Setting up Your Guitar - 052
Whether your new guitar isn’t playing right or your old one needs a refresh, It’s not as hard as you think, and you already have most of what you need.
Easy Guitar Setup
This if for those of you that feel like your guitar is always fighting you. You don’t have to be a beginner for this to happen. I know a lot of good players that focus mainly on the playing part of the guitar (the scales and chords) who move from one guitar to the other, trying to find the perfect instrument.
Usually, the common idea is that the more money that you spend on an instrument the better it should play. And then when the guitar doesn’t play as well as others you have tried, there must be something wrong with the guitar. Time to move on.
Well that is just not the case. Just because a guitar is expensive, doesn’t mean that it’s set up correctly. And if it is used, it could be set up for a player that likes things differently than you. Also, an inexpensive guitar just might be able to be setup to play very very well. One of the reasons it may be inexpensive in the first place is that it wasn’t set up at all.
“So, you are telling me that a guitar can be setup many different ways.” Yep!
“And you are telling me that what one guitar player likes in a guitar could be completely different from what I like.” Bingo
So, If I understand what you mean, a very expensive guitar could have been set up correctly and I still might not like it.” You got it.
So, what are you supposed to do?
Say that you are shopping for a guitar and you try a lot out. You find that some of the guitars feel better than the others. Now, this could be because the body is contoured the way you like, or the size of the neck works well for your hands. Those kind of things are not adjustable, but they are very important and should steer you towards a certain style of guitar.
But, there are time when it’s not these fixed things that feel right. A lot of the times you can play two of the same model guitars and it’s like night and day. One feels great and the other seems to fight you.
What is the difference? Why would these two very similar guitars feel so different?
Knowing What You Like
It’s hard to make a decision on a guitar without knowing a few things. There are things that are adjustable on a guitar (like string action and neck relief) and things that are not (like scale length.) Having an opinion about your preference on both is the goal.
How do you know what you like? In the beginning, it’s tough. Because you don’t have a lot of experience with guitars, yet. So, the common recommendation is to play a lot of different guitars. The problem there is, even if you play a lot of guitars you need to know what to pay attention to. You might think, “This guitar feels great but I’m not sure why.”
Today, I’m going to go over some ways that you can adjust your guitar at home. If you are just getting into guitar, pay attention to the different adjustments that I go over. Pick up your guitar and see how yours is set, and compare it to other guitars that you come across. Also, be brave and experiment a bit. Try out some of these adjustments in very small increments to see if you get a better result. If not, set it back the way it was.
The easiest thing is to…
…have someone else do it for you. Getting a guitar set-up professionally is a great idea at first. Not only will you have your guitar ready to play, but you will see the difference these adjustments can make, right away.
The first time I got a setup on my first electric (Ibanez Roadstar II), I got it right away. Knowing that just by using a few allen wrenches you could dramatically improve the way it felt and played this much, I felt confident to start experimenting with the saddle height and eventually the truss rod.
Getting your guitars set up regularly can get expensive, especially if you have multiple guitars. It can be much more economical to spend the time to learn a few simple things that can get your guitar setup the way you like with minimal investment.
I am not a guitar luthier, I am a guitar player. But, I do love to work on my own guitars. It’s my hobby. Something I really enjoy, especially when I need a break or to take my mind off of things.
Big disclaimer: there are much more precise methods to a guitar setup. My goal here is to introduce a quick, inexpensive setup to those who have not tried to, or who have feared adjusting their own guitars.
Let’s get started with our “players setup”.
Here are the steps I take when setting up one of my guitars.
- Neck Relief
- Nut Slot Height
- Check And Clean The Electronics (if needed)
- Set The Pickup Height
- New Set Of Strings
- Set The Intonation
- Clean And Polish
The first thing to check out is neck relief. Neck relief is the amount of bow in the neck. This is very important to get the guitar feeling the way you would like. The amount of bow is adjusted by something called a truss rod. This is a metal rod that is inside the neck of your guitar. It is adjusted using an allen wrench (in most cases) . Your guitar came with the allen wrench that fits when it was new. If you don’t have it, no worries. You can usually find one that fits with a standard set of allen wrenches.
