My first guitar could have been better, and I made several rookie mistakes when I purchased the guitar. I was 12 years old and saved up my summer job money to buy a guitar. But, I had no idea what to look for—and, if you don’t, I cover this topic in my article, How to Inspect a Guitar for Damage. So, I bought it with my eyes and heart instead of my ears and brain.
My research was straightforward. I saw a poster of David Gilmour playing a black strat in the record store. So, I looked for a black strat. And, to my surprise, the record store was selling a black strat—or, instead, a cheap overseas-made replica of a black Fender Stratocaster. I didn’t ask any questions; I just pointed and said, “That one!”
Today, when students ask for my advice on buying a guitar, I instinctively answer, “Don’t buy one in a record store.” But I get the wide-eyed look followed by the question, “What’s a record store?” Anyway…
The guitar itself weighed nothing. It was made from cheap components. And the neck was thicker than a baseball bat. Lastly, I could fit my fingers between the strings and the fretboard at the 12th fret. But I didn’t know better; I was 12 and thought this was normal. So, I continued using the guitar and signed up for lessons.
My teacher struggled with me because of my poor technique and my need for improvement. I was frustrated with my guitar and becoming disillusioned with the idea of playing guitar. “Maybe, this is not for me,” I thought.
Then the day came when I broke a string and didn’t know what to do. My teacher told me to bring the guitar to the next lesson, and he’d show me how to restring the guitar. But when I showed him my guitar, his jaw dropped, and he looked at me, and half asked, half said, “You’ve been trying to play this guitar?! No wonder you still suck!!!”
Fortunately, he also doubled as a guitar tech. And my guitar-restringing lesson turned into a guitar-setup class that took two or three sessions. He taught me how to adjust the truss rod. restring the guitar, and do a simple setup. And it immediately felt easier to play, and my initial interest was rekindled.
I learned that there was more to learn than chords, scales, licks, and songs. There’s proper care and maintenance, and it’s essential to understand some fundamentals to keep your guitar playable. And that all begin’s with learning how to properly set it up.
The Electric Guitar Setup
You don’t need to be a six-string sorcerer to get your guitar to play and sound like a dream. But a little guidance and experience can go a long way. Also, instead of emptying your wallet whenever you need to change strings, tweak the neck, adjust the action, etc., invest in a decent set of guitar tools and learn some trade tricks.
What is an electric guitar setup?
The guitar setup is a term used to refer to the general maintenance of your instrument. This includes changing strings, straightening the neck, calibrating the intonation, adjusting the string height, assessing the tuning machines, tightening loose jacks, cleaning noisy pots, tweaking the bridge angle on vibrato systems, plus a few other items that I may have overlooked or that are unique instances.
Keeping these parts in good working order will make your guitar a pleasure to play and aren’t too challenging to learn. For handier folks (not me), more extensive repairs and modifications can make for a fun weekend project. For example, I had a father and son team build cigar box guitars and, ultimately, a full-scale S-style guitar.
More importantly, a proper setup can make the guitar-playing experience a dream, and the expressiveness that comes with an easy-playing guitar cannot be described. So, here are my go-to tips for setting up your guitar.
BTW, these are not hard-and-fast rules. They are a starting point. Evaluate and tweak to your personal preferences.
There are four main components that I focus on in the setup process. If you need to brush up on some basics, like changing the strings and adjusting the truss rod, we have some articles that you may be interested in:
- How to Properly Clean Your Guitar Strings
- How to Effectively Restring Your Guitar. Are You Doing it Wrong?
- Guitar Truss Rod Adjustment Guide
- How To Clean A Fretboard Properly
Play Test Your Guitar Before You Setup
Take your instrument through the ‘Play Test’ to check how your guitar plays, sounds, and feels. I use chords and licks to check for open-string buzzes, dead notes, choked notes, and any other anomalies that sound or feel unpleasant. I go over this in detail in my article, How I ‘Play Test’ a New or Used Guitar.
