13 November 2013

Guitars: Please, lend me your card and a couple of coins to set up my guitar


Note: this is an article long time ago published in my old Spanish version of this blog, that I am revisiting here because I believe it could be of help to lots of people.

If you are already used to set up your guitars to your needs, this article will have few interest for you but, if you never did it or if you don't feel comfortable doing it, I bet this article can be of your help.
Also, for experienced people, here there are some easy tricks to quickly check your set up status.

Many people buys a guitar, tunes it and starts playing it. If it becomes unconfortable, he/she ends setting it appart and buying a new one and, this happens several times.
I should confess that I was myself doing the same for years and years and years, never taking care of guitar' set up, basically because I've never understood what should I do and why.

You should know that factory set ups are very generic and, their goal is to be a good starting point for everyone but, not necessarely the best for someone in particular.
Anyway, for well known brands, factory set ups work the most of times and, you just need to fine tune them, if you are a bit picky.
But, dude, cheap guitars are always far away of a playable set up and, very specially, those axes currently build in China for a budget.

Be aware that set ups doesn't stand for long, even in the best guitar.
While some synthetic materials are structurally very estable, wood is a living being and, reacts to variations on its environment, as humidity, temperature, among other variables.

Usually, it's necessary to check your set up twice a year, commonly, in Summer and Winter, when temperatures radically change.
If your guitar remains in an estable environment, it is possible that your set up can last for longer periods but, some or other day, you will need to revisit your set up. That's for sure!.

Usually, wood used to build guitars needs long periods of drying, to make them structuraly estable but, even being carefull, they could eventually twist or bend with the time.

If you deal with a twisted or bend neck, forget it. Substitution is the only possible cure there but, there many other little things that we can do by ourselves to make that guitar usable for us.

By example, not barnished fretboards tend to dry and, they need to be nurtered, both, to enhance their look and to enhance the instrument feel. If you don´t care about your fingerboard, it will start to crack.
Appart of this, there are still some other little operations that can help us, as to lubricate the spots where strings touch the guitar, neck curve, strings height, pickups height, intonation, etc.

A nice starting point for your set up is to follow maker's recommendations and, from there, you can fine tune the settings to your particular taste and needs.

Even that a professional set up would need of good tools, I will present some easy-to-have-on-hand things that will help us to do a quick inspection and emergency adjustments. Between brackets, I am indicating the "tool" to check or measure each of the basic setup steps.
I hope you will like it.

Quick Inspection

For a quick inspection, we will need very few "tools" and, they are so common that you should be able to do it on any place.

Neck Curvature (credit card or similar plastic card)

Neck Curvature is a KEY set up step. Depending on your neck curvature, you could have issues like fret buzzing and, the need of raising the string height and bridge height to fight against such a buzz.
A correct curvature allows you to lower the strings and bridge heights while providing the right sound. This makes your playing faster, since you have less troubles by walking the fretboard so, take it seriously!.

Steps for a quick inspection
  1. Put a capo on the first fret, to maintain strings pushed there.
  2. With one finger, we press the sixth string in the very last fret of the fretboard.
  3. Introduce a credit card between the fret and the string, around fret number 7 (9 for some guitars). Check your guitar with maker's instructions.
  4. If the credit card slightly lifts the string, you probably have a good curvature there (recommended to read makers' specifications and check it with more accurate tools).
  5. If there is so little clareance that the credit card clearly lifts the string , is very probable that you are having a very soft curvature, and you should have to increase it.
  6. If there is no clearance (string lays over the fret), you probably have a negative curvature and, this is a clear source of fret buzzing and high strings and bridge heights!.
  7. And, if the card isn't touching the string, that means that we have a high curvature there and, we should reduce it to enhance playability.
Why a neck should have some curvature?

If you look carefully to the way strings vibrate, you will see that strings vibrate wider on their center than on their extremes. To don't interrupt such a center vibration, we should leave the neck with an slight curvature (probably even not visible to the eye), to leave room to the string to freely vibrate.

If the neck is so straight, the string hasn't room enough to freely vibrate, which kills the sustain and introduces fret buzzes (hiting on frets).
If we relax neck' strength very much, there is a risk that strings hit the lower frets of the fretboard, which will obly us to raise the bridge, or saddles to increase strings highs.

So, a subtle curvature is a desirable setup in our guitar's neck!.

How can we modify neck's curvature?

