How to Setup an Electric Guitar

Welcome to the Workbench 

Every electric guitar will need to be setup from time to time. Here at Sam Ash, we usually bring ours in about every 3 months as the seasons change. Humidity and weather conditions can wreak havoc on our wooden instruments, so we need to be sure to take care of them. Some guitar players will do their own string changes, but leave the setups to a technician. However, some players want to go the extra mile and get under the hood and fix up their favorite guitars themselves. We’re going to give you some tips here on how to do just that. Take a look at one of our favorite guitar experts, Mike Rock, as he gives you some first hand insight in setting up an electric guitar. I’ll leave some notes below on my own experiences as well just to give you as much information as possible.

The Necessary Tools

Step 1: Change The Strings

Grab yourself a string winder, and let’s get those old strings off. Unwind them from the tuners, and then clip them off if necessary once they’re loose. Take caution to turn them the correct way. You don’t want to end up tightening them and then snapping a string. While your strings are off, it’s a good opportunity to clean up your guitar. Grab some polish and a non-abrasive cloth and wipe down the body, and get those hard to reach areas by the pickups.



Oil the Neck

While the strings are off, it might be time to oil your neck. You usually want to do this once or twice a year. Only do this for rosewood boards. It can be hazardous on any other wood. Mike will go into further details about that. Grab a little bit of lemon oil and spread it evenly across your fretboard, then wipe it down to dry it off. Why do all this? Because the lemon oil creates a moister barrier in your neck to trap in humidity and keep your neck in good shape.

Time to Restring

Grab your favorite set of strings and get them unwrapped. Feed them through the bridge one at a time or all together if you want. Starting with the Low-E, feed the string through the eyelet in the tuning machine. Now, you’ll want to leave some slack before tuning it up.  The bass side (E, A, D) needs a little slack, and the treble side (G, B, E) needs a little more. The easiest way I’ve seen is, if you have a Fender style guitar where all the tuners are in a line, then pull the string completely tight and flat across your fretboard and then line it up with whichever peg you’re going to be stringing it to. From there, on the bass side, cut the string 2 more tuning pegs away. This is all the slack you’ll need. On the treble side, cut it 3 more pegs away. The reason the treble side needs a little more slack is because the strings are thinner and the extra slack help cover the eyelet in the tuning peg which will keep the string from breaking (among other things).

On Gibson style guitars that have 3 pegs on each side. Just pull the string one extra peg before you cut it on the bass side, and a peg and a half on the treble side.

Now that your string is cut exactly where you need it, just poke it through the tuning peg a little big and string it up making sure the winds go downward. Do this for all of the strings, and you should be left with a professional looking and great sounding set of strings. Be sure to tune and stretch the strings really well before moving on. Tune the guitar, stretch the strings. Tune the guitar, stretch the strings. Again and again until you feel like it’s mostly staying in pitch pretty well.

Step 2: Adjusting the Neck

Now that the strings are on, it’s time to sight the neck and see if you need an adjustment. Guitar techs will sometimes use a straightedge on the neck to see how straight it is, but the easiest way to do it is to hold your guitar in a way where you can close one eye and look straight down the edge of the neck from nut to bridge. Use the Low-E on the bass side and the High-E on the treble side as your straight edge sightline. With that in mind, how does the neck look to you? Does it look scooped like a bowl underneath your strings? Does it look arched with the strings sitting on the top of the arch? Or does it look nice and straight with maybe just a little bit of relief (bow in the neck)?

If you have a noticeable amount of bending in the neck, then you’re going to want to adjust that. This usually solves 90% of setup issues in a guitar. Inside of the neck is a metal rod called the truss rod and it runs through the entirety of the neck. This is what you’ll use to make your adjustments. Fender style guitars have access to the truss rod through a hole in the headstock in the middle of the neck. You’ll need an allen-key of the correct size to make your adjustments. Gibson has their own unique truss rod tool which is actually a nut driver.

From here, it’s usually righty tightly, lefty loosey. Turn the key to the right if you want to tighten and straighten the neck out from a scooped bow position. Turn the key left if you have a back bow and are trying to level out your neck. I usually recommend a quarter turn at a time to start, and then keep checking it from there. I’ll say that in my experience, you may not want to the neck totally flat. Usually a little bit of relief makes it comfortable to play and helps take care of buzzing and things like that.

Final Thoughts

These 2 steps are all you really need for a basic setup. Anything more extreme than that might be a job for your technician. So for now, practice practice practice, and then you can move on to bigger repair jobs.

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Dave Stutts
Dave Stutts is a native of the greater Hampton Roads area of Virginia. He received his Bachelors of Music degree in Theory & Composition from the prestigious Christopher Newport University music school. He is a music composer living and working in New York City. He specializes in orchestral/symphonic work as well as pop and digital music. His scoring work has ranged from Chamber Ensemble pieces (String Quartets/Brass Quintets), larger ensembles compositions (Wind Ensemble/Symphony Orchestra/String Orchestra), as well as short film and video game work.He is also a songwriter and a regular gigging musician in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. He refers to his style as Pop/Rock and Blues. His musical career began when he started playing guitar at age 5. He later progressed to Bass in middle school, Drums in High School, and finally Percussion and Piano in college. When asked, he has cited Michael Giacchino, Hans Zimmer, and John Williams as his major film and video game inspirations, and John Mayer as his primary pop inspiration.