Cleaning, wiring and structural mods/repairs aside, what you’re left with after that essentially falls under the heading of “guitar setup”. One glance at a guitar will show you that there are many small Allen bolts, screws and adjusters, and of course, there is an optimal way to set all of these to make the guitar work effectively as a musical instrument, and for it to be enjoyable to play for you.. How your guitar is setup is mainly determined by two things:
Setup for Musical Necessity
Certain aspects of a guitar’s setup are not really open to interpretation – they must be done ‘right’. These aspects are normally about tuning – i.e. ensuring a guitar can be tuned properly, is in tune all over the fretboard, and stays in tune as well as possible for as long as possible. I suppose there are elements of constructional stability too – neck bolts being tight enough and bits being fastened on correctly.
Setup for Personal Preference
Once the guitar is ‘technically’ set up right, what’s left is down to personal preference. This can depend on many things, and certain musical styles do lend themselves to certain setup “styles”, but there are no hard and fast rules.
The main culprit in the area of personal preference when it comes to guitar setups is the action of the guitar. This is how far away from the fret board the strings are, or the ‘height’ of the strings, if you will. The second, main area of personal preference is the thickness of the strings used. Although string choice is not an element of setup in and of itself, it does dictate a lot of setup choices that come afterwards.
Two classic examples of this are as follows:
The Blues ‘Purist’ Setup
A traditional electric blues player (a ‘purist’) will often favour heavy strings and a high action. This, in theory, gives for a singing blues tone thanks to the sustain of the heavy strings and the lack of any fret board choking, due to the high action. A guitar like this is quite hard to play for the uninitiated, but many bluesers see a guitar that’s hard to play as some sort of right of passage – like you can’t be a proper blueser unless you have one 🙂 Whatever your opinion, it’s true that heavier strings and high action do have a positive effect on attempting to capture the traditional blues tone.
The ‘Shredder’ Setup
On the flipside of the coin from the blues guitarist’s typical setup is that of the ‘shredder’ – the heavy metal guitarist who often seeks to play as many notes as possible in a dazzling display of virtuosity. Playing like this requires a lot of finger speed, and for fingers to be able to move the strings quickly they need two things to be true:
a) The strings are easy to move
b) The strings don’t have to move very far
As you’ve probably guessed already, this kind of setup (among other things) requires a light set of strings which are easy to press down onto the frets, and a low action, so that the strings don’t need to be moved very far. The downsides to this setup are usually twofold (especially when taken to extremes). The light strings often lack the sustain of heavy strings, and due to a little fret buzz/choking, the strings don’t sound as sweet. However, in heavy metal, heavy distortion is often used (especially during solos) and this helps to add a ton of sustain and masks the aforementioned problems very well indeed.
Of course, there are bluesers that use the ‘shredder’ setup and vice versa, but these are two fairly common examples of setup styles that are purely dependent on the preference of the player, and the type of music that they play.
What’s Involved in a Guitar Setup?
So your guitar isn’t playing as you’d like. Perhaps there are audible problems like string choking or bad tuning (of many kinds) or perhaps you’ve played someone else’s guitar and you liked it more and have an idea why. I can help your guitar to play better, feel more like you want it to feel, and stay in tune and function better as a musical tool.
First we need to decide what strings we’re going to put on the guitar. In loose terms, most manufacturers make a light, medium and heavy set for each instrument choice. Of course, there are a lot of other choices too, but let’s stick with these for now. Light strings are easier to play, but don’t have as much beef and sustain. Heavy strings are harder to play, but have more ‘tone’. Medium, as the name suggests, are somewhere in the middle. Once you’ve made your choice (I would choose medium unless you’re a beginner or a masochist) we can look at setting up the guitar to suit you.
I love a neat ordered list, but unfortunately a guitar setup isn’t something that’s done in a strict order. Every element can affect all of the others, so there is usually a certain amount of ‘roughing in’ where you get all of the elements close to where they need to be, then a process of fine tuning where I chase myself round in circles until I get as close to perfection as is humanly possible. The order in which I would even start setting up the various elements of a guitar are usually dictated by which elements are furthest away from being right. If the neck is bowed like a banana, I would sort that first and get it into a working range. If the action is either so low that the strings are on the fretboard, or so high that it’s like playing an egg slicer, I would look at those first. If the guitar needs the frets levelling that will limit the success of a setup – same if it needs refretting altogether. So, in no particular order, here we go. You’ll notice that I quote from my own Full Beans Setup page quite a lot, as I’ve already explained most of this over there. The Full Beans is basically a comprehensive disassemble, clean and setup – like a 50,000 mile service, and well worth checking out.
ACTION AT NUT
Taken from my Full Beans setup page:
“The nut is the part of the guitar that the strings go over at the headstock end. It keeps the strings the appropriate distance apart, and the correct distance from the fretboard. While it’s unusual to mess with the string spacing, the height of the strings at the nut can often do with looking at. New (especially cheap) guitars are often made with the nut too high – just to be on the safe side I guess. I look at the nut and assess the height of the strings from the fretboard (known as the action) at the first fret. If the action here is too high it can cause problems with tuning on the lower portion of the fretboard, such as playing open chords. This is because you will need to press the string too far before it touches the fret, and this can push the string sharp, and out of tune. Conversely, if the action on the nut is too low it can cause buzzes and rattles as the strings will touch the lower frets.