Every guitar (even the cheapest ones) usually have a neck's thrussrod, which at the end is some kind of cable made with a twisted thread of steel wires, ended with a couple of nuts. Each nut is being anchored to one extreme of the neck and, one of those nuts can be screwed by us.
When we screw the nut, the steel thread twistes and, that stress is being transferred to the neck, obblying it to move their extremes down and pushing the center up.

Single thrussrods work just in one extreme of the neck (the closer to the peghead) so, the neck is bend from, more or less, its center to the peghead (that is the extreme that has the more visible movement).
Double thrussrods work in both extremes and, therefore, allow more accurate works.

So, to be able to increase or decrease the stress in the neck, we need to work on the thrussrod and, for this, every guitar has some place where we can reach the nut or screw that handles the thrussrod.

Usually, such a nut is found on the union of the neck with the peghead. In case of most Fender's guitars, that nut is easily visible and accessible, since there is no cover that hides it but, in most of other guitars, the thrussrod nut is being covered with an small plastic cover.

Usually, we rotate such a nut with the help of an Allen key, which usually comes with your guitar by default.
You could need to firstly remove the thrussrod cover to move that nut.

To which direction should we rotate thrussrod nut?

If you screwed and unscrewed a screw or nut a day, you will always know to where to move the nut.

Just stand the guitar with the peghead facing you (to see the thrussrod nut) and the body far away from you.
If you move the nut in clockwise, you are screwing so, increasing the stress, straightening the neck and, reducing the curvature. You are compensating strings stress.
If you move the nut counter clockwise, you are unscrewing, relaxing the stress, allowing the neck to create a curvature (because of the stress that strings produce in its extremes). String stress is higher than thrussrod stress.

How many turns should we rotate the nut?

Be carefull, thrussrod is a delicate piece and, as said, a key one!.
If you find high resistence there and, it doesn't disappers with some kind of 6x1 lubricant spray, don't force it. You better go to a luthier for an in-depth inspection.

If you can easily rotate that nut, just try between 1/8 and 1/4 of turn by session.

Very good woods react inmediatelly to changes but, most of woods take between 24 to 48 hours to settle so, leave the guitar to rest and, after a couple of days, tune it and re-check curvature.

Do further adjustments, depending on the results of your previous session.

Once the curvature of the guitar is the right one, we can follow with rest of setup.

Strings Height or action (a 5 cts of Euro coin)

You will measure the clareance between the fret 12th and every string.
Put that 5 cts coin over the fret wire and below the string.
For guitars with independently adjustable saddles (as Fender) you should check EVERY string.
For guitars with one-piece bridge (as Gibson) you can check just the first and sixth strings.

If the coin lifts the string, we potentially have a very low height. If you don't have fret buzzes and, you don't feel its sustain as affected and, if you feel that height as comfortable. No issues.
If guitar' sustain is being affected or you have fret buzzing or the height is uncofortablely low for you, you should raise the height of strings.

If there is some gap, between the coin and the string, you potentially have a high strings height and, you should considere to lower your strings a bit.

Which is the recommendable strings height?

The height of your strings should facilitate to you to push them down, in a way that to walk the fretboard can be confortable but, always just the minimum height that is free of fret buzzing and, that allows the free vibration of strings, to preserve guitar' sustain.

Additionally to this, the height of each individual string is in direct relation with the curvature of your fretboard (radius). In bridges, with adjustable saddles (like Fender's ones), each string should be evaluated separately.
Maintaining same height string by string, respect to the radius of the fretboard, we will achieve the best action for our pickup.

There is a big exception in all this. Those guitars that are being prepared to work just with Slide, will need high heights to facilitate the sliding of the tube, without hiting any fret.

How do I correct strings height?

Well, this will depend on the type of bridge of your guitar.

Usually, you will deal with a monoblock (single piece) bridge, like Gibson's ones or, a traditional floating bridge (as Fender's ones) or, a modern floating bridge (as Floyd Rose, Kahller, etc.).

The quicker bridges to work are Gibson-alike.
You need to screw or unscrew the screw on each side of the bridge to raise or lower it.
Just lower or raise each extreme until the string slightly touches the coin.

Bridges Fender-alike have independent saddles that you have to adjust.
You should check a single string each time and, use the two (in a balanced way) small screws on the extremes of each saddle to raise or lower the saddle, until the string slightly touches the coin.

For moderner bridges, like the Floyd Rose things are a bit more complex, because their saddles aren't adjustable in height with screws. To raise a saddle, you need to insert some kind of steel micro-plates that are sold in a single gauge (I don't remember which one but, they are really slim).
So, you could eventually need to insert more than one of those slim plates under each saddle to get the right height.
But, those kind of bridges are so accurate that the whole system (locking nut, bridge...) is very well set up from factory. So, at the end, guitars with such a kind of bridges are the ones with less string height issues.

