Ever wonder why your guitar feels hard to play? Beyond a steady practice schedule lurks rusty strings, fret-outs, not enough relief, bad intonation, and action that can be seen from a satellite. There are many string options, heavy and light handed players, but it comes down to a setup that works for your preferences. Below we have five guitar setup tips that should have you back in business. This article will focus mostly on electric guitar setups using Fender and Gibson type guitars as examples. That said, you can apply most of it to electric bass and acoustic guitar as well.
Here Are 5 Tips to Make Your Guitar Suck Less 🙂
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Guitar factory setups are what a brand suggests as a decent middle ground for all players. For some it’s a great starting point and reference. If you do a quick search, then you can compare all the different brand stock setup measurements. If you are new to working on your instruments, it would be good to keep those tabs open as you work through the guitar setup. A big part of a setup balance is the string size: it’s overwhelming how many brands, sizes, materials, and packaging there are. Guitars with a 25.5″ scale are usually setup with a set of 9-42 gauge strings while most 24.75″ scale instruments have 10-46 gauge sets.
There’s no best time to change your strings. Some folks will change their strings every couple days because they are playing daily gigs and tearing away the strings quicker. Someone else may change their strings every few months because they don’t play out and spend more of their time strumming at home a few days a week. Beginners may only change strings once a year, or maybe never have. Again, if you don’t know when or even that you are supposed to do something, you likely won’t do it, right? I’m here to tell you that once a year is not often enough. Even if you’re not playing the guitar, strings corrode and die way faster than 365 days. If you can afford it, then I suggest changing your strings at least every two to three months.
D’Addario is a brand that I’ve always trusted when it comes to strings. I prefer NYXL strings for guitars with humbuckers. The NYXL strings brighten up muddy neck humbuckers, add some extra sizzle to the bridge, and most importantly they seem to last forever. For guitars with single coil pickups, I prefer a vintage sound so I go for D’addario Pure Nickel or regular XL strings. NYXL are most expensive retailing at $12.99, Pure Nickel sets are $8.99, while standard XL are $6.99. D’addario has options to purchase multipacks to save some money.
You don’t want to add too much or too little wind to the tuning machine peg when restringing. If you have a bunch of coils, tie a knot, or barely have any string on the peg, it won’t hold tune or perform at its best. For best practice on 6-inline guitars, cut the string two tuning pegs past the one you’re working on. For example, if you are working on the low E string, pull the string taut and clip it at the D string peg. However, most Gibson headstocks will be 3×3 and have different spacing. For 3×3 headstocks, I’d clip the string right after the second peg. If we start on low E again, pull the string taut and clip it just past the A string. Locking tuners make restringing and tuning stability even easier. More on locking tuners below!
Action, Radius, and Relief
Assuming you don’t already know, “action height” or more commonly just known as “action” is referred to how high the strings are away from the neck, body, and pickups. The action, bridge, and neck radius are all connected. 7.25″, 9.5″, and 12″ are three common guitar radii. Typically a guitar with higher action is harder to play and a guitar with lower action is played with more ease. Seems like lower action is better, right? There are pros and cons to each.
Some cons of lower action are fret buzzing, unwanted overtones, and fretting outs. We mentioned that higher action typically creates more difficulty when playing, but what are the benefits? Higher action creates more stability, tension on the string, and keeps the strings in tune better. Adjusting action isn’t as easy as some of the other steps of a guitar setup. Gibson style bridges are operated by a thumbwheel or screw head and the tailpiece is operated by a screw head. With a lot of Fender guitars you get saddles each with two adjustment points, totaling 12 minor adjustment for the right radius and height. For instance, if the neck radius is 9.5″, the bridge radius should also be 9.5″. The hard part is balancing the correct radius and your string/action height preference.
It is best to check for fret buzz while plugged into a relatively clean guitar amp. I say this because you probably don’t play your electric guitar unplugged very much. It’s best to get a great setup out of your instrument by checking it in how you would use it. I play, check pickup height, and check for fret buzz while plugged in. If you spend most of your time playing electric unplugged, then it makes to work on the setup unplugged.
“High and low are subjective, so what’s the best action height for my guitar?” Unfortunately, there isn’t a right measurement or height for every guitar to perform best, especially since it needs to perform best for you.
Gibson recommends 3/64“ on the treble side and 5/64 on the bass side at the 12th fret. For some guitars this could be crazy low. However, with some work on the neck angle/relief this is doable. I would not put 3/64 on my SG, but 4/64 helps eliminate some buzzing. Fender recommends 4/64 on both sides, but measured at the 17th fret instead of the 12th. I would never put 4/64 on a Jazzmaster or even a Tele. I play too aggressively, use 11 gauge strings, and would not be happy will all that buzz. If it’s not buzzing like crazy and it works for you, then don’t fix what isn’t broken.
