December 21, 2018
In this article, we will continue our guide to Guitar Setups for Players. Be sure to check out our previous article for valuable information.
Install new strings of the gauge and brand you intend to use and tune the guitar to pitch. To check relief without a straightedge, hold down the low E string at the first and seventeenth frets, using your right hand pinky at the seventeenth. Now use your right hand index finger to tap the string above the ninth fret. You should be able to feel the string tapping the fret. Watch the space between the string and the ninth fret as you tap. Check the treble side as well.
Get the Neck Relief Right in the Beginning
Select the truss wrench with care! Size matters. The wrench should fit easily without any slop and feel solid without excess play. Important: Always loosen the truss rod before tightening! It could have been over tightened previously to the point of breakage. At least if you loosen it, you will know it is moving freely before you try to tighten the rod. Tighten the rod for less relief. Loosen the rod for more relief. The perfect amount depends on many factors: the guitar, your playing style, your string gauge and tension, and how high your action is going to be. A good starting point is a space about the thickness of a business card. Be careful! Over tightening can break the rod. If it seems very tight, take it to the shop. If you can't get enough relief and the rod goes loose, some newer guitars have two-way truss rods designed to add relief as well as remove it. Continue to loosen the rod about a turn and you will feel it engage in the other direction. If it doesn't engage, snug it back up and take it to the repair shop.
Is the Nut Correct?
Check the nut height by holding down the string at the second fret and observing the space between the string and the top of the first fret. This is a very tiny space, perhaps only just enough for you to hear the string tapping on the fret. However, there must be space here or the open strings will buzz. If the nut height is screwy, take your guitar to the repair shop. If the nut seems okay, pause to lubricate the nut slots lightly before proceeding.
Custom Action Adjustments at Your Fingertips!
Check individual string action at 12th fret and adjust. Get a small 6" stainless steel ruler (home improvement stores sell these at a very reasonable cost). To check string action, set the ruler on top of the 12th fret, and measure the space between the fret and the bottom of the string. Average low action is typically 4/64" on the treble E string. The action on the low E string is typically between 4/64" and 5/64" depending on preference. Some very low setups require action as low as 2/64", but there are always trade-offs that come into play with extreme settings. Bass guitar setups vary widely, between 4/64" - 8/64" on the G string, and between 6/64" - 8/64" (or more) on the E string. The middle strings should fall between the top and bottom strings, in the same range. Test the fingerboard for playability. Every string should sound cleanly on every fret. Bending requires more clearance, so make sure that bent notes still ring true without choking out. Set the intonation of each string by comparing the note at the 12th fret to the string harmonic above it. The guitar should be in playing position. If the fretted note is flat, move the bridge saddle forward towards the neck. If the fretted note is sharp, move the bridge saddle back. Retune the string before rechecking. Make tiny incremental adjustments. Intonation is a bit of a painstaking process, but fortunately once you get it right it usually stays right. Changing string gauge or brands (or tuning) will usually require the intonation to be readjusted.
Get Out There and Play It!
Once you have completed the action and intonation adjustments, take a few minutes to do a final quality check for playability, intonation, electronics and tuning stability. Now you have the ability to maintain your guitar setup in perfect adjustment. A well-adjusted guitar will deliver precise performance and great sound, and what more could you need?
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