Intonation (tuner)

Intonation consists into oerform the necessary steps to achieve that your guitar can give the exact same note with the string open and on fret number 12 (one octave higher).
Intonation is fully related to scale length.

Intonation is checked string by string and corrected string by string.
Any previous modification to setup (neck curvature, string height) will directly affect the intonation so, you should check intonation after having solved previous issues.

Intonation should be checked every time you mount a new set of strings, if they aren't exactly of the same brand/model/gauges that you used to intonate the guitar. You should wait for a couple of days, until the strings maintain their tuning.

The process is very simple (but boring as a hell):
  1. You should tune all strings the best possible. It's very important to use the tuner with higher precision we can have and, specially some stroboscopic one, with a precision of a cent or a lower value.
  2. You play the string open and, you re-tune it if necessary. Tuning should be accurate.
  3. Then you play same string on fret number 12 and you check tuning.
  4. If it sound flat or sharp, you will need to move horizontally the saddle to correct the defect.
  5. After each saddle adjust, you need to repeat steps 2 to 4 until you get perfectly tuned notes open and on fret 12.

Monoblock bridges, even not having independent vertical adjustment for saddles, have a way to move horizontally the saddles to adjust the intonation. The six screws on the front or rear (depending on how it was mounted) are the ones that you need to toutch for intonation.

Fender alike bridges have also a screw to move horizontally the saddle. In Telecasters, the adjustments are shared by two contiguous strings, unfortunatelly so, you should reach a compromise solution.

Bridges type Floyd Rose, have also long screws on rear side, just to control de horizontal adjustment of their saddles (please, don't confuse them with the micro-tuners, that are over the saddles).

Which are the issues related to a bad intonation?

Usually, the issue is easily heard, if the difference between the tuning of the string open and the tuning of the same string on the 12th fret is important. While we play over the 12th fret, will be sound more or less well but, when we started to play below that fret, we can feel that the note isn't "exact" and, we will probably try to compensate it by doing small "bendings" to tune the note, while playing.

Also, depending on the individual descompensation of each string, chords, triads and diads below the 12th fret will start to sound disonants and, very specially when using high gain or distortion.

Pickups height (50 cts, 10 cts y 2 x 5 cts coins)

Well, from all setup steps mentioned in this article, probably the pickup height is one of the most subjective and personal but, there are some physical facts that we cannot overlook.

If pickups are very close to strings, as soon as we play the lower frets of the fingerboard, the strings will hit the pickup, killing the sound.
Also, if the magnets of the pickup are strong enough and, the pickup is close to the string enough, magnets can excesivelly attract the string, slowing its vibrational movement and, therefore, killing the sustain of the sound.

The closer the pickup to the string is, the stronger the output but, reached some spot, the strength of the magnetic field distorts the note and, an excesive output can also make to sound bad your pedals and your amp.

The farest the pickup to the string is, the cleaner and tuned the sound is but, the signal weaks.
Excesivelly away, the pickup can sound plain in attack and brightness and show a very smooth character.

For all this things, to find the sweet spot for each pickup in each guitar is a matter of patience and interest.
It's incredible how much can the sound of a guitar vary depending on the respective height of its pickups.
And, together with everything mentioned above, we have to take into account that we have to balance the output of the complete set of pickups to don't suffer of excesive volume bumps or drops when switching from one to the other.

Even with all those considerations in mind, there is a quick procedure for checking and adjusting pickups that will give overall good results and, that we will fine tune later.

We will use two "modes", "open" and "regular".

For "open mode" we will set the pickup to a high were the clarity and note by note definition is excellent, as well as the sustain but, the output can be of low intensity (something that you can enhance with a clean booster or a good buffer or, just with the gain knob of your amp).

For "regular mode" we will set up the pickups to a high were the notes will be less defined but, with greater attack and strength.

We will use the following set of (euro) coins to establish the different heights we will need for those modes.

2 x 5 cts. coins
1 x 50 cts. coin
1 x 10 cts. coin
1 x 5 cts. coin

We will need just an screwdriver to move up and down the pickups and, those coins to "meassure" the height.

The height is being measured by pressing the string (sixth or first) on the last fret, while we measure the gap between the upper face of the magnet or screw and the bottom of the string itself.

