Guitar Setup, Pt. 2: How?
Alright, so here’s the nitty-gritty, in the same order as Part 1. Assuming you’ve read Part 1 on the Lingo of Guitar Setups (you did read Part 1, didn’t you?) or are already comfortable with all the terms, here are some suggestions on how to get the most from your guitar. Pardon the tongue-in-cheek…
Keep in mind, there’s no single right way to set up your guitar. Many great luthiers and players have specific things they like to do that differ radically from each other. That doesn’t mean one is more “right” than another. What we’re providing here is a general suggestion that seems to work across the board on all guitars, for players of all styles.
Overall Guitar Setup - Again, this is the generic setup for overall playability. Decide if you want to shred some metal or play slide. Then get to it! Your first choice to make: What gauge strings are you going to use? Your setup will begin with the string gauge and tuning you choose to use.
Factory Setup - You can do better. You deserve better. (See Part 1).
Action - Higher action is better for slide, or for blues and funk rhythm. Lower is better for a light touch, preferred by shredders and some jazzers. This is measured in thousandths-of-an-inch. For example, Joe Satriani’s guitar tech claims Joe likes “sixty-four thousandths” across all strings, or .064”. Generally, you can get your guitar somewhere between .060” and .070”. You can eyeball that gap, roughly speaking, if you picture two electric guitar A-strings, or two acoustic guitar D-strings stacked on top of each other. Often, a factory setup is over .080”, which is extra high. Everything you do to your guitar affects the action, so read on to see how.
Neck Relief & the Truss Rod - Most guitars have a truss rod adjustment as an accessible Allen wrench in the headstock (most electrics) or at the base of the neck joint inside the guitar (peek inside the sound hole of an acoustic, just underneath the end of the fretboard). This is righty-tighty, lefty-loosey. Tighter pulls the headstock back and “flattens” the neck. Looser gives way to the strings, and causes more curve (“relief”). Measure the relief this way: use your finger or a capo on the 1st fret, 6th string (play an F note). Then, look where the neck meets the body (on acoustics it’s the 12th or 14th fret, on electrics it’s somewhere around the 15th or 17th fet). Push the 6th string down on that fret at the same time as you fret the 1st fret note, and look at the gap between the string and the 7th fret. What you’re doing here is taking the nut and the bridge out of the equation and just looking at the curve of the neck/fretboard. This measurement can be super low. Again, to eyeball it, you can picture your first string barely sliding under the gap. Low relief can be .004”-.008”. Higher can be .008”-.012” or more. Less relief = lower action, but if it’s too low, you’ll get more string buzz. More relief gives you higher action and less chance for buzz.
Intonation - On acoustic guitars, you can’t adjust the placement of the saddle. But on most electric guitars, each string has it’s own adjustable saddle. To adjust intonation, you use the screw(s) that move the saddle laterally across the bridge, getting it closer to or farther from the pickups. First, check the current intonation. Tune your guitar to whatever tuning you’re going to use most often. Get it perfectly in tune with the string open. Then, fret the 12th fret and see what the tuner says. Essentially, you’re checking the tuning as the string is at full length and comparing it to the string at half length. If the string is in tune when open, but sharp when on the 12th fret, the string is getting shorter too fast as you move up the fretboard. Move the saddle away from the pickups to make the string longer. If the note is in tune when open but flat when on the 12th fret, it’s too long. Shorten it by moving the saddle closer to the pickups. Because the tension on a set of strings is not perfectly consistent for all 6 strings, each saddle will be in a slightly different place.
Optimizing the Nut Height - This is something a luthier with a good set of nut files should do. Most of us don’t have those, so here’s a quick test to see if your nut slots are too high: press each string down onto the second fret, and check the space between the string and the first fret. This shows you how high the nut is holding string. The measurement should be somewhere between .020” and .030”, so you should be able to fit your 3rd string under the gap. Too low, and you’ll buzz open strings against frets. Too high, and it throws off your intonation, as well as making it really difficult to play first fret notes. This is where a factory setup can KILL a beginner’s enthusiasm.
Pickup Height - Roughly speaking, the top of the pickup should be about 1/8th of an inch under the strings when they’re fretted on the last fret. So, fret the 6th string on your 21st (or 22nd, or 24th, etc.) fret and raise or lower the pickup on the bass side. Then do the same with the first string for the treble side. Now, about that sweet spot we talked about before. Use your ear. Strum some chords, play some lines, and adjust the pickup, listening for the sweet spot. When will you find it? You’ll “just know” that the guitar sounds better. General cautions are: 1) if the pickups are too far away from the strings, they can sound weak and anemic; 2) too close to the strings and their magnetic pull actually interferes with the strings vibration, killing the sustain of your notes.
Bridge and Saddle Height - On an acoustic, this is adjusted by taking the strings off and sanding the bottom of the saddle to lower it. If you do this yourself, be careful. While bridges are fairly inexpensive to replace, it’s very difficult to file it evenly and keep the bottom flat in the bridge trough. If you don’t get it even, the string vibration won’t transfer evenly to the top, and your tone, volume, and overall coolness go down the drain. If your acoustic has an undersaddle pickup, don’t do this. Getting it even is essential (if the saddle doesn’t touch the pickup, you’ll end up with an entire “dead string”), and you can risk damaging the fragile undersaddle pickup. Not worth it. Take it to a luthier, and make him do the tough job. On an electric, you can adjust overall bridge height, as well as the individual saddle heights. Adjusting the bridge is simple, because you usually only have two posts that adjust the entire bridge. This is the most direct way to adjust string height and action. The saddles are more difficult, because the fretboard is radiused so you have to match the radius of the saddles to the radius of the fretboard. As with nut height, there are special tools that luthiers use for this, and it is recommended to take your guitar to them for saddle adjustments.
High Frets - If your 5th fret rings out clear as a baby bird just born from it’s egg, but your 4th fret sounds like rotten eggs (i.e. it buzzes like crazy, but only on that fret) you probably have a high fret. This is yet another area where there are special luthier tools for measuring and checking for high frets, and the job of actually leveling the frets (called a true and crown) is very labor intensive. Don’t try this at home.
As you can see, a lot can be done to improve the playability and sound of your guitar. As much detail as we’ve covered here, this really only scratches the surface of all the things you could do. However, this is more than enough information to begin educating yourself on the finer points of guitar adjustments.