Guitars with bone, graphite or plastic nuts are adjusted by either filing the slots out to make them deeper, or by building them up a little with glue mixed with the appropriate material (such as bone dust) and then re-filing the nut slot profile. Locking nuts are metal and filing is not an option, but they usually include brass shims underneath so these can be removed or replaced to higher or lower the nut height.“
The nut can sometimes have issues with lubrication too. As you bend strings or use a tremolo arm, the strings will slide over the nut back and forth as the strings are pulled and released. If the string sticks in the nut just slightly, the string will not go back to equilibrium where there is the same string tension on both sides of the nut. This will mean that your guitar will go out of tune in annoying fashion. Using files and abrasive paper I smooth the slots to give as easy a passage for the strings as possible, and then sometimes add lubrication – soft pencil lead (basically graphite) is excellent for this.
ACTION AT BRIDGE
As mentioned, the action is the distance from the strings to the frets (or fretboard – it’s all relative) and this can be adjusted from both ends of the string – the nut (the bot at the headstock where the strings go over and onto the tuning pegs) and the bridge – the part at the bottom that holds the strings off the body. The action at the bridge is the easiest to adjust so that’s where I would generally start.
Taken from my Full Beans Setup page:
“Action is a preference, and also a compromise. If you want super low action for fast playing you are going to have to accept a greater degree of string buzz (on the frets) as you go lower. Higher actions will sound cleaner, and subjectively better, but are harder to play. Most people have a preference, and if you let me know how you want your guitar to play I’ll set the action to suit your taste.
Most guitars have a radiused fretboard i.e. a fretboard that is curved over its width. using special radius gauges I work out the radius of your fretboard and set the strings to suit. The action of your guitar will affect the intonation, the necessary height of the nut (to a point), the amount of truss rod adjustment and even if neck shimming is required. Remember when i said that all these things are connected?”
The truss rod keeps the neck as straight as is necessary, by counteracting the pull of the guitar’s strings. The heavier the strings you use, the more pull they have and the more the truss rod will have to do.
Taken from my Full Beans Setup page:
“Ah, the truss rod. The one thing that strikes fear into the hearts of guitarists who fancy having a go at setting up their own instrument. Many people seem to think that one slight turn of the truss rod with an Allen key has the potential to wreck your guitar’s neck. In reality, this isn’t true, but you do need to be careful.
When a guitar is strung, the strings exert a lot of pull on the neck. Much like a bow, this causes the neck to bend a little under the strain. the truss rod is essentially an adjustable strengthening rod that runs along the length of the neck and can be tweaked to give just the right amount of effect to keep the neck as straight as is required.
I adjust the truss rod to give the neck just the right amount of bow (called the ‘relief’) as a perfectly straight neck is not always desirable. The amount of relief required depends a lot on many of the above setup factors, so more chasing in circles is required here.”
String choice affects the truss rod in two ways. Heavy strings will need more truss rod counterbalancing as they pull more on the neck. However, heavier strings also demand a neck that has a fraction more ‘relief’ – a neck that is not quite arrow straight. Light strings leave much less work for the truss rod, and can often be made to work with an almost-straight neck, especially if the action is low.
Taken from my Full Beans Setup page:
“The intonation of the strings is adjusted so that each string is as close to being in perfect tune wherever you play it on the neck – from the open string, up all of the frets to the very top. The guitar isn’t a perfect instrument and intonation is a bit of a compromise, but if this is done carefully a good balance can be achieved.
The intonation adjustment is done at the saddle end, and most guitar bridges have screws that make this relatively pain free. Locking d are a different matter – unless the have the original style square saddles it’s just a case of undo the saddle, move it, re-tune and recheck. Happy days… :-)”
The intonation is affected mostly by the choice of strings, the height of the frets on your guitar, and how heavy or light your touch is. Light strings on big frets with a heavy hand can cause the strings to go really sharp, and have to be intonated quite severely. Heavy strings on small frets with a delicate touch will require less intonation compensation. If I already know your choice of strings and how the frets look on your guitar, your playing style will probably tell me the rest. Then it’s just a case of getting the tuner out and making a cup of tea.
Taken from my Full Beans Setup page:
“If your guitar has a set neck (neck glued to body) or a through neck (neck part of body) I can’t change the neck angle. if your guitar has a bolt on neck (and many do) this is something I can look at.
On many guitars, once the setup is complete (especially with a low action) the grub screws that set the action on the bridge saddles can protrude from the top of the saddles and stick into your hand. This isn’t a great feeling, as you can imagine. To allow the action to be raised to the point where the grub screws don’t protrude, I add a slim piece of brass into the neck pocket at the widest end. This tilts the neck back a fraction, thus lowering the action. I can then increase the action on the bridge saddles, hide the grub screws, and get the action back to where we started. Perfect.”
Another point that I’ve just remembered is that without the neck angle being adjusted, some guitars will actually run our of action adjustment – i.e. you won’t be able to get the action as low as you want it before the bridge is as low as it can go. Shimming the neck as above will fix this problem.
The correct setup of a guitar will give several things:
- A guitar that tunes up right and stays in tune
- A guitar that is in tune all over the fretboard (as much as is possible)
- A guitar that is suitable for your playing style
- A guitar that is suitable for the style of music that you play
To me, guitars are like F1 cars, and each customer is like a different F1 racing circuit. Each have different requirements of the car, and the car must be setup optimally to suit both the driver’s style and the design and layout of the circuit. This is what I will do for you.