How To Set Up A Guitar

Being able to express yourself fully is also a matter of having your guitar set up so that it allows you to do so. Knowing how to set up a guitar, whether for yourself or for compensation, is like most other skills; a matter of time, experience, and good guidance.

Chapters:

Three Rules of a Perfect Guitar Setup
Guitar Setup Tools and Products
The Perfect Triangle of Action
The Guitar Setup Process

Guitar Niche - How To Setup A Guitar eBook

Three Rules Of A Perfect Guitar Setup

"You should play so that if your mom hears you on the radio, she knows it's you."

- Les Paul

Granted, the reference to radio is dated, but the sentiment is the same - well said Mr. Polsfuss.

Typical Guitar Problems and How To Fix Them

The basic principles in this guide work for most popular guitars and basses. In fact some of the fundamentals will even apply to traditional orchestral instruments such as violins, cellos etc as they all involve a stretched string spanning two nodes. Whether you're doing an electric guitar setup, electric bass, or want to try your hand at an acoustic guitar setup. This guide will contain information relevant to all of them.

A few common problems we all deal with at one time or another as guitar players:

  • Buzzing, rattling
  • High action
  • Tuning issues

And many more of course.


Before you begin buying tools and tackling the job with new found wide eyed zeal, let's make a couple of things very clear:

Above all, you must realize when you’re in over your head, call in the cavalry, admit defeat and get your guitar into the hands of a pro. A tail between your legs is preferable to having your head up your own butt. Know your limits.

That being said, you CAN do it. With the right mindset, guidance and working environment, which can be incredibly modest, you can achieve remarkable results. There are three rules of a guitar setup that represent the basic principles of an organized, educated approach to achieving your ultimate goal – setting up your guitar to its maximum potential:

1. Use Fresh Strings

2. Use The Right Tools

3. Use Your Head!

Those three little phrases work as a team, they depend on one another, if you neglect any one of them I guarantee your final result will be sub par. Number three is by far the most important as it leverages knowledge, logic, procedure and technique.

So, is this article also about guitar repair? Short answer – no. Although there are some service elements which would qualify lightly as repair items, there is a clear difference between guitar repair and guitar setups. Guitar repair can get very, very intense and is a unique skill set that covers an immense spectrum. Guitar setups on the other hand apply to every instrument, therefor they are an absolute necessity.

Rule 1. – Use Fresh Strings

How To Setup A Guitar - Fresh StringsWhile this may seem mundane, I can’t stress how important it is to use fresh strings as the very first step to a perfect setup.
Simply put, if you try to do a setup with old strings you will fail. Aged strings will give you all kinds of grief as they can mask underlying problems and are virtually impossible to calibrate.

How Old Is New?

New strings will start degrading virtually from the moment you put them on. Sad, yes, but that’s not to say it’s a hopeless chase for shiny string perfection, it’s just the nature of renewing your guitar’s consumables.

PRO TIP: As a rule of thumb, strings with more than a couple of hours of continuous playing time need to be chucked to guarantee setup accuracy. They’ll be degraded to the point of being a question mark in the finished product of a perfect guitar setup.

Rule 2. - Use The Right Tools

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Ever have to turn a screw without having the right tool for the job? You head straight for the kitchen drawer, grab a pointy steak knife and have at it. Sound familiar? Or how about using the most blunt pair of scissors in the house (because that’s all you can find and you absolutely have to get this string change done) to chew off the antennae of string leftovers after a string change.

There’s a hard cost to obtaining the tools you need to get the job done but you don’t need to break the bank. Not to mention you probably have some of them already kicking around in your toolbox.

Using the right tool for the job will save you time, and potential grief from having damaged a critical guitar part.

Rule 3. - Use Your Head!

To paraphrase Seth Godin:

You can read a book on sex, but it's not the same as doing it.

Fair enough, but you have to start somewhere.

As an individual you’ll need to figure out where your comfort level lies and the only way to do that is get in there and get your hands dirty. Starting with the setup process, that is, the physical methodology that goes into a fully functioning and well playing instrument is a good place to start.


Guitar Setup Tools and Products:

Recommended Examples:

A much more detailed list of recommended guitar setup tools can be found here.

Overall, the lists are pretty modest. Remember, we are dealing with setup tools. Guitar repair tools constitute the next level of service and are more job specific.

Guitar builder’s tools will be different again; jigs for bending, templates, highly specialized tools for a very specific craft. The art of lutherie in the building sense is much more involved on the tools side. And yet, even the finest hand made instruments need a setup! – cool.

Recommended Accessories:


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The Perfect Triangle Of Action

Think of a perfect triangle, all sides being equal and having three specific points.

