How To Set Up A Guitar

Learn how to set up a guitar with this easy step-by-step guide that covers the most common guitar problems.

Whether you decide to learn the process for your own interest, or for compensation, or to keep your own sanity, this easy guitar setup guide will help you achieve great results in no time.

Easy Guitar Setup Guide

The Ultimate Easy Guitar Setup Guide

Introduction

What This Guide Is, and Isn’t

This guide is based on a collection of skills and insights gained from decades of professional technical experience. It covers the most common tasks, presented in a logical progression, that apply to the vast majority of guitars going through the setup process.

You will also benefit from learning fundamental concepts and time-saving techniques gained from years of experience that help you spend less time fiddling, and more time playing.

What it does not cover are topics related to intensive repairs, replacing electronics and personalized guitar modifications. Such tasks are, for the most part, not directly related to the setup procedure and are therefor beyond the scope of this text.

Finally, to say this guide covers everything there is to know about guitar setups would be a gross overstatement. I would also add that the methods described are not necessarily the last word on how to get a particular job done.

To say so would satisfy the ego, but deny the benefits of learning better techniques.

Setting up a Guiatr

Should You Do Your Own Setups?

In a word – yes. But before you begin buying tools and tackling a job with new found wide-eyed zeal, let’s make a couple of things very clear:

If you are not mechanically inclined, it would be foolish to fight your nature. You may be comfortable changing your strings but find troubleshooting other guitar problems far too intimidating.

If you believe you fall into this category, please feel free to read on. The value of understanding the process will help you communicate better with someone you trust to do the work.

On the other hand, there are those of us who have no problem picking up new mechanical skills and are perfectly willing to learn how to set up our own instruments – we just need a guide to help us along the way.

Still, should you wind up in a situation over your head, it’s a far better decision to get an instrument into the hands of someone with experience.

That being said, let’s reinforce a positive attitude on the subject. With the right mindset and working environment (which can be incredibly modest) you can achieve remarkable results, and that is the true purpose of this guide.

Typical Guitar Problems

Guitars follow the same basic structure whether they’re acoustic, electric or electrified. They all involve the manipulation of stretched strings spanning two nodes – namely, the nut and the bridge.

Because of this similarity, they’re also prone to the same problems.

These problems also extend to orchestral instruments such as violins, violas, cellos, or culturally diverse instruments such as balalaikas, ouds, bouzoukis, banjos and mandolins.

From the point of view as a guitar player, here are a few common problems we all deal with at one time or another:

  • Buzzing, rattling
  • High action
  • Tuning issues
  • Breaking strings

And many more of course.

What’s the Difference Between a Guitar Repair and a Guitar Setup?

The difference between a repair task and a setup task is a matter of perception.

For example, the guitar contains so many mysteries for beginners that the replacement of a broken string constitutes a “repair”.

For seasoned players, a “guitar setup” is perceived as more of a technical endeavour related to maintenance.

Although there are some crossover elements which would qualify as repairs, there is a clear difference between heavy duty guitar repair:

Broken Guitar
A very broken guitar needing repair

… and guitar setups which qualify as general service. Another way to differentiate the two is by job description: a luthier is one who builds or restores instruments, and a technician is one who specializes in the performance of an instrument.

In this guide we focus on dealing with the normal wear and tear conditions that are part of every instrument’s journey through time. They are an absolute inevitability regardless of pedigree, and the primary focus of service tutorials on this website.

The Basic Rules of a 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: you should be able to express yourself freely through your guitar without the instrument’s condition holding you back.

Restrining an acoustic
Restringing an acoustic guitar

Taking the ten thousand foot view, there are a few simple rules representing the fundament principles of an organized, educated approach to achieving your ultimate goal – setting up your guitar to its maximum potential.

These fundamental rules are:

1. Use Fresh Strings

2. Use the Right Guitar Setup Tools

3. Follow a Good Setup Process

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. Rule number three, using your head, is by far the most important as it leverages knowledge, logic, procedure and technique.

