How to Set Up Electric Guitar

Here's a little guide on how to set up your guitar just right, dig in!

Ultimate Guitar
Well, an important thing to be able to do is to know how to set up your electric guitar correctly. If a guitar isn't set up correctly, you'll run into a lot of nasty sounding problems. Problems such as not being able to stay in tune, the intonation, fret and string buzzing, action and bridge height, and noisy tones from your pickups. Of course these are some of the problems, but these are the ones we will be talking about today.

Firstly, no matter if the guitar is new, old or straight out of the box, it still needs adjustments to serve you the best. Let's take a look at some of the more important factors to set up your guitar correctly. A good idea would be to make a small scheme of what's to be adjusted. If you're not fully aware of what's to be done then read on, we'll find the problem and fix it.

1. The Truss Rod

The truss rod adjustment will be necessary if the neck of your guitar has been bent or not properly adjusted from the manufacturer. This is not always to be seen with the naked eye, therefore you can use this trick to check if you neck needs adjustment.

Put a capo on the 1st fret, right on top of the 1st fret, then take your finger and put it on the fret where the neck meets the body, that’s usually on the 17th fret, then take a small business card, roughly between 0,1 mm - 0,3 mm, put it in between the neck and the string, around the 8th or 9th fret, see if the business card lightly touches the string of if the business card lifts up the string. If the string lifts up, when the business card is in between the neck and the string, then your truss rod needs adjustment. But, this is only to be done if the business card lifts up the string more than 0,3 mm. If the gap is in between the 0,1 mm - 0,3 mm, no adjustment is needed. Most electric guitars are often made with a slight curve on the neck.

Important: A good idea would be to set up the action, saddle and bridge height first. Read below.

2. Action, Saddle & Bridge Height

The saddle & bridge height is closely combined with the action of your guitar, the height of your strings. If the saddle and bridge is set too low, then the guitar strings won't be able to sustain the tones and the sound of the guitar will sound buzzing and flat. This is where the string height comes in handy, the action. By adjusting the action of your guitar the strings will be able to sustain all tones played on the frets and sound natural and smooth.

Your guitar strings needs to be set at a certain measurement: the low E string at 3/32th, 2,38 mm, and the high e string at 2/32th, 1,57 mm. This is measured at the 12th fret, right on top of the fret and to the bottom of the string. If the string is too high, or too low, then the saddle and bridge needs adjustments. This time you take your screwdriver and turn the two big screws on the bridge and afterwords the two smaller screws on the saddle. By raising those will make the guitar strings able to sound and ring out.

3. Pickup Height

The pickup height is important to check and adjust, this gives you the very best of your pickups. When pickups aren't adjusted correctly the pickup output will be filled with overtones and unpleasant sounds. A way to adjust this is to get your shooting canvas and measure the height of your guitar's pickups. When I did this on my guitar I didn't quite know the right height, but I searched the internet and I found a good height.

The measurement I used was 3/16th, 4,76 mm. This is measured from the top of the pickup to the bottom of the string. This measurement will set your pickups right. Measurement can vary, but this will work for many guitars.

4. Intonation

The intonation is the overall tuning of your guitar's strings. If the intonation isn't set up correctly the guitar won't stay and play in tune.
Every guitar needs intonation adjustments at some point along the way. I would recommend you to check the intonation every time you change your guitar strings. By doing so your guitar will always be at its best.

The way the intonation is set is by doing so: get a tuner, tune all strings to pitch, play the string open, see if it's in pitch, afterward fret the 12th fret of the string you're intonating, and check it's in tune too. Remember, by fretting the 12th fret means that you're an octave higher than the open string. If the string isn't in tune when the 12th fret is fretted, then the string's intonation needs to be properly set. 

Now it's time to get out your screwdriver out, either a flat-headed or a star-shaped one, then you go to the bottom of the bridge and find the little screw matching the string you're adjusting. Then you need to turn the screw 'till the string is in tune. Remember, after every adjustment the string needs to be tuned to pitch again.

