In this article I put together the most comprehensive electric guitar setup guide I could come up with. Often I found most guides leave out a few of the finer details that truly help a guitar sparkle both on stage and in the ears of your audience.
Setting up an electric guitar doesn’t have to be an additional expense for any level of guitar player. Be you a beginner, intermediate, or an advanced player there is never a time when adding the guitar setup to your list of skills will be a bad idea.
Below I run you through a simple step-by-step guide that will help you get your guitar playing and feeling like it was meant to be. I take you through the tools you’ll need, how to properly clean and condition your fretboard, string installation, pickup height, truss rod adjustments, bridge height, tuning, and intonation.
At the end we’ll also cover a few of the tell-tale signs to point us in the right direction when troubleshooting common issues. Common issues like scratchy pots, a dead string, or a loose jack. You can find a more detailed troubleshooting guide in my post “Guitar Troubleshooting and Quick Fixes“.
Before we get started there are a few tools you’ll want to have handy. Of course, if you don’t have access to every one, don’t fret (pun intended). The minimal tools you’ll need to get you a great setup is a set of Allen keys, a small cross-head or flat screwdriver, wire/string snips, a tuner, and lint-free cloth.
What you will need:
- Cleaning oil.
- Dunlop makes a great cleaning kit that includes everything you’ll need. You can get it from Sweetwater here.
- Lint free cloth.
- Any type of cloth will do if you don’t want to spend the extra on a lint free cloth. Just avoid paper towels at all cost. They tend to scratch your finish with even minimal pressure.
- A capo.
- The capo will help us dial in the intonation as well as check string heights. Of course, a finger works just the same.
- Relevant truss rod hex key/ Allen key/ wrench.
- A set of your preferred strings.
- Cross head and flat screwdrivers.
- Depending on your specific guitar you’ll need one or both styles of screwdriver. Ideally, you can purchase a screwdriver set meant for guitar players like this one.
- Feeler gauge.
- Feeler gauges help with that perfect setup. String height and pickup height are very important for both playability and intonation. I recommend this complete set.
- Wire cutters/pliers.
- For cutting strings, you can use just about anything that will get the job done. I prefer a set of snips from StewMac. They last and are just the right size to get the job done.
- Standard razor blade and double-zero steel wool.
- Each of these can be picked up from your local hardware store. No special requirements, just everyday versions to help with the cleaning and polishing process.
- String winders.
- Winding strings by hand can be tedious at best. Save yourself the frustration and time with a simple string winder. They even make an attachment for a small drill to really speed up the process. Just be careful not to over tighten. A drill set on full-speed is sure to lead to problems.
- A tuner.
- Any tuner will do, but if you want a truly perfect intonation you’ll want to get ahold of a Strobe Tuner. Peterson makes arguably the best tuner pedal on the market for it’s price. Check it out here.
- A small cleaner brush.
- Although highly optional, it’s good to get all the little nooks and crannies. At the very least, get yourself some q-tips for cleaning out around your pickups.
Utilization of these pieces of equipment will make the job a lot easier. There is a serious list of tools you can get if you truly want to get down like the professional guitar techs. However, if you’re not doing this for a living, the above list will get the job done right.
Step 1: Clean Your Guitar
Remove your old strings.
If your guitar has a vibrato unit, you made need to use the appropriate block/spacers/ to keep in in place when the strings are removed.
Wipe off any finger marks, sweat residue etc. from the body and neck.
Pay particular attention to build ups of grime and sweat etc. (these are usually found close to the frets and pickups.)
Cleaning between the frets.
I like to take a fresh razor blade and lightly work it back and forth between the frets. This helps get all the residue and buildup clear from the fretboard.
Now is a good time to polish those frets to keep them ringing beautifully.
Be sure to protect that fretboard with either painters/masking tape or a fireguard from StewMac.