Let’s have a closer look at why these principles are so important:

electric-guitar-strings
Electric guitar strings

Fresh Strings

While 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 mask underlying problems and are virtually impossible to calibrate.

So the question is: “How old is new?”

It’s a fact that untreated new strings will start degrading virtually from the moment you put them on. As soon as you touch them, the amino acids of your body chemistry will start reacting with the metal in the strings.

The vast majority of us can make use of a new set of strings for what I would say is a reasonably long time.

But for some others, this chemical reaction happens very quickly turning a fresh set of strings into a rusty mess in a matter of minutes – I’ve seen it first hand. Thankfully, the invention of coated strings makes all the difference in the world in this situation.

Regardless of your physiological impact on strings, it’s easy to justify the expense of a new set in order to guarantee an accurate setup.

The Right Tools
Guitar Setup Tools
Guitar Setup Tools

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 the more common ones, screwdrivers and such, 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.


Follow a Logical Process and Use Common Sense

Let’s put it in perspective:

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

Fair enough, but you have to start somewhere.

Having a guide to follow (such as this one) will help to organize tasks in a logical order. This makes the whole process easier and will ultimately save you time and frustration.

Still, as an individual who needs to test their own capabilities, you’ll need to figure out where your comfort level lies. The only way to do that is get in there and get your hands dirty. You may make mistakes, I’ve made many – it’s all part of the learning process. But without doing, there is no knowing.

If you find yourself stuck, take a short break, think the problem through, and pierce the fog of indecision.

Understanding Guitar Action

Perfect Triangle of Action

Guitar action can be thought of as the three points of a triangle: the bridge, the nut, and relief. When all three points are in agreement, that is, when they are in harmony and properly working together, we can consider the result comparable to a perfect triangle.

Another way to think of it is like this: when all three elements are aligned to both the instrument and the player, you have a perfect, balanced setup. If any one point is out of adjustment, it automatically affects the others, creating an imbalance. The result is compromised guitar action, and a frustrated unhappy guitar player.

How Do You Fix the Action on a Guitar?

In order to answer that question, let’s try to understand exactly how each point affects the others in a bit more detail:


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. But it’s sweet spot is wholly dependant on how the other two points are set.

The Bridge

Raising or lowering the bridge streamlines the overall action and is directly affected by neck relief. If the bridge is set too high, you’ll have too much “air” under the strings where the neck meets the body – a major contributor to “high action”. Too low and the strings will buzz – not enough “air” or string height in the same area. Remember, adjusting one point directly influences the others. The aim to achieve balance!

Neck Relief

This is by far the most controlling element of the lot. Setting good relief is a matter of compensating for string compression and accommodating the player’s style – some players like their action higher or lower than factory-set averages.

How well the neck responds to truss rod adjustments is often dependant on how well the instrument is made. Generally speaking, better quality instruments will allow very fine adjustments in relief through their use of better truss rod materials and engineering.

Because strings need room to move, controlling the amount of relief in the neck is absolutely critical to achieving a perfect guitar setup. The nut and the bridge settings will ultimately be limited by how well the truss rod works, or doesn’t.

String Vibration and Relief

Relief is also influenced by the general condition of the neck – whether it’s straight and true or has compromising distortions. If these distortions are significant, they must be dealt with first to level the playing field. If they’re minor, it’s not uncommon to wind up working around them to achieve a point of “least of all evils”.

Through practice, you will be able to tell immediately if a guitar will come around properly, or in the worst case, realize it’s best use is to look pretty hanging on the wall.

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Guitar Setup Tools and Products

Guitar Setup Tools Guide -Guitar Niche
Guitar Setup Tools Guide

What tools do you need to set up a guitar?

