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The Mystery of the Setup

Years ago, I remember picking up Sam's new Strat and giving it a quick strum. An E chord. The action was too high for my tastes but it sounded okay, not great. I strummed it again. That G-string was a bit out of tune. I tuned it, then that E chord sounded better. I barred an A chord at the fifth fret. Ouch! It was out of tune again. How could that be? I retuned all six strings using an electronic tuner this time. Ahh. That E chord was perfect. I strummed a barred A chord again at the fifth fret, and it was out of tune again! I didn't understand it. It took me several years before I figured out that Sam's guitar was the hapless victim of an improper set-up.

Since that time I've learned to set-up my own axes. It's actually pretty easy to do. My goal in this article is to show you how to do it correctly, and explain some of the reasoning behind the process.

Setting up an electric guitar that has a truss rod and adjustable saddles at the bridge has at least five main goals:
  • Adjust the neck so it has the proper 'relief' (forward bend)
  • Set the string height, or 'action,' to suit your tastes but without annoying fret buzz
  • Set the 'intonation' - that is, adjust each string to the proper length so they stay in tune at all points up the neck
  • Adjust pick-up height to get the sound you want without the pickups (pups) interfering with the strings or your pick
  • Making sure the strings are properly seated in the 'nut' near the head of the guitar
Sound difficult? It's not! Before getting started, here's a list of the simple tools you'll need:
  • A small phillips screwdriver
  • A capo
  • Truss rod wrench (usually a " hex-head), or larger slotted or phillips screwdriver;
  • An automotive sparkplug gapping feeler gauge ($2 at Wal-Mart)
  • Tool for adjusting saddles on the bridge (could be a phillips screwdriver or a small allen wrench - get one to fit)
  • A ruler with markings no less than 1/64"
  • A flashlight
  • An electronic tuner
  • A table to work on
  • A thick towel or small blanket to cover the table and protect your guitar
Okay, let's get started!
  1. Remove the plastic cover (if you have one) over the truss rod opening on the head of your guitar. Many guitars provide access to the truss rod at the other end of the neck - near the pickups - where there's usually not a cover.

  2. Tune your guitar to make sure that the proper stress is being placed on the neck.

  3. Place the capo behind the first fret.

  4. Starting with the 6th (or 7th) string, hold the string down at the highest fret on the neck (nearest the pickups).

  5. Using the feeler gauge, check the clearance between the bottom of the string and the top of the 8th fret (the string is acting as an effective straight-edge). You may need the flashlight here. Clearance should be between 0.005" and 0.015". If it's less than 0.005", then you'll need to add some relief (forward bend) to the neck. If it's more than 0.015" then you'll want to slightly straighten the neck. These adjustments are made via the truss rod. The truss rod is a threaded steel rod that runs through the neck. Its job is to limit the amount of 'bend' in the neck caused by the tension of the strings. That is, it keeps the neck from bowing forward (or backward!) too much. A slight amount of forward bow (relief) keeps the strings from buzzing even with low action. A typical optimum relief for most guitars is 0.010". However, this can vary a little bit depending upon the design of the neck you have. A good range is 0.008" to 0.012". If you want to get the exact spec for your particular guitar, you can visit your manufacturer's web site (Fender and Gibson publish this information). Here's how to adjust the truss rod:

    • To add relief (more forward bend), use the truss rod wrench or screwdriver to turn the rod no more than one-eighth turn clockwise (tightening it). Wait a few minutes to give the neck time to bend, then re-check it with the feeler gauge as above. Repeat if necessary, but limit the adjustment to a total of one-quarter turn per day. If the neck has moved too much (clearance is now greater then 0.015"), then turn the truss rod slightly counter-clockwise. Wait a few minutes, then check the clearance again. Warning! Limit any adjustment to one-quarter turn per day. Giving the neck some time to adjust to the new truss rod setting will prevent a disaster! If you need much more than one-quarter turn you may wish to take your guitar to a competent luthier or technician.
    • To reduce relief (straighten the neck), do the opposite of the above.
    • Be aware that the neck can continue to 'move' for a day or so. You may think you adjusted it perfectly only to discover the next day that it's been over-adjusted. Don't let this frustrate you! Go slowly. Make small adjustments and give the neck a chance to settle in to its new truss setting. With practice, you'll learn to slightly 'under-adjust' the truss rod knowing that it'll be on-the-money within a day. In fact, you may wish to stop at this point, wait a day, and then recheck the neck before proceeding. Almost every step that follows relies on the relief being correct. Take your time.

