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How to Set Up an Electric Guitar

May 24, 2012; Samuel Frazier

My name is Samuel Frazier. I’m 20 years old and have been playing guitar for 12 years. These days, because I am pursuing a degree in Physics, I don’t have much time to play. But over the years, I’ve learned to set up my guitars to attain good action, intonation, and overall playability. Through trial and error, I have learned to set up my guitars the way I like them, using only a few basic tools. My methods are universal, so you can begin setting up your guitars to meet your own standards.

Setup for Fixed Bridge Electric Guitars (Les Paul, etc.)
These instructions can be used on a variety of electric guitar models. They are based on the method I use for my Les Paul guitars, which feature a fixed bridge, also known as a stoptail bridge. For guitars that have a tremolo system (Floyd Rose tremolo or other style “whammy bar”), the method will be a little different.

Steps to Guitar Setup

Before You Begin:
Please be sure to read through all of the instructions below before beginning a setup. This will ensure you know what to expect. You will also want to gather all the tools necessary for performing the setup before you begin. The tools are specific to your guitar, so make sure you have all the hex keys that came with it. You’ll also want to have a good digital tuner handy for adjusting the intonation.

Step 1—Remove Old Strings
You’re going to want to install a new set of strings before any setup, as older strings that have had a chance to deteriorate will give you an inaccurate setup. So, start by removing your old strings.

Step 2—Clean the Nut
After you remove the old strings, inspect the grooves in the nut for the buildup of gunk created by aged strings (the gunk will appear black in color). Remove any gunk you find with some alcohol and generic printing paper. This may sound odd, but it simply means to take a small piece of paper, and let it absorb a little alcohol and use your fingernail to wedge the paper into the slots (one at a time) and use a sanding motion (don’t apply too much pressure). The longer the buildup has been sitting there, the longer it takes to clean it out. I often have to use a few pieces of paper to finish the job, but it doesn’t take long. You can also use an alcohol-moistened cotton string of the correct diameter, (slightly larger than the width of the groove so that there is some compression) and run the thread back and forth through the groove, like you might use dental floss on your teeth. Note: Be sure not to get alcohol on the fingerboard or other parts of the guitar. It can destroy the finish and do other damage. I find that cleaning the grooves in the nut helps stabilize the tuning.

Step 3—Restring the Guitar
Choose a brand of strings and gauge that suits your playing style and stick with it. Even changing brands without a change in gauge will throw out a good setup. Once you have a new set of strings installed, make sure the guitar is accurately tuned, and the strings are broken in so that they’ll stay in tune.

Step 4—Adjust the Guitar Neck
After replacing the strings, the first major procedure in the setup should always be adjusting the neck relief. Adjusting the neck after you perform other parts of the setup will undo previous adjustments.

Neck relief simply refers to how much the neck bows. The degree of bowing in the neck is a matter of personal preference and is strongly correlated to your playing style, but there is definitely a clear line between what is acceptable.

To adjust the neck relief, you must locate the truss rod, which is usually located at the neck/headstock junction (although some older Fender guitars and vintage Fender reissues have the adjustment at the heel of the neck). In most Gibson and Epiphone guitars you will need to remove the truss rod cover. The end of the truss rod is an adjustment bolt. You’ll need the right tool to turn the adjustment bolt.

• Most Gibson electric guitars use a 5/16” or ¼” hex nut, that can be adjusted with a hex box spanner wrench.
• Newer model Fender Electrics can be adjusted with a 1/8” Allen wrench
• Older Fender Electrics and Vintage Reissues with the adjustment at the heel of the neck require a Philips screwdriver and require you to either remove the neck or pickguard before you make the adjustment.

