It seems that 90% of the guitar setup advice I see on forums and websites today is not just wrong – it’s dangerous! Guitar websites (with the exception of this one, of course!) aren’t much better, still tending to give a bit more bad advice than good.
Why do so many people post instructions like, “Tighten your truss rod until your guitar (magically) starts playing great.” – ??? Or, “Each winter, your truss rod needs another ___ (enter random fraction here) turn.”
I suppose I should send them kickbacks since they bring me so much business! My latest case is typical –
Customer: “I think something’s wrong because my truss rod has no more adjustment, yet my guitar still buzzes like a beehive!”
Me: <Thinking: “Well, that just saved me from having to diagnose this guitar!”>
In the photo above, the customer had tried to get better access to the truss rod once it stopped turning by removing the walnut plug on his Fender USA Strat. Notice the crack running from the truss access hole, under the nut, and further into the fretboard.
But the damage didn’t stop there! The customer waited months before bringing me the guitar, which caused even more damage because the over-tightened truss rod had put the neck into a back bow, and the elapsed time allowed the wood fibers to “set” in this new position.
Sometimes I get guitars with stripped truss rod nuts, broken truss rods, cracked fretboards, etc. – from customers who got bad advice and tried to solve their guitar problems by tightening the truss rod.
Your doctor wants to know your weight, blood pressure and temperature before even beginning to make a diagnosis and you need to know certain things about your guitar before making your diagnosis. Guitar problems should be tackled by first ensuring the guitar’s foundations are in good order. This means running through the measurements shown in my infographic and in the exact order shown.
Tune the Guitar – use whichever tuning you typically play in
Set Neck Relief (Truss Rod) – Fret at 1st fret (capo) and last. Measure between E bottom and top of 8th fret. Target: 0.010″ (Note: a string clipping is best for this). Leaving strings tuned (do not loosen), adjust the truss rod to get the proper gap. Tighten for less, loosen for more. If adjusting nut is hard to turn, it’s best to leave this job for a professional, but loosening the strings may help.
Retune as Needed
Check Nut Slot Heights – Fret at 3rd and tap over 1st fret is a quick check (you should see a gap), but better to fret at the highest fret and ensure that a G-string clipping can slide under each string with no or very little bending.
Set Saddle Heights – Check open string heights at 12th (or 17th for Strats & Teles). Use your manufacturer’s specs, but typically about 90 – 70 for acoustics and bass and 70 – 60 for electrics. (Measuring in thousandths of an inch from low string to high string).
Retune as Needed
Set Intonation – Fret at 12th fret and lengthen or shorten each string to achieve the octave (1-octave higher than open string). Depending on your playing style, you may wish to bias intonation toward the “cowboy” frets.
Retune as needed
There’s a good chance we’ve already solved your guitar problem. But if not, we’ve at least disposed of the most common issues… except for one – fret wear and high spots.
If you need to level and crown your frets, get my book “Level & Crown” by Hank Castello. It covers all sorts of fretwork, including fret replacement.
The book is written for both DIY amateurs as well as guitar tech professionals. It shows how to do your fretwork without pricey tools or previous experience. In fact, the price of the book ($10 – $20 depending on ebook or paperback), plus the tools you’ll need are less than half what a level & crown would likely cost at your local guitar shop!
Guitar Setup Details and Problems
One “little” problem with this article is that most setups don’t go according to plan. There are often “hiccups” and other problems that pop up. Another problem is that an article-size set of instructions lack the detail that is often needed to do a proper guitar setup.
I have the solution! My latest book, “Guitar Setups for the Professional” is in draft and being reviewed and edited. (Let me know if you’d like access to an advanced copy in return for giving feedback and critique.) Once it is published, I’ll be writing a simplified, condensed version for DIY guitar players. My goal is to make these books the most accurate, helpful and easy to digest guitar tech books ever printed.
So stay tuned. I’ll be posting a sign-up list soon for those who want to be notified when these books are published.