Here’s a shortlist of recommended guitar setup tools:

Examples of Setup Tools and Accessories:

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

Overall, the list is pretty modest. By way of contrast, a custom guitar builder’s tools would include jigs for bending, presses, sanders, templates, finishing chemicals, highly specialized tools for a very specific craft. And yet, even the finest hand made instruments need a setup! – cool.

the guitar setup process banner

How to do a Professional Guitar Setup

The guitar setup process can be broken down into nine distinct phases. Use the quick links below to jump to any section you’re interested in:

  1. Assessment
  2. Teardown
  3. Cleaning the Guitar
  4. Installing New Strings
  5. Preliminary Adjustments
  6. Action, Intonation and Fine Adjustments
    6.1 Adjust the Truss Rod
    6.2 Set the Bridge Height and Radius
    6.3 Recut the Nut
    6.4 Adjust the Pickup Height
    6.5 Check and Adjust the Intonation
  7. Stretch the Strings
  8. Check for Functionality
  9. PLAY!

The setup process follows a logical progression from the assessment phase on through to the final checks with a brand new set of strings. As you work through each step, you may find the order of some fine detail tasks may work better before, or after others in the sequence. This is absolutely normal and can be dictated by the nature of the instrument itself.

The important thing to remember is, there is a logical hierarchy to the tasks themselves – one naturally leads to the next. For example, once the action is set, then you set the pickup height. To do so beforehand means you may have to set the pickup height again because the string height has changed.

The less time you spend readjusting your work, the more time you get to spend playing :)

For further insight into some of the finer details, be sure to check out the Authentic Guitar Setup Video Series for the full one-two punch.

A Word on Locking Systems

Because of the uniquely refined nature of locking systems and their departure from traditional guitar setup processes, references to such thoroughbred instruments are kept to a minimum, otherwise this guide would be double it’s size! Nonetheless, when it comes to action, string height, cleaning, playability, and general principles of a good setup, they are no different.

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, you’ll already know where the trouble is.
  • If you’re going to service someone else’s guitar, make sure you ask the owner about any issues they’re concerned about, And take notes! –  especially about a preferred tuning as this has a huge impact on the end product. Better yet, get them to play their guitar a little bit while you watch. Their approach to playing and body language will speak volumes.
  • Check the operation of any controls, output level, scratchiness, check for rattles, buzzes, squishiness in the action (yes, squishiness), stiffness in playability, and any other stuff that just doesn’t seem right.
  • Again, and I can’t stress this enough, take notes of owner preferences and any other problems that need attention – the weakest ink is stronger than the best memory.

Typical Guitar Problem Areas

Typical problem areas or “hot spots” are:

  • Loose tuner keys or bushings
  • A worn, damaged or “creaking” nut
  • Strings that are too high or too low
  • Uneven, loose or worn frets causing buzzing
  • Neck distortions of any kind
  • A truss rod out of adjustment
  • An improperly adjusted bridge
  • Loose hardware or small parts such as strap buttons and output jacks
  • Dirty electronics
  • Most importantly: old strings

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Here’s an example of how uneven frets look when sighting down the fretboard:

Uneven frets
Uneven frets

2. Teardown

The teardown is sort of like reverse engineering the guitar. Think of this part of the process like going backwards, that is to say, we have to deconstruct the instrument before we can reconstruct it.

  • Remove any cover plates that you need to get under:
    • Truss rod cover
    • Suspended pickguard
    • Backplate
    • Remove the strings
      • Chop all the old strings off in a bunch with one neat snip of the side cutters. Consider it a challenge, see if you can do it in one shot.
      • Toss the old strings in the trash right away, they’re a liability around the guitar. Gather up the dead string scraps and get them into garbage away from your workspace.
    • Remove any loose hardware that might fall off. Tape it down, or use rubber bands to keep things in place.
    • Tighten (do not over-tighten, just snug up) the hardware:
      • Threaded headstock bushings (typically a 10mm wrench)
      • Tuner key buttons
      • Neck bolts
      • Strap buttons
      • Any other loose screws
      • Output jack nut
      • Electronic controls

PRO TIP: Keep a small container handy for small parts like screws. Trust me, if you drop them, they will wind up in the land of left socks!