Tip: I use a notebook to write down trouble areas, e.g., 4th string, 5th fret dead note; bends around the 1st string, 15th fret choke out, or open high-E buzzes, etc.
Sight Down the Neck (Neck Relief)
This is the tricky part of the setup process, as all playability starts and ends with the neck. Again, my Play-Test Article covers this in more detail. But here’s the gist of it. Sight down the neck, looking for parallel fretwork and any prominent humps—the former is good, the latter is bad.
Use the low-E string as a straight edge and check the neck relief. A slight concave (or inward) bow is okay; a convex (or outward) bow is not. In either case, a minor truss rod tweak will do the job.
Tip: Only adjust the truss rod a ¼-turn at a time. There’s no going back if you bust the truss rod. Many new guitars come with a basic truss rod wrench. It is worth investing in some decent truss rod wrenches.
I like this kit from Music Nomad. It has all the standard hex, Allen truss rod sizes, and a spoke wheel rod. Also, it costs less than your average setup.
Check the Action by Measuring the Bridge and Saddle Height
For this, you’ll need a string-action ruler or string-action gauge. This is a 6-inch steel ruler that also measures millimeters. But the Dunlop System 65 String Action Gauge is a handy steel ruler with measurements for guitar adjustments etched into the metal.
First, measure the bridge and saddles by holding down the strings at the first fret (I use a capo) and adjust each saddle to a 1/32-inch measuring at the 12th fret. This eliminates the need to use a radius gauge, as all of the strings will automatically be set to the matching radius of your guitar.
Once the neck relief is set correctly, and the bridge and saddle height is adjusted, I ‘Play Test’ again to listen and feel for any buzzes, unwanted noises, dead notes, etc. I repeat the neck relief and saddle and bridge height adjustments if anything sounds wonky. I will move on to the next step if it’s all good.
Check the Nut
I evaluate the nut to make sure that it’s all good. But I’ve had instances where the nut slots were cut (or worn) too deep. I used the poor man’s solution of putting a piece of tin foil to keep the string from buzzing. A simple solution to making it through the gig. But this is not a long-term solution. And, for that, I take it to a tech.
During my ‘Play Test,’ I’ll usually notice the buzzing noises. But sometimes, it’s very subtle, and that’s where this test comes in. I use my left-hand index finger on the 1st fret with my right-hand index finger on the 3rd fret and tap repeatedly.
If there is a lot of space, my fret is too high. If there is little to no movement, my slot is too low. And, as I said above, in either case, I take this to my guitar tech.
Assess the Electronics
Anything that creates an electromagnetic field will attract dust. So, pickups, controls, and jacks are prone to get dusty, and dust generates noise. Since I’m already in housekeeping mode, I take a few moments to check the electronics and ensure everything is okay. Usually, a wipe with a microfiber cloth and a quick blast of compressed air does the job.
The Basic Setup Process
You’ve evaluated any problem areas by checking the neck relief, addressing the string height (or action) by adjusting the saddle and bridge heights, assessing the nut height, and testing the electronics. In most cases, everything should be fine.
Next, I’ll remove the old strings and wipe the guitar with a clean cloth to remove the dust. I’ll change the strings, tune-up, and calibrate the intonation.
Detailing Your Guitar
This is my big spring-cleaning job, which I perform about once a year on each guitar. I complete the 4 steps mentioned above first. Followed by these 4 steps:
- Sight Down the Neck (Neck Relief)
- Check the Action by Measuring the Bridge and Saddle Height
- Check the Nut Height and Nut Slots
- Assess the Electronics
Next, I’ll perform the following 4 steps:
- Remove Strings
- Tape-Off Pickups: I use painter’s tape to protect the pickups from steel wool debris.
- Polish Frets: If you don’t have fret guards, use painter’s tape; that’s what I do. This will protect the fretboard from potential scratches as you polish the frets. I’ll cover the details below.
