Guitar Set Up – A Comprehensive Guide
Setting up a guitar is a seriously daunting task. So much so that most of us would rather opt to open up our wallets and pay a qualified luthier a very tidy sum rather than even attempt this task. For people like me who tend to buy cheap guitars (like my Squire Affinity Stratocaster), the cost of a set up can be as much or more than what I spent on the guitar in the first place, so learning how to do this is pretty much a necessity.
Fortunately, there are a number of very good videos that very thoroughly explain how to set up a guitar. One of the best is the video you’ll find below. Will does an outstanding job of presenting the process in a step by step manner. I’m sure the first few times doing this will be time consuming, but it is a skill that will certainly save hundreds or thousands of dollars over a lifetime.
Thought You Couldn’t Set Up a Guitar – Wrong!
Okay, so right now we got an Ibanez right here and this is already pretty much set up the way that it’s supposed to be, but I’m going to show you how to go ahead and set all of your things up without having fancy tools or anything. Where you can just do it, hey you know, on the fly. All you need is your allen wrench for your truss rod and your allen wrench for a trem system if you have it or if you have like an old vintage tremolo like a Phillips screwdriver or even a hardtail like a Phillips screwdriver.
How to Set Up a Guitar the Right Way
The first thing, like I said, the first thing we have to do is verify that the height of everything is correct as far as the action. Now when you’re dealing with the a Floyd Rose or a locking trem, like we’re like we’re doing here, there’s really nothing that we can do to cut into this because this is usually hardened steel and if it’s too low, we can shim it up, but we can’t really cut a notch into this any further than it’s already there. We can file down a little bit if required to get this to set a little bit lower and sometimes, more often than not, that’s what you have to do unless you’re getting fret buzz. If you’re getting fret buzz playing an open string and you have a decent action up here, you’re gonna have to shim this. But we’ll get into that here in a little second. But if it’s a plastic nut, a bone nut, any other type of nut, tusk, it doesn’t make a difference what it is, those you those you can use a file to go ahead and kind of get a little bit deeper inside there to put the string where it belongs.
Start with the Truss Rod
So the very first thing, how do you know if you’re, because before we do the nut, I’m gonna do the truss rod because this, more than likely, truss rod is your biggest problem. Then it’s going to be the nut, and then we’re going to go to the bridge. So how do we know that the truss rod and everything are straight? How do we know that it is straight? Well, the first thing you can do is an old-school eyeball. Alright, and that’s holding the guitar up at a slight angle, kind of like this, and then looking down at this direction and then just looking at the very edge right here and by doing that, if it’s perfectly flat and you’ll be able to tell. If it’s got a bow you can usually tell either way and it’s very difficult, what you would see (it’s so hard to do this with a camera) is by, you’re kind of looking down the edge of this right here (and it’s so hard to do this with a camera), but by doing that you can tell if it’s if it’s got a big bow or not. That’ll be the first way and you can adjust a truss rod like that until it looks like it’s kind of gone away. A second method, which is a better method, is hold the guitar up like this, get one finger put it on your first fret and clamp, and then come up here on the 24th or 21st or whatever and clamp and then what you want to do is you want to look at the string position compared to the frets and look at the action from here and when doing this right around you know the 11th fret or so, the 12th fret, somewhere in the 11th or 12th fret area, you don’t want to really have much more than a gap, tops, tops, like the thickness of a dime, tops, and anything more than that is just really too much relief in there. Typically, I like something a little bit thicker than a credit card. However, if during the time that you’re pushing these two down, if it’s actually touching the fret, that means you don’t have enough relief in it. I would say minimum, bare minimum, and this is if you have a very light touch and you keep very, very low action, bare minimum, business card. There should be some type of relief; very, very slight. Nonetheless, if you’re just a normal player, a shredder and stuff like that, I would say something maybe along the lines of like a credit card distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret, okay, but never ever any more than the thickness of a dime. The thickness of a dime is like really pushing it. That just tells you how much relief you should have. But if you’re sitting here and you’re pushing this thing down and you see a huge gap, that tells you, you have a forward bow. If you’re pushing this thing down and you don’t see any gap at all and the strings touching, you could have a back bow. More than likely you do. So then you’re going to have to loosen your truss rod to kind of get that going. Now as soon as you know that you have your truss rod in the position that needs to be, where if these two are clamped down and you we’re looking at it, could you slip a business card in there or could you slip a credit card in there. Okay? And only if you’re an absolute maniac would you have something a thickness of a dime. Nevertheless, I’d go no higher than that. Sometimes people have the action a little high. They have the relief a little high just because that’s how they like playing and they do a lot of bends and most people don’t really care for the way that that guitar feels. But for, you know, for this particular player they just love that to death and, so that’s the only time I’d ever say like a dime, because that’s excessive to me, but credit card, business card.
