How to Set Up a Guitar

How to set up a guitar
My whiteboard

Guitar forums are full of “How do I set up my guitar” questions. And you’d think that with such a basic question, you’d see consistency in the responses. But this is the internet – the wild west of “alternative facts”. Forums are full of people who are proud of their tiny, newly-learned information (which may or not be correct) and try to answer questions they are not equipped to answer.

I’ve averaged over eight hundred setups per year. I don’t advertise my services, so most of my customers are repeat customers or word-of-mouth customers, and I stay busier than I’d like.

Here’s a recent setup of a Hagstrom guitar where I tried to take photos at each step –

I start by labeling one of my whiteboards with a description of the guitar. Then I tune the guitar to the player’s specifications (usually Standard-E). Only then I begin following the steps listed.

Check Electronics

Pickups & Switch + Pots are the first two items, and they’re tested together. But I have to plug an amp cord in, so “Jack” actually gets tested first.

If the jack is loose, I remove the jack plate, check the connections, then tighten the jack, and screw the plate back in. I take care not to allow the jack to rotate which could put the tang in a position where it could hit the body and make it difficult to plug the cord in.

Tapping the pickup

It can be difficult to tell which pickup you’re hearing if you merely strum the strings. I use a six-inch metal rule and tap each pickup while testing switch and potentiometer settings. I make note of any problems and address them when I have the strings removed.

Measure Neck Relief

Using string clipping as a gauge

My new book, “Guitar Setups for the Professional” should be released by July 2023. It details the reasons why you’d want neck relief. (BTW my “Level & Crown” book covers all fretwork and was published last year). I’ll just jump right into the measurements here…

Where is it?

Most guitars will have the truss adjustment nut at the headstock, often under a plastic cover. Some will have the adjustment at the heel of the neck. Some vintage guitars and most classical guitars will not have a truss rod.

Note that vintage guitars labeled “Steel reinforced neck”, do not have truss rods. And that “Steel reinforced” thing didn’t work well.

String clipping gauges are more accurate than cards

Measure Relief

Put a capo at the first fret and manually fret low-E string at the highest fret (at the body). Measure between the top of the 8th fret and the bottom of the E-string. Most people use a string action gauge to measure, but string clippings are generally handy.

Your G-string clipping is probably twelve or thirteen-thousandths of an inch in diameter which makes it a perfect gauge for neck relief. You want to adjust the truss rod to give about 0.010″ relief. If your G clipping passes through with just a bit of bend, your relief is correct.

If it doesn’t bend, you have too much relief and need to tighten the truss rod nut. If it is difficult to pass the gauge between the fret and string, or if it won’t go at all, you need more relief, so you’ll loosen the truss rod nut.

Many Gibson-type guitars will take a special, narrow socket. But most truss rods adjust with an Allen wrench. The most popular size by far is 4mm. Some USA and vintage Fenders take a 1/8″ wrench and some bass and other guitars may take a 3/16″.

Do not use a worn wrench! And do not apply too much pressure. If the truss nut is difficult to turn, you need more instructions (like my book) or help from a professional.

Nuts!

Guitar nut

Excuse the photo, but I’ve had seasoned players who didn’t know what the “guitar nut” was, and supposed it was a player obsessed with guitars!

Many people say to adjust string (saddle) heights now and do the nut later. It usually doesn’t make much difference, but technically, you should do the nut now. The nut supports one end of the strings, and the saddle does the other. We’ll take the saddles out of the equation by fretting at the highest fret (at the body) before measuring at the first fret.

You’ll see people saying to fret at the third fret, then measure at the first. The problem with that is you’d be looking for such a small measurement that, unless you’re a scientist, you probably don’t have the tools to properly measure. It is a good, quick way to “eyeball” your nut slot heights though. If you can see a small (less than the thickness of a business card) gap when you tap over the first fret, you’re probably “good enough”.

For most of us, the best way to measure nut slot heights is by fretting at the highest fret, then measure at the first fret. Less than twenty-thousandths but at least ten-thousandths of an inch is the preferred range. Wound strings should have the greater gap, and it should taper lower for the solid strings.

You can use #9 string clippings as gauges. D-string should bend quite a bit or refuse to go while high-e should pass without bending.

If a slot is too low, you’re likely to lose tone and sustain on that string and possibly have some buzz. My setup books (one for pros and one for players) will cover solutions such as filling, shimming, and replacing nuts. If a slot is too high, you’ll need a good set of nut files. Sorry, but none of the cheap workarounds I’ve tried were any good.

String (Saddle) Heights

Checking string (saddle) heights

Erlewine’s books said to measure bass, Strat and Tele-style guitars at the 17th fret and others at the 12th, so that’s the way I’ve done it ever since reading them.

No capo. No Fretting. Just measure and adjust. Tune-O-Matic style bridges have an adjustable screw at each of the two posts. There may be a wheel to turn, a screw, or both. As always, counter-clockwise loosens the screw and raises the saddle while CW tightens and lowers.