Neck relief can be a trickier part of the setup but small turns on the truss rod can result in a much better playing guitar. As with everything so far, I suggest measuring your relief before making any changes. That way you will always have a control group or starting point to work with. We went over what action is, how it’s measured, and how the guitar’s ability is affected by those adjustments. Neck relief is a part of the overall setup and it works very closely with your action height. It’s important to have some relief on the neck as an over-tight truss rod, known as a “backbow,” with little/no relief can cause unwanted tension resulting in buzzing and funny sounds. If you have too much relief in the neck, commonly referred to as a “upbow,” the instrument becomes harder to play and intonation (see below!) becomes obsolete.
Before measuring, try the tap test! The best way to do so is in a seated position with a capo. If you don’t have a capo, you can still do the tap test but large hands are a big help. Place the capo across the first fret and put a right hand finger on the low E string on a fret around where the neck joins the body. Then take your left hand and tap the string lightly around the 7th-9th frets. This will give you a good idea of how much string movement and relief that you have. If there is a huge gap then you have too much relief, and if there is no gap at all (i.e. strings are touching the frets) it will likely be very buzzy and does not have enough relief. To do the same test without a capo: hold the first fret of the low E string with a left hand finger, put your right pinky on a fret joining the neck and body, stretch your right hand as far towards the 7th-9th frets as you can, and check for the space/bounce. It’s less precise because it’s a balancing act and your left hand cannot hold tension consistency the way a capo can, but it still works as a great quick test for relief.
Get out your measuring device and mark your guitar’s current relief. Most sources will say to measure in decimals but some will cite using fractions. Most of the better options out there for string action gauges will have a conversion chart on the back. These measurements are tougher to read than action height because they are really small increments.
Once you have a measurement marked, it’s time to make some adjustments. It’s important not to make more than a 1/4 turn at a time because the changes are more extreme than other parts of the setup. For reference, Fender factory relief at the 8th fret is .010″ while Gibson stock is .012″ at 7th/8th fret.
If you have a backbow/too much relief: turn the truss rod clockwise/to the right/tighten
If you have an upbow/not enough relief: turn the truss rock counter-clockwise/to the left/loosen
Between turns, measure, mark it, and play the instrument some. If you you are happy with the results, then we’re done here, time to move on. If it still feels like too much relief, then just repeat! It should be noted that if you are careless and screw around here, then you can hurt the instrument by over-tightening. One time a customer brought me a brand new USA Strat and the back of the neck was cracked from top to bottom. They were not experience with truss rod adjustments and decided to keep tightening it until the action was right for them. Unfortunately, the neck was completely destroyed and not under warranty, further reiterating how important small turns to the truss are and to listen to the wood. If you start to hear some creaking and foreign sounds, back off, and turn the other way before it’s too late. When in doubt, take it to the hands of a trusty tech.
Nut and Saddle Friction
The strings sit at the joining point between the neck and headstock on a part called the “nut.” A guitar nut is usually made of bone, plastic/synthetic bone, or graphite. After a few years and general instrument use and restrings, the nut slots can get worn out or fill in with crud. This causes the string to “catch” and result in funny squeaky noises. To remedy this, take a pencil and color in the suspect nut slot. This can fill in any gaps and hopefully the string will no longer catch. If the issue persists, then you can also add some baking soda and a little bit of glue in there as a filler. If you decide to do this, be very careful not to get glue on the fretboard, headstock, or anywhere else it doesn’t belong! It’s best to make this little mix in a cup first, use a plastic straw to scoop the mix, and fill in the slot.
For some guitars, intonation is quick and easy, but for some it can be a tedious project. Once the bridge radius, action, and relief are set, then you can adjust the intonation of each string. Some bridges, like vintage style Teles, use a three saddle system where one saddle adjusts the intonation of two strings at a time. This is very difficult to get a “perfect” intonation.
At this point, I’ll assume you know the basics of intonation and adjusting the intonation screws. To get the best results, test the guitar at the intensity with which you might normally play and at different points on the neck. A normal intonation check takes place at the 12th fret harmonic, 12th fretted note, and open string. However, it’s good to check how accurate your notes at 5th, 7th, and 10th frets. Play as hard or soft as you normally would. For instance, I’ll check the intonation of my ‘A’ and ‘D’ string by holding a bar or power chord. During the intonation process you can stretch the strings to break them in a bit. Brand new strings are stiff and can catch on parts, so its good to give them a little relief. To do so you can apply pressure to the string on near the tuning machines, string trees, nut, tailpiece, bridge, and trem systems. You can also grab the string and give it a little yank away from the fretboard. Nothing crazy, Hulk, just a little tug. It’s likely after doing these stretches that each string will have lowered in pitch. This is good and proof of good work. The strings have pulled out of high friction areas and “broken in.”
