Guitar Tech Shop
Guitar Tech Shop 101 on setting up a guitar for maximum performance
Playing styles make a big difference in how a guitar is setup. Some people strum hard and have heavy fingering and some play light with light fingering. Some people use light gauge strings and some heavy gauge strings. All this determines how to set up a guitar. This 101 guide is just a starting point for the average player.
7 things to know and have first:
1. Have an electronic tuner handy. You’ll need this to tune.
2. A small screw driver, Allen Wrench, nut driver, straight edge to lie across the frets to check the neck for any bow, etc… every guitar is different.
3. Use the same gauge strings that you’ll always use. Otherwise if you use light gauge strings then move to a heavy gauge or vice versa you will need to set new adjustments again.
4. Have a new set of strings handy if needed. If you put new strings on first make sure you play the guitar for awhile and break the strings in so they’re settled down before you start the setup process. If the strings have been removed this would be a good time to tighten all the hardware.
5. Have a pencil handy. I always scrape a little pencil lead in the nut slot to allow the string a little freedom in the slot.
6. Make sure all parts are screwed down tight and secure. Tuning keys (bolt on top and screws on bottom); nut is glued down good or screwed on tight, bridge and bridge plate or tail piece.
Caution: Don’t over tighten and strip the screws. If you do, put a little glue on the screw and push it back in.
7. Patience. You must have this to do a good job.
Follow the steps in order below.
Sometimes you have to take the neck off for adjustment. Hopefully you won’t have to do this but if you do, check to see how bowed the neck is. You may have to remove the strings, then remove the neck to make the adjustment. With the strings on, lay a straight edge across the frets stretching across the first and last fret on the neck. Using a feeler gauge, check the clearance at the 7th fret. You should have approximately .015” clearance. You can also eyeball down the side of the neck from the headstock end to see if there’s any bow and adjust the neck until straight.
Bridge adjustment is done by personal taste. If you have single bridge pieces adjust the bridges to the radius of the guitar neck. Some necks have radius and some are flat. An example of a neck with a radius is a Telecaster. You can raise the bridge for higher action or lower it, meaning that this sets the string height or what is called the Action. After you have adjusted the action play the guitar and check for any fret buzzing. Check all strings. If you get any string buzzing then the action is too low. Adjust to taste. Once action is achieved go to the next step.
Setting the Intonation
This is where you’ll need a guitar tuner. Tune all the strings on the guitar to pitch. Now starting with the 1st string high E, check the tuning with the tuner at the 12th fret. If your tuner shows that you’re sharp then adjust the high E saddle on the bridge so that it pushes it further away from the neck. If your tuner shows that you are flat then adjust the high E saddle on the bridge so that it pulls it closer to the neck. Some people like striking a harmonic over top the 12th fret instead of fingering the 12th fret. Tuning at the 12th fret should be the same as the tuning open (not fretted) just an octave lower.
Very important note:
Each time you make a saddle adjustment you must retune the string open and start over again checking on the 12th fret until that string's intonation is in tune. This is a must.
Do all the other strings the same way, remembering to retune after every adjustment.