In the case of having three pickups, the middle one should have same height than the neck one or, an intermediate height between neck and bridge pickups.

To correct the height, we will use a screwdriver in the lateral screws that come with each pickup (warning: a Telecaster bridge pickup uses 3 adjusting screws, as well as other pickups and, some humbuckers use up to 4 screws).

The trick is to insert the coin between the magnets and the string and then raise the pickup until the coin keeps retained between the pickup and the string. Then, start lowering the pickup step by step until the coin falls to floor or slides over the pickup.

Regular mode

Humbuckers are usually setup having same height in both sides (first and sixth strings).

Neck humbucker will need a 50 cts coin in both sides.
Bridge humbucker will need a 5 cts coin in both sides.

Single coils are usually setup having less height in their low string (sixth) than in the treble string (first).
Neck single will need two 5 cts coin in sixth and a 50 cts coin in first.
Middle can have 50 cts in sixth and 10 cts in first
Bridge, 10 cts in sixth, 5 cts in first.

Open mode

Neck humbucker, 2 x 5 cts coins on both sides.
Bridge humbucker 1 x 10 cts coin on both sides.

Single Neck, 3 x 5 cts coin in sixth, 1 x 50 + 1 x 5 cts coins in first.
Single Middle, 2 x 5 cts coins in sixth, 1 x 50 cts coin in first.
Single Bridge, 1 x 50 cts in sixth, 1 x 10 cts in first.

Other way

Instead of use those coins to measure the gap between pickup and string, we can use several 5 cts coins to set up the initial height, respect to the pickguard or body and then to fine tune the height with 1/4 of turn of their screws.

For singles, you put a coin over the pickguard or body, on the side of the sixth string and, you lower the pickup until the pickup cover reaches same height than the coin.
Then, put a pair of 5 cts coins on the side of the first string and lower the pickup until it reaches same height as those two coins.

For middle pickup, use two coins on sixth and three on first.
For bridge pickup, use three coins on sixth and four on first.

For humbuckers, use same trick but measure from over the ring of the pickguard.

If you want to start with an opener setup, just add a coin by side to the list above.

My way

I usually prefer first way for humbuckers and that last one for singles.
In any case, I focus first on Neck pickup.

I know most of people focus first in bridge pickup but, I find myself that the pickup that brings the best tones from your axe is the neck pickup, probably because is the closer to the center of vibration of the string and, gets a very rich harmonical content.

I love neck pickups sounding bodied but crystalline clear and, with a very vocal voice under the 12th fret. I specially check the sound of the neck pickup there and, I just leave the height fixed when I like how it sounds in that area.

Following steps will be to balance the output of the middle and the bridge pickup but, for me, the key pickup is the neck one.

But, take into account that most of people goes the oposite way, that is, controlling first the sound of the bridge and then, balancing the output of the neck and middle pickup (what in my opinion gives you good bridge lead tones but often ruins the nice clean and overdriven neck tones!).

In a next article, I will give you the most common measures used in guitar' setup and, their correspondence with our "measuring tools" (coins, cards, etc), together with some other little trics for cheap but handy tools.

Care and clenaning

Even that these operations aren't directly related to the setup itself, have importance for the "health" of your instrument and, for your pleasure playing the guitar.

Cleaning and nurturing the fingerboard

In every musical intruments store you should be able to buy any proper product to clean the fretboard.
Usually, it will be some kind of spray, which liquid will be never aggressive with the wood and that will volatilize quickly, what will let you to easily remove the dirt with a cloth.

In my opinion, is a good oportunity to make a nice cleaning and nurturing of the fretboard, every time that we need to swap our strings.

Before using the cleaning liquid, is a good idea to softly scratch the borders of the frets with the help of a plastic card, because lot of dirt is being cummulated there.

Once the fretboard is clean, we should nurture it, if the wood isn't coated with some barnish.

Rosewood or Ebony fretboards (and practically any other kind of wood, except for mapple), are usually uncoated and, they tend to dry, cracking and leaving open their pores, what (appart of the sthetycal impact) grants the cummulation of dirt and, the risk of a definitive malfunction of the fretboard, that can end totally cracked.
Those kind of fretboards go immediatelly healty with a bit of luthery special oil or, with the those products used to care woods.
Any instruments store will have such an oil.

The oil should be applied in a slim layer (to moist, not to flood!).
You wait for a few minutes and, with the help of a soft cloth, you remove the excess of oil that the wood wasn't able to absorb.

Together with enhancing the look of the fretboard, this subtile layer of oil will help you to make your fretboard walking quicker and comfortabler.