Finish the fretboard cleaning with a bit of compressed air or disposable cloth to remove any remaining dust from the polishing step. DO NOT USE THIS CLOTH FOR ANYTHING ELSE OR RISK SCRATCHING YOUR GUITARS FINISH.
Keeping a well oiled fretboard.
Once you have a freshly cleaned fretboard surface and polished frets it’s time to moisturize. I prefer lemon oil, although there are a number of different oils you can apply to help keep your fretboard in great condition.
Remove all dust from around the hardware, pickups and controls using a soft brush (a shaving brush works well.)
If you want to do this quicker, use a can of compressed air to blow away dust, hair and other small objects that may scratch when you wipe it over for the final time.
Step 2: Fit New Strings
The type and size of strings you choose is all personal preference. Just remember that if you deviate from the brand’s original size you may need to adjust the nut slots to accommodate a larger string. More on this in “How To Set Nut Slot Depths“.
For standard machine heads:
- Run the string through the bridge, over the saddle and then pull it through.
- Thread the string through the peg, pulling the ball end/bullet as far as it will come. Leave some slack between the bridge and the peg.
- Keeping the slack tension with your right hand, wind the string on so that each successive wind goes underneath the last (use your thumb and index finger to the guide the string whilst keeping tension with your other fingers.)
For locking pegs:
- Just pull the strings through tight then either tighten the locking mechanism or just wind on and let the peg tighten itself.
- Trim off the excess
For slot head pegs (on some fenders):
- Pull the string through the bridge until the ball end/bullet will come as far as it will come. Pull it relatively tight and line it up with the correct machine head.
- Trim the string leaving about 3 inches behind the relative machine head.
- Insert the string into the peg slot, and push the end right into the post. Then bend the string down and around the bottom of the post. Then simply wind, trying to keep one coil above the other. Tune your guitar using the tuner. After you have replaced your strings, remember to stretch them after tuning and then tune up again.
Step 3: Neck Relief and Truss Rod Tweaks
Guitar necks should have a slight curve to them. So it curves slightly away from the strings.
- With you guitar in the playing position, put the capo on the first fret, then hold down the 6th string at the 16th fret. Measure the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret at the 8th fret. You can use a feeler gauge, but if you don’t have one, you looking for approximately the width of the high E string which is about 1/64 of an inch.
- If it is not at 1/64 inch, then you will need to adjust your truss rod.
- If the distance is greater than the desired measurement, tighten the rod for less relief.
- If the distance is less, loosen the rod for more relief.
- Don’t make any single adjustment of more than one quarter turn at a time before re-measuring. When you think it’s correct, strum a couple of chords, then re-check. Please note that “usually” truss rods, unlike strings, do not need to settle. However, this is not always true. With some older or neglected guitars there may be some settle time. Be sure to check your adjustment the next day just to be sure.
Step 4: Setting the Action
The playing action is the gap between the underside of the string and the top of the fret. It determines how much you push the string down. This height will also play a factor in your ability to get the right intonation.
Adjusting the action can be accomplished as a combination of three different adjustments; Truss rid, nut slot depth, and bridge height. Since we already made our neck adjustments we will focus on the nut slot depths and bridge height.
The first thing we need to do is find out at which fret to measure to get the right action.
- For Fender: Measure at the top of the 17th fret.
- For Gibson: Measure at the top of the 12th fret.
Check out “Brand Suggested Action and Pickup Heights” for some guidance on measurements.
Measure using a string height measuring tool or precision caliper. These measurements can be extremely small to try and use a standard tape measure. You can pick up a string height tool for relatively cheap.
Adjusting the nut slot depth is a fairly in-depth situation so we will focus first on bridge height. With any luck, the bridge height will give us just what we are looking for.
Trade tip: The tailpiece on your guitar plays a role in the playability, sustain and even the intonation of your guitar if your strings ring “ghost notes” against the bridge. It’s not just a fancy holder for your strings. The height should be adjusted so your strings are bent down with just enough clearance to slide a single piece of paper between the bridge and the strings.
