Learn How To Set Up A Guitar In 12 Steps

Have you ever wanted to know how to set up a guitar?

Maybe you want to save a bit of cash but found the task daunting. You could always learn yourself and make a few bucks from all your musician friends.

I’ve been playing around with guitars for over 25 years. During this time have taught myself many aspects of guitar setup. This has come about purely through necessity rather than wanting to learn. 

I’m going to share all my knowledge with you in one article.

This guide to guitar setup provides the basic data required enabling you to set up your instruments to your own specifications.

You will need to have a working knowledge of the major components of the guitar. This way you should not find the instructions difficult to follow. 

Study each section very carefully as you must understand the principles and techniques involved before you start work on your guitar.

“The art of correct guitar adjustment lies in one’s ability to be able to appraise the various factors that constitute the playability of an instrument”

My initial advice would be to buy a bargain-basement used guitar, practice your techniques on that before applying your skills to your ‘working’ guitar. 

Let’s go…

Work Area 

Unless you have access to a ready-made workshop, you will need to improvise. Fortunately, guitar setups need minimal space. 

The basic requirements are:

  1. A clean dry area approximately 4ft x 2ft at a comfortable working height.
  2. A power supply.  Modern kitchen worktops are 2ft 3in from the floor, which is a comfortable height if standing up. If you have a clear 4 foot run with a mains socket behind you, you may well find that this is the best place to work. Alternatively, use a kitchen table, but you are generally much lower and would need to sit.

Basic Equipment

Before placing your guitar on the worktop, it needs to be supported under the neck, directly underneath the nut.

A neck support removes pressure from that area and places the guitar into a secure position to work on. 

The neck support can be made from a piece of softwood in the form of a block with a hollow cut out of it. A half-moon shape where the neck can rest.

This hollow shelf should be lined with felt, or similar material, to prevent damage to the finish. A piece of soft material, ideally felt, or an old blanket should also be placed under the body where it touches the worktop.

See our latest post for the tools you’ll need: Must Have Guitar Setup Tools For Repair & Maintenance

Tool Requirements

This is the small collection I’ve built up over the years. It gets me through almost anything.

It is advisable to gather all the tools you think you might need before starting work. 

This will save frustration and delays later. 

The following tools should be considered as minimum requirements. You will no doubt add other suitable tools and gadgets as you become more proficient.

Tool list

  1. A smooth flat Singlecut Mill-File
  2. Set of Feeler Gauges
  3. A set of Needle Files 
  4. Large and small cross head Screwdrivers
  5. A quarter of an inch and 1/8 of an inch Flat Blade Screwdrivers
  6. A Junior Hacksaw blade
  7. Stanley Knife blades
  8. A Smooth File or Gentlemen’s Hacksaw 
  9. A small Steel Rule graduated in 64ths of an inch
  10. A truss rod adjustment key that fits your guitar
  11. 1100-1200 grade Wet or Dry Sandpaper
  12. 360-grade silicon carbide paper
  13. 000 grade Wire Wool
  14. Tube of Super Glue
  15. Adjustable Spanner
  16. Small Pin Hammer
  17. A set of Allen keys to fit the tremolo and lock nut (if fitted)

Soldiering

  • 35-watt Soldering Iron – 
  • Resin Core solder and desoldering braid 
  • Wire Cutters
  • Wire Strippers
  • Screened and Single Core cable
  • A small Multimeter Circuit Testing.

Assessment Procedure. The 12 Steps

Follow the sections in order. The numbered bullet points are then fully explained under the section headed Setup and Data

  1. Tune to pitch A=440 (440hz). Check the condition of strings.
  2. Check the action height at the 12th fret.
  3. Access the neck relief with a visual check from around the headstock down to the neck of the body. By pressing the first string at the first and last fret simultaneously, and measuring the relief at the 7th fret. (Ensure the pickups are lowered at this stage)
  4. Truss rod adjustment if required and retune.
  5. Measure nut height at the first fret.
  6. Set action height and re-tune.
  7. Adjust truss rod and re-tune.
  8. Playing Test – play chromatic scale along each string to identify problem areas. Identify these areas with a small cross in the side of the frets using a soft pencil.
  9. Perform fret dress if required.
  10. Intonation check
  11. Adjust pickup height.
  12. Set up the tremolo, spring, and string tension, etc.

Set-Up and Data

1- Tuning and Strings:

Check the condition of your strings. If damaged or worn, replace them with your usual gauges. Ensure strings are fixed to the machine head posts securely to prevent slippage, and tune to pitch.




2-  Action Height:

Measure the action height on the 1st and 6th strings at the 12th fret. Use a rule graduated in 64ths of an inch. 

My bottom E string is 4/64ths as I use 011 to 052 gauge strings. I like to play an aggressive style on my Telecaster.

Measurement should be taken from the top of the fret to the underside of the string. 

Guitars with bridge saddles are individually adjustable for height, require action measurement on each string. 