Unless it’s a wrap-around type, a Tune-O-Matic will have a tailpiece behind it, anchoring the strings. Be sure the tailpiece is low enough to give sufficient break angle to the strings behind the bridge but leaves a gap, so the strings don’t actually contact the back of the bridge.

Most other bridges will have independent saddles with two tiny Allen screws for each saddle. Most of these will be M3 and take a 1/16″ wrench. Fender USA and some other types will take a 0.050″ wrench.

Many places on the internet say to have one “leg” of the saddle higher than the other to follow the fretboard radius. NOOOO!!! Do not do this.

By adjusting the height of each saddle you ARE following the radius. But having one leg (screw) higher than the other puts less tension on the shorter leg, making it possible for vibrations to loosen it further. Also, the string will now rest against the side as well as the bottom of the saddle groove, increasing friction.

Note that Fender-style saddle height adjustment Allen screws come in three sizes. The metrics are 6mm, 8mm, and 10mm. The shortest screws are for the outer (E) strings, tallest for the inner strings.

Neck Angle

If your saddles can’t go low or high enough for proper string heights, your neck probably needs an adjustment. Hopefully, you have a bolt-on neck and can shim it higher or lower. If your wallet is so thick with C-notes you find it uncomfortable to sit, you may wish to throw one or two of them at StewMac and get a thin wedge of wood (undoubtedly “tone wood”!) or two for your shim.

The rest of us can use air conditioning tape. That’s aluminum tape that comes in thickness of 0.010″. (At least, that’s what I bought.) One (two at most) of these at either end of the neck pocket should do the trick. Old-timers just snipped a quarter-inch wide, and neck-long piece of business card for a shim. (Be careful not to use the piece with the phone number!)

Pickup Pole Heights

3/32″ to 1/8″ is the target range

To confuse things, let’s jump from thousandths of inch to fractions! Maybe we’ll jump to metrics shortly. Fret at the highest fret (as in pic), and measure at the highest pole pieces. If this puts others out of range, lower the higher ones or raise the lower ones (assuming you have adjustables).

Those with sensitive ears able to hear a cricket fart may wish to finesse these adjustments by ear, but be careful not to let strings get too close to the poles where magnetism may do weird things to your sound.

Fret Level

Checking fret level

You could cut a credit card to the correct shape for this, but you’d get odd looks at the checkout counter! I start up by the nut, gently trying to rock the tool as I slide it from e to E, then move to the next fret, etc. Any high points need to be dressed.

I dress high frets with #320 sand paper and use a fret protector to cover the fretboard. I’m careful to retain the crown. Follow up with #400, #600 and maybe even #1000, then polish with Dremel and compund.

Fret Wear

Fret Renewal Tool

This guitar had noticeable fret wear and grooves had begun in the first several frets. When frets are new, the wear from each string tends to be spread several thousandths of an inch to either side of the string. But once you start a groove, that string is going to hit the center of the groove every time, and frets will be worn exponentially faster.

That’s why it’s a good idea to keep frets polished and eliminate fret wear as soon as you spot it. Normally, that would require a level and crown job, often taking a couple of hours. But if you catch it soon enough, my “Fret Renewal Tool” will make your frets as good as new in just a couple of minutes!

Learn how to make your own Fret Renewal Tool in my book, “Level & Crown” available on Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/Level-Crown-Guitar-Frets-Workbench/dp/B0BBCZ2PZ5/

I hold a thin pad of #220 sanding foam over the working side of the tool and run it up and down the fretboard a few times until fret wear is nearly gone.

I finish the job with #400, then #600 and #800 grit paper held over the pad, working the tool as before. If you can find sanding foam in those grits, you won’t have to bother with sandpaper.

Fret Ends

Quicker & safer than a file!

I’ve tried all those special files with rounded “safe” edges. They all managed to scratch fretboards, and it took a good twenty minutes or so to file all the fret ends.

Then I “discovered” sanding foam! The thick, stiff ones with about #220 grit or even drywall type work best. You have to be careful up around the horns though. Use a bit of finer grit padded with your fingertips to clean up the scratches. After polishing the frets, there’ll be no clue that you used #220 sanding foam, but you’ll have nice, rounded fret ends.

Truss Rod & Nut

Here I merely make note of the size and condition of the truss rod adjusting nut. I’ll note any wear and whether it is getting difficult to turn.

Hardware

“Painting” Naval Jelly on rusted screws

I check all hardware for snugness, corrosion, etc.

10mm tuner nuts are often loose
Filling worn strap button hole

You don’t want the strap button falling out while someone is playing! Broken foot and broken guitar make for a bad day! If the strap button won’t snug up tightly in its hole, remove it and fill the hole with a toothpick or two dipped in Titebond Original. Press it all the way in, then pull it out a tad and snip it off. Finally push it back down into its hole.

