Going into the studio can be an exciting endeavor, whether you are recording your own music or doing session work. To make sure your recording session goes as smoothly as possible, it’s important to take some time beforehand to make sure your guitar is working properly and ready to lay down tracks the minute you set foot in the studio.
If it’s an important session, it may be ideal to take your guitars to a professional luthier or guitar tech for a full set up, in which they will adjust your string height, adjust the truss rod, set the intonation, set the pickup height, polish and clean the guitar, and check all the electronics. This is a process that you can learn to do yourself with a lot of practice, but if you don’t have time to do so and a session is right around the corner, here are three easy things you should do with each guitar you’re planning to record with.1. Change your strings. If you can’t remember the last time you changed your strings, or there is visible rust and corrosion on the strings, then they most definitely need to be changed. In addition to sounding dull and perhaps muddy, old strings do not hold their pitch or intonation as well. This is not to say that you should always change strings before going into the studio as older, worn in strings may have a preferable sound for certain genres. But if your strings are making it impossible for your guitar to sound in tune, it’s time for a change.
If possible, try to change your strings a few days before the session instead of in the parking lot before going in. Doing this allows for the strings to “set in” and allows for more tuning stability.
2. Intonate your guitar. Intonation is a simple process that sets your guitar to sound in tune with itself up and down the neck. Basically, plug your guitar into an electronic tuner and get it in tune. Play each open string and then fret the corresponding twelfth fret and check the pitches against each other. If the note at the twelfth fret is flat, use a screwdriver to loosen the saddle screw and move the saddle forward towards the pickups. If it’s sharp, tighten the screw to move it backwards away from the pickups. For a more in-depth guide to setting intonation, check out our previous article here.
3. Set your pickup height. Setting your pickup height properly can take a lot of experimentation, as different heights can vastly impact your tone. There is a fine balance here- if your pickups are too high, it can create strange overtones, your strings may slap against the pickups if you dig in hard, and your signal may be too hot. If the pickups are too low, your signal may sound weak.
A good place to start with setting your pickup height is to check your manufacturer’s recommended specifications- they will usually give you the recommended spacing between the string and pickup when fretting a string at the last fret. The best pickup height is the one that works best for your playing style, so feel free to experiment. Fortunately, the only tool you need to make adjustments is a screwdriver!
Remember, these tips are assuming your guitar is already set up decently and are in no way meant to be used as a full setup guide- string height and truss rod adjustment are a whole different beast!