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Tight strings on a Telecaster

Q: I'm, glad I found your website. I have a question concerning a Telecaster I just purchased.
 
    First, to let you know, I have a Gibson Les Paul Custom, and Fender American Standard Stratocaster. I use .11's all my guitars, and the action (string height, neck relief, nut height, etc.) is very similar on both. Both play extremely well, and even with the .11's, the action (i.e. bending the strings) is very easy (very elastic, or what I call very "bouncy"). In short, I can bend the strings and it's very comfortable.
 
    I just purchase a Fender Special Addition Lite Ash Telecaster (actually Korean made). It is my understanding that they are very well made (maybe not as well as American made, but better than the one's made in Mexico). I have owned Korean made guitars before and have not had the problem I am having with this guitar.
 
    My problem is, when I got it (I changed the strings to .11's as I usual do), I noticed that the strings were extremely "tight". It was difficult to bend them even thought I'm using the same string gauge (.11's), the same string height, etc. It almost felt like I had .15's on it. It obviously needed to have a professional "set up" done by a Luthier (as I always do regardless of the guitar). I have a guy that I have used for years and always does a great job. When I picked it up, he definitely improved the bending of the strings, but I have to say, it's still a lot more difficult to bend the strings compared to my other two guitars (or other guitars I've owned in the past). The string height after the set up is about the same as my other guitars also, but it's still very "tight". I know he thought there was too much relief in the neck (I thought maybe there was not enough, but I trust him, not myself). He also had to raise the nut a little, and of course intonated everything. However, although I do feel improvement, I feel like it's still unusually tight.
 
    I'm looking to find out what may be the problem. I want to let you know that it does have a vintage Tele bridge with the 3 "un-compensated" bridge saddles. He said that he got the intonation as close as he could for that type of saddle and we discussed getting the kind that is compensated. After playing the guitar, I'm convinced I would more comfortable with a modern Tele bridge. Could the bridge be the problem with my "tight" strings? If I go with a modern bridge with 6 independent saddles, will that help?
 
    Is there anything you can recommend that I look into that will help? Anything that he might not have considered?
 
    Sorry for the long email, I just wanted you to have all the information so you could help figure out why it's more difficult to bend the strings.
 
    Thanks,
    Jeff 
 
A: The most obvious answer would be that a Les Paul has a 24.75" scale length and a Telecaster has a 25.5" scale length. You can raise the pitch of a string by shortening it or by tightening it. The longer string takes more tension to pull it up to pitch. Hence, a .009 string on a Fender feels like a .010 on a Gibson. People talk much hocus pocus about the pickups, the neck wood and the hardware, but the salient difference between the sound and feel of Gibsons and Fenders is the scale length. But, you are feeling no difference between your Fender and your Gibson with the same strings on them.  Further, the action only governs how high the strings are above the frets. Bending is a function of the tension on the string. The lower the tension the more percentage tension change you make by bending. Bending a .009 string one inch will change the pitch by three whole steps, bending a .013 one inch will give you one whole step.
    The only thing that I can think of that fits all of the evidence is that if the action on the Tele is very high, you have to bend the string down to the fingerboard before you start bending it for pitch. This would increase the perceived stiffness of the string. I wonder also about your luthier raising the nut. If the string buzzes against the first fret it must be raised. If the string clears the first fret, the nut's job is done. Buzzes anywhere else, besides the first fret, are not the fault of the nut. Making it higher than necessary just makes the guitar harder to play and intonate. 
     I am not a huge fan of "relief" in the neck. If your frets are not all the same height, you can miss the high frets by raising the action. You can functionally raise the action by bowing the neck. If you look at the motion of the string after it is plucked (especially if you can look at it with a variable speed strobe light) it does move most in the center and there is a little hump where you pluck it and a reflection hump as far from the nut as your pick was from the bridge. As you fret higher up the neck the string travel gets smaller. With very light strings some relief is necessary. Acoustic guitar necks are set perfectly straight. If you have a noticeable bow in the neck, you need your frets dressed. Most relief that I see is actually a cover for a poor action set. It is always possible to make a guitar play and not buzz using only the bridge adjustment and the truss rod, but the fret dress is the heart of the action set. 
    Six bridge pieces will certainly help with your intonation.
 
Steve Mason 




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