Tightening the truss rod adjustment bolt will cause the neck to warp backward (too much and the strings will buzz on the frets), and loosening it will cause it to bow forward (giving more relief.) To get an idea how much bow there should be, hold your guitar up vertically to a light source so that you can see under the strings (the space between the frets and the strings.) The low string of highest gauge should be nearest you. Press down on this string at both the first and the 17th fret of the guitar (this correlates to the fret where the neck meets the body on a Gibson Les Paul. For other makes, just use the last fret). This will allow you to use the string as a reference line for determining the curvature of the neck. While holding the string down at those two points, look at the distance between the string and the 7th fret (use the 8th fret if holding down the 1st and last frets). If there is no separation at all, this means that there is not enough relief in the neck—you must loosen the truss rod a little. If there is a large separation, then there is too much relief—you must tighten the truss rod a little.

Considering that the amount of bow that you set is up to your preference, I will simply offer a center point. Usually, a good relief is such that this separation distance is between 0.008 and 0.01 of an inch. This is convenient as you can use a guitar string of this gauge to measure the gap if you don’t have a feeler gauge (simply place it in the gap to see if its diameter matches the distance.) You will likely need a third hand to do this, however; unless you place a capo on the first fret to free up a hand. I usually just eyeball this measurement, but sometimes that can be hard.

A couple of notes on adjusting the truss rod:

1) Never over adjust the truss rod. If you feel that it is moderately hard to turn the truss rod, you may be over doing it or something else needs to be adjusted. It is best to take your guitar to an expert. Call Sam Ash Direct at 1-800-472-6274 for assistance.
2) It is best to do the neck adjustment in a series of intermediate steps and re-tune your guitar before each step. This is because the tension on the strings changes the adjustment of the neck. If the tension on the strings changes drastically enough, once you bring it back to a correct tune, the neck will change, causing you to loose accuracy in your previous adjustment(s).

Step 5—Tune Again
If you have not done so already, make sure you re-tune the guitar. After even small adjustments to the truss rod, there can be a loss in a prior tuning. If the loss in tuning is small, you should not have to worry about re-checking the relief of the neck after re-tuning. If there is a large change in tuning, then you likely made a large adjustment to the truss rod, and thus should refer back to the last step.

Step 6—Adjust String Action (string height)
Once you have adjusted the relief and tuning of your guitar, you’re ready to move on to adjusting the action. Remember: any adjustment of the truss rod will require you to readjust the action, so be sure you are happy with your truss rod adjustment before continuing.

To adjust the action, you need to know which adjustment screws raise or lower your bridge. On a Les Paul, there are two screws on the bridge, one on each end that allows for raising or lowering. Adjust each side to get the wanted measurements. On a Stratocaster, each string has its own adjustable saddle. In this case, you will see two small screws on each saddle that allows for changing its height. You will need the proper hex key to make those adjustments.

I encourage you to play around with your guitar’s action to see what feels best without producing fret buzz (too low an action can choke out the strings; too high makes it the guitar harder to play). You should also measure the height of the action, so you can get it right every time.

In adjusting the action, measure the height of the strings over the fingerboard as the distance from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of the string being measured. In the case of a Les Paul, you only need to measure for the two end strings, as the inner four strings are not individually adjustable. For a Stratocaster type bridge, you should measure all strings. For the unit of measure, I prefer the metric system, which allows for greater accuracy. I take a ruler marked in base units of 0.5 mm. That is, two tick marks = 1mm. For a Les Paul, I set the action to about 2.0 mm at the highest gauge string and about 1.5mm on the lowest gauge string. Action is based on your personal preference, so your settings may be different.

