How to set up your guitar, part 2

This is part 2 of the tutorial on how to get the best out of your electric guitar by giving it a good setup. This is the guitar setup method that works best for me, of course, and I'm happy to receive comments on how to improve it. In the first installment, we looked at things to do while the strings are off the body.

One part of a setup that where you can make a valid point for a different sequence of actions is when to check the neck alignment, bow and pitch. I find it most useful to do this after I've taken care of the steps in part 1 of this tutorial. This means that I check the alignment, bow and pitch of the guitar neck after I've strung it with new strings. It means the guitar neck will be tensioned correctly. On a guitar where you can adjust the neck pitch and angle easily (i.e. with a bolt-on neck), you may choose to do so before stringing it up, and then finetuning afterwards. Find the method that works best for you. That said, I'd start with:


Step 1 - new strings

Time to make your instrument whole again! New strings are the cheapest way to improve (or change) your sound, and I find stringing a guitar rather rewarding. I'll post a full tutorial on how to string your guitar in the future, but the essential bits are: no knots, clean winds and as little winds as needed to hold the string in tune. 
The type and gauge of string will impact the feel and sound of your guitar drastically. It's always a good idea to experiment with diffferent string materials and thicknesses, to find something that truly works for you. For me, it's pure nickel strings in .10,5 gauge on Fender-style guitars and in .11 or .12 gauge on Gibsons, but my vintage Gretsch with HiLoTrons sounds best with Thomastik alloy strings. Some vintage guitars won't intonate properly unless you put on a wound G string (case in point, my vintage Gretsch).

stringing a guitar

Step 2 - tune up

Tune your guitar to concert pitch or the tuning you will use it in most of the time. Stretch the strings and tune again. I prefer to snip off the excess bit of string after tuning. If you have a lot of guitars, or change strings often, a string winder (a plastic hand crank) can be useful. There are also winder bits you can use with a powered screw driver.

Step 3 - Check the angle, pitch and bow of your guitar's neck

Note: The angle and pitch of your neck can only be adjusted on guitars with a bolt-on neck. If your guitar has a glued-in neck, and the angle or pitch aren't satisfactory, you'll need to go see a luthier. 

The angle of the neck compared to the guitar's body (horizontally, if the guitar is laying flat) might shift slightly over time. If this is the case, you'll notice the strings not running straight across the fingerboard, or a shift of the strings towards the bass or treble side.

The bow or relief of the neck is the curvature of the neck itself, not compared to the body. It affects string buzz and playability and can be corrected with the truss rod.To check it, put a capo at the first fret and hold the high E string down at the body fret (where the neck joins the body). Now check the distance between the string and the top of the middle fret of the interval you're holding down. You want to have 2-3 tenths of a millimeter of relief here, a gap you can barely see. My way of checking it, is by plucking the bit of string between the capo and my finger very lightly. I want to have the smallest possible gap, that will still allow the string to ring with a clear tone and without buzzing. Repeat with the low E string for good measure. 

The pitch of the neck has a strong effect on the string height and action. Since these can also be adjusted at the bridge, first work on the bridge. Only change the angle of the neck if the action cannot be set properly at the bridge.


Step 4: Adjust the angle of the neck.

If your neck is out of alignment with the body, and you have a bolt on guitar, you can change the angle by slightly loosening the neck screws, gently nudging the neck in the right direction, and then tightening the screws again. Make sure to loosen your strings before doing so (to keep them from unwinding from the tuner stems, put a capo on the neck).


Step 5: Adjust your guitar's neck relief with the truss rod.

For optimal playability,you want to ensure that your fingerboard has a very (very!) slight curvature inward (concave?). Maybe you found out that absolutely flat works best for you, but for most guitars, I find that a very slightly concave neck works better.

If the gap you measured previously is too small (i.e. in the way I do it, if I get buzzing or a choked note), you'll need to loosen the truss rod a bit. If it's too big, you need to tighten it. The truss rod counters the pull of the strings, keeping your neck from warping over time.
Your truss rodd adjustment screw might be at the headstock, or at the heel of the neck. It might be covered with a plaque, it might need a hex key, it might need a socket, it might need a cross-head screw driver, it might have an adjustment wheel. You may (as on older Fenders) have to loosen the strings and take the neck off to adjust it (really annoying). Figure out how your guitar works, do the research - there's a lot of variables here. Most importantly: don't use the wrong size of tools (for example, no metric tools on screws with imperial sizes), don't use a lot of force and don't adjust your truss rod more than a quarter turn per day.

