As we enter winter and humidity drops, it’s time you give your guitar the gift of a setup.
Setting up a guitar can be a daunting undertaking, even to seasoned players. Guitars, and wooden stringed instruments in general, are malleable. Wood warps, grime cakes on necks, strings break. When tinkering, things can go wrong. But things can also be greatly improved.
Part of developing as a musician is forming a bond with your instrument and understanding how it works. What’s more, cheap, beginner guitars are usually set up poorly, which makes playing them more difficult.
Here, using my friend’s old $100 Fender Squier as a model, we break down the essential components of a guitar setup, hoping to encourage guitarists to start tinkering. These steps aren’t really linear. It’s all about how each part interacts, so you’ll have to circle back a couple of times.
Setting Up the Action, Adjusting the Bridge
Ideal action is a subjective matter. If you’re a metal or jazz player, you probably want a pretty low action so you can play lightning fast licks and fret complex chord shapes with ease. If you’re a blues player, you probably want a slightly higher action for intense string bends and to really dig into the notes with pronounced dynamics. Regardless of your playing style, the strings should be close enough to the fret board to be comfortable but not so close that they buzz.
If you’re a beginner and aren’t sure what measurements to set the action at, you can reference an online guide like this Fender owners manual for factory specifications. A 6-inch metal ruler with 64th inch increments comes in handy here to measure the space between the fretboard and the bottom of the strings. This distance at the 17th fret is typically set around 4/64 inches. On a Strat-style bridge, you can control the height of each string individually by adjusting the corresponding saddle, which is helpful because each string has a different thickness. To lower the action, simply turn each saddle screw clockwise with an Allen wrench. And to raise it, turn the saddle screws counterclockwise.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can improve your guitar’s overall feel and get a more consistent action throughout the neck by filing down the nut, the part where the strings meet the headstock. A lot of cheaper brands err on the side of assembling nuts that are too high up. Keep in mind—filing can’t be undone; if you file down the nut too much, you’ll have to buy and assemble a new nut, thus making your setup a lot more complicated and laborious.
Once you find a comfortable action for your playing style, you may be good to go. But it’s likely if you’re playing a cheap guitar or there’s a change in seasons and thus humidity, you’re going to have to tweak your neck.
Adjusting the Truss Rod
The truss rod is a steel bolt that runs through the neck of the guitar to reinforce it and prevent warping. You realign the neck by tweaking the rod, but you must use caution because if you crank the rod too far clockwise, increasing the compression, you can snap it and destroy your neck. So only make adjustments when necessary. I find I make them about twice a year, when the humidity changes.
To check the straightness of the neck, hold your guitar up and look down the neck with your dominant eye like you’re sighting down a rifle. Necks should upbow ever so slightly to produce resonance. If they were completely straight, you’d get fret buzz, and if convexed, the fret buzz would be severe. More often than not, especially if there is a drop in humidity, the necks will upbow.
On the headstock there’s an adjusting nut where you insert an Allen wrench to turn the truss rod. Always err on the side of caution, so I’d recommend never doing more than 1/8 to ¼ of a turn before testing out the guitar and sighting the neck again. In the Squier, there was too much relief so I tightened the rod. If we had fret buzz and the action at the bridge was set at a reasonable height, there’d be too much tension and we’d crank the truss rod counterclockwise to increase the relief. Besides sighting the neck, a good way to gauge neck relief is to do a tap test.
The Squier has a single-action truss rod with the nut oriented at the headstock, but the nut could be flush with the body. In a lot of acoustic guitars this is the case, and you’d access the truss rod through the sound hole. Or you could have a double-action truss rod (e.g., Rickenbackers), which can be adjusted from both directions for extra precision and neck stability.
It’s important to keep the strings on your guitar when tweaking the truss rod and to keep them at least roughly in tune. The steel strings exert tension on the neck, which causes the neck to upbow. Tightening the truss rod reinforces the neck with a compression force to offset this tension. Feel free to change your strings before you tweak the truss rod if you’d prefer. Just don’t tweak the truss rod with your strings removed.
Just like adjusting the action, you can adjust your intonation without changing your strings, but if you plan to change your strings, you should do that first.
If your open strings are in tune but as you play up the neck you notice that the notes are a little flat or sharp, your intonation is off. The notes on the 12th fret should be exactly one octave higher than the notes on the corresponding open strings.
Scale length is the distance between the inner edge of the nut to where the string meets the saddle in the bridge and the midpoint is the center of the 12th fret. The Strat I’m setting up has a scale length of 25½”, which is very common. The other most common scale length is 24-3/4″, which is what you’ll find on most Gibsons.
On a Strat-style bridge, the intonation of each string can be adjusted individually. Using a small Phillips-head screwdriver, you can elongate the scale length by turning the saddle adjustment screw clockwise. You would do this if the fretted note at the 12th fret is sharp. If it is flat, you need to shorten the scale length and turn the screw counterclockwise. If you feel considerable resistance when you turn the screws, it’s probably because gunk has built up on the saddles and you should clean them out with a microfiber cloth and polish.
Besides using a tuner, a quick way to check intonation is to play a note on the 12th fret and then play the same harmonic on the 12th fret by lightly depressing your finger on the middle of the fret and letting the note ring out. The fretted note should be the same pitch as the harmonic. If it’s sharp, the corresponding saddle will have to be moved back, and if flat, it will have to be moved forward.
