A guitar setup is an essential prerequisite when it comes to getting the most out of your instrument. A factory setup guitar is likely to have general playability issues and intonation problems, which can make playing the guitar impossible since it is always out of tune. Having your instrument set up involves adjusting the hardware of a guitar and fine tuning the instrument so that these obstacles are removed. To complete a basic setup you will need to adjust the neck, string height and saddle position.
Tools Required for Electric Guitar Setup:
1) Allen Key
3) String Cutters
4) Straight Edge
5) Feeler Gauges
7) Guitar Tuner
Step One - Neck Adjustment
Allen Key (or sometimes a screwdriver or nut driver)
The first step of any guitar Setup will always be to check whether the neck is straight or not. If the neck is not straight, then it will need to be adjusted via the truss rod.
The truss rod is a rod of metal running through the centre of the neck and tightening or loosening this rod will determine the bow of the neck. What this means is that you can manually flex the rod in either direction in order to achieve a straight neck.
The truss rod is usually adjusted from the top of the neck - where the headstock meets the neck. Some models may be adjusted from the base of the neck, meaning that you will have to remove the neck in order to make your adjustments.
Checking the bow of the neck:
Version 1: If you have a Straight Edge, you can place this along the neck.
Version 2: Place a Capo on fret 1 then press the string on fret 17.
At this point, If you have them use your feeler gauges to measure the gap between the string and the fret at fret 8. If you do not have these then you can try to use a ruler or your best guess. The gap should be approximately 0.10inches or 0.25mm between the string and the top of the 8th fret.
If the gap is less than 0.25mm you will need to loosen the truss rod by turning it counter-clockwise.
If the gap is more than 0.25mm you will need to tighten the truss rod by turning it clockwise.
Tip: Loosen the rod a little bit first. When making adjustments make small turns - up to one quarter turns maximum at a time. Always use caution when adjusting the truss rod! If you have difficulty or notice stiffness when making your adjustments, you may be better off taking it to a professional luthier instead of risking damage to your instrument by forcing the truss rod.
Result: The result of your actions should be a setup neck, straight with no curve or bow along its length. It is incredibly important to get this right early on as if you need to adjust it again later then you will have to repeat all the steps that follow this.
Step Two - String Height
Now that you have set your neck straight, you will want to check your string height. It is important that you set your string height correctly now, as any changes made at the end of the step up will require you to correct the tone a second time.
To setup the string height you will place a Capo on fret 1 and then use the Ruler to measure the gap between the strings and the frets at fret 12.
You may use your personal preference when setting string height, however there is an widely accepted measurement of 1.2mm-1.6mm gap from the fret to the string.
Adjusting the string height is done via the saddles on a Fender style guitar bridge or by adjusting the entire bridge on a Gibson style bridge.
Step Three - Intonation
The final step of setting up an electric guitar is adjusting the intonation. This entails changing the length of each individual string by moving the saddles on the guitar bridge backwards or forwards. The aim is to make the a harmonic at fret 12. I.e. the note will be the exact same pitch as when the string is played open (but an octave higher).
Plug in your guitar tuner and tune the instrument so that it is at the correct pitch when played open. Once done:
Play the low E string open and then fretted at fret 12.
- If the note is flat you will need to move the saddle forward towards the neck, shortening the string.
- If the note is sharp you will need to move the saddle backward away from the neck, so that the string is lengthened.
On a Fender style bridge, the screws to adjust the saddles are at the back of the bridge.
On a Gibson style bridge, the screws to adjust the saddles are accessed from the front of the bridge beneath the strings.
Once the length of your strings have been adjusted, the notes played at the 12th Fret and the notes played unfretted ought to be the same. I.e. an E string played open is also an E note when the same string is played with the 12th fret depressed.
At this stage you can give yourself a pat on the back as you will have successfully completed all the steps required for a basic guitar setup. When it comes to setting up an instrument you can gain a gain sense of satisfaction from undertaking your own setup, but if you do run into difficulties then always take it to a professional.
See the following additional suggestions for a more advanced/comprehensive guitar setup.
Pickup Height Adjustment
Nut Height Adjustment