Optimum action heights for various styles are as follows;

Rock and Blues Players

Typical string gauges 009 to 042 = action height 3/64ths (1.2 mm) top E and 5/64ths to 2mm bottom E. 

Players with a heavier technique using gauges 010 to 046 = action height 3/64ths (1.2 mm) top E, and 6/64ths (2.4mm)bottom E. This in essence will help eliminate fret buzz. 

Acoustic Steel String Players, 

Styles fall into two main two categories

1) Fingerstyle and solo players are advised to use a light gauge string, typically 011 to 052 = action height 4/64ths (1.6 mm) top E and 6/64ths to (2.4mm) bottom E.

2) Plectrum and thumb picking players are advised to use medium to light gauge strings, typically 013 to 056 = action height of 4/64ths (1.6 mm) and 7/64ths to (2.8mm)

Classical Guitar Players 

Classical Guitarists are advised to use either medium or high tension strings, depending on their suitability to the instrument. 

Typical action heights are 6/64ths (2.4 mm) top E and 8/64ths (3.2 mm) bottom E or higher. 

(1/64th = 0.4 mm)




3- Neck Relief 

A certain amount of neck relief is required to allow clearance for string vibration. Relief can be assessed in two ways;

  1. By sighting down the neck from the headstock along the line of the two E strings. A slight ‘bowing’ of the neck should be apparent on both sides. A hollow relief will appear concave in relation to the strings, whereas a crown will appear convex.
All necks have a slight ‘bow’. This pic has a slight exaggeration just to show you the difference.
  1. By pressing the top or bottom E string down at the first and last fret, a measurement can be taken from the 7th fret at the underside of the string. This measurement should be no more than 0.005 (use a feeler gauge) for steel-string instruments. Bass guitars and Nylon-stringed instruments should be no more than 0.010 inches
I took the measurement from the 7th fret. The .005 feeler gauge blade slips under and fills the gap between the bottom of the string and the fret perfectly. If the blade lifts the string, you need to adjust as required.



4- Truss Rod

Truss rod adjustment will be necessary if relief is outside the above parameters.

By turning the truss rod nut in a clockwise direction, the neck will take on a convex relief, counterclockwise produces a hollow or concave relief. 

Under no circumstances should a truss rod be adjusted more than two complete turns.

Always make adjustments with the instrument tuned to pitch if possible. 

Generally speaking, a quarter to a half turn is sufficient adjustment in most cases.

As a guide, if you require more relief at the 7th fret, slacken the truss rod slightly – if you require less relief tighten the rod slightly.




5Fingerboard Nut

Nut height is measured at the first fret in 64ths of an inch. It can be broken down into four main string type categories;

  1. Light Gauge: E and A strings 2/64ths or lower – D and G strings 1/64ths or lower – B and E strings slightly lower than 1/64th
  2. Medium Gauge; E & A strings to 2/64ths – D and G strings to 2/64ths or lower. B and E strings 1/64th
  3. Bass Guitar: E and A String 3/64ths or lower – D and G strings 2/64ths or lower 
  4. Classical Guitar: E and A strings 3/64ths – D and G strings to 2/64ths – B and E strings to 2/64ths or lower.
I use medium gauge 11 strings, so my 1st fret measurement is spot on at 2/64ths.



6- Bridge Height 

Set your action height as described earlier according to your playing style. 

Les Paul-style guitars have an overall height adjustment on either side of the bridge. Strat-style guitars will have an individual height adjustment, with provision for neck tilt should the saddles be set at extremes. 

Many modern guitars have a facility for overall and individual height adjustment. 

Acoustic guitars require adjustment to the saddle by either shaving off excess material to lower the action or shimming to raise it. 

In extreme cases shaving the body of the bridge is necessary to lower the action to a comfortable height.

Shimming Example: 




7. Final Truss Rod and Action Adjustment

Check (3) neck relief again to make a truss rod adjustment if required, followed by final action height adjustment and retune to pitch.




8. Playing Test

Play a chromatic scale on each string from the nut to the last fret. 

Listen for any buzzes or dead notes. Make a mark on the side of the offending frets with a small cross using a soft pencil, or make a note of the string and fret position on a piece of paper. 

If at the required action height the strings buzz and stop playing towards the top end of the fingerboard, the frets may require removing to shave excess material.




9. Fret Dressing

A smooth single-cut ‘Mill File’ is mounted onto a block of wood will be required for this procedure. 

Here’s how I made mine:

The file needs to be around 6 inches long 1.½” half inches wide. To trim the file to length, place it in an engineer’s vice at the point where you wish to remove the excess (normally the handle end of the file). 

Wearing eye protection, break off the excess with a short sharp blow from a hammer and remove the sharp edges with a bench grinder. Glue the file to a block of wood (approx. 6” x 1.½’” x 1.½” ) with epoxy resin.

Now for the Fret dressing (not to be confused with French Dressing)

Slacken the string tension and secure strings away from the fingerboard with a string retainer( made from stiff plastic covered wire fashioned into an ‘m’ shape). 

Lightly dress the marked areas, and check with a steel rule for high spots (noticeable by a rocking motion). 

