On a forum intended for professional guitar techs and luthiers, the question was posted: In What Order Do You Perform Setup Tasks?

Well over ninety percent of respondents said they used the T.R.A.I.N. system –

T] tune
R] relief
A] action
I] intonation
N] nut

I know from talking with employees and ex-employees of at least three major guitar manufacturers that the TRAIN system is even used when making new guitars.

Shows just the first couple of posts

In my opinion, this is proof that the guitar tech world needs an organization to set rules and guidelines. There is so much misinformation out there. And it’s not just misinformation – it’s misinformation that’s accepted as gospel and causing problems for players everywhere.

There are SO MANY problems with the way setups are done, but in this article, I’ll stick with the TRAIN WRECK system for guitar setups!

Let’s take those steps one-by-one –

Tune

Yes, before you start, you need to ensure you’re working with the same amount of tension on the neck that the instrument will be played with. And you should be sure you use the same tuning that your customer will be playing with, whether Standard E, Drop, Raised, etc.

Relief

So far, so good! Setting the neck relief is the second step. Since strings vibrate a bit more at their center than the ends, we want to give them a bit more room here (usually the 7th fret for acoustics and 8th for electrics) which lets us have the strings a slightly lower at the saddle.

Action

Acronyms are cool, but doing poor setups just to be able to have a cool name for the process, should be frowned upon. But for now, let’s play along. Let’s get that action as low as it can go without buzzing, shall we? There..done!

Intonation

Go ahead and set intonation so every fret plays its precise note, within a penny! (Absolutely impossible for most guitars, but let’s save that for another day)

Nut

Finally, we’re at the nut. Everything about our setup is now perfect except this dang nut, which has slots 0.020″ too high. Well, what are we gonna do? We’re gonna file those suckers down to spec, right? But what does that do to our “perfect setup”?

guitar setups t.r.a.i.n. system

Accident Investigation

We just had a train wreck! The player/customer says the guitar is buzzing. When the tech checks the string heights at the twelfth fret (action), he finds it’s ten thousandths lower than what he’d set it at. Why? What happened?

Using the image at left as an example, if we lower the rope on the left pole by two feet, the height at the center will decrease to seven feet.

Similarly, when we needed to lower our action at the twelfth fret by ten-thousandths of an inch, we would have lowered the saddle by twenty-thousandths.

Any change of height at either end changes the height at the center by half. Now here’s the “kicker” – geometry doesn’t give a hoot what you call the poles. You could call the pole on the right “Sammy” and the left pole could be called “Suzie”!

Getting back to guitars, this means that the rule applies to both ends of our strings.

When we changed saddle heights, action at the twelfth fret changed by half the amount. But when we changed Suzie..er, I mean the nut by twenty thousandths, it also changed the action by half. Thus our “perfect setup” was ruined by dropping string heights an additional ten thousandths after they were already as low as they could go without causing problems.

This is why you sometimes get a decent setup from your favorite tech and sometimes you get a beehive. If the nut didn’t need much adjustment, then your setup is likely ok. But if it needed larger adjustments, your setup crashed and burned!

Setting nut slot heights after relief and by fretting at the highest fret and measuring at the first fret, isolates the nut from saddle issues and allows you to set saddle heights, then intonation as your last steps, ensuring your adjustments are final.

We’ll be posting detailed setup “how-to’s” as we build our online tech school, so stay tuned!