How do you determine how much bow your neck has. This is simple, you need a straight edge. With a straight edge next to your frets, it’s easy to see how much up-bow (the neck curves forward towards the strings) or back-bow (the neck curves back away from the strings) you have.
Don’t run out and buy a special straight edge for this. You already have what you need right on your guitar: a guitar string. Under tension, the guitar string creates a perfect straight edge. You can use it to gauge the relief of the neck.
Put a capo on (or just hold down, if you don’t have one) the first fret. This takes the nut out of the equation. Then I like to fret a string on the 15th fret. Take a look at the difference between the frets and the string around the mid-way point (the 7th fret).
If the 7th fret is touching the string, you have a back bow. A back-bow will guarantee buzzing strings and is not desirable.
Generally you would want to have a small space between the string and the 7th fret. I like to use a business card in between them, but to get a more precise measurement you could use feeler gauges . If you have a heavy hand when you play and strum, you might like to have more space to accommodate the wider travel of the string. If you have a very light touch, you even might like the string and the frets flat for ease of fretting (like Eric Johnson).
Generally you turn the allen wrench (or phillips head screwdriver) in the socket (which could be up by the nut, or at the other end of the neck by the pickups) counter-clockwise for up-bow and clockwise for back-bow. Make sure that you start with very small adjustments…⅛ to a ¼ of a turn at first to get the neck the way you like. A little goes a long way. I like to detune the string before I make an adjustment and then retune to check it.
Over time, I have experimented and found that I like to have a very small amount of relief…not flat and a little less than a business card. It gives me the ease of fretting, without a lot of buzz, that I like.
Don’t be afraid to adjust the truss rod. You won’t break the neck and as long as you stick to very small adjustments you are in good shape.
Once you have your neck relief adjusted it’s time to move on to…
Action on the guitar is usually the first thing a new player notices. It’s how far away the strings are from the top of the frets – the string height. A high action can be extremely painful and an action that is too low sounds terrible with lots of buzzing.
The action of a guitar is adjusted at the bridge by either raising and lowering the saddle. There are several different ways to do this, depending on the guitar.
On electric guitars, it could be by using a small allen wrench on the individual string saddles or like on a Gibson by turning the thumbwheels to raise and lower the whole bridge.
On an acoustic, things are a bit more involved . You would lower the action by filing the bottom of the saddle using a flat surface and sandpaper. Raising the action would either require shims or a whole new saddle (way past the scope of this podcast and I recommend having someone who is experienced to do this at first).
Having a specialized string height ruler and radius gauge is optimal for setting this. You measure from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string and adjust from there. But, if you don’t have these things, don’t worry, you can get in the ballpark without any specialized measurement at all.
I like to get a quick height adjustment on an electric by lowering the string down until it just starts to buzz when it is played. Then, I raise it up just enough that it stops buzzing. There it is, as low an action that your guitar can handle in just a few steps. Love it!
Nut Slot Height
So far, so good. But here is the trickiest one. Nut slot height is just as important as setting the action at the bridge. The nut slot sets the height of the open string. If it is too high, the guitar can feel stiff and hard to play. If it is to low, you get a ton of buzzing.
Getting this just right is important. There are special gauges, or you could use feeler gauges to determine the depth of the slot. But for us, there is a less precise and very inexpensive way to get very close.
Just press the string in question down, right on the second fret. Now, while holding this down, take a look at the first fret. How much distance is there between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret? There should be just enough to be able to slide a piece of printer paper between them. In fact, you should be able to pluck the string and still hear a “ping”. If you don’t hear anything, your slot may be too low. If you have a lot of room between them, your slot is too high.