- Oil the Fretboard: Remove the tape from the fretboard. For dark fretboards, use a drop of oil on a clean cloth to condition the fretboard. A little oil goes a long way, so don’t go nuts. Skip this step if you have a maple fretboard. Also, use a different cloth to oil your fretboard and polish your guitar.
Fret Polishing Tips
- Use a small amount of steel wool (about the size of a dime) and roll it into a ball.
- Rub the ball of steel wool back and forth over each fret.
- This removes the dirt and grime, leaving the frets nice and shiny.
- Once each fret is polished, clean up the steel wool debris paying close attention to the neck pickup and the area where the neck joins the body. You can use a vacuum cleaner with a brush nozzle or a soft artist brush. Also, makeup brushes work in a pinch.
Calibrating the Intonation
Add new strings and tune up. Be sure to stretch the strings and retune them as needed. Next, calibrate the intonation by using an electronic tuner.
- Compare the pitch of an open string to the 12th-fret note and 12th-fret harmonic.
- If it’s sharp, move the saddle forward.
- If it’s flat, move the saddle backward.
- Repeat on all six strings.
Bonus Setup Tips
As a bonus, I’ve added some setup tips for S-style and L-style guitars. I use both and have discovered, over the years, that each needs different tweaks to maintain its playability levels.
S-Style Setup Tips
The S-style guitar is a guitar built in the style of the Fender Stratocaster. These guitars have bolt-on necks, a pickup, and an electronics system that attaches to the pickguard and are easy to work on.
I finally picked up an S-style guitar that suited my playing style and fell in love with the guitar. But, it did require some different approaches during the setup process. Here are some of the tips that worked for me.
The Vibrato Unit
- Begin by tuning your guitar
- Tighten the screws of the adjustable claw inside the cavity at the rear of the guitar that adjusts the spring tension
- Tighten until the underside of the bridge is resting against the body
- The vibrato arm should move easily
- Adjust by a 1/4 or 1/2 turn each time and retune
- Repeat the process until the tremolo is in the position that you want it to be
- Making minor adjustments is critical in avoiding the endless cycle of retuning and adjusting.
- Bonus tip: keep a running tally of the adjustments on your phone or a notebook. You can always go back to the beginning.
- Start with the neck pickup.
- Raise the PU until you start hearing ‘wolf tones.’
- A ‘wolf tone’ occurs when the PU’s magnetic field interferes with the string’s vibration.
- Two characteristics of wolf tones are no sustain or a wobble in the note.
- Also, your intonation will be all over the place.
- Find the wolf tone and lower the PU until the wolf tones go away.
- This is the highest that your pickup should sit.
- You can lower it more if you wish
- Lowering it more allows the PU to breathe.
- Middle PU should be higher to match the neck output.
- The bridge PU will need to be higher still as the string doesn’t vibrate as much when it’s closer to the string.
- Also, because the string vibrates less when it’s closer to the bridge, it can be adjusted closer to the string before you experience wolf tones.
- Start with a standard setup with medium action.
- High E at 0.06 inches above the 12th fret
- Low E at 0.08 inches above the 12th fret
- All in-between strings should gradually move from 0.06-0.08 inches from high to low gauges.
- This allows the strings to breathe correctly, and you can hit the bass side a bit harder without getting that unpleasant rattle.
- Tip: Set them all at different heights. The strings need to be at different heights to perform at their best.
String Tree Break Angle
- I’m not too fond of a hard string angle down from the string post to the string tree and then back up to the nut.
- This adds another point of high friction.
- I put more winds on the string (spooling from top to bottom) on the high E and B strings.
- Aim for the same string level for the string post to the string tree.
L-Style Setup Tips
I’ve always had a penchant for Gibson Les Pauls, which require a little TLC. Here are some setup tips that have worked for me.
- Use a fresh set of strings before any setup
- Older strings have tiny kinks and wear spots that will interfere with proper intonation
Check to see if the neck relief needs to be adjusted
- Fit a capo on the first fret.
- Hold down the strings at the 17th fret where the neck joins the body.
