Don’t expect your guitar to play well and sound great just because it has strings. Chances are that it’s not properly setup.
With the proper adjustments, it can play and sound better, much better! A playable guitar that sounds amazing requires a “setting-up” process, only then will your guitar play well.
I’ve been blown away by the improvements in playability and sound clarity that come from minor adjustments to the guitar’s setup.
Below, you will find all the information you need to setup your guitar, the right way. Take your time with it, don’t rush it, because it could mean the difference between a good guitar and an awesome guitar.
The Ideal Guitar Set-Up
The ideal setup is not one that obeys all the rules, but rather, one that makes a guitar comfortable to play and sound great for you. Your personal preferences in playability and sound quality should always override any rules and guidelines.
That being said, the ideal guitar setup includes:
- strings that do not unwind and de-tune by themselves
- a proper amount of tension over the nut
- a relatively straight neck with a slight relief around the 12th fret
- a properly constructed nut that allows for proper string placement and movement
- a good action (string height over the fretboard)
- correct intonation
- good pickup-to-string distance
The following steps will ensure that the above ideal setup is obtained.
The Four Steps To Setting-Up Your Guitar
The setting-up process should be performed in the following order because each step will influence the next one. After the strings are installed, the process of setting up becomes an iterative procedure, meaning, you will need to return to previous steps in order to make finer resolution adjustments.
The following steps assume that the nut is properly constructed and installed and also that your string are tuned to the correct pitch so that the neck has the right amount of tension.
- Adjust the neck bow
- Adjust the action
- Adjust intonation
- Adjust the pickups
Step 1: Adjust The Truss Rod
Goal: To get a relatively straight neck but with a very slight bow near the middle.
At any given time, a guitar neck will be:
- perfectly straight (not desirable)
- too concave, curved down (no desirable)
- too convex, curved up (no desirable)
- relatively straight with a slight bow or relief near the middle (this is what you want)
Adjusting the truss rod will correct the first three cases and give you a properly adjusted neck that eliminates buzzing and plays well.
The amplitude of the string vibration is effectively zero at the nut and the bridge saddle. The largest string vibration is always at the center of a vibrating string. A string plucked in the open position will have its largest vibration amplitude located near the middle of the fingerboard, around the 10th to 14th frets. Therefore, this range of frets need to be out of the way of the string vibrations, or else string buzzing will occur. This is where the truss rod adjustment comes in, it will provide some relief for the strings to vibrate properly.
Step 1: What State Is The Neck In?
First, figure out the current situation of the neck. Is it concave, convex or too straight.
Place the guitar body on a table and hold it by the headstock. Close one eye and look along the two edges of the neck, from the nut to the end of the fingerboard.
If the neck is too straight or worse, convex (curving up), the buzzing will start to occur between the 6th and 9th frets and get worse at higher frets.
Step 2: Adjust The Truss Rod
You will need the appropriate Allen key or Hex key to fit into the truss rod. Adjust the truss rod in small increments, never more that a quarter of a turn, less is even better.
Turning it clockwise (to the right) will tighten the truss rod and make it more convex. Turning is counter-clockwise (to the left) will loosen the truss rod and make it more concave (curved down).
Only adjust the truss rod to correct the neck, never to adjust the action of the strings.
Step 2: Adjust The Bridge Height (The Action)
Goal: To eliminate forceful fretting (strings too high) and/or fret buzzing (strings too low). To get a comfortable action.
Adjust the bridge height at the two ends. Note that, not all bridge types allow for the same amount of fine tuning.
Play all the frets and adjust the height to the lowest point where no buzzing occurs. On a Tune-O-Matic bridge like this one, the bass and treble sides can be adjusted independently.
String Height Based On Convention
You can set your guitar’s action according to the distance below. Measurements are taken from the bottom of the string to the top of the fret.
The bass E side will need a higher action that the treble E side because of the difference in string thickness.
- 2 mm (5/64th) between low E (bass) string and 12th fret
- 1.5 mm (3/64th) between high E (treble) and 12th fret
An action that is too low will not allow the strings to vibrate fully as they touch the frets, causing buzzing and no sustain.
String Height Based On Maximum Comfort
I prefer to adjust the action, not based on convention, but rather by each guitar’s ability to play at its best. This means that I’m able to lower the action to the maximum amount. Here’s how to do it:
- lower the action until buzzing occurs
- raise the action by only a small amount to eliminate that buzz from step 1.
Step 3: Adjust The Intonation
Goal: To get the same note when played open and at the 12th fret (1 octave higher).
When setting the intonation, place the guitar in your usual playing position, e.g. on your lap or standing.
Steps to intonation (do this for each string):
- tune the open string with a tuner
- play the string at the 12th fret and look at your tuner
- if note is sharp, then move bridge saddle back
- if note is flat, then move bridge saddle forward
- go back to step 1 and repeat until both the open and 12th fret notes are correct
- repeat for the other strings
If the 12th fret note is too high, it means that the string is vibrating at a higher frequency, meaning it’s too short. So you will need to lengthen it by adjusting the saddle backwards.
- 12th fret note is sharp = move saddle back (away from neck)
- 12th fret note is flat = move saddle forward (towards neck)
Step 4: Adjust Pickup Height
Goal: To get the desired volume and tone.
The height of the pickups will influence the volume and tone and are adjusted last because their position is dependent on the final height of the strings.
Pickup Height By Convention
The acceptable pickup height below a string is from 1/8″ (3 mm) to 1/16″ (1.6 mm) when the string is pressed at the highest fret.
Adjust the treble and bass pickup heights separately (if possible). Do this for all the pickups on the guitar.
Go Back To Step 1
Setting up is an iterative process with finer adjustments each time. Repeat Steps 1-4 until you are happy with the playability and sound quality of your guitar.
That’s It, You’re Done!
Congratulations! If you did the set-up properly, you should be able to feel and hear the difference.