Once you have determined the depth of the slot, you may need to adjust it. Just like adjusting the saddle of an acoustic guitar, adjusting the nut slot heights requires some filing. If you have a definite problem and aren’t comfortable filing them yourself, take your guitar to the shop to get looked at.
If you do want to DIY, I would suggest a set of nut slotting files. These are files that round the bottom of the slot so the string doesn’t get bound up in the slot.
There are cheaper ways to lower a nut slot by using old guitar strings that fit the slot like a mini saw. I’ve seen them glued to popsicle sticks before. I’ve never tried this, but it makes sense because the strings themselves will wear down the slots over time just from playing.
Check The Electronics
At this point the guitar should be playing great. It’s time to button up some things before we start to play.
Plug your guitar in and check all of the knobs and switches to make sure they work. If you have any dead pickup settings or you get crackling when you turn the knobs, you will need to get access to the electronics of the guitar. In a strat, they are under the pickguard and in other guitars, they could be accessed from the back of the guitar.
Take a quick visual inspection to see if there are any loose wires. If you see any and are competent with a soldering iron, solder them up. If not, ask a friend that knows how to solder. It’s super easy and only takes seconds.
If your knobs are crackling, the pots under them need to be cleaned. Get a can of DeOxit electronic contact cleaner ($14 and it will last you years) and spray a bit into the opening in each pot. Turn the knob back and forth several times to clean.
Voila, electronics, just like new again!
Now, we have the strings adjusted just right, the electronics cleaned and in working order. The next thing to adjust on an electric is pickup height.
The pickups are very sensitive to the distance between their magnets and the strings. Try moving the pickup higher and lower with a phillips head screwdriver, and audition the different sounds. There is no right or wrong to this. Your ear will tell you what you like.
I have found for me a great starting point is using the nickel method (I think this was originally from pickup designer Bill Lawrence, but I’m not sure.
Push your high E string down at the very highest fret. Then put a nickel (.077 inches or 1.95 mm) between the pole piece of the pick up and the string, and adjust for that thickness.
On the low E, repeat the same process, only using 2 nickels this time.
This gets me in the ballpark and I adjust by ear from there, by matching the loudness of all of the pickups.
At this point I usually put on a new set of strings. Everything should be ready to go for this, unless you are switching to a new gauge of strings. Then you would need to readjust your neck relief and action with the new strings on.
Now that you have installed the new strings onto your setup guitar, a final check of intonation is in order.
Intonation is adjusting the string length on an electric guitar so that the open strings and the fretted notes are all in tune. You can tell that your guitar needs to be intonated when you tune the open string but the fretted notes still sound out.
In a nutshell, you match the pitch of the 12th fret of a string with the harmonic at the 12th fret. If they are not the same, you can adjust them at the bridge with the string length adjustment screw (either phillips or flat screw) using a tuner. Setting intonation can be very tricky to get perfect using a strobe tuner, but not too hard to get in the ballpark with just a regular tuner.
Clean And Polish
So here we are! We now have a finely tuned machine! All of this work has most likely left a ton of fingerprints and other messes. It’s time to get your guitar looking it’s best.
I use Dr. Ducks AxeWax. It’s so easy. It works on all parts of the guitar: plastics, finishes, metal, and fingerboards. Put in on, rub it in, wipe it off, and you are done! It’s all natural and it smells pretty good too.
To recap, we went over my quick and easy guitar set-up guide. The steps were to check the:
- Neck Relief
- Nut Slot Height
- Check And Clean The Electronics
- Set The Pickup Height
- New Set Of Strings
- Set The Intonation
- Clean And Polish
As you can see, there isn’t a whole lot to setting up your guitar, and you can do most of the work with things you may already have around: paper, business card, strings, popsicle sticks, tuner, etc..
With just a little knowledge and experimentation you can understand your guitar a little better and adjust it to your liking. If this kind of thing interests you, I highly recommend Dan Erlewine’s book: “How To Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great”. I’ve learned a ton from this book over the years and it come with it’s own set of radius gauges on the first page.
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