Basic Guitar Setup

NOTE

This is intended to guide you through the basic setup of a 6 string guitar. Going through the checking steps below is a good starting point to determine if your guitar needs adjustments.

(No harm can be done just taking the measurements)

If you are either not comfortable with these instructions or not mechanically inclined take your guitar to a qualified repair shop for the adjustments. Ask if you can watch and learn so you can do it yourself in the future.

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INDEX

NOTE: Setup must be done in this order

TOOLS NEEDED

  • Feeler gauge set (Automotive - round or flat)
  • Truss rod tool (Should have come with the guitar)
  • Screw drivers (Standard and maybe phillips - small and medium)
  • Ruler with 1/64" or millimeter increments
  • Capo
  • Patience

1 - STANDARD NECK RELIEF

SUMMARY AND DEFINITION:

Neck relief is defined as the amount the middle of the neck is lower than the opposite ends of the neck and is impacted by the shape of the neck, the truss rod adjustment, and the tension the strings put on the neck. Starting with a perfectly straight neck would seem to be good but hardly ever achievable or desired. Having the middle of the neck higher than the opposite ends is the worst case and will almost always cause buzzing. The reason is that the strings vibrate more in the middle and it is good to have the middle of the neck a little further away so the strings don't hit it. The measurement is the distance between the top of the 7th fret wire (or 6th) to the bottom of the string while the string is fretted at the 1st and 14th fret. A reasonable gap ranges from .005" to .015" (.13 to .38 mm)
Recommendation: If you play hard then adjust it to the higher end.
If you play soft then adjust it to the lower end.
NOTE: Adjusting neck relief is not the way to adjust action (string height). Although it can have a minor effect it is not the recommended way to adjust action.

CHECKING:

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  • Check both high and low E strings for relief. Any adjustments will be done based on the lowest string.
  • If you have 3 hands fret the string at the first fret and 14th fret and check the gap at the 7th fret (top of fret wire to the bottom of the string).
  • If you don't have 3 hands use a capo on the first fret and hold down the string at the 14th fret and measure the gap at the 7th fret (top of fret wire to the bottom of the string).
  • Any gap that ranges from .005" to .015" (.13 to .38 mm) is acceptable with .005" to .010" (.13 to .25 mm) being my preference.
The best way to measure this distance is with a feeler gauge which can be purchased at any automotive store. Try different thicknesses until you find one that slides in and out without moving the string while still touching the fret wire and the string. Wire type feeler gauges are best but blade style work fine.

ADJUSTING:

The neck relief is adjusted with the truss rod which can normally be found under a small cover on the headstock next to the nut. On some acoustics it can be found inside the sound hole. Depending on the manufacturer, adjustment is made with either a small wrench or allen key (usually supplied by the manufacturer).
Gap too large: Turn the truss rod adjuster clockwise to tighten for less relief.
Gap too small: Turn the truss rod adjuster counter clockwise to loosen for more relief.
NOTE: The direction of the above adjustments is either facing down the neck from the headstock or up the neck from the sound hole depending on the location of the adjuster. In other words with the end of the rod with the adjuster nearest you.
BIG NOTE: Never force the adjuster. If it won't move take it to a repair shop.
2nd BIG NOTE: Only make very small adjustments in either direction and let it settle before re-checking it. An eighth of a turn can be as much as .010" to .015" (.13 to .38 mm).


2 - NUT HEIGHT

SUMMARY AND DEFINITION:

Nut adjustment is simply the height of the strings at the first fret. Adjustment and/or installation of a nut is very complex and requires some special tools and a lot of patience.

CHECKING:

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The important part with the nut string height is playability and tone. If you can press the strings on the 1st fret with little or no trouble and you are getting good tone, more than likely the nut is fine.

With either an electric or acoustic guitar the height measurement is the same. Fret each string one at a time starting with the High E very lightly at the third fret. Using a feeler gauge check the height by measuring the amount of space between the bottom of the string and the top of the first fret wire. Clearance should be approximately .005" (.13 mm) with the string touching the second fret very lightly. Do the same for each string and write down the gap for each. If they are all around .005" (.13 mm) give or take a little then don't mess with it.

The bottom line is that if there is a small/tiny gap between the strings and the 1st fret wire when fretted between the 2nd and 3rd fret wires and there is no buzz on open strings and the 1st fret is easy to finger then your in good shape. No gap at all is a problem so take it in for repair.