When all these elements are in alignment and tailored to both the instrument and the player, you’ll have a perfect, balanced setup. If any one of them is out of adjustment, you’ll obviously have imbalance and therefore an unhappy guitar.

The Nut:

When the nut is cut properly it becomes essentially a fixed point and won’t need to be dealt with except for issues of wear or damage. In other words, set it and forget it - that’s good.

The Bridge / Saddle:

Raising or lowering this point streamlines the overall action and is directly joined at the hip with neck relief. Remember, adjusting one element directly influences the other. Aim to achieve balance!

Neck Relief

This is by far the controlling element of the lot. The other two elements have to deal with whatever result adjusting the truss rod produces, which can be a very “this is all you get, take it or leave it” kind of thing.

Guitar Niche - Guitar Setup Process

The Guitar Setup Process

The guitar setup process can be broken down into nine distinct phases:

  1. Assessment
  2. Teardown
  3. Housekeeping
  4. Restringing
  5. Preliminary Adjustments
  6. Fine Adjustments
  7. String Stretch
  8. Test Drive
  9. PLAY!

Be sure to check out the Authentic Guitar Setup Video Series for the full one-two punch.


1. Assessment

To know where you want to be, you must know where you are.

    • Play the guitar and get a fresh feel for where the problems are. If it’s an instrument you’re intimately familiar with, this is a no-brainer.
    • Check the operation of any controls, output level, scratchiness, check for rattles, buzzes, squishiness (yes, squishiness), stiffness, and any other stuff that just doesn’t seem right.
    • Make a note of any problems that need attention.

2. Teardown

Sort of like reverse engineering the guitar.

  • Remove any cover plates that you need to get under:
    • Truss rod cover
    • Suspended pickguard
    • Backplate
    • Remove the strings
    • Remove any loose hardware that might fall off.
    • Chop all those old strings off in a bunch with one neat snip of the side cutters. Be a man, you can do it in one shot.
    • Chuck the old strings. Gather up the dead string scraps and get them into garbage away from your workspace.
    • Tighten (snug up) the hardware:
      • Threaded headstock bushings
      • Tuner key buttons
      • Neck bolts
      • Strap buttons
      • Any other loose screws
      • Output jack nut
      • Electronic controls

3. Housekeeping

Probably the most mundane part of the whole process yet absolutely necessary in producing a superior result.

While most dirt is really just dust and pretty easy to deal with, nasty caked-on stuff can be taken care of with a bit of elbow grease and patience.

Whatever the nature of the grime, use any of the recommended cleaners with paper towels and have at it. Keep in mind the fretboard will need special attention but in general, start at the top and work your way through these major areas:

  • Headstock
  • Body area under the strings
  • Pickups
  • Hardware

WARNING: Always exercise extreme caution when using solvents (including Windex and electronics cleaners) around vintage instruments as they can easily damage delicate aged finishes.

  • Fretboard and frets:
    • Use a few drops of light soapy water (Windex is ok in most instances) to lift surface gunk, being sure to keep the fluid restricted to the fretboard surface.
    • Quickly wipe it off with paper towels, don’t let it sit and soak in. Repeat if necessary.
    • Polish the frets with super fine sandpaper then dribble on a couple of drops of lemon oil.
    • Spread the oil around the fretboard for a few seconds and quickly wipe up the excess. There, all shite and briney!

4. Restringing

I kept this as a separate section due to the amount of interest in the job itself. Taking strings off is easy. Putting strings on is just as easy, provided you have a method.

  • Batch your processes! When installing fresh strings, work through the strings in order – heaviest to lightest or vice versa.
  • Thread each string one after the other into the bridge or tailpiece.
  • Install each string into its corresponding tuning post.
    • Start with the post that’s closest to the nut then work towards the end of the headstock.
    • Run the free end of the string through the post and pull it just snug.
    • Using your other hand, measure off about an inch and a half, then run the string backwards through the post until your fingers butt up against the post.
    • Give the tag end of the string a sharp right angle bend against the post. This results in a nice kink which helps the string from backing out as you start the winding process.
  • Wind the string up. Assuming you’re right-handed, you’ll wind the string with your left hand.
    • Control the slack end of the string with your right hand as you wind it up. Use your first finger as a tensioner.
    • Wind each string up so that it’s just snug – not to pitch!, that’s for later.

5. Preliminary Adjustments

This is where the rubber starts to meet the road.