  • NOTE: With the guitar “denuded”, this is the perfect opportunity to address any minor fret issues. But since fret work is highly specialized and can become a repair process very quickly, we’ll leave the intense work for a more involved tutorial. With that in mind, we can still take care of small issues quickly and efficiently – namely high frets:
    • If you do have such minor fret issues, you would have made notes about where they are right? Of course you did! But just in case you forgot, use a small straight edge (or fret rocker) around the fretboard to check for said high spots.
    • Use a lightweight hammer, or even the butt end of a substantial screwdriver, to lightly tap the offending fret down. One or two taps should do, then re-check the high spot.
    • If the fret won’t settle in, it falls into the realm of a loose fret. At this point we’re getting beyond our intended scope as the remedy will require glueing the fret down. The dangers of ruining a finish are too great, thus we’ll leave it for the separate tutorial mentioned previously.

How to Setup a Gibson Les Paul: The Teardown

3. Cleaning the Guitar

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.

Note: There are some who think paper towels are abrasive, and yes, the cheap ones are. Instead, stick with a high quality branded product. You won’t have to worry about scratching the finish, plus any potential contamination from dirt goes straight in the garbage.

I would also add that I do not recommend the use of steel wool. Though I love it’s convenience in producing good results quickly, and I’ve used it many times, I’ve never been comfortable trying to clean up after it. Those leftover steel fibres get absolutely everywhere! All it takes is one little piece to destroy a pickup, or contaminate your cleaning cloth leaving hairline scratches in the finish.

Whatever the nature of the grime, feel free to use any of the recommended cleaning products and have at it.

Recommended Guitar Cleaning Products

As you work your way around the instrument, keep in mind the fretboard will need special attention. In general, start at the top of the guitar and work your way through these major areas:

  • Headstock
  • Body area under the strings
  • Pickups
  • Hardware
  • PRO TIP: use an old toothbrush to remove loose surface grime.

WARNING: Always exercise extreme caution when using any kind of solvent around vintage instruments as they can easily damage delicate aged finishes.

  • Fretboard and frets:
    • Use a few drops of light soapy water or recommended cleaner to lift surface gunk. Be sure to work quickly to keep fluids from soaking into an open pore fretboards.
    • Rub it around the whole board for a few seconds to loosen up surface grime then quickly wipe it off with a paper towel.
    • Repeat if necessary.
    • Polish the frets with extra super fine sandpaper, 2400 grit or finer, then dribble on a couple of drops of lemon oil.
    • Spread the oil around the fretboard for a few seconds then quickly and completely wipe up the excess. There, all shite and briney!
    • NOTE: When polishing the frets, consider masking off coated fretboards with low-tack tape to prevent finish hazing. They still need a clean and polish but you can skip the lemon oil step. Just wipe up any polishing residue with a damp paper towel when finished.

  • Body & finish:
    • As most finish grime tends to be finger junk, a good quality detailing product will clean the surface just fine – that is unless you like to eat fried chicken and play your guitar at the same time. Heavier deposits will need a little more elbow grease.
    • Apply a small amount of cleaner to a fresh piece of high quality paper towel, just enough to damp it, and start working the finish.

PRO TIP: Because you’ll be handling the guitar quite a bit during the setup process, you only need to clean the areas around the face of the headstock and the top of the guitar between the bridge and end of the fretboard – the hard-to-get-to areas that are under the strings. Leave the bulk of the cleaning for last after you’ve restrung it and finished the setup work.

How to Setup a Gibson Les Paul: Cleaning the Guitar

Check out the whole series plus many more video tutorials here.

4. Installing New Strings

Taking strings off is easy. Installing new strings is just as easy, provided you have a method. Keep in mind, there’s more than one “right” way to instal strings.

In this example, we’ll follow a string installation technique that “traps” the tag end of the string between a top wrap, and successive under-wraps.

PRO TIP: Remember to batch your processes! Whether your instrument is acoustic or electric, the principles are the same.