If you don't have an specialized oil for luthery, you can use any of those commercial products specially designed to care about your furniture (Politus, Pronto, etc.), as an emergency resource.

Cleaning the rest of the guitar

Instrument stores will have also proper products to clean the rest of parts of the guitar.
In an emergency situation, you can use those speciallized products for furniture's care but, be very carefull with axes that were covered with nitrocellulose paint, because those need very specialized products.

Nitro paint is really delicate and, entering in contact with certain chemical agents can ruin or "wash" it. Please, verify the kind of finish applied to your axe and, ask the maker in case of doubt.

Lubricating the pieces

Even the best mechanized pieces, with the best finish can end breaking your strings, just because of friction.
I have the habit of lubricate EVERY spot where the string enters in touch with other piece, with some kind of lubricant.

Most people uses graphite grease and, I am lately using liquid teflon but, in an emergency case, you can use some of those lips care sticks that you can buy in any pharmacy store.
You could even use the  pencil lead (which, at the end, is graphite) to lubricate those areas.

If in your guitar same string is the one that breaks, and always by the same spot, it's clear that you have an issue in that spot. Lubricate the area around where the string enters in contact with other piece (a saddle, the nut, the tuning key, or whatever else).

If the string breaks close the the tuners posts then, the hole of the post can have be so sharp that breaks the string.
If the string breaks on the strings tree, the issue is the friction of the string against it.
If the string breaks on the nut, the issue is in its slots.
If the string breaks on the bridge, issue is in saddles.
If the string breaks on its ending ball, the issue is in the piece that retains the string.

And, if the string breaks on the middle then, the useful life of that string is over and, it's a good time to swap the whole set.

So, you can apply a drop of lubricant on each of those contact spots and, this will make the life of your strings clearly longer. Try it.
You will loose also the fear for extreme bendings, because now it will be really difficult to break the string with one.

Guitars with a Floyd Rose have just two spots of contact, the saddles and the locking nut and, therefore this operation isn't usually necessary.

The kind of guitars with more issues are those with vintage floating bridges (like the Strato). In those guitars, there are a bunch of contact spots (including the block of the floating bridge, where strings are being inserted).

Guitars with fixed bridges, like LPs, have less contact spots (stop tail, bridge, nut and key posts) but, you should take care of those few, also.

In those guitars where strings tresspass the body, you should care also about the holes where the ending balls of the strings are being retained (bottom side of the body) and, the output holes (upper side of the body), as well.


A Luthier makes things way more importants and of a deeper impact than everything that was mentioned here but, it could you demand between 60 and 100 Euros for a basic setup as the one explained here.
And, after his work, maybe which he/her considers a nice setup could be not the best for your particular taste.

At the end, it's your axe. You should care about the setup to make that guitar to be played as a dream.
You see, a few coins, a plastic card, a screwdriver and an allen key is everything you need to set up your guitar.

From all the operations described above, clearly, the thrussrod adjustment is the one you should take the best care to don't force it. Repairing a broken thrussrod isn't cheap and, your guitar will remain out-of-order until the thrussrod can be replaced.
Be patient, give maximum 1/4 of turn by session and, wait 2 days to leave the neck to estabilize.
If the nut seems locked and, some special lubricant oil doesn't unlocks it, stop. Go to a luthier.

A guitar is a balanced system. Any change in its pieces affects that balance.
If in your guitar A works better a set of strings D'Addario of 0.10" and, if in guitar B, a set Ernie Ball 0.09" and, in C a set of Pyramid 0.11", every time that you swap strings use exactly the same maker/model of strings, to keep your instrument balance. Otherwise, a new setup will be necessary.

Even respecting this game of substituting the old strings with a new set of same maker/model, the guitar is a living being and its balance is being altered also due to environmental changes.
It's very usuall to have to check and adjust the guitar setup twice in a year, around winter and summer, where the temperature changes are more dramatic.

Now, you know the goals of each operation, easy tools and, with just a little of interest and patience, your guitar will seem to you better than ever. Maybe you will end loving that axe that was so painful to play before.


Sometimes is easier to understand what you see than what you read so, here you are three videos with some explanations about this basic setup.

First video introduces our "measuring tools" and "adjustment tools", also explaining how to check and adjust neck's curvature. It also discusses about the different types of thrussrods.

Second video talks about the check and adjustment of string and pickups heights.

And, in the third video, wi discuss about the intonation issue and, several care and maintenance recommendations.

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