Larry Cragg has been Neil Young’s guitar and amp tech since the early ‘70s. He has also worked with many other artists like Carlos Santana over the years, and he maintains a thriving guitar repair shop while also maintaining an extensive collection of vintage amplifiers available for rental. You could easily describe Larry as a tonefreak, and a very good one at that. He also plays pedal steel and guitar, and he knows as much about how these instruments work and how to make them sound their best as anyone on the planet. In this edition of the Quest he talks about setup tricks he has learned and developed over the years. Enjoy.
TQR: Tell us about your setup tricks, Larry.
For the nut, I use a soft pencil. Early Fenders and Gibsons had a plastic nut and that’s OK. Don’t forget to lube the string tree – friction is the enemy. Big Ben’s Nut Sauce has this little curved applicator that’s really good to use.
Neck pocket cleanup for Fenders…For a long time they had paper tags in the neck pocket to insulate the neck from the body. They would have a couple on top of the finish and one in the finish. I want the wood to touch wood, so scrape out the tags and then I use Goof Off to clean up any residue.
Where the screws go into the neck, they make a little hump. So I take an X-acto blade and I scrape that hump off because it holds the neck away from the body, and you don’t want that.
Micro-adjust necks… Do not use them. Terrible. What a bad idea.
Shims in the neck… They are rarely necessary, but if you have to use a shim, I make super thin ones out of maple so that the neck is touching wood. But that’s really rare. I want wood-to-wood contact everywhere.
TQR: Your Magnatone amps are very, very good.
The Stereo Twilighter is two mono amps literally, and it’s just bigger, richer and heavier. This is the one Brent Mason is talking about on YouTube. It has the midrange control where the mono Twilighter does not. They are both wonderful amps. And then the Single V is a tweed Pro that has largely been forgotten, unfortunately. It’s a great amp, but you have to be able to play it loud enough, and when you do it is totally over the top. It has no master volume and it is my favorite amp.
TQR: Let’s talk about acoustic guitars.
Yeah, I get a lot of pretty new Martins and they come with that cast bridge saddle, and the high E is coming from the middle of the saddle and it’s flat, and the A is coming from the front of the saddle so it’s sharp. It should be coming from the rear, the low E is coming from the rear as it should be, and the G is coming from where it should be. It’s a compensated bridge saddle done incorrectly. So I straighten the neck, which leaves the high E almost laying on the frets, so I put a nice bone saddle in it that’s taller and compensated correctly. The neck has to be straight. I put the hybrid bridge pins in, of which I’ve sold hundreds and hundreds of sets all over the world, and I use a Dremel tool on the low strings to hog off the groove a little bit above the ring right below the top of the bridge pin. That way the low E doesn’t keep the bridge pin from going all the way down.
TQR: Remind me again what your formula is for the bridge pins…
Water buffalo horn on the top three strings, and ebony for the bottom three strings. Plastic that they come equipped with of course absorbs all of the sound. So get rid of those. Listen to the high E string first and then replace the plastic with the water buffalo horn and listen to the difference. And then I wake up the top. I have a machine that vibrates it, and I only do it in specific spots. You don’t want to do anything in front of the bridge, because it kind of cuts the balls off the guitar.
TQR: How long do you vibrate the top?
Quite a while. You know about the ToneRite? It really doesn’t do much. This is really vibrating the top. And the straight neck makes a difference. It resonates and sustains. You do all these things and it really transforms a Martin.
TQR: How long do you have the guitar vibrating?
It depends, but usually about an hour. After that the tone just falls out of it. The guitar sounds less constricted. Even great old guitars can be helped by this.
TQR: How long have you been doing this?
Twenty years. Dave Matthews wanted to rent six of my guitars. I started doing this and I found that even great sounding guitars will atrophy if you don’t play them. I can’t play them all. So I came up with this, and the guitars sound better than ever. I’ve done this with mandolins too.
TQR: How long does it generally take?