Replace strings, tune to pitch, repeat chromatic scale test, and re-mark any high spots. Repeat this procedure until the fret buzz is eliminated. 

Re-profile frets if the correct tool is available. Sand frets with a 320 gauge silicon carbide paper, using a rubber backing block, or a cork sanding block.

Finish with an 1100 – 1200 grit wet or dry paper (dry), then wire wool the fingerboard with 000-grade wire wool to polish frets. 

Use a clean 2” paintbrush to remove sanding dust on excess wire wool from the fingerboard and body. Finally, tune to pitch and check intonation.




10- Intonation

Electric Instruments

The bridge saddles are used for this purpose. The object is to achieve equal-tempered tuning throughout the length of the fingerboard. 

Reference points are taken by playing a harmonic at the 12 and 19th frets and comparing them with stopped notes at those positions. 

If the stopped note is sharp in relation to the harmonic, the saddle must be moved backward, increasing the string length and so flattening the note. 

Contrary to this, if the note is flat in relation to the harmonic, the saddle must be moved forward. A simple tip to remember is; sharp backward – flat forwards.

Acoustic Instruments

Minor intonation problems can be corrected by feathering the saddle in the required direction. More serious intonation adjustments require the repositioning of the bridge slot.




11- Pickup Height

The correct height for the pickups is a compromise between obtaining the maximum signal strength from the strings, without incurring the unwanted false tones caused by the pickup magnets being too close to the strings. 

The pickups should be set by holding strings down at the last fret. The measurements can then be taken from the top and bottom E strings to the top of the pole pieces. 

For Humbuckers, they should be around 1/8th of an inch on the bass side and 1/16th of an inch on the treble side.

For Single-Coil pickups, ie Strat Type; 3/16ths of an inch on the bass side and 1/16th on the treble. 

Bass guitars: 1/4 of an inch on the bottom E, and 1/8th of an inch on the G string.

Since I snapped this pic I’ve only just realized my neck pickup is slightly too low at 3.5/16ths. It can now be adjusted on the bass side.



12- Setting The Tremolo 

Most tremolo systems work on the principle of counteracting the string tension with springs. 

By changing the tension of the springs you can alter the angle at which the bridge plate ‘floats’. Although this only applies to the conventional Strat tremolo on the ‘Floyd Rose’ design. 

The ‘Kahler Flyer’ style has an Allen key adjustment point on the top of the assembly, so the angle of the tremolo arm can be changed. 

Always refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for adjustment of this type.

The bridge plates on Floyd Rose style tremolo systems should be set so that they are parallel to the body of the guitar. 

This is achieved by adjusting the spring tension with the two large screws, securing the spring claw in the back of the guitar. 

Tightening the screws will bring the back of the bridge plate closer to the body. Slackening the screws move the bridge plate further away. 

The same basic principle applies to the conventional Strat Bridge, but in this case, the bridge plate is set at an angle. 

There should be around 1/4 inch clearance at the back of the plate from the body. 

My battered Strat tremolo bridge sits nicely with a gap of a quarter inch.

This allows some upward movement of the tremolo so that the pitch can be increased as well as decreased. 

When adjusting the spring tension, do so in small increments and return to concert pitch after each adjustment. This will maintain the correct balance between the tensions involved and make the tremolo setting an easy job. 

After these adjustments, check your action, height, and intonation again as they may have altered during this procedure.




Conclusion

Many guitarists believe that an instrument needs to be ‘played in’ before I can get the best from it. There’s an element of truth in this, in that it should settle before the final setup can take place. 

Most of the settling happens within the first three months of manufacture, after which Re-adjustment will almost certainly be necessary. 

There is an old rumor about vintage guitars playing better than new ones. This is generally untrue. I’ve come across numerous brand new instruments that play, feel, and sound just as good as a vintage model – This after being set up correctly.

The art of correct guitar adjustment lies in one’s ability to be able to appraise the various factors that constitute the playability of an instrument. 

Just as guitarists vary, so do guitars. A jazz player would not enjoy playing a guitar set up for heavy metal music. Ultimately the metal player would be lost using medium gauge strings. 

Bass players also vary in technique and their needs differ according to the choice of instruments, fretted or fretless, etc.

Guitar setup is a fine balance between your playing style on the instrument suitability. These are factors that only you can determine, as few people share the same requirements.

Instruments have limitations, so it’s important to know what you can and cannot achieve by altering them. For example, before you attempt to adjust a truss rod or dress the frets, you need to understand how a string tension affects neck relief. 

It is essential to develop the eye and feel to determine which modifications are necessary.

The skills and readily learned, but take time and practice to master.  

Good luck, take small steps at a time

Let me know how it goes

About Lee

Lee has been playing guitar for over 25 years. In the 1990s he made a few TV appearances in London and supported and few big bands at festivals. He's recently sung on radio and worked as a full-time guitarist/singer on a holiday resort. Lee is the founder of Authority Guitar, a site where he wants readers to enjoy every aspect of learning the guitar.

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