This article aims to go over a procedure which will allow the purchaser of a new or used guitar to get the most out of their new instrument. Everything from cleaning the guitar to making action adjustments will be discussed.
So you've gone out and bought yourself a new guitar. Okay maybe it's not new in the sense that it's straight from the factory, but it's new to you isn't it? Maybe you bought if offline and haven't played it yet. Maybe you liked the feel of the neck and the body in your hands but it probably just isn't quite perfect in one way or another. New guitars sometimes have loose tuners, snagging nuts, high action. Used guitars sometimes have rusty hardware, a dirty finish, and the previously noted brand new guitar problems. Here are a few basic things you can do entirely on your own (with a little knowledge to be provided here) to ensure you get your guitar in the best shape possible.
1) Cleaning The Finish: (If you're guitar is brand new you can skip this part) Everyone wonders what materials they should use to clean their guitar's finish. Here are the basic things you'll need.
Cotton Cloths: Most fabrics are too coarse for delicate guitar finishes. 100% cotton is the safest thing you can use on your guitar. If you don't have any old cotton t-shirts lying around you can always go out and buy the material at a fabric store. If you do have old t-shirts avoid anything but solid plain colored t's. Sometimes the material used to print graphics onto t's can scratch your guitar.
Naptha (Lighter fluid): This is an excellent way to remove grease and built up dirt on basically every part of the guitar. It's safe on the finish, the fingerboard, the bridge, etc. Naptha will probably leave haze on the guitar, but a wipe with a dry rag or the use of a polishing compound will get this out later.
Polish: Any polishing compound packaged and sold by guitar companies and intended for use on guitars will due. Beware however, as some guitar companies make polish not safe for use on vintage guitar finishes which aren't lacquer like most modern guitars. After using the lighter fluid a bit of this will bring the guitar back into shine.
Swirl Remover: Once again any swirl remover will due. This removes any potential swirls (go figure) that could be left on your guitar from the previous cleaning materials. This is where that mirror finish comes out!
Steel Wool #0000: Steel Wool is a great way to shine up those frets and clean out the dirt that gathers on either side of the frets. Pinch a bit between your fingers over each fret and give it a few rubs. The dirt around the fret should be easily removed and the fret should shine right up! Can be found at your local hardware store in the paint section.
Lemon oil: A lot of people have different ideas about what lemon oil is and how it is used. Some use it to clean guitar finishes, others claim it can ruin your finish by seeping below it and into the wood deadening your guitars natural tone. Whatever the case may be, I feel Lemon oil is best used to keep Rosewood and Ebony fretboards from drying and being damaged. Use a bit of this on your fretboard and let it sit for about 5 minutes. Your fretboard will be kept nice and healthy and will look great as well!
Now that you've cleaned your guitar up you'll probably want to swap out the strings already on it for your preferred gauge and brand. Here are a few things you should do while swapping out those strings and after you do so.
2) Check those tuners
Loose tuners are never good. If the screws seem loose on the back of the headstock tighten them up a bit. Don't torque them too hard as you could strip the head of the screw trying to get them out later. Just get them snug enough to stay in place. Also check the nuts on the face of the headstock around the shaft of the tuner. They probably won't seem loose with the strings on and tuned to pitch, but this is because of the pressure of the string preventing the shaft from rocking in place and revealing the loose nut.
3) Put on those strings correctly!
Poorly installed strings can lead to tuning issues which are always a bother.
I recommend sending the string through the tuner hole from the inside of the headstock to the outside, wrapping it back towards the inside of the headstock under the string portion passed through the hole, then bending the string over itself. Hold this in place while using a string winder tool to tighten the string. If done correctly the string will literally lock itself into place due to the pressure of the string on the little hook you have made when passing the string over itself in that last step. If you are having difficulty understanding this do a google search and you should come up with a detailed description of this method somewhere. Also keep in mind the angle of the string from the nut to the tuner does affect tuning stability. Too steep of an angle could cause the string to snag in the nut, and too shallow of an angle could cause the string to pop out of the nut.
4) Now tune up those strings and listen carefully...
Do you hear any creaking sounds? If so this is probably the string getting caught in the nut. Most factory cut nuts are cut for gauge 09-42 strings. Since many people don't use these strings, the heavier strings people commonly use get caught in the nut. The easiest way to resolve this issue is by putting some graphite in the nut slots. Graphite is a lubricant which won't corrode the strings and will prevent nut snag. What type? Well if you can make a run to the hardware store and get some lock de-icer in the lock section that is my preferred graphite product. This is nothing more than liquid graphite. Pour some of this into the slots of your nut and let it soak into it's pores. Another less effective method is to take a pencil and color in the inside of the nut slots.
Now for the crucial part...
5) Setting the action: Trust rod and bridge adjustments.
First things first. Play every single note on that fretboard to check for buzzing. If you have some and would like to work it out or your action is not satisfactory then you may proceed. If the action is set well and your fretboard doesn't have any major buzzing problems leave it be.
Truss rod: The truss rod is a steel rod extending from one end of your neck to the other inside of the neck itself. It's purpose is simple. To counteract the pull of the strings on the headstock. Without the truss rod the neck would warp very easily and could potentially snap if placed under enough pressure. You adjust the truss rod by first locating the nut used to adjust it. On many guitars it is found right above the string nut on the headstock. Sometimes it is hid under a plate held in by a couple screws. Once you locate it you will need an allen key of a particular size to adjust it. Using a set of allen keys, either SAE (Standard of American Engineers) or metric, find a key which fits snuggly in that nut. Now that you know which one to use set it aside.
(Tune your guitar to pitch. It must be in tune to work out truss rod issues)
First we have to check to see if the rod needs adjustment in first place. Place a Capo on the first fret of the guitar and fret the last fret on the guitars fretboard as well. Then use either a feeler gauge or another preferred measuring tool check to see the string distance away from the 7th fret. If it is between .01mm and .03mm you should be good. If it is higher you need to make a 1/4 turn on your truss rod clock wise. This tightens the truss rod and puts more tension on the neck to counter the string pull. If it is lower you need to make a 1/4 turn counter-clock wise. This loosens the truss rod and puts more relief on the neck. After making a single 1/4 adjustment allow the guitar to sit for a while. Maybe ten minutes. Then come back, tune your guitar to pitch and remeasure. Repeat these steps until the distance from the 7th fret to the string while fretting the first and last fret is between .01mm and .03mm. Once this is done your neck is properly adjusted.
Bridge adjustments: Now that you have set your truss rod here is where the actual action setting begins. While the truss rod does play a role in setting the action the bridge is where the real work gets done. First replay all those notes on the fretboard again. If there is no buzzing great! You can now begin to either lower or heighten the bridge saddles or bridge itself to change the string height or "action." On a tune-o-matic bridge you do this by raising or lowering the poles found on either end of the bridge by using a flat head screw driver (or an allen key for some units). On a fender style bridge or a different tremolo system you use an allen key to adjust the individual saddles and set the individual string height. Here it is mostly about preference. Just remember to make small adjustments, re tune, check for buzzing, and then continue making modifications.
Great now you're done! If you follow the advice here and take your time you will surely have made a positive improvement to your axe. I hope this is useful to the audience and I hope I haven't overlapped any other articles on here. I simply aimed to make a single article detailing a simple set up of a newly purchased axe. Enjoy!