Setting Up the Nut
After we have that we can go ahead and look at the nut and make sure that the nut is at the proper height and what you’d want to do is hold down the third fret right here, and we’re going to be doing the exact same thing that we kind of did with looking at the truss rod. We’re seeing how far away is the string from the top of the very first fret? How far away is that, you know? It should not be touching. It should not be touching. But, you would want no more than a business card. If you can get if you can fit a business card in there, great! If you can put a credit card that means that there’s too big of a gap. This is if you really want to fine-tune your stuff. So, if there is a huge gap that means that this has to come down in some with respect. So you could take this off, sand it or file it, until this could go down the distance that you needed to do where you could put a business card. If it’s a bone nut, or something along those lines, you would actually not file, you could file the whole nut. If you notice that it was the same all the way across, like when you measured, because you want to do that for each string, right? And what I’m doing there is when I push this down, I go up and down to see if the string will actually move and touch the top of the fret and that kind of, I can do it without having to actually look. I can kind of tell. But if it’s the same distance all the way across, you can actually, you know, remove the whole nut and then either sand the nut down or file underneath it and put it back down or you can if it’s just individual strings, you can do the individual strings. You’ll notice this, a lot of a lot of the plastic nuts and, like stuff on Fenders and things. Oh my God, this is so, and it also happens with Floyd Rose nuts and stuff too. You’re going to notice a lot in these upper strings right here on the B the G and the E. Oh my God. Especially when you’re doing like a D chord and there’s always that one, it doesn’t matter how in tune you get everything, there’s always that one that wants to go sharp and it’s usually because it’s a little high back here, So then you could just kind of cut into that file it down and then that will fix that.
The Bridge – String Height and Intonation
So after we have this set up, we’re business card, business card, business card, business card, business card, business card, then we can start working on the bridge. Okay? And what you want to do, the very first, is you tune it to pitch. Tune it to the pitch that you want to tune it to. Because, you know, during the time that, you know, when you’re adjusting your truss rod and things like that, it should be to pitch. Because if you’re sitting there and it’s like you’re planning on like really tuning it up a few steps less, putting more tension on the strings. That’s going to be pulling the truss rod in one direction. If you’re planning on going, like playing maybe like a half step down, that’s taking string tension away. So whatever you’re planning on playing it at, that’s what you should be at when you’re adjusting your truss rod. That’s because any other time as soon as you as you change things up it’s going to go ahead and pull up and knock it out of whack. So keep that in mind. But we have all this done and the first thing we want to do is we want to adjust the height of the Floyd or any type of bridge for that matter. If it’s a hardtail, you’re just adjusting the saddle heights because the hardtail itself doesn’t move up and down unless it’s like a Tuneomatic like this on a Gibson or something. Every other time you’re going to be dealing with some type of, like, whether it’s like a Fender or, you know, like a Floyd or something like that, you’re going to be adjusting the height with the bolts of the screws upfront. What you want to do is you want to bring these things down. You want to bring them down until the distance from the height of the string, the bottom of it, to the top of the fret, just you know normal action, on the first fret is about the same as a 24th fret or 21st or whatever. It doesn’t matter if you have fret buzz right now. That’s irrelevant. We don’t care about that right now. The only thing we care about is trying to get it as a good starting point. After you do that, what you want to do, and it’s not completely important yet about intonation, it’s not, right now we’re working on, and right now we’re working on action, so we’re not worried about the intonation yet. But from there, you want to start playing up and you want to go through every string. Play each one. Okay, and any time that you hear a fret buzz, okay, if you hear fret buzz throughout the whole string, we know that this, the lower side, like for instance, if you hear it on the E, and the B, and the D, or, I’m sorry, either the B and the G. If you hear that a lot of fret buzz on those but nothing on these, we know that that the lower side of the Floyd has to be raised. That’s common sense. If we hear it on the low side that means that the low side has to be raised. Then what you want to do is you want to get it where you’re down to only about, maybe there’s only a few frets that are that are giving you buzz. Those ones that are giving you buzz; typically what I do with those frets is I mark them with a Mark’s-A-Lot marker. Where in a hell did I put that? Like these, like these dry race. I’ll mark it because that tells me that that frets a little high and, like usually, I can just sand it just a little