Tim from The Tone Workshop took on the challenge of reconditioning a rather tired looking 1976 Fender Jazz bass in much need of some attention. Read on to discover this classic bass guitar’s Setup Story.
An Old Friend
I was really excited about the task ahead. An old friend in the form of a 1976 Fender Jazz had been returned for a much-needed re-fret. In truth, the task was more challenging than just the re-fret. The guitar’s neck had been used and abused at some time in its unknown past. A previous owner, I am sure with good intentions, had re-finished the fingerboard with a very generous coating of varnish and this had subsequently delaminated, particularly at the nut end. My objective was to restore the neck and frets to top working condition whilst retaining its ‘much-used’ character.
Taking It Apart
After removing the strings and the neck from the body, the first real task was to remove the heavily reworked and almost flat existing frets. I was not sure how this would go as the finger board re-varnish thickened as it approached each fret and threatened to hang on to them tightly. I carefully gripped the end of one fret with my fret pliers and to my surprise the fret came out with ease leaving a clean slot and a wall of varnish. The rest came out with similar ease and fortuitously the remaining varnish edge proved to be a good starting point for removal of this unwanted coating.
I started to carefully pull at the unwanted varnish finish and with great satisfaction I found that it separated from the original finish on the top half of the fingerboard very successfully. After many hours of careful work with modelling blades and scrapers, I had managed to remove all the DIY addition from that half of the neck, revealing a clean original finish with only a couple of small areas completely worn through to the wood. However, this wear looked natural in a way you would expect from heavy use. I imagined this was the trigger for the original rework. The finish on the lower half of the fingerboard did not however respond in the same way as it had a much firmer adherence to the original finish with no willingness to delaminate. I was left with no choice but to rub down this area with progressively finer micro-mesh until I achieved a finish that matched the upper half. With all signs of the delaminating varnish gone and a smooth even finish and only a little natural distress showing I was satisfied that I had achieved the first of my objectives.
Before I went any further I made sure I measured the fingerboard radius (7.5“) for future setup reference and checked that it was flat and level along its length with no unwanted truss rod influence after removal of the string tension. Measurement of the removed frets show that they were standard Fender Jazz stock and so would be replaced by the same to keep the neck authentic. I carefully cleaned out the detritus remaining in the fret slots and my imagination about its actual constituency started to wander. I was confident that this was a 40-year collection and no doubt held a few stories. I finally gave the cleaned slots a good wash out with isopropyl alcohol as my plan was to superglue the new frets in for better coupling.
I was also keen to fit the new frets without removing the original plastic neck binding strips. To achieve this, for each slot, I carefully lined up the vertical tang barbs on the new over-length fret with the existing barb grooves and then marked and cut off the vertical tang to fit exactly between the two bindings whilst leaving the horizontal leg of the fret to overhang the binding on each side. This approach may seem to be against natural wisdom as most would advocate allowing the tang barbs to cut fresh grooves when knocking in the new frets. However, I find that this method opens up the risk of the frets not going in cleanly in a vertical manner, potentially causing considerably more damage to the slot walls and sometimes also the fingerboard finish. I suspect this difficulty is more common on older necks where the wood is more seasoned and hard. I have found that with good clean slots, when using the old tang barb grooves there is generally still good retention from the barbs and with no additional damage to the slot wall. With the addition of the superglue, applied correctly, I have never had a fret retention problem and the frets do also still pull out cleanly when required to be replaced again.
The very liquid superglue was squeezed right down into the fret slot using a ‘whip tip’ applicator. The aim was to squirt just enough to prevent squeeze out onto the fingerboard when the fret was pressed. I used a homemade wooden jig to guide my fret arbour when pressing in new frets. This arrangement allowed me to use a ‘G’ clamp on the work bench edge to hold the pressure on each fret until the liquid superglue had dried thoroughly.
Once all the frets were in I snipped off all the overhanging excess with the fret pliers and then used my fret bevelling file to give a nice tidy 35° angle to the fret ends. I then started the process of checking the frets for level with a straight edge and found that things were looking quite good already, with only some very local high spots to fine tune. I identified these using a fret rocker and removed excess material with a very fine fret file. Where I removed material, I re-crowned these areas with the correct sized crowning file. Finally, I like to polish up all the frets and neck binding and remove all the sharp edges from the fret ends with progressively finer emery cloth. They must feel right. You also have to be very careful not to damage the fingerboard finish during these processes and I generally use a couple of layers of masking tape for protection.
This Jazz had a 3-bolt micro-tilt neck. Not my favourite, but it can help with putting string height in the right range for the bridge adjustment during setup. Once I bolted the neck back onto the guitar I put a set of strings on and pulled them up to tuned tension. I then left the guitar overnight to settle. I fully expected to find that the neck would need a new nut as these are often cut low to match worn frets, but this was not the case, in fact I had to lower the G string slot very slightly to match the good level on the others. I tend to follow fender advice closely when initially setting up their bass guitars, so neck tilt, truss rod tension, string height, pickup height and intonation are all adjusted to book.
I generally find bass setups much more rewarding than normal 6 string electric guitars. Tuning and intonation adjustments always seem to give such a pinpoint accurate result and this setup was no exception. The look and feel of this bass really did turn out the way I wanted it to. The new frets were accurate and really improved the playing and the look was a much more naturally aged one with no trace of the old ‘bodged’ repairs. The owner feedback was really positive too and no additional adjustments were required. It was great to see the instrument in the hands of someone who could really play it.
Do you play an old Fender Jazz? Let us know about your experiences setting it up and modifying it by leaving a comment below.