Now that woodworking and assembly has been completed, the next job is to get it set up so that it plays as well as it can. For a new guitar I have found this is much more of an iterative and drawn out process, than setting up an old guitar. The neck relief in particular seems to take two to three weeks to settle in while the wood, truss rod and string tension all ease themselves into some sort of equilibrium.
Now I’m not saying this is the right order for tackling a setup, but this is the approach I use and it works fine for me.
- Adjust the pickup height to be slightly lower than where you think the final position will be.
- If you’ve got adjustable polepieces then, as a start point set them to a height that approximately matches the fretboard radius.
- Set the bridge saddle height to be slightly higher than you think you’ll need.
- A new set of strings is a must. Get them on up to tune,stretched and settled.
- Make a quick check of the neck relief. I hold the string down at the first and last fret (using a capo helps) and at around the 8th or 9th fret you should have a gap between the fret top and the string that you could just slide a pick into. If you’re not sure about how to adjust the relief then head off to youtube.com and search for one of the many excellent guides.
- With the guitar tuned and the neck relief close enough for now I then set the intonation.
- I start with the high/thin E string. Play the 12th fret harmonic and then fretted at the 12th. If the fretted note is higher this means the string needs to be longer so adjust the saddle accordingly. Retune the string, recheck and adjust. Keep going until the harmonic and fretted note are in tune with each other.
- I then set the D string saddle to about the same position as the E and go through the same process.
- Next is the thick E string and the G string (I’m assuming an unwound G). I set the saddle about 4-5mm further back than the D and thin E, respectively. This gives you a start point that will be close. Then fine tune with the fretted/harmonic at the 12th.
- And to finish off I set the A saddle between the E and D position, and the B saddle between the G and E. Again, this is just a close start point for the fine tuning.
- The next phase of adjusting the action requires two separate adjustments; to the nut slots and the saddle heights. Because cutting the nut slot deeper is a one time deal (OK, it is not exactly but trying to raise a nut slot is a real PITA) I cycle round this many times, going slowly, just taking off a little at a time. I make sure the nut slots aren’t too high. I then adjust each saddle bringing it down and playing at every fret along the neck until I get a buzz. At that point I wind it back up a notch and then move on to the next string.
- Once the saddles are about there, go back to the nut and check the slot height. If it is near-ish I leave it at that for now. It’ll get done properly after two to three weeks, once the neck relief has settled into shape.
- Last job is adjusting the pickup height, which I described in detail a few posts ago.
One thing to bear in mind is that just because you can have a low action doesn’t mean you have to. For years I did everything I could to get ultra-low action on all of my guitars. I had assumed that, because one sign of a bad guitar is high action, low action was the sign of a good guitar. This is not true! I have found that a slightly higher action gives a much clearer sound and, for me, makes bending a string much easier. I feel that I can get my finger under the string and push it up, rather than trapping the string between finger and fretboard and squeezing it upwards. It does require more finger strength and tougher finger tips, but hey, that’s what practice is for.
Instalment two will be along in a few weeks but, in the meantime, if you’re interested in this topic then I would highly recommend that you head over to Billy Penn’s 300 Guitars blog and check out his guitar setup guide.
If you’re not familiar with the name, Billy is a guitar and amp tech (and shit hot guitar player) from New Jersey who has tirelessly provided many, many helpful posts and videos. And let’s get this straight – Billy is not some back garden hacker like me – he is the real deal. He is selling his guitar setup e-book for just $4.99. My first thought was that I’ve been setting up my own guitars for 20 years and have just about got the hang of it now, but I’ve had second thoughts… First off Billy has been so generous with his advice over the years and five bucks seems the least I can do to say “thank you”. Secondly, and perhaps from a selfish perspective, if I learn just one cool new trick that helps me setup or maintain my guitars better, that’s got to be worth it.
BTW: If you take your gear to a guitar tech I’d still recommend the guide. If you’re not doing it yourself then having a good understanding of what you’re talking about, or even of what to ask a guitar tech, is worth the five bills in my opinion.