bit and leaving it out and then that gives me even much lower action. Because your action can only be as low as, you know, as level as your frets are is probably the best way to put it. So if your frets are all screwed up, you’re going to have high action all the time. You have no choice. Because if not, you’re gonna have fret buzz. So go through and you start raising it and lowering it until basically, you don’t get any fret buzz anymore and if you have to raise that thing really, really high, that’s telling you that your frets are out. That’s telling you that either your truss rod needs to be adjusted again or your frets are out and if your frets are out, then you’re going to have to get those things dressed because if not, you’ll never be able to lower your action to the height that it should be. I mean my action right now I can hardly get a pick in there without touching the string and I don’t really have any fret buzz on this thing. But, so anyway, after you end up getting the Floyd to that that height, a thing that you need to kind of keep an eye on, by the way, this is for people that don’t know anything about Floyd’s (they’re not good with them), you have to keep an eye out that this bridge is pretty parallel to the body. If this thing is leaning forward, if it looks like this during the time that you’re tightening it, the springs and the rear need to be tightened until when this is in tune, its bit parallel. That’s how you know that the spring tension is correct and then you hit this a few times and if it keeps going back to parallel that means you have an equilibrium between the tension up here and the tension back here. If you tuned down a half a step, there’s a good chance that this might be pulling back a little bit too much because it’s a little bit stronger than the strings, right? So if that’s the case, it’s gonna be like, “Man I can never keep my guitar in tune”. Adjust the springs. That’s what those spring adjusters are for and it doesn’t take a lot; quarter turn here, quarter turn there. So don’t overdo it. However, you want to make sure that this is tuned to pitch, or as close as you can get it, and keep looking at that. Keep looking at that. Make sure that’s parallel and then adjust a spring tension each time. What you want to do, is if you’re tightening the springs in the rear, you don’t want to tighten it until it’s parallel, because as you start tightening it, it’s going to start pulling on these strings and making them go sharp. So after you do a quarter turn or so, go ahead and tune it to pitch, see if it’s doing the same thing. Do a quarter turn or so. The first time you do it, it might take a while. You know, keep doing it until this is in pitch and it’s parallel. Then you know you got it, right? So, and that’s also true with any type of trem system that’s got springs in it. That’s just how you do it.
Pitch Perfect Tuning
So now we’re at a point where we have everything to pitch. We have the action set to the height that we want, but that doesn’t matter, because as soon as you reset your action your intonation is going to go out. That’s just the way that it is. So we have to adjust the intonation. As I’ve talked about before in some of my other videos, the way that you do this is you go ahead and you fret to 12. You hit it. You’ll get one note and hit it open and you’ll get it. You’re going to be getting the same note, except an octave difference. Now obviously during at the time that you’re doing this, you want to have this plugged into a tuner and you tune the open string first. That’s the most one. Soon as that’s dead nuts, and that’s got to be dead nuts, right on the money tune, that’s when you hold down the twelfth and you hit it. Okay? Now when you hit that, if it shows up with the exact same note, it’s just like Dead Money, E and E, your intonation is correct. Okay? But if it goes E and just a hair sharp that means that the saddle is just a little too far forward, right? If it goes flat, it means that it’s a little bit too far back and so what you want to do is you have to move this back and forth until it actually becomes E there and you do that through all of them. You know, it’s like, then it’d be time for A and then from there, same thing. Does this give you an A? And if so, great! As soon as you end up changing your strings, if you change a different gauge, you’re going to have to change your intonation. If you change the gauge, you’re going to have to change your action height. This is just the rules of the game folks. I didn’t make them, but you have to play by them if you want to do it right. Keep in mind that when you’re dealing with a Floyd and you’re doing your intonation and you do your E and then this says, “Okay, well this is a little bit sharp, or it’s a little bit flat”, you want to actually reduce the tension on the string. You actually kind of want to get it down to nothing. Nonetheless, just remember how far out it was, so when you loosen this, you can kind of control exactly how much this saddle moves. If you try to do it when there’s tension on here, this thing it’s going to get sucked forward every single time and it’s going to be frustrating as hell. So bear that in mind. This string has to have no tension on it, or this string, whatever, should have no tension on it while you’re adjusting it. As soon as you’re finished with that, go ahead and tighten it. Go ahead tune it back to pitch and see if you were correct. Then, they do have little devices