Remember to batch your processes! Whether your instrument is acoustic or electric, the principles are the same.

When installing fresh strings, work through the strings in order – heaviest to lightest or vice versa. New strings tend to be packaged in order, use this to your advantage to stay organized.

  • Start by threading each string one after the other into the bridge or tailpiece.

acoustic restring bridge
Batching the restringing process

  • Next, install each string into its corresponding tuning post accordingly:
    • 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.
    • While still holding the tag end, use your other hand to wrap the slack string once around the top of the post in the direction the string will normally travel.
    • Now 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 keeping the following wraps underneath the tag end.

restring-under-control
Control slack when installing new strings

  • The trickiest part of this whole process is controlling the slack in the length of the string. Keep things under control by using your first finger as a downward tensioner, just behind the nut, and draw the remaining slack up with the rest of your fingers.
  • Finally, wind each string up so that it’s just snugnot to pitch!, that’s for later.

PRO TIP: Don’t cut the tag ends of the strings until you have them all installed. There’s nothing worse than cutting a string short and having nothing to wrap around the post – especially with bass strings, and especially when you don’t have a backup!

  • Once you have all the strings installed in their respective posts, then give the tags ends a “hair cut”. Grab them all in one hand, so you can toss them in the trash in one shot, and cut each one in turn with side cutters right at the top of the tuner post.

Batching restringing processes
Batch your processes!

How to Setup a Les Paul: Installing New Strings

5. Preliminary Adjustments

This is where the true magic of a good guitar setup starts to become a reality. For easy reference I refer to small measurements using common items such as a dime, nickel or quarter. To remain inclusive, imperial and metric equivalents are provided for extra convenience.

PRO TIP: Keep an old string package available for reference. Individual string gauges are usually printed on the packaging and provide a great way to judge fine measurements using comparisons.

  • 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:
    • Check the general string height. The bass side should be off the frets about the width of two dimes around the twelfth to fifteenth fret area – the gap should measure about .1″ or 2.7mm. Likewise, the treble side should be about the width of a nickel – .077″ or 1.95mm.
    • Check the neck angle. The neck should be in line with the hardware at the bridge. By sighting down the neck from the headstock to the body, the neck angle (the plane of the fretboard) should be such that the top of the saddles are neither too high or too low.
      If the instrument has a bolt-on type neck, this is your opportunity to correct any misalignment issues. Remove the neck and instal a thin shim – sandpaper works great for this – until the neck angle looks correct to you.
      Set neck instruments are of course non-adjustable, but are usually engineered to have enough adjustability at the bridge to compensate for slight offsets.
    • Examine the nut. The nut slots should be even in depth. No individual string should be either too high or too low.
      If the strings are too high, the amount of deflection needed to play at the first couple of frets will be uncomfortable plus it will cause intonation issues. Conversely, if the slots are too low you’ll have string buzz at the nut. In either case the nut will need to be repaired.
    • Check the bridge height. The bridge should be adjusted such that it puts the overall string height in the range of reasonable playability at the twelfth to fifteenth fret area. We’ll fine tune it later.
    • Check general neck relief. Again, neck relief is one of those elements that dramatically 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 along it’s length.

  • Begin making preliminary adjustments as necessary.
    Assuming the nut is in reasonably good condition, start with small bridge height and truss rod adjustments to begin homing in on the perfect triangle of action. If the nut is way out of tolerance, only address the major issues to bring it into an acceptable range.

  • Check electrical operations:
    • The output jack. One of the most common electrical issues is a simple loose nut at the output jack. Check it and tighten it up if necessary.
      If there’s visible surface corrosion in the input sleeve, remove it by rolling up some fine sandpaper, 360 grit or finer, into a tube and spinning it inside the input sleeve.
    • 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 use 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.

PRO TIP: To keep the output jack from spinning when you try to tighten up the outer nut, insert the end of a small utility file into the jack. The file will bite into the sleeve of the output jack and keep it from turning.