truss rod adjustment


Step 6: adjust string action at the bridge

The bridge of your guitar allows you to change the height (or action ) of the strings. On some bridge types ( for example the Tune-o-Matic of Gibson guitars), you can lower or heighten the bridge as a whole with two screws. On others (for example on Fender guitars), you can change the height of each individual saddle. The actual action you need depends on your playing style, the feel you like and the gauge of strings you use. The measurements given by the manufacturers can be a good starting point, but you'll learn to feel what's right for you over time. I like my action slightly higher than recommended - it feels like I get a bit more pull from the strings, and that it improves my sustain and tone. On a bridge with individually adjustable saddles, try to follow the curve of the neck.


Step 7: adjust the pitch of the neck

In case your action is not low or high enough after setting the truss rod and bridge, you need to change the pitch of your neck. This can be done with shims, or with a neck pitch screw (some American Fenders have these, for example). If your guitar has a neck pitch screw, just loosen the strings, slightly loosen the screws of the neck, change the setting of the pitch screw and tighten everything up again.

If this is not possible, and you need to tilt the neck backwards (this will most often be the case, you do this to remedy an action that is too high), you'll need to shim the neck. Shims are very thin slivers of material put at the edge of the neck heel. Take off the strings (or slacken them completely, you can use a capo to keep them from falling of the tuners), then take off the neck. Trace the shape of the neck heel on the material you'll use (you can use wood veneer, but paper, cardboard or playing cards work as well and won't cause a loss of tonal quality or sustain), and cut your shim out. You want it to sit right at the edge of the heel, and be about 8-10 mm wide. Lay your shim in the neck pocket, and reattach the neck (don't tighten one screw and continue with the next, but work your way in an X-pattern around the screws, tightening them a little more with each go - this ensures the neck is properly seated). Tune up, and check if you've solved the problem. If your action is still too high, increase the thickness of your shim. If it is now too low, first adjust the bridge - if that doesn't do it, use a thinner shim.


Step 8: adjust the intonation of your guitar

If your intonation is correct, strings will have the correct pitch in each fretted positions, and chords will ring true. Almost all guitars have individually adjusted saddles to change the intonation. If your guitar doesn't have those (like on a bar bridge), you can change the intonation at either edge and try to get a good middle ground.

To measure the intonation, you'll need a tuner. Pluck the harmonic at the 12th fret, and then pluck the string, fretted at the 12th fret. If the fretted string is higher in pitch than the harmonic, you'll need to lengthen the string by moving the saddle backwards. If the fretted string is lower in pitch than the harmonic, move the saddle forward to shorten the string. You'll need to retune and remeasure until you get it right.

adjusting a guitar's intonation

Step 9: Adjust pickup height

You're almost there! Your guitar should now, at least acoustically, play like you want it to. Now it's time to make sure this translates to a good amplified tone. Adjusting the height of your pickups has a surprisingly big impact on the tone of your guitar. When adjusting pickups, start with the overall height, then go for the side-to-side height and finish with the individual pole piece height (if possible).

The overall height of the pickup impacts the tone and output of your guitar. As a rule of thumb, moving your pickups closer to the strings will increase mids and output and compress the signal a bit more. Moving your pickups further away lowers the output and creates a more open tone by reducing the mids. Both too close and too far will reduce the sustain of your guitar. You can use the recommendations from the manufacturer as a starting point, I generally like my pickups a little lower than those. The overall pickup height also allows you to set the relative output level of the different pickups. You can use this to get a louder, more mid focused signal from the bridge pickup, for example.

The side-to-side height of the pickup affects the bass to treble balance. Angle your pickup in such a way that the blend of bass and treble is pleasing to your ear and works well with your amplifier. Note that with slightly driven tube amps, bass frequencies will push your amp more easily into overdrive. Tune the pickups to your amp.

Adjust the individual pole pieces if you notice certain strings are louder or softer than others. You want them to be all at pretty much the same subjective level. Unwound strings are generally louder than wound strings, so if necessary, the pole pieces of the G, B and high E string will be the ones needing to be lowered.


Step 10: Rock on!

Congratulations, you've made it! Wipe your guitar with a clean cloth to have it all shiny, and get back to playing.


Too much work for you? I'll happily take the work off your hands. Guitars can be shipped to us for a setup, or you can deliver and pick them up in Neustrelitz. Here's more information.