Adjusting Pickup Height
Often pickups are ignored in a setup. This is a shame because lowering or raising the pickups can make a dramatic difference in your guitar. Pickup height is mostly a matter of personal preference. Here are the essentials:
• Avoid going out of range. If you lower a pickup too much, you are likely to have the pickup fall back into the guitar and face the unpleasant task of reattaching tiny screws and springs. If you raise the pickup too high, it can contact the strings resulting in nasty sounds, decreased sustain, and poor intonation.
• The maximum height depends on the pickup. Some pickups are equipped with strong magnets, others are not.
• When the pickup is raised, you will get more highs with a hotter sound (even thin at times).
• When the pickup is lowered you get a more tamed sound that is smoother (not as thin).
• While many players (including me) prefer a hot sound. Sometimes you’ll get better tonality by not raising the pickups too high.
• If you want to get precise about the height of your pickups, press the two end strings, (highest and lowest gauge strings,) down on the last fret. Then measure the distance between the poles of the pickup to the bottom of the strings. Personally, I just use my ears to guide pickup adjustment.

Adjusting Guitar Intonation
In my opinion there is nothing worse than playing on a badly intonated guitar. Proper intonation makes all the fretted notes stay in tune at any point on the fingerboard. Without proper intonation your open strings may be in tune, but the fretted chords will not.

Intonation is a factor of the length of the string in relation to the length of the fretboard. Moving the bridge closer to the nut (headstock) will shorten the overall length of the string and change the intonation. Moving the bridge away from the nut would have the opposite effect.

You adjust the intonation of each string by comparing the notes of each open string with its next highest octave—the 12th fret. If the string rings the same note both open and at the 12th fret, the rest of the fretted notes should also be in tune. (Assuming the guitar was built correctly and the neck relief has been properly adjusted.)

To adjust the intonation, you have to know the mechanism by which your bridge adjusts the string length. On a Les Paul stoptail bridge, there are six screws along the back that, when tightened, increases the length of the string. In some cases, the bridge assembly may have the strings on the front of the bridge; in that case loosening will increase the string length. On a Stratocaster bridge, it is much the same as a Les Paul. The screws that adjust saddle position are usually located on the very back of the bridge plate.

The usual method to intonate a string on a guitar is to play the string open and then play a harmonic note at the 12th fret. Then compare the two tones and adjust until the notes are in tune. I prefer using a fretted note on the 12th fret to the harmonic, because the strings vibrate at a slightly higher frequency when fretted (especially the higher gauge strings), so using the fretted note is more precise.

For accurate intonation, keep these five things in mind:

1) Keep all strings in tune throughout the process—If the guitar is out of tune, the neck length will vary from its in-tune state. It only takes a small change in length to put a guitar out of intonation. Therefore, re-tune the string you are intonating after each adjustment and before comparing the open and 12th fret notes.
2) Make all adjustments in playing position—Don’t try to intonate with the guitar lying on a surface. Intonation will change when the guitar is brought back up into playing position.
3) Fret the 12th fret lightly—Don’t put too much pressure resulting in a false sharp note.
4) Have a precise tuner at hand—If you are going by what your tuner says, your final result is going to be only as good as your tuner. Get one that is precise.
5) Keep your picking power consistent—The frequency is going to vary with the power in your picking. Picking too lightly will likely cause notes to be read slightly flatter on the tuner than they would be when you are playing normally. Also, picking too hard is likely to have the opposite effect.

All strings must be intonated, although the order is not important.  Here are the steps to intonate each:

1) Tune the string to be intonated.
2) Fret the 12th fret lightly.
     a. If the 12th fret is sharp in comparison to the open string, increase the string length a little (usually only takes a small turn of the bridge screw).
     b. If the 12th fret is flat in comparison to the open string, decrease the string length a little (usually only takes a small turn of the bridge screw).
3) Re-tune the string.
4) Repeat these steps for the same string until it is correct, then move to the next string.

The Value of Guitar Adjustments
If done with patience and care, you should see a great improvement in your guitar’s playability. Overall, this is a learning process. I’ve had to go though many setups, before I was happy with what I could do. This process works for me and should work well for you. There are other more extreme setups some of which might be considered more of an upgrade or repair than a setup. That would include fret leveling, electronic modifications, and the like. But these extreme jobs are rarely needed. My setup method for routine adjustments can be duplicated by nearly anyone with a decent set of guitar tools.




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