How to set up your guitar - Part 1

Howdy! This is a two-part tutorial on how to give your electric guitar a setup. A good set-up makes all the difference and, with some love, most guitars can be made to play really well. It's a cheap way of curing your GAS, a great way of getting to know your instrument and not very difficult or time consuming.
This is the way I go about a setup. Of course, there's no one way, and you may prefer skipping or swapping steps. This is not a repair manual either, if your guitar is currently unplayable, you'll need more than this.
I would enjoy hearing from you if I made any errors or if you have some suggestions to improve this workflow.

Step 1 - clean your guitar's body

First, take off the old strings: loosen them a bit, then cut them with wire cutters and take them off the guitar. Now, take a clean cotton or microfiber cloth and some guitar polish. Make sure the polish is suitable for the lacquer of your guitar. I generally use Gibson guitar polish, since it's suitable for old nitro finishes, as well as any other finish. Spray some polish on the guitar (or you could do it on the cloth, whatever floats your boat), and gently wipe down your guitar's body and headstock (wait with the neck). You're not trying to buff the finish, just cleaning it to remove grease and smudges. This is also a good time to check whether all the screws are tight enough (don't use a power tool for this, it's easy - and annoying to strip the wood).

polishing a guitar body with gibson guitar polish

Step 2 - taking care of the neck and fingerboard.

Clean the back of your guitar's neck in the same way you would clean the guitar's body. If your fingerboard is lacquered (as it would be with a maple fingerboard on a Fender guitar), continue in the same vein. With open-pore fingerboards, like unlacquered rosewood, pau ferro or ebony, don't use the polish. You'll need some fretboard oil (I use lemon oil from Dunlop). Apply it to the entire fretboard, making sure there's no spots near the frets without oil. Let it sit for a bit (depending on how dry your fretboard is - I usually go for 5 to 30 minutes), and then wipe the excess oil and dirt off with a rag or paper towels.

oiling a rosewood fretboard with dunlop fretboard oil

Step 3 - polishing your frets

This is optional, but recommended, especially if your frets haven't been polished for a while. Some people use steel wool for this, which I would advise against - it will create a bunch of tiny wire fragments that will stick to your pickup magnets - even if you take good care protecting the pickups with paper and tape.
You have to protect your fingerboard for this step. Either you use painter's tape to mask the fingerboard, or - and a lot easier - you use a metal fingerboard guard that slides over the fret you're working on.
First. go over the fret with a really fine grit of sandpaper
then, take a polishing paste and cloth, and polish the fret until it's shiny.
Since this is a lot of work, I use a small Dremel multitool. For the first step, I use a wire brush attachment. I continue with a nylon brush, and then finish it off with a buffing pad and buffing compound.
Be gentle, you want to remove as little material as possible and just get a nice shine.

Step 4 - Tuner TLC

If you noticed your tuners were running too stiff or too loose, now's a good time to fix them. Here, it depends on how dirty your tuners are and what type of tuners you have. If you have fully sealed tuners (say, like on a Fender American Standard) and they don't function anymore, you'll likely need to swap them out sooner or later. For now, clean them with a rag and a brush and some solvent like lighter fluid. You can try getting a tiny bit of lubricant ( I use Ballistol ) into the tuner via the shaft, in case it doesn't turn smoothly anymore. I highly recommend taking the tuner off the guitar for this step, and it's a botch rather than a fix.

open tuners on a guitar headstock

On tuners that can be disassembled and open tuners, first assess the amount of dirt. Greasing a dirty tuner will only cause wear on the gear. If your tuners are dirty, take them off the guitar and take them apart (as far as that would comfortably be possible. Don't force things and make sure to take pictures or notes, so you can reassemble the tuning heads afterwards). Clean all the parts with a solvent (again, lighter fluid works fine). When reassembling the tuner, apply a tiny amount of lubricant to the gears and turn the tuning head to distribute the grease. If your tuners weren't particularly dirty, just this last part should be sufficient.

Step 5 - lubricate string contact points

Before you put on new strings, lubricate the nut and saddles. Graphite seems to be the most recommended material for this. I use graphite from a pencil - the saddle string slots will generally be wide enough to just rub the pencil in them. At the nut, this doesn't work. I normally take a pocket knife and very delicately create some graphite dust that I deposit in the nut slots. Don't get the graphite next to the slots, cleaning it off takes some effort.


It's about time we'd put some new strings on - more on that and the next steps of a setup in part 2 of this article