6. Action, Intonation and Fine Adjustments

The following sections describe the finer points of adjusting the action on a guitar. Remember, the strings should be just snug enough to apply a little bit of pressure – not up to pitch and certainly not stretched out yet!

  • Adjust the truss rod:

    Which way do you turn 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 3rd string to get a general idea of where the relief sits for the whole neck. 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 later if the neck was really out of joint.

Acoustic truss rod adjuster
Acoustic truss rod adjuster

More On How A Truss Rod Works

  • Set the Bridge Height and Radius.

    Whether your guitar is an acoustic, bass, or electric, the principles described here apply to all of them. The bridge should be slightly higher on the bass side to allow extra room for the heavier strings to move freely.

    • With acoustic instruments, the saddle should be trimmed from the bottom if too high, or have a shim installed underneath if too low. Keep in mind a little goes a long way. That is to say removing or adding a small amount can feel very different once the saddle is back in place
    • At this point in our setup process, it’s perfectly ok to remove the strings at the bridge since we haven’t stressed the strings through stretching yet.
      • Measure the current string height at the 12th fret and determine how much lower or higher you want the strings to be.
      • Loosen the strings completely.
      • Pull the bridge pins and take the strings out of their respective holes.
      • Remove the saddle and draw a pencil line along the side to mark your cutoff point if it sits too high. .020″-.025″ is a good starting point.
      • Sand or grind off the excess material making sure the bottom is absolutely flush – especially if you have a pickup system!
      • Conversely, cut a thin strip of shim material, suitable hardness and thickness, cardboard or plastic, and instal it in the saddle slot.
      • Reinstall the bridge, then the strings and snug them up.
      • Check your work and determine whether you should readjust or carry on.

PRO TIP: Use a capo over the nut to trap the strings in their slots and keep them from flopping around.

lowering-string-height-1
Acoustic strings sitting too high

Acoustic saddle trimming
Acoustic saddle marked for trimming, and a copy of the finished result

lowering-string-height-2
Acoustic strings set to proper height

    • On electric instruments with adjustable bridges, start with the treble side. The first string should be off the frets about the width of a nickel (.077 inches or 1.95 mm) around the fifteenth fret area.

How To Setup A Guitar - String Height 1st String
Treble side string height

    • The sixth string should follow the same methodology to set the height. Ideally it should measure about the height of two dimes (.1″ or 2.7mm) at the fifteenth fret.

How To Setup A Guitar - String Height 6th String
Bass side string height

  • Set the tailpiece.
    Note: For stop tailpieces like those found on Les Pauls, 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. The height of the studs should also be set to match the relative height of the bridge posts.
    In the image below, you can just make out the knurls of the bridge height thumbwheels. Notice the tailpiece follows the same plane of the bridge from bass side to treble side:

How To Setup A Guitar - Stop Tailpiece Height
Stop tailpiece setting

Adjusting the string height of a floating bridge plate:

Whether your trem system is fully locking or vintage style floating, there is a delicate balance between the height of the bridge plate and the corresponding height of the individual string saddles.

The optimal bridge plate setting is controlled by the tension of the tremolo springs found in the back of the instrument. These springs are attached to a claw plate with two adjustment screws which increase or decrease the spring tension by moving the claw plate forwards or backwards within the cavity.

Depending on the type of floating system, the bridge plate should be set level with the plane of the body (modern systems and hardtail setups) or tipped 1/8″ off the body at the rear end of the plate for a vintage style setup.

  • Simply adjust the two claw plate screws in or out equally to achieve your ideal bridge plate setting.

tremolo vibrato spring claw adjustment
Claw plate adjustment screws

  • 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, using the right tools, 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.
    • Some of the most common radius dimensions are:
      • 16″ – Martin
      • 12″ – Gibson and Epiphone
      • 10″ – Off-shore Fender and Squier including knock-offs
      • 9.5″ – Fender USA
      • 7.25″ – Vintage and Reissue Fender USA

How To Setup A Guitar - Les Paul Saddle Radius
Les Paul type radius

How To Setup A Guitar - Strat Saddle Radius
Stratocaster type radius

  • Fine tune the action 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!