Don’t wait for the glue to dry. Screw the strap button back in, then let the glue cure. Titebond won’t adhere to metal, so no worries.

Clean & Condition the Fretboard

Naptha and steel wool for dark wood, unfinished fretboards

First, tape the neck pickup to protect it from steel wool “bits”. Generous application of Naptha (aka: lighter fluid) with #0000 steel wool will burnish frets while cleaning gunk off the fretboard. Work with the grain, not against. If this doesn’t get the gunk along the fret sides, use a stiff toothbrush (not mine!).

Wipe dry with a paper towel – not a rag that will remain near the bench. Finally, use a strong magnet to collect any metal bits remaining on the guitar and workbench.

A magnet will collect those remaining bits

Now it’s time to polish the frets. Highly polished frets will play better and wear longer.

Safety glasses, fret protectors, compound & polishing wheel

I set my Dremel speed at six, place the fret protector, fill the wheel with compound, and give each fret a few runs, being careful not to let the fret get hot enough to loosen any glue that may be holding it.

Polishing frets

Condition the Fretboard

Fretboard conditioning oils

Feed-N-Wax and Old English (aka: lemon oil) get rubbed in grain-wise and allowed to set for twenty minutes or more before buffing out. If you don’t have time for that, try Goddard’s Cabinet Makers Wax which can be rubbed in and buffed right away.

After cleaning, polishing, and conditioning

Polish the Guitar

NuFinish for poly, Carnauba for lacquer

The “real” polishing should be your last step, but there will be areas hard to reach after strings are installed, so I tackle those areas now. For poly finishes, I use NuFinish, but any car polish should work. For lacquer finishes, I prefer a Carnauba-type wax. These will generally clean and polish in one step.

String, Stretch & Tune

Rinse & repeat til they stop going flat

Since you’re doing a setup, I’ll assume you know how to string your guitar. But I’ll betcha don’t know how to stretch ’em! The internet tells ya just pull up at the twelfth fret and yer done! But nope. You know it ain’t so, cause your strings won’t stay in tune.

Tune the guitar. Begin with the highest string and work toward the lowest. This is the reverse of what most internet sites tell you, but there’s a reason why this is better. Heavier strings are affected more by the changing tension of lighter strings. Therefore, you’ll have less work to do going high to low. Note: You’ll go from outer strings to inner on two-point floating bridges as noted in the next section.

Using your fingers and opposing thumbs (this here’s why we got ’em, see?), work your way up and down the fretboard with roughly the tension of a good two-tone bend (four half-tones).

Now recheck tuning. If it dropped more than you’re comfortable with, it’ll need more stretching. But just retune and move on to the next string to give this string a break. OK, “break” was a bad term. We’ll give it a “rest” instead.

It may take half a dozen cycles before your wound strings stop going flat. But that’s ok. Better now than in the middle of a song!

Float or Deck the Bridge

Decking the bridge (having its back edge rest on the body) is fine for most of us. We can still use the tremolo, but just have less movement in the “up” direction.

For those who just have to tempt Nature and float the bridge, understand that tuning will be more “fiddly” and you’ll spend more time with your tuner key knobs between your fingers than your pick.

2-point floating bridge

Most two-point bridges will be floated parallel to the body while Fender-style six-screw bridges will have their back edge lifted between 3/32″ and 1/8″ off the body.

When tuning a floating bridge, you may find that starting with the outer strings and moving inward will take less time than the normal high-to-low tuning method.

Intonation

Independent saddles

Setting intonation is often thought of as adjusting each string length so it gives a note exactly one octave higher at the twelfth fret. And that’s pretty much how most people set it.

But a guitar with “good intonation” gives the expected note on every fret. And, to be honest, that ain’t gonna happen. A guitar is an instrument of compromise. If you want precise notes, get a keyboard.

In my experience, you’re doing good if you can get within two cents of the right note for every string on every fret. I’ll often settle for three cents if it’s up in “no man’s land” where we open chord players rarely venture.

High nut slots often make the “cowboy frets” a bit sharp, even when they’re filed down within the proper range. Because of this, and because of the type of player I am, I’ll bias my intonation to be on the mark at the fourth fret. This makes my open chords almost “right-on” while the rare lead playing I do, won’t be too far off.

TLDR: Set intonation for the player, not for the guitar manual!

Finished!

Almost Done!

Before you finish polishing the guitar, double check relief and string heights. If you set relief with the old strings, it may be different now that the guitar has gone without strings for an hour or so. But don’t change it just yet! Give it twenty-four hours to “settle down”. Then, if it still needs adjusting, go for it.

OK, you can finish polishing the guitar now! Congrats! You’ve done an awesome setup… BUT – there are often things that come up and complicate your setup. And there are different types of bridges, saddles, tremolo systems, etc., etc.

If you’re a professional or want to become a professional guitar tech, you’ll want my book “Guitar Setups for Professionals“, available on Amazon at at Hank’s Guitar Shop in Palm Harbor.