that you can buy that you hook up to here and you just kind of turn it and it’ll adjust so you don’t have to keep, you know, playing with it and, you know, doing like ten tries before you get everything just right. But most people don’t have that, so you can just do it the old-fashioned way. But you’ll get pretty good at telling how far you have to move something forward or how far have to move something back. Then on the Floyd Roses you’ll also notice that these nuts up here on the top, these little bolts, when you loosen them and you move the thing back and forth, you might run out of room and say, “Well there’s just no more room”. But if you look underneath the saddles, there’s actually more than one screw hole. So you can actually change it, there’s usually three, and so you can go all the way to the front, you know, middle, or the rear. Ideally middle is better. Nevertheless, after all that is done, check your action again. Okay? Because everything that you do with the truss rod affects everything else and everything you do to bridge affects everything else and whatnot. However, after you’re done with all that, come back up, look at it. Does it play well? Does it have any fret buzz when you’re pushing here and here? Are you getting that nice straight line? Are you getting that banana in it? Are you getting that back bow? You know, this is what you want to do and then just keep in mind when it comes to action, here are a few things. The lower the action, sometimes the more comfortable it is to play and it’s definitely easier to do a lot of hammer-ons, and pull-offs, and things like that. It’s much more fluid, but you cannot really play as aggressively. The closer you get to those frets, the more you have to start picking a little different because if not, you’re going to get fret buzz just because it’s a law of physics. You can’t hit the string with a hundred pounds of pressure and expect to just to move back. Just, you know, it’s not going to happen. So you might have to raise the action a little bit if you’re an aggressive player. Also, some people have a hard time doing artificial harmonics on a guitar that’s got low action. Okay? Some people have trouble doing bends on a guitar that has low action, so they’ll increase the action so it’s easier for their fingers to kind of get up and underneath there to do that bend.
So that’s just a few things to kind of go by, and hopefully this, I mean I know that this is long-winded and drawn-out and everything, but I’m really hoping that this video answered a lot of questions and helped you kind of get where you can set your guitar up where you’re not, you know, sitting like, “I don’t understand why I can’t get my guitar in tune. I do not see why it’s so hard to play. I don’t understand why while I’m down here it’s in tune, but when I’m up here, it isn’t. I don’t know why, you know, it’s I always have fret buzz only in this one register. I don’t, you know…” Hopefully this helps and then this will answer 99% of all your questions and it’ll also make it where you don’t have to take the guitar anywhere to have somebody set it up. Because when you take a guitar down to have somebody set it up, that’s pretty much all they do. That’s pretty much all they do. Exactly what I just told you and they might adjust the pickup height. But the pickup height is really one of those things that are. That’s kind of a no-brainer. You just adjust it till it sounds right. I know, that sounds so basic it’s like what? Yeah you just adjust it until sounds right. There’s really no given, there’s really no given formula of what is correct. Like, “Oh, it should be 1/8 of an inch. It should be 3/16, it should be 2 nickels. That’s horseshit because each pickup has a different type of pool on it. Each one has a different type of output. Each one has a different type of magnetic field and stuff. So you have to kind of play each one and typically what I do is I go about a couple of nickels thickness away from it, the strings, and I start playing and I’ll play and then I’ll take a screwdriver move it up a little bit and I’ll keep doing that until I get the sound that I’m looking for. If it gets too high, it’ll be kind of brittle and nasty and distorted and shitty and muddy. But if it’s too low it’ll be too thin and quiet and it’s not so fantastic. So you’re trying to find that happy medium. As soon as you find that one there, you switch over to the neck, you do the same. After you’re done with that, you move them back and forth until the volume of these two is the same. In other words, if I’m playing on the bridge then I flip this up and it goes over to the neck, is there a huge difference in volume? Because if there is, one of these has to move either up or down in order so that way the people that are listening can’t tell a difference between the volumes. Because there’s nothing worse than somebody playing and it’s like duh no, no, no, no, no, and they flip over it’s like its horrible and then that’s all about adjusting the height.
Guitar Set Up – You Just Saved a Bundle
So anyway, if you have any questions, do not be afraid to post them or whatnot. I can’t always answer in, you know, a timely matter anymore, but I’m trying to still throw you guys a bone whenever I can and, like I said, this is precisely what they do when they do guitar setups. So I just saved you 50, 75 bucks, or maybe a hundred dollars. I don’t know how much those bastards charge.
But there you go. That’s it until next time.