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5 Easy Steps To Set Up Your Guitar For Optimal Playing

Back in the day, when the world was young, (well… May ’04 actually) we ran a series on recording guitars. One of the fist issues we discussed was making sure the guitar was set up properly for optimal sound. (www.sweetwater.com/insync/techtip/05/06/2004) Well, it wouldn’t be very Sweetwater of us if we didn’t tell you how to do it, now would it? BUT, before we proceed with this series of guitar setup tech tips, and this is important, do not attempt any of them if you are unsure. Even though our motto is “When in doubt, know everything.” There are times when you need to consult someone with experience. In this case, your local guitar shop or luthier. Again, if you are unsure of your ability to perform these procedures, then don’t. Take your guitar to an expert. If you are determined to go ahead anyway; start with an instrument that you don’t mind messing up.

Let’s get started. Here are five easy steps that you can follow to get the most out of your guitar. Before we begin, you are going to need some basic tools:

  • Set of automotive feeler gauges (.002 – .025)
  • 6″ ruler (with 1/32″ and 1/64″ increments)
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Electronic tuner
  • Wire cutters
  • Peg winder
  • Light machine oil (3-in-1, toy locomotive, or gun oil)
  • Polish and Cloth
  • Capo

Step 1. Changing Your Strings:
Strings are the life’s blood of your guitar. When your strings aren’t in top form, neither is your guitar. In order for strings to provide the maximum performance, they should be changed on a regular basis. Strings that have lost their integrity (worn where the string is pressed against the fret) or have oxidized, rusted, or are dirty respond poorly. To see if you need to change your strings, run a finger underneath the string and feel for dirt, rust or flat spots. If you find any of these, you should change your strings. Always make sure to stretch your strings properly. After you have installed a new set and have them tuned to pitch, hold the strings at the first fret and hook your fingers under each string (one at a time) and tug lightly, moving your hand from the bridge to the neck. Re-tune and repeat several times.

Step 2. Making Bridge Adjustments and Setting Intonation:
There are numerous types of bridges, but one basic point that should be remembered; ensure that there is sufficient break angle of the strings over the saddles (at least 30o). Much of the remainder of bridge adjustments, as in the case of setting a floating tremolo, is determined by personal taste. At this point you can pre-set the basic intonation of your guitar, by taking your tape measure and measuring from the inside of the nut to the center of the 12th fret (the wire, not the fingerboard); Double that measurement to find the scale length of your guitar. Adjust the 1st string bridge saddle to this scale length, measuring from the inside of the nut to the center of the bridge saddle. Now, adjust the distance of the 2nd string saddle back from the 1st saddle, using the gauge of the 2nd string as a measurement (Example: If the 2nd string is .011″ you would move the 2nd string back .011″ from the 1st saddle). Move the 3rd back from the 2nd saddle, using the gauge of the 3rd string as a measurement. The 4th string saddle should be set parallel with the 2nd string saddle. Proceed with the 5th and 6th in the same method used for strings 2, and 3.

Step 3. Adjusting The Truss Rod:
The purpose of the truss rod is to counteract the tension placed on the neck by the strings. This tension can be affected by movement of the wood from environmental influences like temperature and humidity. To adjust your truss rod: check your tuning, then install a capo at the 1st fret and depress the 6th string at the last fret. With your feeler gauge, check the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the 8th fret – the measurement should be approximately .010″. Adjustment at headstock (Allen wrench): If neck is too concave, (the guitar in playing position, looking up the neck towards the keys) turn the truss-rod nut counter clock-wise. Too convex – clockwise. Adjustment at neck joint (Phillips screwdriver): If neck is too concave, turn the truss-rod nut clock-wise. Too convex-Counter clockwise. Check your tuning, and then check the gap again with the feeler gauge. In either case, if you meet excessive resistance or need for adjustment, or you’re not comfortable with this adjustment, take your guitar to your authorized Service Center.

Step 4. Setting String Height:
Players with a light touch can get away with a lower action; others need higher action to avoid rattles. Check tuning. Using 6″ ruler, measure distance between bottom of strings and top of the 17th fret. Adjust bridge saddles or if your saddles are preset, the bridge height adjustment screws, to approximately 4/64″. Experiment with the height until the desired sound and feel is achieved.

Step 5. Adjusting Pickup Height:
Set too high, pickups can cause a myriad of inexplicable phenomena. (See WFTD Stratitis) Depress all of the strings at the last fret. Using 6″ ruler, measure the distance from the bottom of the 1st and 6th strings to top of the pole piece. Adjust the distance with the two outside pickup mounting screws. The distance should be greatest at the 6th string – neck pickup position, and closest at the 1st string – bridge pickup position. The distance will vary according to the amount of magnetic pull of the pickup.

Guitars are a ‘living and breathing’ instrument, so it stands to reason that you will be making these adjustments as needed. Remember, a properly set up guitar will not only have a positive effect on your playing technique, but from now on, when you walk into a recording session, the engineer will know that (and this is in no particular order) he, she, or it, is dealing with a pro – and when you take the stage, your guitar will respond as it should. Wank-on ______s! (Insert whatever politically correct or non-politically correct euphemism you have for your particular gender.)

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