dremel Tool in the precision router base. I turn the screw with the Allen wrench to create a chamfer on the end.

Finally I carefully de-burr any sharp edges by holding the saddle in my nut/saddle vise and just kissing it with the smoothest cut of my nut/saddle file.
Dremel 4000 Rotary Tool Outfit
Video link: Fret Rocker
Video headline: Fret Rocker

Check out this video on
Dan shows where he got the idea for the Fret Rocker: it started as a gift from a fretting workshop student. See how the Fret Rocker locates trouble spots.
Dan with Santana's Strat
I had a lot of fun on this job, and got it back to Carlos just right before Christmas.
Later, I got to meet Carlos backstage at the NAMM musical merchandising show in Anaheim:
Carlos Santana and Dan Erlewine
Carlos Santana's string nut
Carlos also needed a new bone nut; the original had served it's purpose long ago and was resting on a pretty thick wood shim (shown to the right of the used nut). That can't be good for tone.

When all was done, Carlos' Strat had .065" action at the twelfth fret (a little over 1/16").
Vintage Bone Nuts

Dan Erlewine signature

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