  • Snug up the strings – close to tension but not to pitch. This helps to keep their elasticity as we get the ten thousand foot view.
  • Check that the action is in the ballpark. At this point some adjustment points may be way out of whack.What you’re looking for are these key points:
    • General string height. The bass side should be off the frets about the width of two dimes around the twelfth to fifteenth fret area. Likewise, the treble side should be about the width of a nickel.
    • Neck angle. The neck should be in line with the hardware at the bridge.
    • Nut slots.
      Before we get to finessing the nut itself, here's a couple of fundamental points:
      • The nut slots should be even and allow the string to be close to the first fret. If they’re too high you have to use excessive force to fret the strings.
      • Conversely, if the slots are too low you’ll have string buzz at the nut.
    • Bridge height. The bridge should be at a height that allows for the general string height mentioned previously.
    • General relief. Again, neck relief is one of those elements that affects playability.
      A neck with too much relief will feel spongy through the middle and mask underlying problems. A neck that’s over-straight will be sure to have buzzes and sizzles.
  • Make preliminary compensating adjustments as necessary. Start with bridge height and truss rod adjustments to home in on the perfect triangle of action.
  • Check electrical operations:
    • The output jack. One of the most common electrical issues is a simple loose nut at the output jack.
    • Volume and tone controls. If they’re scratchy, try spinning them back and forth really quick. If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to try an electronics cleaner or replace them.
    • Switches. An intermittent blade switch can be a fairly easy fix. A thin piece of doubled over 600 grit wet-dry sandpaper can be used to clean the contacts.
    • Battery condition. If a battery is questionable at all, just replace it and be sure to write the date on it for future reference.

6. Fine Adjustments

Now we’re getting somewhere.

  • Re-cut the nut. As this is a highly specialized job I can only cover the most critical
    elements.
    • Always judge string height with a straight neck.
    • Be mindful of string deflection. Wherever it changes angle, lightly push the string into place to help seat it.
    • Judge the gap of light at the first fret for each string.
      Looking side on at the nut, you want to see a gap of light about the same thickness of the sixth string between the bottom of the string and the top of the first fret.

How To Setup A Guitar - String Height Nut

    • Carefully cut each slot to depth using hobby blades and select needle files.
    • If a slot is already too low it will have to be repaired, or the entire nut may need to be replaced.
  • Adjust the truss rod:How To Setup A Guitar - Truss Rod
    • Think of the truss rod adjuster like a nut on the end of a bolt. Tightening the adjuster straightens the neck, loosening it induces more relief.
    • Start with a straight neck that agrees with the other two points of the action triangle – the nut and bridge height.
    • Use the third string to get a general idea of where the relief sits. Holding down the string at the third and fifteenth frets, you want to see a gap of light about the thickness of the string itself between the fret top and string at the seventh to ninth fret area.
    • Adjust the truss rod as necessary until the neck feels right to you, maybe a little, maybe a little less.
    • Be patient as adjustments may need a day or two to fully settle in. Don’t be surprised if you have to readjust it if the neck was really out of joint.
  • Adjust the bridge.
    Overall, the bridge should be slightly higher on the bass side to allow for the extra room the heavier strings need to move freely.
    For the Stratocaster lovers out there, everything that follows still applies to setting the bridge whether it’s floating or not.
    • Start with the first string. The first string should be off the frets about the width of a nickel around the fifteenth fret area.

How To Setup A Guitar - String Height 1st String

    • The sixth string should follow the same methodology to set the height. Ideally it should measure the height of two dimes at the fifteenth fret.

How To Setup A Guitar - String Height 6th String

  • Set the tailpiece.
    Note: the tailpiece does not necessarily need to be plastered to the body. There’s a sweet spot that produces just the right amount of pressure as the strings pass from the tailpiece over the bridge.

How To Setup A Guitar - Stop Tailpiece Height

  • Set the string saddle radius. Watch How To Setup A Fender Telecaster Part 5 for an idea how to do this.
    • Acoustic saddles can be reshaped to conform to a more ideal radius. Keep in mind the bass side should have a tiny bit more lift.
    • Les Paul type saddle heights are more or less fixed, but can be re-cut to accommodate an improved radius.
    • Fender style saddles were designed from the get-go to be fully adjustable. This is where your fine allen keys come in handy.
      In every case you want to achieve a graceful curve across the top of the saddles that matches the natural radius of the instrument you’re working with.

How To Setup A Guitar - Saddle Radius

  • Fine tune using the principle of the Perfect Triangle Of Action.
    Throughout the preliminary and fine adjustment phases you should be checking the balance of these three elements regularly:
    • Nut height
    • Bridge height
    • Neck relief
      Any one of these points can shift during the process. Keep a constant eye on them!
  • Address any minor fret issues.
    Because fret work is a highly specialized process, we'll leave that for another tutorial.
  • Adjust the pickups:
    • Start with setting it one eighth of an inch (about the thickness of a nickel and dime together) away from the strings.