To make this adjustment easier and less damaging to the instrument be sure to loosen all of your strings.
Then, with a firm two-finger grip either tighten (to lower) or loosen (to raise) the height of your bridge.
In an ideal setup you want the height at your first and last frets to be the same. Be sure to pay attention to brand-specific the action measurement frets.
After making the bridge adjustment set the tailpiece height accordingly and retune your guitar. Let everything settle for a bit as you run through a couple minutes of riffage and fun licks. Check your measurements and really pay attention to how it feels. Are some frets buzzing? Is it more, or less, difficult to fret notes? How tight are your strings when you bend notes?
If all is good then you’re done with action and ready to move on to pickup height.
If not, it’s possible we need to tackle nut slot depth. For this I’ve written up a detailed article on ideal and adjusting nut slot depths. The how-to, the whys, and the what not to dos in my post “How To Set Nut Slot Depths“.
Step 5: Pickup Height
Something over looked by many players is pickup height. Not only does this effect your tone, but because they are essentially just small magnets, poorly adjusted pickup height can actually pull your strings out of tune; making tuning and setting your intonation almost impossible to get right.
There are several ways to run your pickups which are all personal to your style, taste and tone.
- Some people like to roll off the volume or tone pot in order to have their rhythm tone have a lower output, Then when those players have a solo or lead line they’ll often increase their volume or tone back to full to raise the signal of their output and get a more lead like tone which will cut through the mix.
- Other players may like to have their pickups set quite low for a lower output/thinner sound. An example of this is if you were looking to achieve lower output from your humbuckers lowering the pickups might be the way to go.
- Another option is to have the bridge pickup higher to act as a boost so that when you switch to it, it will cut through the mix.
The best thing to do is to try a few options and see what works best for you.
Below are the most common measurements suggested for your pickup application. There is room for deviation, but be careful how much you deviate.
Standard single coil – Bass side 5/64″ – Treble Side 4/64″
High output single coil – Bass side 7/64″ – Treble Side 6/64″
Humbuckers – Bass side 4/64″ – Treble Side 4/64″
P90 – Even across Treble and Bass side at 1.6mm or 4/64″
Pressing on the last fret before your pickups measure from the top of the pickup pole to the bottom of the lowest (Bass side) string. Repeat this for the highest (Treble side) string and pole.
When looking down onto the adjustment screws, you turn your screwdriver Clockwise to Raise the pickup, and Anti-Clockwise to lower it.
The goal here is to achieve equal volume across all pickups for balanced output. This can vary from player to player depending on your style and pickup set up.
For example, if your picking/strumming position is closer to your bridge pickup the output of that pickup is likely to be louder than your neck pickup. This may mean that you would need to adjust your neck pickup to be a bit higher than your bridge pickup.
There are some scenarios where you may want one pickup to have a higher output. An example of this is an HSS Strat. You might want your humbucker to act as a boost, in which case you wouldn’t balance the output. But keep in mind that this is a personal preference based on playing style, so listen close when making these adjustments. Also remember not to get too close to your strings.
At this point you’re beginning to realize why a standard setup can cost upwards of $65 from a reputable Guitar Tech. For a Floyd Rose or floating tremolo style setup you may find yourself paying a cool $100 to get your guitars in perfect playing shape.
For floating Trem setups I recommend finding a professional or just read the in-depth guide to floating tremolo setups in my post “How To Setup A Floating Tremolo and Floyd Rose Bridge”. You’d be surprised at what a good walk-through can teach you.
Now that you’ve got the action, and the tone, dialed in exactly where you like it we need to turn our attention to fretting notes. Because what good is a guitar setup if nothing is in tune?
Step 6: Intonation
With musical instruments, intonation refers to pitch accuracy—the extent to which the notes formed are in tune, versus being flat or sharp. When a player tunes a guitar using an electronic guitar tuner, they do so by plucking the open (unfretted) strings. Intonation refers to the accuracy between the open (unfretted) string and the same string when fretted at the 12th fret.