While pickup height does not affect the playability of the instrument, it will alter frequency response, attack, and note clarity. Again, do a quick search and compare all the different brand stock pickup height measurements. There is no real “stock” or set pickup height: each pickup has a measurement rating (typically written on the back of the pickup or somewhere in the packaging). They are typically rounded up or down by minimal integers, but this will make a slight change on the frequency spectrum of the pickup.
If you have never adjusted your pickups before, all you need is a screwdriver. Take a look at your pole pieces and take note of the screws on the treble and bass sides of your pickups. You should see a Phillips or flathead screw (Fender humbuckers have two screws on the bass side). Depending on your pickup, tightening/loosening the screw can raise or lower the height of the pickup. Don’t lower the pickup too much because there is a spring underneath the pickup screw that will fall into the body of the guitar. It’s not the end of the world, but it usually requires removing strings, pickups, and/or pickguards.
I wouldn’t recommend adjusting pickup height without some way of measuring your changes. I say that because if you make a change and would like to revert to how you had it before, you’ll be guessing with your eyes. There are plenty of tricks to avoid this, but the best way is to get a string/action height gauge.
Fender factory spec: 4/64″ of an inch on the treble and bass sides
Gibson factory spec: 4/64″ on treble; 6/64″ on bass
Those are just factory specifications! Those brands aren’t necessarily saying that’s how you get the full potential of your guitar, especially if you swap pickups. Something like a Duncan JB is going to respond quite differently than a Novak PAF. Ignore the measurements at first and find what your ear likes, then take note of those measurements. The tip here is that closer is louder and brighter, but can cause issues with the magnets. While further will be less aggressive, darker, but quieter in output. For example, if I’m finding that a Strat neck pickup is a little muddy on the treble side, then I might lower the bass side and raise the treble side. Just a couple small screw turns, nothing crazy.
I suggest started pretty low and working your way up to a desired sound. You could start as low as 12 or 13/64″, you might find that you like a particularly low height. Most people tend to like their bridge pickup a little hotter, but this part is totally up to you. You can also adjust the pole pieces of humbuckers and some single coil guitars like P90s to further balance your sound. For the best results, you want to match the neck radius. If this is your first pickup height rodeo, then I’d suggest sticking to adjusting the general height and leave the pole pieces alone. That said, have no fear and be adventurous! It’s hard to hurt the pickup by adjusting the pole piece height.
Below is what I typically do for my guitar pickup heights:
- Humbuckers: 7/64″ on treble; 8/64″ on bass
- Single coils like Strat, Tele, Jaguar: 5/64″ on treble; 7/64″ on bass
- Single coils like Jazzmaster, p90, rails: 6/64″ on treble; 8/64″ on bass
The Peterson StroboStomp HD is one of the best investments I’ve made towards great intonation and a finely tuned instrument. This tuner is easy to use, comes with loads of presets, and gets you an incredibly accurate tuning. I don’t have it on a pedalboard due to the large LED screen and inevitable smashing, but instead I keep it attached to my work bench for the sole purpose of doing guitar setups.
An easy way to fix a tuning issue is to replace some parts. Especially if you have a guitar on the cheaper side, a great way to improve your instrument is by upgrading your tuning machines. Some go with locking tuners to ease string replacement and stability while others might gravitate towards a similar design to stock but with quality upgrades from a brand with notoriety. Tune-O-Matic and hard tail bridge swaps/upgrades are another beginner mod/install. There is a lot of research on brass, nickel, or steel being the best material for bridges, tailpieces, and even the nut. It’s up to you to sift through the BS and find out what works best for you.
A couple of tools that will help the process go smoother and faster:
- a string gauge ruler/action gauge
- a basic screwdriver set that includes flathead, Phillips, and hex key
- electrical connection cleaner for dirty electronics
Do not use a tuner app for intonation. They’re great for when you’re on the go or forgot your favorite tuner somewhere, but the best way to get a great intonation and setup for your guitar is to have something you can plug into. The Peterson StroboStomp HD is about $100-120 on the used market. If you’re serious about maintaining and setting up your guitars it’s a great investment. That said, there are many accurate tuner options out there for guitar techs. Just do a little research!
That’s all folks! 5 guitar setup tips to get your instrument playing even better. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks for reading!
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