So, you’ve booked some studio time, and you’re looking to get your guitar sounding ace? Thankfully, our guitar setup guide is here to help! Your guitar’s setup will play a factor in its playability and its sound, so it’s important to make sure it’s set up and ready for action! Nothing derails a recording session like having to stop to make adjustments on a guitar, so use this guide to save time in the studio!
I spoke with my buddy Nick from Scout Guitars to put this guide together! They do amazing setups and repairs in the Orlando area, so if you’re in town and need some work done on your guitar, they’re the place to go.
Guitar Setup Basics
To start, we’ll go over the different aspects of guitar setup that you’ll need to look at, then we’ll break down how to dial them in.
The action is the height of the strings over the fret board. If the action is too high, the strings will need to be pressed very hard to fret notes, potentially causing them to be bent out of tune. If the action is too low, the vibrating string could hit the frets, causing buzz or dead spots on the neck.
If a guitar’s intonation is set properly, each fretted note will sound in tune. If your guitar sounds like it’s going out of tune when you play notes higher up on the neck, the intonation is not set correctly.
3: Lubrication and instrument care
Your guitar is most likely made out of wood. That means it might require some maintenance to keep it in proper condition.
You’ll need some basic tools to set up your guitar for recording or performing! Typically, setting up a guitar also involves putting on a new set of strings, so have those handy as well! Ernie Ball Regular Slinky are my go-to, but you can experiment with different brands and sizes.
Setting Your Guitar’s Action
From Nick: “Action is how high your strings lay over the frets of the guitar. For recording, if your action is too high you can push the guitar out of tune when depressing the strings; and if it is too low you can get dead notes and lose sustain. Action differs for some playing styles, and especially between electric and acoustic guitars.
For electric, the rule of thumb is to get your string height around 0.05 inches above the frets at the 12th fret of the high E string, and to taper that up to 0.07 on the low E string (this has been found to be a common comfortable height that doesn’t fret out and doesn’t push out of tune). You do this by setting a ruler or string height gauge on top of the 12th fret and reading the number just under the string.”
If your strings are in that range, you are good to move on to step two: intonation. If not, let’s look at how to get your strings to the right height!
To adjust the string height, simply use the screwdriver or wrench that fits into your saddle/bridge, and raise or lower it until the string is at your desired height.
On a Gibson style bridge, there are two thumbwheels that you can turn to adjust the height of each side of the bridge. I’d suggest loosening the strings by de-tuning the guitar, making the adjustment, and then tuning and checking the height.
On Fender style bridges, there will typically be two smaller screws per saddle. You’ll need to adjust both screws to keep the saddle level! Again, it can be helpful to loosen the string before you do this step.
If you need more instruction, here’s an in-depth video for setting Gibson string height…
…and here’s one for Fenders!
Once your action is set, your strings should be a comfortable, easy-to-play height from your fretboard! Now let’s move on to the next step!
Setting Your Guitar’s Intonation
Intonation is all about making sure your guitar sounds in tune (hence the name!). The tuning of the guitar is decided by how tightly wound the string is. However, different tunings, different string gauges, and even different individual strings, will alter how long the string needs to be to stay in tune. Since the frets on the neck are fixed in place, we solve this problem by adjusting the length of the string from nut to bridge.
From Nick: “To check intonation you first pick a string and tune that string using the harmonic at the 12th fret (put your finger over the 12th fret, let your skin touch it, but do not press down the string to make a note). Once that is perfectly in tune, you then fret the string at the 12th as if you are playing the note. Look at the tuner: is it going sharp or flat, or is it perfectly in tune? If it’s in tune (no movement at all on the tuner) then your intonation is set perfectly.”
You’ll need to do this for each string. If the intonation is off, you’ll adjust the length of the string slightly by turning a screw on the bridge. For Fender style guitars, that screw is at the bottom of the bridge (farthest from the neck).
And for Gibson style guitars, it’s on the inside of the bridge.
If the note is sharp, you’ll need to turn the screw clockwise. If it’s flat, turn it counter-clockwise. It’s worth noting that you’ll never realistically have all six strings perfectly intonated at every fret (unless you have fanned frets, which is a whole different beast). However, intonating based on the 12th fret will get you close enough for practical playing.
Once all six strings are intonated, you’re set up and ready to play! However, there are a few long-term maintenance steps you can take to keep your guitar looking and playing great for years to come!
Basic Instrument Lubrication and Care
Applying some basic products to your guitar will help ensure it stays playable and in top condition! Using a string lubricant, like GHS Fast Fret, will make sure your neck and strings are properly lubricated.
If your fret board is starting to feel dry, applying a fret board oil will help keep the wood in good shape. I suggest washing your hands before playing your guitar, to keep grime and sweat off of your strings and neck. This will help your strings last longer and keep you from having to clean your neck as often. Also, use a microfiber towel and some guitar polish every once in a while to keep your finish looking shiny!
Guitar upkeep is fairly simple and affordable, so there’s no excuse for not keeping your instrument in good shape!
Guitar Setup Tools
Keeping your guitar set up is fairly simple, but you will need some tools to do it! I recommend grabbing a multi-tool kit like this one from Amazon, which includes a string action ruler, a full set of wrenches, and lots of other useful tools! However, you can typically make it work with tools you already have around the garage. Things like screwdrivers and rulers are universal, so you don’t necessarily need guitar-specific tools to work on a guitar. If you are on a tight budget, you should be able to do a setup with basic tools you already own or can borrow from a handy friend.
Keeping your guitar set up is an essential part of being a guitar player, so follow this guitar setup guide, and you’ll be ready to rock at the studio!
If you found this article handy, check out the rest of our articles here! Thanks again to Nick and Scout Guitars for their help with this article – besides repairs and setups, they also make really sweet custom guitars, so check their site out at www.scoutguitars.com!
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