In my “Problems With Used Guitars” article, I said that 75% of your guitar buys will have between 4 and 8 problems that need to be fixed before you have a good-playing guitar.
To prove the point, this post details the work required on the very next guitar I grabbed to setup and prepare for sale. I’ll cover everything I do with the guitar, step-by-step..
- Tune the guitar. Using the old strings that came with the guitar, I tune it up to standard E tuning, so that I’ll have the proper tension on the neck when I do my measurements.
- Check pickups and switch using metal 6″ rule tapping the poles & test volume & tone pots.
- Try the open strings, then fretting at various intervals listening for dead spots and/or buzzing. Any problems should be caught in the setup process, but this tells me where I might need to watch more closely.
- I check the jack for tightness & good connection.
- I measure neck relief with a capo at the first fret and I fret the E string at the highest (body-side) fret, then measure at the 8th fret. I’m looking for about 0.010″ between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string. You can’t (or at least, I can’t) accurately measure that close with a card type string gauge, so I get a close guestimate with the gauge, then I check with a piece of 8 gauge guitar string and a piece of 12 gauge. I want the 8 to slide between without touching and I want the 12 to not easily slide between. Often, a truss rod adjustment is needed, but this time we’re good. If adjustment was needed, I’d do it now, but re-check a day after new strings were installed, stretched and tuned. After removing all strings, the neck can “borrow back” some of the relief, but a day after strings reinstalled, it should be back to spec. If you wait and set relief right after installing the new strings, you’re likely to end up with excess relief a day later.
- Remove the capo and check string heights at the 17th fret (some guitars Gibson style & acoustics) I check at the 12th fret, but Strats & Teles at 17). They’re running high here – around 0.090″ at E (low-E) and 0.070″ at e (high-e). I adjust the saddles while the old strings are still on and tuned, for the same reason I do the truss rod adjustment with old strings, setting string heights to 0.065″ – 0.055″ (E to e).
- All three pickups were too low (too far from the strings) by more than 50%! I adjusted each one to put them in spec (3/32″ – 1/8″).
- Check nut slot heights. There are several ways to do this, but the easiest way to get good measurements is to use Dan Erlewine’s method of fretting at the highest fret and measuring at the first fret. I like to have 0.020″ or a bit less at E and 0.012″ or a bit more at e and have the intervening slots filed on that trajectory. In this case, I’d noticed that some open strings hadn’t been ringing out clearly. Sure enough, G, B & e had 0.005″ or less clearance. This nut has to go! Squiers have plastic nuts, but I only use bone nuts for replacements.
- Fret ends weren’t sharp enough to saw wood, but were uncomfortable, so I filed them smooth.
- Bridge and saddles were filthy. They tend to catch dust and debris. I have a hydrasonic jewelry cleaner that’s perfect for this purpose. In five minutes, I get a bright, shiny bridge! The bridge screws weren’t properly torqued anyway (they were too tight), so I set the proper torque when I reinstalled. Depending on the player’s preference, I’ll either deck the bridge (for most) or float the bridge so the back edge is a bit above the body.
Using a fret rocker, I checked every fret for level, from E to e. There was one tiny spot that was a bit high and I dressed it down, but I didn’t feel it was bad enough to note on the whiteboard. I closely inspected for fret wear and would have done a level/crown but there was no visible wear at all. (Someone gave up on playing guitar without ever practicing enough!)
I checked the truss rod to be sure it worked. It was a 4mm (as most Squier truss rods are) and worked fine.
I checked all hardware (10mm tuner nuts, strap buttons, neck bolts, pickguard screws, pickup adjustment screws, switch mounting screws, bridge screws, jack nut and jack plate screws) to be sure all screws were tight and no screw holes were stripped, etc. The tuner nuts were loose, as is often the case. That can cause tuning issues, so I snugged them up.
I used #0000 steel wool and Naptha to clean the fretboard and semi-polish/clean the frets. Then I polished each fret with a Dremel tool & polishing wheel and rouge. Polishing frets help them last much longer. Once they start getting scratch marks, they’ll wear a lot faster.
Then I conditioned the fretboard with some cabinet makers wood polish (honestly, furniture polish – “lemon oil”, works fine though); let it set twenty minutes, then buffed out. This will help protect the fretboard from wear, skin oil, etc.
Guitar techs often worry about the friction caused by nut slots, but those flat, metal string guides have several times more friction than a well-cut bone nut. So, off they come and on go Fender-style roller string guides like you get on American-made $1500 Fender Strats.
Then I cleaned and polished the guitar and replaced the bridge.
Finally, it was time to install the new, D’Addario #9 guitar strings. I tune the strings, then carefully and evenly stretch the strings from bridge to nut, moving up and down the fretboard. After stretching the string, I retune it and move the the next string. After all six strings have been tuned, stretched and retuned, I repeat the process over and over until one at a time, starting with e, they no longer need retuning.
Now, it’s time to intonate each string. It’s one thing to have the open string give the right tune when plucked, but it’s a totally different game to get the string to play the right notes up and down the fretboard. Intonation is set by changing the length of each string until it comes as close as possible to “true”, up and down the neck.
One last buffing of my fingerprints off the guitar and it’s time for photos and posting ads. Your guitar is ready!
After having all strings removed, a neck will move toward a backbow position. It won’t just snap back to the correct position after new strings are installed and tuned.
It could take 24 hours or so for the neck to find its resting position which may be more curve, less curve or exactly where it was with the old strings. You just never know until after those 24 hours – which is why I won’t sell a guitar or give a setup customer his guitar until I’ve kept it an additional 24 hours and made any final adjustments that might be needed.
This guitar had only 5 major issues (red marks on whiteboard), so it was a relatively “good one”, and yet it was not really playable, needing a nut, saddle and pickup adjustments, fret ends filed smooth and tuner keys tightened.
Sure, a newbie could have bought this guitar and not noticed any problems. They might not really notice the three strings that didn’t ring clear, and blamed the fact that it didn’t sound good on it being “a cheap guitar”. They might not have noticed that the strings were a lot harder to press than they should have been and figured they just needed to toughen up their fingertips. They might not have noticed the weak, unclear sound from the pickups being too far from the strings and blamed the fact that it wouldn’t stay in tune well on it being a cheap guitar instead of the loose tuner keys.
But all-in-all, they probably wouldn’t enjoy the guitar very much and that would likely be a big contributor to their decision to give up playing guitar (as the previous owner had obviously done).
Now, I went on to make this a Super Squier with some wiring mods that gave the guitar 2 extra pickup positions, tone control for the bridge pickup, a treble retention circuit for steady tone throughout the volume range plus a fast-action fuse for safety (in case of faulty amp or PA system).
The fast-action fuse isn’t shown, but I install them in the jack cavity for easy access. But the fact is, if that fuse ever blows – it may have saved your life!