ADJUSTING:

String height adjustments at the nut is best done by a professional with the right tools. The special tools are called nut files that come in specific sizes to match the strings you are using. If you happen to have the $100+ tools required you probably already know how to do this.

If you decide you want to tackle this job then invest in the files and go very slowly and gently.  Using the correct size file for the string remove just a little at a time and re-check it (repeat the measurement).

Tips:

  • Place masking tape on both sides of the nut to protect the finish.
  • The slot in the nut needs to angle down towards the headstock so the string rests on the slot only on the fretboard side of the nut.
  • The bottom of the slot needs to be round to match the string or it can hang up and cause tuning problems.
  • Do not make the slot too wide or the string can rattle.
  • Save the filings. If you go too far you can mix the filings with super glue and build the slot back up as a temporary solution.
Tips for removing a nut:
  • If it does not come out easy you may need to score the crease on both sides of the nut with a sharp razor knife.
  • If it still does not come out you can tap it out from the side so it comes out the other side.
  • DO NOT pry it up and chance lifting the neck or headstock finish.


3 - STRING HEIGHT (Action)

SUMMARY AND DEFINITION:

String height (action) is defined as the distance between the strings and the neck around the middle of the string. The height determines how easy or hard the strings are to press. Lower action is generally easier to press but can cause other problems like buzzing from the strings hitting the frets. There are two types of string height measurements, the height at the nut and the height at the 12th fret. The following information is designed to address string height at the 12th fret.

CHECKING:

Standard Action (String Height) is Measured at the 12th Fret
Treble Side Bass Side Mouse over picture to enlarge
Electric 3/64" (1.19 mm) 5/64" (1.98 mm)
Acoustic 4/64" (1.59 mm) 6/64" (2.38 mm)
NOTE: The measurement at the 12th fret wire is with normal tuning and no strings fretted.
NOTE2: These are only starting points. Final adjustment is a matter of preference. If you like it lower then make it lower. Like it higher then make it higher.

ADJUSTING:

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Electric guitar:

The typical adjustment is done with either thumb wheels, slotted screws, or allen screws on either side of the bridge or at the individual strings/saddles. Refer to your manufactures guide for details on type of adjustment and which way lowers or raises the bridge then use the following instructions that fit your type of guitar.

Bridge end adjustments:

As a starting point adjust each side of the bridge to the recommended heights. On most bridges clockwise will lower the bridge and counter-clockwise will raise it.

Individual string/saddle adjustments:

Adjust the three bass strings to the "low E" recommended height and the three treble strings to the "high e" recommended height. Doing it this way will leave each string at a reasonable height and still follow the profile of the neck.

Both types of adjustments:

First attempt to just use the bridge end adjustments since the other strings will follow and maintain the neck profile. If this does not achieve the desired results or you know the profile is off then also follow the individual string adjustment process.

Finish:

After getting them to the desired height, fret each string one fret at a time at every fret and pick it moderately and listen for any buzzing. If you hear or feel any you may need to raise the bridge on the offending side of the neck or raise the individual string a little. If there is no buzzing you can try lowering the bridge or string a little more until you get a buzz then raise it back up a little.

Acoustic guitar:

Although the concept is the same for acoustics as it is for electrics there are very few acoustics that have adjustable bridges. If you have one that is adjustable then follow the same process as an electric. If you have a fixed bridge the adjustment is made by taking a little off the bottom of the saddle (usually the white part inserted in the bridge not the wood) to lower the string height or shimming it up to raise the string height. After you take the initial string height measurement outlined above determine how much you want to lower or raise the strings. Since the height of the saddle is mathematically higher than the fret board one special consideration is required. Simply put, whatever amount you want to lower or raise the strings at the 12th fret you need to double that at the saddle. In other words to lower or raise the strings at the 12th fret 1/64" (.40 mm) of an inch you need to remove or add 2/64" (.80 mm) from/to the bottom of the saddle. Removing the saddle is pretty simple since rarely are they glued in. Just loosen the strings until you can lift the saddle out of the bridge. In some cases you may need to help it a little by gently gripping it with a pair of pliers. Take caution not to damage the string seats.

Lowering string height:

Measure out the amount you want to remove and mark a straight line with a pencil across the length of the saddle. The best way to remove material from the bottom is with 120 to 200 grit sandpaper. Make sure you place the sandpaper on a hard flat surface such as a counter top, a glass coffee table, a mirror or similar hard and flat surface. Now make sure you hold the saddle at a right angle to the sandpaper with just the flat bottom touching the paper and slide the saddle back and forth length wise until you have it down to the mark. Pay close attention to the line you made on the saddle so you are working evenly down to the line.