How To Setup A Guitar - Pickup Height

    • If possible, adjust the polepieces to match the fretboard radius.
    • Preliminary string stretch.
      • Hold the instrument in you lap in a playing position. Using both your hands, give each string a good yank in sections along its entire length. Remember, batch your processes! Stretch all the strings, then tune them up.
      • DO THIS ONLY ONCE!
      • PS, want to know how much is too much for a given string? There’s only one way to find out. Watch for the video...
    • Adjust the intonation:
      Let’s start with the concept first: if a high note registers sharp, the scale has to be longer. The opposite condition will follow suit automatically.
      • Acoustics for the most part have a non-adjustable, fixed intonation but they can be modified.
      • Electrics, both basses and guitars, have had fine intonation capabilities for decades.

Gibson Tune O Matic Bridge

      • Semi acoustics still incorporate a somewhat old-school bridge system (sometimes referred to as a floating bridge because it's not secured to the guitar)
    • The technique:
      • Using moderate finger pressure, start with the fifth fret on the fifth string, a D note, and take note of what the tuner registers. Go up an octave on the same string to the seventeenth fret, a D again, and see what the tuner tells you.
        If the octave note is sharp, lengthen the scale. If it’s flat simply adjust in the other direction.
      • Repeat the process for the other strings.
  • Check for issues. Time to make those fine tuning adjustments and tweak out things like:
    • Fret “hot spots”. Sizzling frets are usually due to the bridge being too low, the neck being too straight, or a combination of both.
    • Neck relief - sponginess or over-straightness. Readjust as necessary as it’s normal for the neck to continue to move a bit.
    • Sympathetic buzzes. Rattles from vibration and loose parts can make themselves annoyingly evident.
    • General operation. The guitar should really be coming together and start to feel like a superior instrument.

7. Stretch The Strings

How To Setup A Guitar - String Stretch

A key subject because of how important it is. With our preliminary string stretch already done, we now get on with the business of getting them settled in and stable enough to rely on.

  • Secondary string stretch.
  • Using the same method described previously, give the strings a good going over but be a bit more vigorous.
  • “Pinch” the strings to set them in place wherever they pass from one angle to the next.

How To Setup A Guitar - String Deflection

  • Tune the guitar up to pitch.
  • Tune the instrument up again.

The strings should now be pretty much at their tensile limit for their respective pitches.


8. Test Drive

Congratulations on reaching the finish line. Just a few more steps and you’re in guitar nirvana.

  • Check tuning stability:
    • Play a bit to heat up the strings.
      This is a great test to see how stable the instrument is going to be in the real world. Body heat transferred through your hands can be surprisingly problematic.
    • Get aggressive with string bends and chord changes across all strings to make sure their pitches stay true.
  • Check mechanical stability:
    • Check the tuners.
    • Listen for “tinks”.
      There may be a hard “v” at the bottom of the slot, or a side wall may have a sharp edge. It’s a pretty easy fix with the right size nut slot tool or a small dab of lube.
  • Double check electronics:
    • Plug the guitar in, make sure that all controls are doing what they’re supposed to do.
  • Check sponginess – “feel”.
    Intuition plays a huge part in how you feel about the final product – either it’s right or it’s not. The trick is knowing exactly what the problem is that’s keeping the guitar from being “happy”.
  • Tweak if necessary. It’s not uncommon for bobbles to show up at the last minute.
    Your goal? A super fine playing guitar that’s a joy to play.
  • Finish polish.
    • Wipe the instrument down with a recommended guitar polish or premium car finish detailer without abrasives. I’m still a big fan of paper towels – bye bye dirt – forever.

... aaaaand we`re done :)


9. PLAY!

What can I say?... Enjoy!


Thinking about improving your skills?

How To Setup A Guitar eBookThe purpose of Guitar Niche is to help people exactly like you who share a passion for guitars and want to know how to keep them pristine in their operation. Without you the whole endeavour is pointless.

Whether you just want to maintain your own gear, or be the best guitar tech in your area, put a few setups under your belt to cut your teeth.

Guitar Niche will be here to help you along the way.

Thanks For Reading!

Learn How To Set Up A Guitar With These Free Resources:

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Save time, save money, learn how to set up a guitar like a pro!
Let me show you how to minimize your guitar frustrations, maximize your playing enjoyment, and save a bunch of cash in the process with these exclusive how-to videos.


The Authentic Guitar Setup Video Series

Jam packed with tips and tricks to help you learn how to set up a guitar on your own.

Whether you own a vintage instrument, electric or acoustic, or a brand new shred machine, the principles are all the same. Valuable details that go into achieving a perfect setup for every instrument based 3 essential setup points.

Get on the fast track and see first hand what goes into maximizing your guitar's play-ability with these exclusive videos. START HERE.


Here's a sample of the Gibson Les Paul setup video series. Enjoy!

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