A day. I charge $120 and if I’m doing a complete setup I’ll have it until everything settles down.
There are a couple of other things I wanted to talk about… Virtually every tune-o-matic bridge that comes in here is bent. I have a jig that I use to straighten them out, but you know, it’s just pot metal— it’s just crap. I don’t want to sound like an ad for Callaham, but it’s a revelation. I got him to turn around two of the bridge saddles because I couldn’t get the old ones flat enough or sharp enough.
The tone of the Callaham bridge is a little clearer and brighter and resonates more. Callaham also came out with their solid billet steel tailpiece and mounting studs and you do all these things and it really makes a difference. Without plugging it in you can hear a monstrous difference, and they don’t bend. When I’m doing the Neil Young style guitars with the really low bridge saddle, a Bigsby and tune-o-matic, you can’t use anything past a .052 or .053 gauge string because it has the wrong neck angle. If you have a tune-o-matic it is probably bent.
TQR: When you set the height of the tailpiece on a guitar with the tune-o-matic do you set it as low as it can go?
No! I don’t like that. I don’t want it cranked all the way down because it’s gonna bend your bridge. I don’t think you necessarily have to have a bone nut. On an acoustic guitar it is really critical and I really believe in bone. On an electric, some of the plastics they use for the nut takes a pencil lead much better. Getting a really sharp point on a lead pencil is my favorite way of lubing the strings. I use Big Bends Nut Sauce from the top three strings if I can’t get a pencil in there, but you don’t put it in the groove— you put it on top of the saddle. I use nut sauce and drag the string through it. If you put it in the groove it will deaden the string.
Also, with every guitar I work on I make sure the groove isn’t grabbing on to the string and goes ping. Then I take 2000 grit sandpaper, cover the nut file with it and make it super smooth in each groove so it doesn’t grab the string.
And I’m a true believer in Tri-flow. It’s a synthetic oil that doesn’t get gummy. I’ll put a little drop on the worm gear and the star gear as well. Friction is the enemy when tuning, and if people say their guitar won’t stay in tune it’s usually the nut.
Also, when you’re tuning you want to do it with a Strobotuner and check the tuning right after you pluck the note, because that’s how you play the guitar. I see guitars from my competition and I don’t know what they are doing. When I tune a string I compare the open string to the sound of the string played at the 12 fret. Not the harmonic. You have to use a Strobotuner and check the note right after you pluck the note.
TQR: A lot of people use the Boss TU-2 tuner.
I know. They should all be crushed. You have to use a strobe tuner because the Boss tuner is too slow. By the time it figures it out it’s too late to tune. You have to tune right after you pluck the string. That’s how you play the guitar. I really believe in the Strobotuners, and you can even get a Peterson app for your I-Phone. Also I flatten my B ever so slightly when I tune. Tune all of your strings straight up and then flatten your B ever so slightly and see how much sweeter it is.
TQR: What tuner do you use?
I use a Conn Strobotuner that I modify. I put a 10 turn pot in the calibration, so it takes a bunch of turns to even affect it at all, but it doesn’t drift. It has to be really fast, and a Strobotuner is the only thing that is fast enough. People just don’t understand. Or they tune with harmonics, and if you go back to the Strobotuner it’s wrong. If you played with harmonics all the time it would work, but you don’t. The harmonic is actually flatter because the string has more excursion.
We have talked about straight necks before, the book says you have to have relief, and so think about it, from the 12th fret up the ski jump is on its way back up, so the angle between the string and the next fret up is getting less and less. That’s why it buzzes out. When I was 14, I just found out that you could get lower action with less buzzes with a straight neck. Carlos has had straight necks all along and he lives in those upper registers and it’s really clear for him. But these wives’ tales about you gotta have relief is basically bullshit. That being said, when I set up Duck Dunn’s or Billy Talbot’s basses I would give them relief because they spend a lot of time down by the nut and they pick really hard. If you’re a bluegrass player that stays down in the first position and picks really hard I’ll give them some relief.