NOTE: Be careful not to make it too low or you loose volume and or sustain.

Raising string height:

You will need to make some kind of shim the same width and length as the bottom of the saddle. Best material for this is hardwood veneer. Since adding shims can effect your sustain I recommend that you actually make a new saddle from raw stock to the specifications you need.


4 - INTONATION

SUMMARY AND DEFINITION:

Intonation is the ability of the guitar to play the correct tone at each fret of the guitar. If you have changed any of the above adjustments or went to a different gauge string you have more than likely impacted your intonation.

CHECKING:

With an electronic tuner (unless you have very good ears) tune each string to standard pitch. Now one string at a time fret it at the 12th fret and pick it. Perfect intonation would be the exact same measurement on the tuner as the open string. If they all match start playing and enjoy.

ADJUSTING:

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Adjusting the intonation is relatively simple on guitars that have individual string length adjusters like the Tone-O-Matic bridge on a Les Paul, or Fender bridges, and many other electric guitars. The length I am referring to is the distance between the nut and the saddle not the physical length of the string. No matter what type of adjusters you have you need to lengthen the string if your 12th fretted tone is sharp (needle right of center) and shorten the string if it is flat (needle left of center).

NOTE: Between each adjustment you need to re-tune the open string and check it against the fretted 12th.

Electric

Tune-O-Matic style

If the tone at the 12th fret is sharp turn the adjuster screw left (counter clockwise) to lengthen the string (move the saddle away from the pickups).

If the tone at the 12th fret is flat turn the adjuster screw right (clockwise) to shorten the string (move the saddle closer to the pickups).

NOTE: This assumes the adjusters are facing the bridge pickup.

Fender style

If the tone at the 12th fret is sharp turn the adjuster screw right (clockwise) to lengthen the string (move the saddle away from the pickups).

If the tone at the 12th fret is flat turn the adjuster screw left (counter clockwise) to shorten the string (move the saddle closer to the pickups).

Acoustic

On acoustic guitars it is a little more difficult and near impossible to get all strings perfect. The adjustment is done by changing the angle of the bridge by sliding either side of the bridge back or forward to lengthen and shorten the distance. If the bridge is fixed (glued) and/or the intonation is way off take it to a qualified repair shop.
NOTE: Refer to the manufacturers documentation to determine if any type of adjustment is available and which direction to turn them.

If your acoustic has adjustments and it looks like either the Tune-O-Matic or Fender style follow those directions


5 - PICKUP HEIGHT

SUMMARY AND DEFINITION:

Simply put pickup height is the distance between the strings and the top of the pickup. Pickup height is not a science and there are no strict rules for the distance between the strings and the pickups. It is more a matter of preference as it relates to the sound.

CHECKING:

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With the string fretted at the last fret measure the pickup height for both the low E and high e strings. Measure between the bottom of the string and the highest point on the pickup nearest the string. Write your measurements down so you can always go back to them should you run into a problem during the adjustment step.

ADJUSTING:

The following is the rule of thumb for pickup height:
Neck pickup: 3/32" (2.38 mm) at the highest point of the pickup to the bottom of the string fretted at the last fret at the bridge end of the neck.
Bridge pickup: 2/32" (1.59 mm) at the highest point of the pickup to the bottom of the string fretted at the last fret at the bridge end of the neck.
Middle pickup: Somewhere between the height of the neck and the bridge pickups.
These are rules of thumb since for most guitars they are a good starting point and will sound decent.
There are typically three screws on each end of the pickup. The middle one on each end is the adjustment. Turning it in either direction will raise or lower the pickup.

From there it is personal preference. After initial setup try moving the pickups up and down until you find the best sound for you. You can also experiment with raising and lowering one side at a time to enhance either the bass or the treble. If your pickups have adjustable pole pieces you can also try lowering the pickup and raising the pole pieces for different tone options. Like I said, personal preference so experiment to your hearts content.
NOTE: The further away from the strings the pickups are the deeper the tone will be (and lower volume) and the closer they are you will get more highs (and higher volume). Also note that if they are too close they can pull the strings out of tune and cause a wolf tone (hard to explain but you will know it when you hear it).

I hope these steps have helped you in some fashion.

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