Basic Guitar Setup Tips
Under: Guitar Gear
Getting your guitar setup so that it’s in tune and playing well takes a lot of work. It’s something I know very little about, which is quite shocking really!
As I’m just about to restring 4 guitars and so I went on the hunt for how to get my guitars set-up properly. Thanks to YouTube there are a range of master luthier, who have posted really useful videos. So here’s some of the best in the biz with their guitar setup tips.
How to Set Up and Intonate an Acoustic Guitar
John LeVan starts by bring the guitar to pitch. Place a capo on top of the first fret (not at the fret).
Measure at the 12th fret the distance between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string.
Next check the neck’s relief. Still with the capo on, hold down the 15th fret on the low E string. Starting on the 2nd fret, measure the distance between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string. move your ruler up a fret and measure. keep going until you reach the top.
Take off the capo, and measure the action on the at the first string. Measure the distance between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string. Start on the top string, and move down across the strings.
Check the intonation by plucking the 12th fret harmonic and the fretted note. Use a strobe tuner to accurately measure each pitch. Again start on the top string and work down.
Now that we’ve taken a lot of measurements, it’s time to remove the strings. We’ll measure the radius of the fretboard as this needs to match the radius of the saddle. Using a gauge, measure the radius of the fretboard at the 12th fret.
Cutting a saddle
Cutting the correct saddle from a blank takes a lot of trial and error. Of course, you want it to fit but you don’t want it to be too loose or tight in the bridge as this will cause additional issues.
Using the old saddle as a guide, the new one can be sanded down to match the height and width. You’ll need to keep checking the saddle with the bridge in order to get the perfect fit. Keep sanding the new saddle between tries.
When it fits, then you can round the edges and reduce the overall height, so that it perfectly fits within the hole in the bridge. Again you need to keep checking and sanding to get the ultimate fit.
Mark where you want the string to hit the saddle and carve it down. When you’re happy with the relief for each string, then re-string. Bring the guitar to pitch and place the capo on the first fret. You’ll want to re-measure the action.
Happy with the new saddle?
At this point, if you’re happy then you remove the string and oil the fretboard. If not, then you need to remove the saddle and sand it down.
Finally, once your happy add new string and check the intonation. As you can see John has a lot of guitar setup tips and advice, and all are gold.
Adjusting the Action on an Electric Guitar
Greg Voros shows us how to adjust the action on an electric guitar and shares some great guitar setup tips. Using a Stratocaster, Greg starts by reminding us that action is the distance between the top of the fretboard and bottom of the strings. So high action is a bigger distance, whereas low action means the strings are close to the fretboard.
The guitar’s action is controlled by two points, the nut and the bridge. Unlike the nut, the bridge can be moved up or down to adjust the guitar’s action.
If your guitar has a tremolo system that you want to use then this can cause tuning issues and result in a slightly higher action as you need additional space to make the tremolo work. Of course, fixing the tremolo in place will improve tuning stability.
Let’s look at adjust the action. For low action hold the high E string on the first fret. At the 12th fret, measure the distance between the fret and string. The optimum high is 3/64 inch. So if your guitar is less or more than this distance, then you will want to adjust the height of the string saddle at the bridge.
Repeat this on the low E string. Start by moving your finger onto the 1st fret. The measure should be 1/16 inch. Adjust the other strings so that they fall in line with the radius of the neck.
Of course, if you want a higher action then you’ll need to raise them gently from this starting position, check for consistency across the string and for overall playability.
In terms of pick up height, place fingers on the last fret on of the top and bottom E strings. Then measure the distance between the pickup and the string. You want to aim for 3/32 inch. You can adjust the height using the screws. Measure as you go.
Adjusting Intonation on an Electric Guitar
Greg’s back with some more great guitar setup tips. This time, he’s focusing on intonation on electric guitars. Intonation is the accuracy of the notes that repeat throughout the neck.
The scale length is the distance between the nut and the bridge with the 12th fret being the middle. In order to adjust the guitar’s intonation, we need to either shorten or length the scale length.
Let’s check the intonation. Tune the top E string to pitch and check the note at the 12th fret. If this second note is sharp then we need to lengthen the scale length by moving the bridge’s saddle back. If it’s flat, then we need to move the saddles forward and shorten the scale length.
You will want to check the intonation after every half turn of the saddle screws. By making micro adjustments and testing, you can easily find the optimum point.
When you’re done, stretch the string and tune the guitar up to pitch.
Setting Up Your Bass Guitar
After removing the strings, Michael Tobias starts by oiling the fretboard. This means the wood is well fed so that it doesn’t shrink and is sealed. Ideally, you should do this every time you change the strings.
Next, he moves on to stringing. Make sure you leave 2 pegs worth of string as this gives you enough length to work with when tightening the string around the peg.
Adjusting the truss rod. Hold the string down at the 1st and 15th string. Slide to the 8th fret. Ideally, you want to be able to slide a thin pick through the 12th fret without deflecting the string. Moving up to the last fret, check to see if you have a slope. If you do then you’ll need to tighten the truss rod.
Next check each fret for buzzing. While there is no such thing as perfect action, ideally you want around 1/16 inch from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string. Adjust the bridge so that this height is consistent across all the strings.
After adjusting the bridge’s height, tune the strings to pitch. Next using a tuner (preferably a strobe tuner), pluck the open string. If it in tune then you can try the 12th fret.
Should the 12th fret be out by a small amount then you need to move the string saddle closer (if flat) or further away (if sharp). Remember if you make a lot of adjustments then it’s likely that you will move the string’s height. So you’ll want to measure this after every couple of movements and re-adjust.
Billy Sheehan on “How I setup my bass”
Billy learnt early on that he had to learn how to set up his bass guitar. Some early experiences of refrets included uneven frets and badly finished fretwire. Since then he has decided to set up his own basses.
After removing the strings, Billy’s guitar setup process starts with a black magic marker. He uses the magic marker to colour the fretwire. Then he takes a large file, which is absolutely flat and lays it on the fretboard. In one movement, slide the file a fret towards the nut. Remove the file and see where there is still black.
The leftover black means the fret is lower than the other. Uneven frets are the cause of buzzing and make the instrument harder to play.
Then with the file, move it across the frets until they are even and no black ink remains. Using a smaller fret dressing file, you need to re-round the frets one by one. Next he sands each fret with wet dry paper.
Restring and adjust the bridge and pickups down, so the overall action is lower.
So there you have a range of killer guitar setup tips for all types of guitar. Leave me a comment with any guitar setup issues you have below. I’d be happy to help!