You heard my Lindy Fralin Telecaster pickups. My theory was that I wanted Alnico V on the bass strings and Alnico II on the treble strings. That was the theory and I had Lindy Fralin make them 5% overwound. I have my Road Worn Telecaster with my pickups and brass bridge saddles. I flatten the stock bridge plate so that it touches the body all the way across, with two screws in the front to hold the bridge plate down, and brass bridge saddles are critical.
I use a super tall D pole that balances the pickup out. That’s how I set up humbuckers, too. On neck humbuckers I usually raise the high E pole ever so slightly.
Stratocasters? You hear this all the time, that you have to keep the pickups far away from the strings because the magnetic pull will change the way they vibrate. That makes sense, but in reality I’ve found that the low E is the only thing that does this. If you get that low E too close to the string the Strobotuner will freak out. Experiment with it some time. Crank up the low E and see what happens. If you don’t have a Strobotuner you are lost. The other tuners are just too slow.
Are you familiar with the Road Worn Telecasters and Stratocasters?
TQR: Very much so.
I got turned on to them quite a while ago, and the old ones I like the best because I know they were doing this process back then and I don’t know if they are still doing it. Around ‘07 or ‘08 they moved the Custom Shop down to Mexico and they would vibrate the neck and dry it out. So if you bang on the back of the neck on one of these guitars it’s like iron wood, like a real ‘56 Stratocaster or Telecaster. It’s hard. On my guitars if you bang on the back of the neck it goes through the whole guitar, like a real ‘56 Stratocaster.
I find that I have to mill the middle of the frets within the first five or six frets to prevent them from fretting out when you bend the strings. I love the shape of the neck, I like the frets, and the roll at the edge of the fingerboard, and it just sounds great. If you put my pickups in the guitar, and do everything I said to the bridge plate and brass bridge saddles, and you’ll have the best sounding Tele ever, and it hardly cost you anything.
Same deal with the Road Worn Stratocaster. That guitar just feels right. I order my Stratocaster pickups from Lindy— a Blues Special 5% overwound in the neck and middle, and I have the middle reverse wound with the magnets upside down. In the bridge I have a steel pole which is really a P90 that looks like a Strat pickup. I have that overwound quite a bit— 10,500 turns and it really rocks. Then I turn the bottom knob into a master tone control, and the middle knob into a knob that blends in the neck pickup when it’s normally not on in positions 3, 4, and 5.
The reason I like Lindy Fralin pickups so much… I asked him why his pickups sound so much better and he said well, we all start with magnets, a bobbin and wire. He said he measures his pickups six times when he’s winding them to make sure there is enough air in there. They are just richer, like there is an extra helping of tone in there.
TQR: It sounds as if it just comes down to technique. The right materials are not hard to come by today, but the technique is because that’s something you have to learn.
Well, I’m just a huge fan of Lindy because he was my pickup winder way back when. I keep an open mind because I have different pickups coming in to be installed in guitars all the time. But what I find is that most bridge humbuckers are kind of cardboardy and go “ha, ha”. Where the Fralins have a little more “er” in them and it’s almost as if they have some neck pickup mixed in. It’s the only bridge humbucker I have heard that actually has some tone in it— it’s not just flat and lifeless. So if you get the 8K-9K set it’s just hard to beat. These are just the ordinary humbuckers he makes. I like the bridge pickup fairly close with the D pole up a little bit, and the others totally flat with the cover. And I like the D pole up a little bit on the neck and the high E up a little and the rest flat with the cover. And, I want the pickups exactly parallel to the strings.
When I have an old Les Paul Jr. I’ll lower the poles and raise the coil to get it as close to the strings as possible. That’s what you want. And I use Tri-Flow lubricant on guitars because it doesn’t get gummy. TQ
Larry Cragg Guitar Repair & Vintage Instrumental Rental