Got any questions? Feel free to submit them in the comments section below, I'll be happy to help you out.

23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Great article, but my suggestion to anyone with truss rod issues, take it to a guitar tech. I've seen WAY too many guitars seriously damaged by a ham-fisted approach. Not to say your article doesn't explain it well, it's just something that can go wrong if you don't know what you're doing.
    I've been a guitar tech for probably 4 years now. I've never seen a neck broken by someone cranking on the truss rod. This is such a tall-tale that causes fear that there is no need to have.
    I've done my own adjustments on my PRS and G7bson; you just have to make sure not to use too much pressure and only do a quarter turn at a time.
    Adjusting the truss rod is a rudimentary part of a guitar set up. It should be something people need to know how to adjust, which means that it shouldn't be something to be scared of. Giving people the info they need to know what they're doing is the whole point of the article. Telling the person to take the guitar to a tech defeats the point. All a person needs to know is what size of allen wrench the person must use in their particular instance, how much to adjust it at any one time, to know how much you can adjust it before risking doing damage and how to measure neck relief. With these things in mind, anybody can adjust a truss rod correctly. It isn't something that warrants taking to a tech at all.
    Ive been doing my own truss rod adjustments since i was 16 with no issue and good results. As long as you look into it enough so you're confident you know what you're doing and take it small steps at a time, its hard to mess anything up that badly. I ended getting a terrible guitar from a pawn shop for £20 and used it to practice set ups because if the neck broke i could still sell the rest for spares and i wouldn't have lost much money
    Hi TOODEEPBLUE. Thanks for your input, I see your point, and it sounds good. I would say that anyone could do it, and as you say, anyone with the right information should be able to do it. Thanks!
    Hi Pastafarian96. Thanks for reading and liking my article, I'm glad. Yeah, I see your point, a Truss Rod adjustment can be some tricky stuff to do. Guess I forgot to mention that a prof should do it if there's any doubt from the owner of the guitar. Thanks for your input! :
    Way Cool JR.
    @PedalFreak94 Lots of people may find some of my ways of doing things to be unorthodox. So if you want to save yourself from any kind of scrutiny, just take my input with a grain of salt. You did a fine job with your article and give people a great starting point. If people need to make adjustments to better suit their needs and preferences better, then they can make them as needed. Have a happy new year.
    Paleo Pete
    You do need to let a guitar set overnight after a truss rod adjustment. The wood does not snap into place as soon as you change the truss rod, it takes a while for it to "settle in". Five minutes after you adjust the truss rod it might not show any change at all. That takes several hours, so always let it sit overnight. I've seen truss rods broken, I broke the first one I fooled with. It should also be mentioned that the truss rod has absolutely nothing to do with intonation and very very little to do with action. It is used to set the neck relief only. WHY? The strings vibrate in a pattern similar to a jump rope, wide in the middle of the neck and very little at the bridge and nut. So the strings need room to vibrate in the middle section. Adjusting the neck angle to get lower or higher action is possible on a few guitars, one I have is a Peavey Patriot, Fender used that system on some of their guitars too. If you have t is setup, loosen the screws that hold the neck on a little, adjust the tilt, tighten the neck bolts again. I've never used it, I raised the bridge instead to get my action set, I would suspect it would reduce neck to body contact and affect the transfer of vibrations. If you want to do it by shimming, get some thin veneer from a cabinet shop and cut it to fit the neck pocket, but sanding it to a taper is difficult to do. Another method is to use masking tape, putting layers side by side, thicker on one end than the other by adding more layers on that end. Intonation - Always remember - Sharp is too short.
    Hi there. A good question, my friend. A capo is used to change the pitch of the guitar, that's done without changing the tuning on the guitar. You put the Capo on whatever fret you want and play your normal open chords and bar chords. The sound will change pitch and be higher. Hop this helps
    @PedalFreak94 Can you talk about readjusting the neck angle to achieve an ultra low action and improve the playability of a guitar?