  • Re-cut the nut
    • Recutting the nut, if necessary, 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.

recutting the nut
Recutting a 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 Pickup Height:
    • Start with setting it 1/8″ or 3.18mm (about the thickness of a nickel and dime together) away from the strings.
    • If possible, carefully adjust the pole-pieces to match the fretboard radius.

How To Setup A Guitar - Pickup Height
Pickup height

  • Preliminary string stretch.
    • Hold the instrument in your lap either in a playing position or lying flat. Keeping your thumb extended to both control and force pressure into the string, give each string a good yank in sections along its entire length. Remember, batch your processes!
    • Stretch all the strings in turn
    • Bring the guitar up to pitch.
    • DO THIS ONLY ONCE! Otherwise the strings may become compromised if you need to back up a step or two in the process.
    • PS, want to know how much is too much for a given string? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by literally trying to break them. I would suggest using a cheap set of strings and attempting this test on an instrument you don’t mind beating up.

string stretch 1
Stretching strings

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  • Check and Adjust the intonation:

    How do you Intonate a guitar?

    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.
    Luckily, there are predictable patterns saddles fall into depending on the type of instrument and type of strings. These visual cues come in very handy when you want to verify intonation is indeed in the ballpark:

intonation steps electric guitar

intonation steps acoustic guitar

intonation steps bass guitar

  • 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.

Les Paul Intonation Adjustment
Tune-o-matic intonation travel

intonation-adjustment-2
Fender style intonation travel

      • 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.
      • For a a more comprehensive guide on the subject, check out my article: “The Ultimate Guide to Guitar Intonation” at GuitarChalk.com.

How to Setup a Fender Telecaster: Action and Intonation

  • 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.
    • 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

stretching guitar strings
Stretching string out

Stretching the strings is a key subject because of how important it is to the guitar’s tuning stability. With our preliminary string stretch out of the way, we can now get down to the business of getting them fully settled in enough to rely on.

  • Perform a 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. This slack will eventually straighten out causing your strings to fall out of pitch.

How To Setup A Guitar - String Deflection
Remove points where slack is evident

  • Tune the instrument up to pitch.
  • Repeat the stretching process one more time.

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

8. Check for Functionality

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

  • Check mechanical stability:
    • Check the tuners for smooth operation.
    • Listen for “tinks” at the nut or bridge. This indicates a point which will need smoothing out or a small tweak to set it right.
      For instance, there may be a hard “v” at the bottom of a nut 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.

  • 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.

  • Double check electronics:
    • Plug the guitar in, make sure that all controls are doing what they’re supposed to do.

  • Check the guitar’s action – sponginess or “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 again if necessary.
    It’s not uncommon for gremlins to show up at the last minute. Hunt them down and kill them.
    Your goal? A super fine playing guitar that’s a joy to play.

  • Reattach any remaining hardware.
    Parts such as floating pickguards and backplates can now be reattached if you’re confident you’ve accomplished all the fine adjustments.

  • Finish up with a final polish and detail.
    • Wipe the instrument down with a recommended guitar polish or premium finish detailer without abrasives. I’m still a big fan of paper towels – bye bye dirt – forever.
    • PRO TIP: Wrap the tip of a bamboo skewer or similar sized wooden dowel in the paper towel to get into those tight spots and ninety degree angles.

… aaaaand we`re done :)

9. PLAY!

What can I say?… Enjoy your awesomely setup guitar!

Play Guitar!

Want to continue to improve your skills?

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

Thanks For Reading!

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2 Responses

  1. Brett
    | Reply

    Wow,extensive,nicely done. But no Windex?

    • Steve B.
      | Reply

      Nope. The use of that kind of solvent has to be addressed specifically. Without proper guidance, bad things happen very quickly.

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