Perhaps your guitar was playing great when you brought it home from the store, and gradually you noticed that it just didn’t feel right anymore. Or, maybe it just never felt right from day one. Whatever the case, you know it’s time for a tune-up (pun intended).
I can usually tell when my guitar needs a bit of tweaking. It starts to feel tedious and tiring to play, albeit in a very subtle way.
The following information is intended to help you do the basic setup tasks yourself. I’ve taken my guitar to lots of techies for basic setup tasks, and for the most part, none of them ever seemed to get it right. It was always difficult to talk to the person doing the work since many stores farm it out to outside sources.
What I consider the basic tasks are:
Adjust the truss rod for proper neck relief
Your guitar needs to have a small amount of relief or clearance in the middle of the fingerboard so that a vibrating string has ample support to vibrate freely and naturally.
This is achieved by adjusting the truss rod. Most manufacturers will ship a truss rod wrench with the guitar. If yours didn’t come with one, you’d need to find the correct wrench for your guitar.
- Gibson guitars commonly use a 5/16 wrench
- Fender typically uses a 3/16 or 3/32 Allen wrench
The directions below apply to guitars with the truss rod adjustment located in the headstock only.
Never force the truss rod if it doesn’t move freely; this will most likely only result in damage to your guitar. If the truss rod doesn’t move freely, take it to an experienced repair person and have it looked at.
Hold the low E string down at the 1st and 13th frets to quickly check whether the truss rod needs adjustment, then tap the string down at the 6th fret. You should hear a light click as you do this from the string hitting the frets. If you don’t hear this “click” sound, the neck needs more relief. If the “click” sound is extremely pronounced, you probably have too much comfort.
If there’s a plate covering the truss rod, remove it to expose the rod. The following is a rough guide for setting the action.
|Style of playing
||Type of action desired
||Relief in inches
|Rock & Roll||Medium-low||0.010|
This measurement is generally taken by measuring the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the 6th fret while holding the string down at the 12th fret and the first fret.
This is where the capo comes in handy – put it on the first fret so your hand is free to take the measurement. Using a feeler gauge of the desired height, in this example, 0.010, hold the low E string down at the 12th fret (with the capo on the first fret) and measure the distance between the top of the 6th fret and the bottom of the low E string.
If the distance is greater than the desired relief, then you need to turn the truss rod clockwise (towards your right) as you’re looking down the headstock towards the body of the guitar.
If the distance is less than the desired amount, then you need to turn the truss rod counter-clockwise (towards your left) as you’re looking down the headstock towards the body of the guitar.
The basic rule is:
- Clockwise to tighten for less relief
- Counter-clockwise to loosen for more relief
When making truss rod adjustments, always work in small increments, never more than 1/8th of a turn. If you have to force the truss rod or feel like it won’t move, stop immediately and take it to an experienced repair person. You may have other problems that need to be resolved.
Finally, always check the relief while holding the guitar in playing the position. Otherwise, the neck can flex from the weight of the body if it’s improperly supported.
It’s common for the truss rod to take a while to have its full effect on the neck, so make sure you periodically revisit the relief to ensure it’s still accurate during the remainder of the setup process.
Paul Reed Smith guitars use a double-acting truss rod in post-1992 production guitars. As stated on their website: “PRS switched over to the double-acting truss rod about halfway through the 1992 production year. To determine whether your guitar has this system, simply examine the adjusting nut. The single-acting rods used a brass adjusting nut threaded onto a steel rod. The double-acting rods use a steel nut fused to a steel rod. The double-acting truss rod achieves twice the amount of adjustment as the single-acting rod with the same amount of movement of the adjusting nut. Do not over-adjust!”
You might want to consider making this adjustment and then allowing the guitar to sit overnight and adapt to the change. Then check the next day and make final tweaks before continuing with the rest of the adjustments. It’s also a good idea to check the truss rod adjustment several times during the setup, especially if you dramatically raise the strings’ height at the bridge, to make sure it’s correct.
There are alternate methods for adjusting the truss rod/neck relief. For example, Paul Reid Smith Guitars recommends fretting the 1st fret and the last fret, then measuring from the top of the 8th fret.
For most guitars, the truss rod affects the area from the 1st to the 13th fret, so the measurement is commonly made using the 1st & 12th fret.
Try the different methods and see which one works best for you. I rather like the way PRS recommends doing it, and often, I’ll use their method to get the neck close to the desired adjustment.
It’s something that you’ll eventually get a feel for when your relief is set correctly, and you won’t have to measure. You’ll know by the way the guitar plays.
Specifics for Gibson Guitars
Here’s what Gibson has to say regarding truss rod adjustment:
“We don’t have any published specs for this. It is whatever setting works best for the guitar to create minimal buzz and good action.”
My own experience suggests that .010 is a good starting point on Gibsons. I use .011 – .052 strings on all of my guitars.
Specifics for Fender Guitars
Fender recommends that you place a capo on at the first fret, and hold down the string at the last fret, then measure the distance between the top of the 8th fret and the bottom of the sixth string.
||Relief at the 8th fret
|9.5″ – 12.0″||.010″|
|15.0″ – 17.0″||.008″|
Adjust the bridge for proper string height and action
String height measurement is taken from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of the string, generally with a small metal ruler. As a starting point, the following heights are factory recommendations.
Specifics for Gibson Guitars – measurement is made at the 12th fret
|Height – bass side||Height – treble side|
Specifics for Fender guitars – measurement is made at the 14th fret
||Height – bass side
||Height – treble side
|9.5″ – 12.0″||4/64″||4/64″|
|15.0″ – 17.0″||4/64″||3/64″|
The height of the string is generally adjusted by turning small Allen head screws in the individual string saddles or by adjusting the treble and bass side of the bridge.
