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3 comments / Posted by Bruce Ohms

Setting Up A Guitar

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!


    • Posted On October 16, 2016 by RC Dubb

      And never lend your guitar to a liberal. It’ll com back warped.

    • Posted On October 14, 2016 by Alan Simpson

      Why do you show a picture of an acoustic guitar then describe the set up of an electric guitar?

    • Posted On October 14, 2016 by Uncle Ralph

      Yes, pickup height is not exactly intuitive sometimes. I had a very nice American strat that, as it turned out, was nicely set up out of the box. I enjoyed it for a while, but I was used to humbuckers and the strat sounded comparatively wimpy (turns out it’s supposed to). I looked at the pickup height and said, “There’s yer problem, right there.” The tops of the pickups were at least 3/16" inch away from the string. So I got a screw driver and cranked them up to where each pickup was no more than 1/16" from a string fretted at the last fret.

      The difference was amazing. The guitar went from being one of the sweetest strats I ever heard (I literally played every one in town before I chose that one) to being completely unplayable. It couldn’t even be tuned. I could tune the open strings to an electronic tuner, but the first string I fretted was out of tune. If the open strings were in tune and I tuned a string to the fifth fret of the one next to it, then the open strings were out of tune. WTF?

      It turns out (it always turns out, never in for some reason) that the magnet slugs in those wimpy single coil strat pickups were actually pulling the strings out of tune! And at weird non-musical intervals. I couldn’t believe they were strong enough to do that. Anyway, I put them back as close as I could remember to where the were and got my cherry strat back. And I learned that a traditional single-coil strat and a Les Paul are two different things, each with their own attributes and applications.

      So like the article says, think before you tweak. And it doesn’t hurt to measure the height first so that you can put it back when you realize it was perfect to begin with.

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