How to Setup an Electric Guitar

A guitar setup is an essential prerequisite when it comes to getting the most out of your instrument.

Ultimate Guitar
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
  2. Screwdrivers
  3. String Cutters
  4. Straight Edge
  5. Feeler Gauges
  6. Ruler
  7. Capo
  8. Guitar Tuner

Step One - Neck Adjustment

Tools required:
  • Allen Key (or sometimes a screwdriver or nut driver)
  • Straight Edge
  • Capo
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

Tools Required:
  • Ruler
  • Screwdrivers
  • Allen Key
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

Tools Required:
  • Screwdriver
  • Guitar Tuner
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.

Optional Steps

  • Pickup Height Adjustment
  • Nut Height Adjustment

62 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Actually if the neck was completely straight, there would be no gap between the string and the fret. I mean, think rationally. When the neck is straight, all frets are on the same level. And if you pressed down two frets, your string would touch all the frets between the two frets (because all frets are on the same level). So your neck needs to be just a bit bowed so that there's a gap - it's almost straight but not completely straight.
    Pick 'n' Finger
    you forgot, that the nut is higher, than the frets. That makes it work. Simple physics.
    So what? If you push down the first fret, it doesn't matter how high or low your nut is. Same with if you push down the 17th fret, it doesn't matter how high or low your action is. Hard to explain without a picture. But yeah, if you didn't push down the 1st fret, nut would matter.
    I'm sure he meant the bridge.
    Again, it doesn't matter. You can have your action how high or how low you ever want but when you push down the 17th fret, the string height doesn't matter any more. You push down the 17th fret so action doesn't have an impact to notes between 17th and 1st frets. Think about it. It's hard to explain, I would need to post a picture or something. But you can try it by yourself. Set the action to really high or really low. The gap between the 8th fret and string stays the same. You can only affect the gap by adjusting your truss rod. (Again, we have both 17th and 1st fret pushed down - if we didn't, both bridge and nut would matter).
    Now I understood why you commented on my post. You misunderstood my first post. If you read the article, it was talking about pushing down your 1st and 17th frets and I was talking about the gap between the string and the 8th fret when those frets are pushed down at the same time . And you were talking about if the frets weren't pushed down. Of course you are right, the nut and bridge are higher so even with completely straight neck you could play. But you would just get fretbuzz (or you would need to have high action). We were talking about a bit different things. So again, I was talking about the gap between the string and 8th fret when both 1st and 17th fret are pushed down. And if the neck is completely straight, there can be no gap between the 8th fret and string when the 1st and 17th fret are pushed down. Sorry for being unclear with my first post.
    What's wrong with the string touching all of the frets between the two frets you press down?
    you'd either get ridiculous fret buzz or an insanely high action, depending on how you end up setting your bridge height (no relief)
    Ah right, so it's an indication that the neck is set up incorrectly. Damn I got negged heavily, I genuinely wanted to know what was wrong, I wasn't disputing OP.
    Fender custom shop and master builts are all straight-necked. Bridge height determines relief.
    use a 12 inch straght edge, if it warped in those small increments it's something to worry about if not, it's insignificant.
    If you push down the string , would that not create a bow in the string and the highest point off the bow , where your fingers are would touch the fret. You would have to push down on the entire string evenly to touch all frets...
    Unless you're an absolute moron you won't hurt your guitar by adjusting your truss rod. Go slow and carefully and you will be fine. There is no need to stick to 1/8 of a turn or day or whatever. Also this is really just an action adjustment not really a setup.
    Really wouldn't recommend adjusting the truss rod unless you know exactly what your doing. Can hear the snap and the scream as a beginner alters it following this guide XD
    It's not as dangerous as people make it seem to be. I have adjusted my truss rod many times and nothing has happened to the neck. I actually once turned it to the wrong direction and noticed that the fret buzz got worse so I turned it to the another direction and got rid of the buzz. You just need to be a bit careful with it and not turn it more than 1/4 of a turn at the time. Sometimes it's the only way to get rid of the fretbuzz (unless you want to have a really high action). If the fretbuzz only occurs on the lower frets, truss rod is what you should adjust. But if it's on the higher frets, you may have too low action. But yeah, when you adjust the truss rod, I would suggest watching some tutorial videos first. And it's good to know how to do it by yourself. Though on some guitars (like my Charvel) you need to take the neck off before you can adjust the truss rod. If you have one of these guitars, then I wouldn't maybe do it by myself.
    I've adjusted the truss rod to perfection on both my high dollar guitars (Gibson Les Paul and Taylor 314ce) and I have also had them setup by a professional at other times. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to perfect string tension, the absolute key is adjusting in small increments and not turning the truss rod several rotations (snap!)