A 64th of an inch seems like a small amount, but when you’re talking overall string heights of 3/64 to 5/64, a 64th is a significant change!
In general, the rule is that as you go from the high to low strings, there should be a gradual increase in height. If you have a fairly radiused fretboard, your strings should follow the radius of the fretboard.
If your string height is seriously out of whack, start by adjusting the thumbwheels on the bridge if you have a Gibson Tune-A-Matic style bridge to bring it within the ballpark. Then make the fine adjustments using the individual string saddles.
If it’s pretty close, to begin with, you should be able to make all the adjustments by just tweaking the string saddles. Turning the screws clockwise will raise the saddle, counter-clockwise will lower it.
If you have any high frets or problems with your fretboard, you may not be able to achieve the optimum specifications without first having the issue resolved properly.
Adjust the height of the pickups properly
After adjusting the action and string height, it’s a good idea to adjust the size of the pickups. If the pickups are too close to the strings, the magnetic field can affect the intonation, especially with single-coil pickups, and cause undesirable distortion.
Besides, a pickup that’s too close to the strings can kill your sustain since the strong magnetic field will cause the string to stop vibrating prematurely.
Always check the height of the pickup while fretting the string at the highest (last) fret. Measure from the top of the pickup to the bottom of the string. You can also use the pickup height adjustment to balance the volume and tone of your pickups.
For example, if there’s too much bottom end, you can lower the pickup’s bass side a bit more to lessen the low end. If you have too much treble, you can reduce the treble side, and you need to experiment to find the perfect setting.
If you set both pickups to the same height, the neck pickup will always be louder than the bridge pickup. You can balance this by setting the neck pickup a little lower than the bridge pickup. Also, when you have both pickups selected simultaneously, you can adjust the tone by changing the heights of the two pickups so that the mix is more balanced.
What it comes down to is the personal preference in tone and output. The specs put forth by the manufacturers are merely starting points to depart from. They’re not ironclad settings.
Suppose you have humbucking pickups with adjustable pole pieces as well – six adjustable screws on top of the pickup. In that case, you can make fine adjustments for individual strings by tweaking the corresponding screw for a given string.
This is a good way to balance out individual string volumes. You should start with all-pole pieces screwed down flat against the pickup and make necessary adjustments from there.
Considerations for Single Coil pickups
If you work on single-coil pickups, you need to keep the heights lower than humbuckers because the magnets are typically much stronger.
Before beginning a setup, make sure that the pickups are not too close to the strings, or you’ll get misleading string buzzes and intonation problems. The magnet’s influence is much stronger on the bass side of the pickup due to the mass of the bass strings, so in general, the bass side of the pickup should be lower than the treble side.
It will take some experimentation to arrive at the perfect balance of tone and volume while still maintaining accurate intonation. Remember, the strong magnets used in single-coil pickups can cause sharp intonation if they are positioned too close to the strings.
After you make adjustments, check the tone of your guitar each time and keep fine-tuning it. It may take a while before you arrive at the perfect mix for your preference, but it is achievable.
If you get a harsh type of distortion from your guitar, try lowering the pickups a bit to yield a creamier, more natural kind of distortion. The key here is to experiment.
Specifics for Gibson Guitars
|3/32″ on bass and treble side||1/16″ on bass and treble side|
Specifics for Fender Guitars
|Lace sensors||as close as desired||as close as desired|
Adjust the intonation for accuracy
If you have an adjustable bridge, the final step is to adjust the tone.
Intonation refers to whether or not a note plays sharp or flat from its intended sound. When you depress a string, you stretch it a bit beyond its unfretted position.
This generates a slight sharpness in pitch, which is compensated for by adding a slight excess of string length.
To check intonation on a given string:
- Play the harmonic at the 12th fret, listen carefully to the resultant pitch
- Now play the same note by fretting the note at the 12th fret. The two letters should match precisely if the intonation is correct.
- If the fretted note sounds sharp, adjust the bridge saddle to move back away from the fingerboard.
- If the fretted note sounds flat, then adjust the bridge saddle to move towards the fretboard.
The adjustment depends on your skill and the accuracy of your ear in determining the pitch between the two notes. Always adjust the saddle in small increments so you can fine-tune the intonation. If you cannot get the intonation accurate, bring it to a qualified repair person to determine if you have other problems.
You can also use an accurate tuner to set your intonation rather than doing so by ear. This will typically yield more accurate results. It’s best to use a tuner with an analog-style needle display or a strobe tuner, which is highly reliable. Thanks to J. Grant Boling for this helpful hint.
One problem I’ve seen several times is where a guitar’s intonation is set correctly, but notes fretted between the 1st and 5th fret sound sharp regardless. This is almost always since the nut slots are cut too high. The extra distance required to push the string to the fret is causing the note to be sharp. Take the guitar in and have the nut appropriately regulated to resolve this problem.
Electric Guitar Tune Tips
By no means is this an all-encompassing list, but it’s a good start for the minor tasks that you can carry out yourself.
If you’ve never done it before, I recommend that you first bring your guitar to an experienced luthier and have them check and repair the following items as needed. Even if it’s a brand new guitar, you’d be amazed at the difference this can make:
- Regulate The Nut. This ensures that the strings are the proper height at the first fret. If they’re too high, you may experience a slight degree of sharpness in the lower fret region. This is because the string has to travel too much distance when you depress a note at the first fret. Not only that, but you will also find it tiresome to play in the lower fret region as well. Most guitars do not come with a properly regulated nut. This is a must-do.
- Check For High And Low Frets. Level the frets as needed. Any time frets are leveled, they’ll need to be re-crowned to ensure accurate intonation.
- Check for loose frets, and re-glue any that are found.
- Have the frets polished. This will give them a smooth, silky feel.