  6. Once the relief is properly set, it's time to check the action (string height). Remove the capo!

  7. Measure the height of the 6th string at the 17th fret using the ruler. Measure from the bottom of the string to the top of the fret. Proper height for most players is 4/64". This is a matter of personal preference. Some players like a low action. Others like it higher - especially those who like to 'bend' the strings during those awesome solos.

  8. Adjust the string height by raising or lowering the saddle. The saddles are those individually adjustable pieces that hold a single string at the bridge. Once you have the string set to the proper height, play that string on every fret up and down the neck making sure you have no fret buzz. If the string buzzes, raise it slightly at the saddle. Repeat this procedure until the buzz disappears.

  9. Repeat this entire procedure for all the strings. However, the action should very gradually become lower as you approach the 1st string. The proper height for the 1st string is 3/64". Again, this is guideline. Adjust the height to suit your taste.

  10. The last step in adjusting the saddles is to set 'intonation'. Doing this properly will assure that all the notes up the neck will be in tune relative to the open string. In other words, will the note at the 12th fret really be an exact octave above the open string? If you get the octave set correctly, every other note will fall into place. To make all this happen, each string has to be the proper length from the nut to the saddle. Here's how to do it:

    • Recheck the tuning on the 6th string (open) using an electronic tuner. Set it accurately! Remember, if you've adjusted the truss rod, then you have also tightened or loosened the string since the amount of bow in the neck has changed.
    • Check the tuning on the 6th string at the 12th fret (an octave up). It should be exactly in tune. If it is, you're done with this string; intonation is correct.
    • If the 12th fret is slightly flat, then the string is too long as measured from the nut to the saddle. If it's sharp, then the string is too short. Shorten or lengthen the string by moving the saddle approximately 1/16" using a phillips screwdriver or the appropriate allen wrench. Retune the open string, then check the tuning at the 12th fret. Repeat this process until the open string and the 12th fret are perfectly in tune. Repeat this for all the strings. (You'll notice that each saddle will be in a slightly different position once you're done. This is normal.)

  11. The next step in the set-up is to check your pup height from the top of the pup to the bottom of the string. Use the ruler. For humbuckers, the distance should be approximately 5/32". For single-coils, it should be approximately 1/8". When fretted at the highest fret (nearest the pup) the string should be at least 1/16" above the pole of the pup. Since your sound can change dramatically by lowering or raising the pups, you should experiment with each pup. Set the height to get the sound you want being careful not to raise it so high that it interferes with the string or your pick. Also be aware that placing the pup too close to the strings can cost you some sustain since the magnetic field will act to stop the string from vibrating. Being too close can also cause static. The closer the pup is to the strings, the 'hotter' your sound. Moving it further away will soften your sound by reducing high frequencies and 'attack'. Where you end up is matter of personal taste.

  12. Throughout this article I have been assuming that the nut on your guitar has been properly cut (grooved). The nut is that thin piece of plastic, metal, graphite, bone etc. that provides the proper spacing for your strings behind the 1st fret on the head of your guitar. The grooves in the nut are cut so that each string is held firmly in-place at the proper height above the fretboard. You'll notice that the groove is bigger for the 6th string than for the 1st string. You should also notice that each string sits completely down in the nut. If they don't, then you may have a problem. Problems can arise if your guitar's nut was cut for 10's and you've changed the strings to 8's or 12's, for example. The 8's may rattle around a bit (not always a problem). But the 12's may be too thick to sit down in the nut, thus raising the strings too far off the fretboard. Ideally, the nut should be replaced or recut. This is beyond the scope of this article. If you suspect you have an improperly cut nut, take your axe to a skilled luthier or tech and have it replaced. It's generally inexpensive. I should add that changing string gauges might require a complete set-up. Thicker strings place more tension on the neck and may cause more neck bow. This effectively shortens the strings (as measured from the nut to the saddle), and raises the action. There have been reports of 12's actually destroying a neck because of the increase in tension! On the other hand, fitting smaller gauge strings on your guitar places less tension on the neck, which may allow the neck to excessively straighten - or even bow backwards! If the latter happens, adjust the truss rod no more than turn per day until the neck returns to normal (not always possible in a back-bow situation). In addition to the above, don't be surprised if changing gauges also changes your intonation.
Setting up a guitar is not difficult, and now you know how to do it. A proper setup will guarantee optimum playability and keep you in tune as you move up the neck. Try it! You may discover a completely new instrument being hidden from you behind an improper setup - or a setup that's not optimized for your particular style. On more than one occasion, I have transformed a diamond-in-the-rough into a sparkling gem. The change can be dramatic.

In addition to having played stringed instruments for over 30 years, David Wynsen is also a trained scientist, skilled woodworker, and a writer.