    I completely agree. It's just that some experienced guitarists may get carried away if they begin to adjust the truss rod a lot. As long as they have some understanding on what to do beforehand, they'll be good.
    Absolutely correct. Don't do any adjustments with the neck unless you have done it before and know what you're doing. Take it to a repair shop if you know this is the issue, they probably won't charge you much for doing it anyways. Most guitar's won't even need a neck adjustment out of the box.
    If you follow the instructions of 'make small adjustments', in many cases the results will be beneficial. I did the same thing to a guitar years ago for the first time and it turned out just fine. Now, I've adjusted practically all of the guitars own and I have not ONE horror story (they're not cheapies, so that really helps). The point is, truss rod adjustments should not be as feared as some people make them out to be. The important part is KNOWING you have to make a truss rod adjustment. You have to learn at some point, right? If not now, when?
    That all depends on the guitar and where the factory is located in comparison to where it's being shipped. Heat and humidity change can take a heavy toll on a stringed instrument. Plus the quality control of the factory and make of the instrument. There are a ton of factors involved. I wouldn't go as far as to say most don't need neck adjustments. I'd actually say most could use either a little relief or back bow after they've settled into their environment. I do however completely agree that you shouldn't adjust it unless it's a cheap guitar to practice on or you've done it before and know what you're doing. If not than bring it to a pro, it'll be worth it.
    to make truss rod adjustments, all you need is to not be careless. guitars don't break so easily, at least nowadays.
    First time I ever adjusted a truss rod was on my Fender bass and it went fine. Although I did a half turn in one go which I probably shouldn't have done. But it worked, I was getting so much fret buzz before it was near unplayable, now it plays great.
    Yup, truss rod adjustment isn't really an issue. Just remember that the guitar is a machine like any other. There are plenty of videos and websites detailing rod adjustment, setup, string height, fret buzz, neck relief etc. Take your time, read up on whatever problem you have and examine your guitar to ensure that the problem you think you have, is the problem you actually have. I've been repairing and setting up mine and friends guitars for a couple of years now, both acoustics and electrics and have yet to encounter a problem that I couldn't solve with a bit of thought and a sensible examination of the instrument.
    It's not that scary to set up a guitar. You set your guitar the way you want, if it feels good to you, then it's a good set up for you. Everyone has a different "feel" for guitars. Just be careful that you don't ruin or break your guitar.
    I have a GP Steinberger, and the neck has never been adjusted(no need to). When you have a guitar designed with efficiency and ergonomics in mind you wonder why almost all other guitar companies haven't researched in these fields and produced guitars that never go out of tune, with quality hardware which almost never fails, with full accesibility to all frets, easy to play sitting and standing, with necks that never change, etc... We could have Les Pauls and Stratos with necks that wouldn't warp, they wouldn't go out of tune, etc... Every other technology evolves, but guitar wise we use the same dated and inefficient equipment that we used 60 years ago. Les Paul himself saw the benefits of a headless design 50 years ago, but as always, true visionaries are ahead of their time.
    Because they're ugly as sin
    The look of guitar has nothing to do with whether it's a good guitar or not. Look at Bo Diddley's guitar; it's just a rectangle, but it's a great guitar.
    I didn't say that it wasn't a good guitar, but I'd say at least half of the market bases the majority of their guitar buying decision on looks
    I don't talk about using Steinbergers, but to take advantage of that technology to produce better instruments. Be it the shape of a Les Paul, a Stratocaster or whatever...
    finally somone who doesnt think setting up ur own guitar is straight out of a horror movie! but b careful...
    I think you have a typo there - you say 0.1" but it should be 0.01" for adjusting the neck.
    I don't think this is really accurate... I gave it a try and my strat end up worse than it was... And that's a lot to say!
    Anybody know which is a more reliable technique for setting intonation. I tune up to a harmonic on the 12th fret, and then I fret the 12th, and make adjustments from there. I was taught this way, but wondering if there are more accuracies in the opposing way or just a preference thing?
    Yeah, the article has that wrong. Yours is the correct way for intonation setup. When correcting the intonation, you are actually not trying to get the same note from the harmonic at the 12th fret as the open string: you are trying to get the same note on the 12th fret as the open string. The best way to do it is to match the fretted 12th with the harmonic at the 12th. All this is caused by the physics of the string. When you fret, you increase the tension of the string. So, at 12th fret you're half way on the scale and the string should be resonating at twice the speed (as is the case with the harmonic at the 12th). But as the string tension is slightly increased by your finger tip pressing it down by 1.5-2mm, it resonates slightly faster, hence the note is slightly off. This is called an incorrect intonation. By the way, correcting the intonation at the 12th fret does not mean the guitar's intonation is correct at all frets. Due to the design of the fretboard, it's correct only at open string and the 12th fret. Lower frets are slightly flatter than they should be and higher frets slightly sharper. There exists strange fretboard designs that produce correct intonation at every fret, but they are not in widespread use. And rightly so, because, we don't need correct intonation on every single fret. We mostly bend the notes anyway.