- Check the spacing between the bottom of the strings at about the 7th or 8th fret and the top of the fret.
- If you see a slight gap between the string being held down and the top of the fret, you have a concave bow (curving slightly upward from the body). This is normal, and the neck relief is good.
- You have a convex bow if you don’t see a slight space between the string being held down and the top of the fret. You need to adjust the neck.
- You want a slight concave bow.
- You can measure this at the 8th fret.
- Gibson suggests a neck relief of 0.01 and 0.012 inches / 0.254 and 0.3048mm.
- Tip: If you don’t have the proper tools to measure this, use a piece of paper and a business card. The paper is about 0.004, and the business card is 0.013 inches. You’re in the ballpark.
- Tip 2: The truss rod must be loosened if you have buzzing or unwanted noises towards the nut.
- Tip 3: If you have buzzing as you move up the fretboard (north of the 12th fret), the truss rod needs to be tightened.
Check the Nut Height
- Once you have installed a new set of strings and adjusted the neck, you should check the nut
- Not many people look to change the nut, but you should check it from time to time just in case it needs attention
- At the 1st fret, the standard is to have 1/64th of an inch between the bottom of the high E and the top of the fret.
- For the low E, you want to have 1/32th
- The other strings should gradually move respectively between those two dimensions.
Action at the 12th Fret
The first steps are installing new strings, adjusting the neck relief, and checking the nut height. Next is checking the action at the 12th fret by measuring the bottom of the string to the top of the fret. These specs will vary depending on the string gauge and the player’s touch. So, use these as a starting point.
- The low-E string should measure 5/64 inches.
- The high-E string should measure 3/64 inches.
- You adjust the bridge height accordingly to meet those measurements.
These are some general specs that I use as a starting point. For a cleaner sound, lower the pickups, and for a hotter sound, you can raise the pickups.
- Hold both E strings down at the highest fret. For LPs and SGs, that is the 22nd fret.
- Measure the distance from the bottom of the string to the top of the pickup’s polepiece.
- Neck pickup should be 4/64-inch
- Bridge pickup should be 3/64-inch
Pickup Pole Pieces
I’ve been fortunate enough to have owned a few Gibson Les Pauls. But, I’ve had two stolen and others that I sold. My first real Gibson Les Paul is a 1973 Custom, and it’s still with me. But that guitar has given me pickup problems over the years.
The main issue was an overbearing low end and shrill high end. I took it to Mandolin Bros., and the luthier told me that it was a simple fix and that he could set the pickup’s polepieces to conform with the guitar’s fretboard radius. Here’s what he did:
- Leave both E strings polepieces flush with the pickup.
- Raise the polepieces for the B, G, D, and A strings.
- Use a radius gauge or a ruler to measure.
This trick I learned hanging around the guitar shop. You can adjust the stopbar height to affect the break angle of the strings across the bridge.
- A lower stopbar will increase the break angle and create more tension. Some players say that this also increases the sustain.
- Raising the stopbar will reduce the break angle and decrease the tension providing a slinkier feel to the strings.
- There’s also inserting the strings to wrap over the tailpiece. This reduces the string break angle, and I’ve seen Duane Allman and Joe Bonamassa use this technique.
There is no right or wrong; it’s just what works for you.
For many of us, it all started with a broken string and learning how to restring our guitars. Some of us went the guitar repairperson route and learned how to do everything from fret jobs to rewiring pickups.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle. But, whatever our individual journeys are, learning the fundamentals of guitar maintenance and performing a proper setup is an essential part of the process.
I began this article intending to offer an essential 1-2-3 guide to performing a simple setup. As I began organizing it, I realized you can get that anywhere. So I also decided to share my S-style and L-style tips. But that seemed incomplete without the basic setup section.
Finally, I added the detailing part to create an article that will reference most of your guitar maintenance and setup issues. I hope you find it useful.
Please bookmark this article for later reference and share it with a friend.
Thanks for reading. And, till next time, practice smart and play from the heart.
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