In this article we’re going to go over the basics of an electric guitar setup. As I mentioned in a recent article, Tone on a Budget, learning to do your own setup is a great way to save some money. Like most things in life there is more than one way to do this, so in this article you’ll get the method that I’ve settled on for doing setups on my guitars. It’s quite easy, but if at any point you feel like you are over your head or something isn’t right with your guitar I would encourage you to take it in to a tech in your area. I will be using my custom Telecaster as my main reference for this article, but will do my best to comment on other styles of guitars as well.
When to do a setup? That’s a great question! For each person this is going to yield a different answer. If you live in a climate like myself you will need to check on your guitar a couple of times a year due to swings in humidity (your guitar’s wood expands and shrinks and moves as weather changes). Most players will know when it’s time for a tune up…there’ll be some string buzz or poor action or bad intonation or the guitar will just be having trouble holding tune. As you get good at doing your own setups you will probably find it goes so quickly that you’ll just whip through some of these steps most times you do a string change just to make sure all is just right.
Before we get started you will need just a few tools for the job, and chances are you already have most of them. I personally use the Guitar Maintenance Kit from D’addario for this job because it comes with many of the tools needed and is just so convenient (though I also like to use some mechanics feeler gauges which don’t come with the kit but can be purchased at most auto supply stores for a few dollars). Tools needed:
- truss rod wrench/hex key/screw driver (most guitars come with the correct tool)
- precision scale or string action gauge
- mechanics feeler gauges
- screw driver/hex key for adjusting saddles on bridge (many guitars come with this as well)
- a good tuner
Ready? There are essentially just 3 steps to follow:
Step 1 – Setting neck relief
This process is all about making sure that you have enough relief on the neck to allow you to play without getting string buzz. If you play lightly you can generally get away with less relief, however if you play heavy you’ll need more relief to make sure those vibrating strings clear the frets as you play. Relief is set by gently bowing the neck of the guitar using the built in Truss Rod (a steel rod inserted through the neck to allow for such adjustments). There are a few different kinds of truss rods, but in end they all essentially provide the same service allowing you to bow the neck to provide the right amount of relief when playing. Most Gibson style electrics will have the truss rod adjustment at the headstock (usually under a little plastic cover). Fenders vary by model and year. Some are at the headstock, some have a thumbwheel style adjustment at the heel of the neck where the fretboard meets the body, and some have the truss rod access on the face of the heel (only accessible by removing the neck from the body). In my case, I have an aftermarket neck and my adjustment is near the heel of the neck but on the side (different location but same functionality).
To check what neck relief you currently have, place a capo directly over the first fret. Now hold down a string at the last fret and use either a string action gauge or the mechanics feelers to check the gaps between the tops of the frets and the bottom of the string all the way up the neck. You’ll want to pay attention to what the maximum gap is. Opinions vary, and ultimately you’ll have to figure out what works best for your style of playing, but it seems a standard neck relief is somewhere in the range of .010-.012” (.25-.3mm). If you are heavy handed in your playing you may want more, and likewise if you are quite light and gentle in your playing you may be able to get away with less).
To adjust the relief you will need to turn the truss rod. To add more relief you will want to loosen the truss rod (counter clockwise), or to reduce relief you will need to tighten the truss rod (turn clockwise). I recommend loosening off your strings a bit when doing the adjustment so that you don’t cause extra strain on your strings or guitar which will be safer for you (nobody wants to pop a string). I also recommend taking it slow with the adjustments. Start by turning the truss rod in small increments such as a quarter turn. Tune the guitar back to pitch and check the relief again. After a few adjustments you should gain an idea for how much your guitar will move, and likely you’ll get pretty good at this quickly and be able to dial in the relief you want. If you have a neck with the truss rod adjustment hidden at the heel you will have to be patient with yourself as the process of loosening off the strings and removing the neck for each adjustment will take some time, but it is very doable and well worth the effort. If at any time you encounter a truss rod that is stiff and doesn’t want to turn, don’t force it! Something could be wrong and it’s worth getting a good guitar tech to take a look at it rather than risking damaging your guitar. Repeat the process of adjusting the truss rod and tuning the guitar back to pitch to check until you are happy with the relief. This was the biggest part of the job, so now that you’ve got this taken care of the rest should be a breeze!
Step 2- Adjusting string height
With the neck relief taken care of now we can start to think about string action (or height). This will be one of the biggest factors in making your guitar feel comfortable and playable. String action is sort of a personal thing, so as long as there isn’t any fret buzz feel free to set it as high or as low as you wish. A general guideline that you can use as a starting point for setting your action would be to start with a gap of 4/64” between the bottom of the strings and the top of the 17th fret, and then feel free to fine tune it from there. Always check to the bottom of the strings as that is the best way to get a proper measurement. Often times people find that lower action makes a guitar easier to play, especially quick passages, so you may want to explore how low you can go without fret buzz and see how you like it.
In general it is desirable to have the strings at the bridge follow closely to the same radius as the fretboard (this will feel really natural and even for playing). When setting your string height you may find that you need a little more height on the low E and A strings and can get away with a touch less on the high E and B strings, this is due to how the strings vibrate when being played. To adjust the height you will need to raise or lower the saddles or bridge of your guitar (Fenders tend to have adjustment screws on their saddles, while Gibsons often use bridges designed with the correct radius already and you adjust the action by raising or lowering the entire bridge using the two screws on either end of it). I recommend loosening off your strings to make the adjustments, then tune back up to pitch to check it. You’ll need to play your guitar up and down the neck to see how it feels and to listen for any fret buzz. If you are getting buzz you’ll either have to raise the string action or go back to the first step and put more relief into your neck with the truss rod. Once you feel like the guitar is playing well, with comfortable action and no buzz, you can move on to the last step.
Step 3 – Dialing in the Intonation
The guitar is an amazing instrument, but not a perfect one. Ever notice that even with your guitar in tune that some notes up the neck sound off? Without getting too scientific that’s what happens when your intonation is out and the ability for each note to be in tune will depend on the distance from the nut of the guitar to the saddle/bridge. Even the slightest change can affect intonation (a weather change, new strings, or doing something more major like adjusting neck relief and string action like we have been doing). The good news is that it’s simple to compensate for any notes being slightly off pitch by adjusting the saddles on the guitar.
To check your guitar’s intonation first tune your guitar up as perfectly as you can. Now play each string at the 12th fret and see what your tuner says. If the notes at the 12th fret read perfect, you won’t need to make any adjustments. Chances are though that you will find at least some of the strings are sharp or flat at the 12th fret and you’ll need to move the saddles to dial that note in. Loosen off the string a bit, then using a screwdriver or hex key adjust the saddle forward or backward. You’ll want to move the saddle backward if your note was sharp, and likewise you’ll need to move it forward if the note was flat. Similar to other steps in the setup process, I recommend taking your time and doing small incremental adjustments then tuning to pitch again to check.
Take heart in knowing that there is actually no way to get the entire guitar playing perfect because it’s imperfect by design. What you’ll need to do with the intonating process is try to dial things in to get the best possible balance of tuning up the neck, where things might not be perfect but most notes are pretty darn close (to the point nobody would notice). For most guitars this balance can be achieved by having the open string note and the octave note at the 12th fret match. If you’re having trouble still with notes sounding off after that, you will likely need to check other spots on your guitar and maybe adjust your intonation to get those notes more in tune.
I really hope that you found this article helpful and if you did please pass it along to anybody else who may find it useful. As I said, there are other methods for guitar setup but this has seemed to work well for me with the electric guitars that I own. If you have any tips, tricks, or questions about guitar setup please feel free to comment below.