    Hi. on a Fender Strat, is the measurement taken from the highest pole or the actual plastic of the pick-up. This is not clear.
    I take that you're talking about Pickup height now.. Well, sorry for that, let me explain The distance to be measured is from then bottom of the string to the top of the pickup magnet : Hope that clears it for you, mate
    @Way Cool JR. Thanks for any input you have provided, I'm glad! I think it was good info and some advice to consider . Thanks, I try to do my best! Happy new year to you too, mate!
    Also to set up intonation, you should do a harmonic on the 12th fret, and then fret at the 12th.
    You don't have to let the neck settle over night and setting the studs to the same height is also incorrect, that is how you adjust your string height on a floyd rose style trem. If you have any questions feel free to ask me any time, I set up guitars for a living, it´s a great job.
    Way Cool JR.
    I know you don't need to let it set over night, that's why I said to be super safe. But you do need to let it settle in increments and not just go for it all in one go, especially if it's way out of whack. And I have found that 2 point trems (especially FR's) are far more stable with the base/studs set equally on both sides. I have solved many peoples tuning stability issues with that one simple fix. They are not really designed to be at an angle. When you change the angle of the baseplate/knife edges, the studs grooves that the knife edges ride in are still level/parallel. So you end up with the knife edges riding cockeyed in the grooves of the studs. So when you set the action it's best to do it equally on both sides for the base plate is riding level if you want the most stable and best performance out of a Floyd Rose. The saddles are already radiused and should give you good action across the board. If you need to fine tune it (which most people don't) then it's best to shim the saddles. I'v been setting up FR guitars (guitars in general as a side job) for about 25 years. So I have no need for any questions to be answered. I do appreciate the offer though. Have a happy new years
    Way Cool JR.
    There is no set height/measurement for action. As long as it's not to low to buzz, or to high to go out of tune while fretting anywhere on the neck then you are good, anywhere in between is all personal preference. Pickup height is another thing that has no set height/measurement they need to be (besides actives, only to an extent). As long a they aren't to high (passives) to pull the strings out of pitch or shorten sustain while fretting the last fret, then you are good. You can have them as low as you want, flush with the rings/body and they will still be fine. And it will be different from pickup to pickup depending how strong/weak the magnets are and tonal characteristics of the pup. Don't forget they can also be set differently from side to side as well (to accentuate the highs or lows more). It's all down to personal preference. And it sounds like you are only mentioning how to adjust intonation and action on a Fender style 2 point trem. It will be different on a 6 point trem, a Floyd Rose style trem, a TOM and a Fender style fixed bridge. All of these are very common styles of bridges that operate differently in setting action/intonation (more-so the action). So IMO, the only set things for a proper setup on any guitar, is only the neck relief and intonation and of course good level/dressed frets . Action and pickup height is all personal preference, and can change from guitar to guitar. I do agree that everyone should know how to do all their own work on their guitars (setups & electronics). It will save them a lot of time and money. All the money some people pay out to have someone else maintain their guitars could be going to some more gear they are gassing over.
    Way Cool JR.
    I forgot to add that it's also very important to have a Floyd Rose & Fender style 2 point trems to be setup level/parallel to the body. It should be setup that way if it's floating or decked. And it's also very important to have the action/studs adjusted equally on both sides as well. So they should be level from front to back & side to side to work their best. Lots of people make the mistake of having the treble side lower. This causes the knife edges to ride at an angle in the post grooves causing tuning stability problems. Also truss rod adjustments should be done in small increments letting it settle for a day to be super safe. And then check it again and see if it needs anymore and repeat if needed. Also be sure after each adjustment to make sure it's still tuned properly for the tuning your setting it up for. If it's not, re-tune it for the proper tension is on it while it's settling.
    Thanks for reading my article, Way Cool JR, and for pointing out some things! I'm trying to get in touch with UG so I can edit a little on my article : Happy New Year!