    I've been setting guitars up for years, and while this guide is along the right track - its not that straight forward. I've had many broken truss' brought to me, many bent necks and action/ intonation all over the place. Best tip - if you cant afford to get it done professionally, MAKE THE SMALLEST OF ADJUSTMENTS.
    Do some these rules apply for an tuba? also; how does one measure a quarter of a millimeter?
    Ill get torn to shreds for this but i just get mines done by a pro every so often.New strings,intonation,cleaned,action adjusted,truss rod adjusted all for roughly 40.The strings alone would be about 6-8 as they were D'addarios. I just didnt want to mess it up and i dont mind admitting its a bit daunting messing with a truss rod.
    We all have a level of comfort that you shouldn't cross. I will say, that it is very fun to take a nice guitar and reset it, then have a friend tell you that it plays like butter.
    Even when loosening the truss rod for neck relief you should slightly tighten the nut at first to get a feel of how much tension it is under and, if necessary, unstick the threads. If you just start by just loosening it you have no feel for how much tension the truss rod currently is under. Nor do you want to think you are loosening a tight nut only to find it suddenly pop because it was stuck.
    Interesting article. I noticed that you don't recommend looking at the string radius. This luthier suggests that you should adjust or check the radius of you strings. Should we be worried out this?
    We should. The fretboard is curved, the saddles on the bridge should mimic that. That is, the D and G strings in the middle should be higher than the A and B strings, which should be higher that the Es. The strings' curve should match the neck's curve. Think of it as concentric circles, with the strings' curve radius at neck's curve radius + 2mm. The trick is, the curves should not be concentric: strings' curve's center should be offset so that the wound strings are higher (as they resonate wider in magnitude) to avoid fret-buzz. So ideally, the two curves should not be parallel but on a converging path like the tip of a crescent.
    Which is exactly why acoustic guitars and gibson-style setups have a bridge that is curved like the "tip of a crescent".
    Thanks much! This definitely helped clear up the process. Now, I just need to find a standard "feeler gauge."
    I recommend Dan Erlewine's Guitar Repair book. It's fairly cheap and will take you through setups and any repairs you need, from simple through the most advanced stuff
    I've been doing the setup on my instruments and my friends' for a while now, whenever I tell someone how to adjust the truss rod I tell them 1/8th turn at a time, but only do it once a day. Gives the neck time to bend with the truss rod without the risk of them over tightening it and breaking it.
    I personally slacken my strings, adjust the truss rod, the re-tune to check the tension, relief, and play-ability. There's really no need to only limit this adjustment to once a day as you guitar's neck does not need to "rest." Adjust until you're satisfied.
    I was under the impression that you should always adjust the truss rod while tuned so that you're dealing with the same amount of tension at all times.
    I think you meant 0.01 inches, not 0.10; but the 0.25mm is correct. Although if you're heavy handed and do a lot of rhythm playing around the 1st-3rd frets you may need more relief to avoid fret buzz.
    Here in Arizona ill adjust the neck twice a year. When the weather heats up the neck tend to straighten out causing buzz. When it cools down the neck gets under bow for higher action than I like. Ill only give it a quarter to a half turn either way as long as your careful adjusting the truss rod not rocket science. just give it baby turns and don't force it.
    What a "good" or "great" setup actually is varies greatly between different players. Some play with low action, others with surprisingly high. It's as true for the bedroom players as for the professionals. Good article on how to do a setup, except for that you'd want a little bit of relief at least - some like more than others, and it also depends on the guitar. Some older Fenders with the 7,25'' radius needs higher action due to notes easier fretting out while you bend. String height (action) varies greatly between instruments and players. Manufacturers often specify a recommended measurement in their manuals, but that is just their recommendation. In the end - if it feels and sounds good to you - it is probably a good setup.
    I'm simply too scared to do things like a truss rod adjustment myself... my local guitar shop will do a full setup for you and install new strings (not that that parts hard to do yourself at all, but them doing it saves you time) for like $30. I'd rather pay that, have an expert that knows what he is doing do it... plus if something goes wrong, its on them to repair/replace. If I screw it up... well I'm screwed.
    "The gap should be approximately 0.10inches or 0.25mm between the string and the top of the 8th fret." This is incorrect. 0.25 mm is 0.01 inches, not 0.10 inches.