How to Set up a Guitar?

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How do I set up my guitar?

Getting to know your guitar better is a wonderful thing and will help you out in the long run. Here is a step-by-step procedure for an easy, do-it-yourself set-up. Just as with every project, the first thing you will need is a good set of tools. Make sure you have the following:

  • new set of strings (ones that you plan on using regularly)
  • electronic tuner
  • metal yardstick or long straight edge
  • wire cutters
  • capo
  • Allen key (1/4" or 5/16") or nut driver
  • small ruler 1/16" Increments
  • automotive feeler gauges (.002-025)

Step 1. Changing Your Strings

It is very important to change your strings on a regular basis, and when you do it is equally important to always use the same gauge strings (the thickness of your string will affect fret buzz). String gauge is a personal preference. Most solid body guitars come with light gauge strings from the factory (.009-.042). Most jazz guitarists prefer a little thicker gauge (.010-.046). Of course, Stevie Ray used (.013-.056), so you really should try playing on different gauges until you find the strength you like. As the strings get thicker, tone improves, but they get harder to bend.

OK, let’s string up the guitar:

This technique is designed for guitars without locking nuts (the devices that lock down strings, usually on floyd rose systems). Starting with the low E string first, take the string and run it through the bottom of the tailpiece over the saddle and up the neck through the tuning post. Then, take your hand and hold it under the string to create a small amount of slack, and thread your string through the post so that it faces up away from your guitar. Bend the string in toward the middle of the guitar and wrap it under itself, and pull out towards you. Take the string and pull it back over itself and twist around the post. This technique is called the in, under, over, and around technique. Now tighten up your string and stretch it out to prevent it from going out of tune

Step 2: Checking the Straightness of the Neck

There will hopefully come a time when you should be able to look down the neck of your guitar and eyeball its curve. However, at this time we will us a little assistance from our friendly straight-edge ruler. Run your ruler along the length of the guitar, resting it on the frets (not the strings). Do this on both sides to make sure your neck is not twisted. You want your neck to have an ever so slight curve inwards. Guitar engineers refer to this curve as giving your neck some "relief." You should have a very slight gap between your neck and your straight edge. If your neck curves away from the strings you may have a problem and you should take it to an authorized repair shop to have it checked out.

Step 3: Adjusting the Truss Rod

First, remove the truss rod cover, usually located at the top of the neck (but sometimes at the bottom). Adjusting the truss rod is a very delicate task - make sure you only turn it a quarter turn at a time (baby steps). Take your capo and place it over the first fret. Now hold down the lowest string at the last fret. With your feeler gauge check the distance between the string and the 8th fret. The measurement should be approximately .010". If this measurement is greater than .010" you will have to tighten your truss rod by turning the Allen wrench clockwise (this will pull the string closer to the guitar). If your neck is too convex, you will have to turn your Allen wrench counter clockwise (this will raise the strings). When making this adjustment take your time and only turn it a quarter of a turn at a time. Then let your guitar settle for a bit and retune it. Remember that it can take a guitar a little time to adjust to the new changes. The most important part about this step is to not overdo it. Some guitars require an adjustment one or twice a year if they are exposed to changes in the weather.

Step 4: Setting Your Intonation.

Setting your intonation is a very important part of playing in tune. Your guitar may be in tune on the first 12 frets, but when you get past the 12th fret and strike a chord it may sound terrible. If this occurs, you will know that you need to set your intonation. To do this, you will need to have a bridge that has adjustable saddles. Usually there will be screws on the bottom of the bridge that adjust the saddles forward or back, away from the top of the guitar. Take your tuner and plug it in. Start on the low E string and check the 12th fret harmonic (the note just above the fret), and the actual twelve fret E note. These should be the same. If they are not you will need to adjust the distance. If the twelfth fret tone is higher than natural octave overtone, then lengthen the string by moving the saddle back towards the tailpiece. If the twelfth fret tone is lower than the octave overtone, then you will have to shorten the string length and move the saddle up toward the top of the guitar. Repeat this step for the rest of the strings, and you should have a fairly well intonated guitar. If you are a perfectionist, you can take your guitar into a repair shop that has a strobe tuner for even better accuracy.

Step 5: Adjusting the Height of Your Guitar.

Players with a light touch can usually get away with lower action, while heavy players may need more height to prevent rattles. Start by measuring the distance from the bottom of the string to the first fret. This will help you determine whether the nut slots have been cut to the proper depth. If this measurement does not match up or come close to spec, you should take your guitar in to have this done. The string height at the twelfth fret will determine if your saddle should be raised our lowered. Here are the some standard specifications for electrics.

  • 1st fret treble side - 1/64"
  • 1st fret bass side - 2/64"
  • 12th fret treble side - 3/64"
  • 12th fret bass side - 5/64"

The most important thing is that the string height is comfortable for you and that you do not have any fret buzz. If you have a couple of guitars try these procedures on the least precious one first and then attempt it on your treasure. I hope this helps.

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