Once your intonation is set correctly, it most likely won’t falter terribly, but it’s still a good idea to check intonation periodically because the screws can shift over time, especially if there are changes in weather or you’re changing the gauge of strings you use, or even if you knock around the saddles too much when changing strings.
Cleaning Your Instrument
You should always wash your hands before you play, but inevitably you’ll still sweat, shed dead skin, and secrete oils onto the fretboard and gunk will accumulate around the frets, and your guitar body will get smudged and dusty. It’s normal wear and tear. Guitar hygiene is important. It’s a lot easier and better to clean your guitar consistently rather than to let it get grimy and have to do a deep clean.
I rarely take off all my strings at once, because I don’t want to mess with the tension/compression of the neck. Normally I just rub the guitar down with a dry or slightly damp microfiber cloth when changing strings—one at a time—and sometimes I’ll spray and work in a little fretboard conditioner like D’Addario Planetwaves Hydrate to hydrate the board (which prevents potential cracking). But if you’ve built up considerable dirt and you’re doing a setup and adjusting the neck anyway, it can be beneficial to cut all the strings to have an easier time navigating the crevices when cleaning the fretboard.
If you’ve built up a lot of crud, a microfiber cloth may not be sufficient. You definitely don’t want to scratch the wood, so you don’t want to use a material too abrasive, but a lot of guitarists will remove some of the gunk with 0000 steel wool. If you opt to do that, apply painters tape over your pickups because the steel fibers can cause the poles in the magnetic pickups to corrode. Vacuum up any steel residue. For a safer bet, sub out steel wool for an old toothbrush.
The guitar I worked on for this demo has a rosewood finger board, so lemon oil in moderation is safe to use for cleaning and conditioning. DO NOT USE PURE OR FURNITURE-GRADE LEMON OIL. Use a brand of lemon oil that is manufactured specifically for guitars, like Dunlop 65 Ultimate Lemon Oil. Lemon oils made for use on guitars are highly diluted and actually contain very little pure lemon oil; they mainly consist of mineral oil. Pure lemon oil is highly acidic and can break down adhesives holding your frets in place and irritate your skin. The minuscule percentage of true lemon oil that guitar “lemon oils” contain will help remove the grime and the mineral oil will rehydrate, condition, and protect your fretboard, making it harder for dirt to cake up in the future.
Apply a thin coat and rub it in with a microfiber cloth and then buff it. If your guitar has a maple fretboard, don’t use steel wool or lemon oil at all. Even super-fine steel wool can scratch the lacquered finish on maple and unlike rosewood or ebony, maple fretboards are normally sealed so the lemon oil won’t seep into the wood and it will be ineffectual. Lacquered maple doesn’t need to be hydrated, but for unfinished maple, stick with a mineral oil that contains no lemon extracts, such as F-One Oil by Music Nomad.
After you clean the fretboard, cleaning the rest of the guitar is a cinch. Simply apply a thin film of guitar polish on a microfiber cloth and wipe down your guitar body, your hardware, the back of the neck, and your headstock. Then buff it and gaze in awe at the restored shiny veneer.
Stringing It Up
It’s easy to overlook stringing up a guitar when discussing guitar maintenance, since this is about the most basic “repair” a guitarist can do and every guitarist should be able do it. Strings get dirty and start to sound dull over time. Don’t be that guy who waits to change his strings only when one snaps and then begs his friend to string it up.
Some guitarists are more meticulous than others, but a good rule of thumb is if you play about five hours a week, change your strings once a month. You’ll totally hear as well as feel the difference. Fresh strings resonate with high-end sparkle and punchier lows compared to worn strings. There are countless tutorials online showing how to properly string up a guitar. Getting yourself a wire cutter and string winder is helpful to make the process less tedious. D’Addario makes a nifty wire cutter/string winder combo that I’ve used for years.
Normally, I cut off and replace the strings one at a time, but in the case of doing a full cleaning, I’ll snap all the strings off. When you wind up and tighten a string, you exert tension on the neck, so when you snap all the strings off, the neck will straighten or downbow a bit. After you restring, make sure to check the neck curvature again and see if you need to tweak the truss rod or adjust the saddles. Most likely you will, but if you adjusted these things before snapping off the strings, the necessary tweaks will be slight.
One thing to keep in mind—if you are changing the string gauge or the way you’re tuning your guitar, you’ll have to make the appropriate adjustments. Say if you go from .009 (meaning the high e string has a diameter of .009 inches) to .011, you’ll be exerting more force on the guitar neck, so the upbow will be more pronounced. If you play in dropped tuning—for example you tune your guitar to D standard instead of E standard—you’ll be exerting less force on the guitar neck. To offset this loss of tension, players will usually play with thicker strings. Thin strings in lower tunings tend to sound flubby.
Don’t be afraid to try out new gauges or tunings—alterations can inspire and change the way you play—but adjust your guitar accordingly or you’ll be disappointed.
A Final Thought
One overarching theme that’s important to emphasize for doing setups: Try not to get carried away. You don’t want to be too invasive or you could cause more severe problems for your guitar. However, if you err on the side of caution and do fine-tooth adjustments, a little at a time, you won’t cause problems—you’ll fix them, and eventually you’ll develop the right feel for the job.