When a string is fretted, the tension on the string increases, which bends the pitch of the note slightly upward. The effect is subtle, but this change can impact the intonation, in some cases causing “sour” notes and dissonant chords if the guitar’s intonation is not set properly. Often intonation issues are associated with playing higher up the fretboard (closer to the guitar body).
Something else to keep in mind is that the closer a string is to the frets, the less it needs to stretch since it doesn’t have as far to go. This means that low action tends to produce more accurate intonation. Intonation issues can be subtle or dramatic depending on a guitar’s setup. For guitarists who record or play music live, intonation problems can ruin a recording session or a live performance. Hence why this section is the final, but probably one of the most important sections of this guide.
How do I know if my guitar needs to be intonated?
If your guitar or bass is not playing in tune, especially as you play up the neck, it might be time to adjust your intonation. An excellent way to check that is to play an open string and then play the same string at the 12th fret. If the note at the 12th fret is out of tune (more than a few cents off) from the open note, you probably need to adjust your intonation.
Your guitar’s intonation will likely need to be fine-tuned whenever you replace your strings. If you change string gauges, the intonation will almost certainly need to be reset because the core of your new strings will have a different diameter. Intonation can help compensate for differences in string core sizes.
When intonation is set, the string length is adjusted by moving the saddle closer or farther from the bridge. A properly intonated guitar will improve the pitch accuracy over the entire fretboard.
Now that you know what adjusting intonation accomplishes and when action needs to be taken, it’s time to adjust it. Setting your intonation can be summed up in just a few steps; Compare, Adjust, Repeat. To do this, you need to compare the pitches of an open string and that string’s twelfth fret. Depending on whether it is sharp or flat, you will move the saddle forward or backward to fine-tune the string length. After you’ve done this for all six strings, your guitar will be fully intonated and ready to play! Follow the steps below to intonate your guitar.
Compare the pitches on each string. Play the lowest open string, or, for a more accurate reading, play the 12th fret harmonic. Now, depress the string at the 12th fret and compare the two pitches.
Remember, play with a soft-to-medium attack for the most precise reading. If both notes are perfectly in tune on all strings, then you lucked out and are done! The more likely case is that the two notes are slightly sharp or flat. To correct this, you’ll need to adjust the saddle.
Now that you’ve compared pitches, the next step is to make the changes to get the string perfectly in tune. This is accomplished by using a flathead screwdriver to adjust the string length.
If the fretted note is flat, adjust the saddle (towards the neck). If the fretted note is sharp, adjust the saddle back (towards the bridge). A good trick to remember which way to adjust can be memorized by this phrase; FLAT FORWARD, SHARP BACK. Albeit not very clever, however, the phrase will stick with you if you say it each time you make an adjustment.
DON’T STRIP THE SCREWHEADS! Be careful when adjusting the intonation screws, as you can easily strip the heads. If you’re having difficulty moving the saddle, you may want to loosen the string tension.
When making your saddle adjustments, make minor, 1/4 turn adjustments until you have a good idea of how much the saddle must move to affect the tuner. If the intonation is too far out, it may take several complete rotations before you reach the precise saddle location.
You’ll now want to re-tune the guitar to pitch and check your adjustments against the tuner. If the pitch at the 12th fret doesn’t match the open string, you’ll want to repeat the process above. This will need to be done for everything string. While this process can be insanely tedious, the results make it all worth it! Your guitar will play exactly how you want it, and you can fall in love with your guitar’s sound once again.
Now that you’re an expert at setting up your guitar, go out there and show the world what a difference the perfect setup can make.
Once again, thank you for checking out Music Speaks Magazine’s Tech Support guides. We hope you found this one useful. If you have any questions or requests for how-to guides feel free to leave a comment or reach out to us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!