Review: Billy Penn’s Guitar Setup Guide

A few days ago I posted about setting up my recently built Jazzmaster. As part of the post I mentioned about the availability of Billy Penn’s guitar set up guide. Since then I have bought a copy and have had chance to have a good read through.

First some background. Billy is a guitar and amp tech, based in New Jersey, who has over 20 years experience. He has tirelessly provided help and assistance on his youtube channel, as well as being an active blogger and twitterer. Billy has decided to document the key steps in maintaining and setting up a guitar, and to sell this eBook for US$4.99. The e-book comes in three different formats; ePub, MobiPocket and the ubiquitous PDF Portable Document Format.

I made my first tentative steps setting up guitars in the early 80s. I am reasonably familiar with most aspects of guitar maintenance, although in those pre-internet years, I learnt most of my lessons by making mistakes and then having to fix them myself. I have used guitar techs to do setups for me but, around five or six years ago I resolved to try to do everything myself. So far I haven’t regretted the decision. Some people worry about cost of the specialist tools required but, in my experience most of what you need will be found in the average toolbox. The only two exceptions I’ve come across have been files for cutting nut slots and for crowning frets. The cost of both of these costs less than a pro setup, so I regarded this as an investment.

OK so, let’s dive into the book… after a brief introduction Billy jumps straight into the basics, covering the tools you’ll need, your workspace, and then running through a basic service from removing the strings to getting them back on again and all the steps in between.

Part two of the book covers everything about setting the guitar’s action, including truss rod adjustment. The omission from this section is a detailed discussion about cutting the nut slots. Billy’s rationale, correctly in my opinion, is that because it requires a specialist tool it is beyond the scope of this book.

The third part of the book talks about setting the intonation before going on to the fourth section covering the adjustment of the pickups. The book wraps up with some tips, a glossary and product list.

So, what did I like about the book? Above everything, the most appealing aspect is Billy’s clear no-nonsense writing style, amply illustrated with pictures. The book also includes links to many of Billy’s videos to expand on the topic. This is where an eBook really scores over the dead-tree version and Billy has made great use of the capabilities. I like the fact that it covers all types of guitars both acoustics and electrics, with special notes about some of the vagaries of the different types such as how to deal with a floating bridge or a Gibson style tune-o-matic. There are detailed discussions about specific features of Telecasters and Strats for example.

I genuinely think that, with a basic toolkit, Billy’s book, and a “can-do” attitude, a well setup and maintained guitar is within the reach of anyone.

And what didn’t I like about the book? To be frank, not much. I’d have liked that info about cutting nut slots and I’m really looking forward to the intermediate/advanced setup guide that I hope will be coming. There are a couple of things Billy advises of which I’m not a huge fan, such as using boiled linseed oil on a fretboard. I don’t have a problem with it – it is just that I personally prefer a citrus/mineral oil (a lemon or orange oil). Perhaps in a future edition it would be nice to see some of the alternatives discussed.

When I first wrote about the book I had mentioned that buying the book was as much a way of saying thank you to Billy for being so generous with his knowledge. I had hoped that I might learn a trick or two, but wouldn’t have felt at all short-changed if I didn’t. So, did this old dog learn any new tricks? Oh yes! I’m not going to spill the beans but tucked away in there were a couple of absolute gems. (hint: one was about the stickiness of tape and the other was about the jack socket)

Value for money? I’m not sure how much a professional setup is going to cost you these days. The last one I paid for (at a very highly respected tech) cost me £65. Will your first attempts be as good as a pro setup? Of course not. But I’m pretty sure that with Billy’s guide, and a willingness to give it a go, it’ll be damn close and every time you do it, it’ll get that bit closer. Even if you don’t do your own setup, just following chapter one’s service schedule when you change your strings will mean that your guitar is kept in tip-top shape and will be all that it can be. Now in my book that represents value for money. Heck, I’ve wasted ten times that much on the latest snake-oil or silver bullet to improve my Telecaster. Do yourself and your guitar a favour.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I have no connection with Billy Penn or 300Guitars. I have not (and will not) receive any sort of reward or recompense for any of the above. I have no vested interest in stroking Billy’s ego or earning him any money. It is my opinion and nothing more.

Audio sample of the Jazzmaster

Here is a 1m30s sample of the Jazzmaster. It uses a mixture of the bridge and neck pickups. Recorded into Reaper using a clean amp model with a touch of reverb. The drums were done, as always, with EZDrummer and the bass was my custom 4 string.

NB: It was only after posting this to youtube.com that it occurred to me that the word “Jazzmaster” may be interpreted as some sort of hubristic comment on my playing abilities, particularly given the tune I chose. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is just a piece I have been trying to learn over the past 5-6 months, as part of experimenting with different time-signatures (both playing and recording them). It was the first tune that “fell under my fingers” when I hit record.

Setting up the Jazzmaster

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.

Disclaimer: I don’t have any connection to Billy Penn, other than following him on Twitter and subscribing to his YouTube channel.

Finishing the Jazzmaster

I was just left with a few jobs to finish off the Jazzmaster.

I cut myself a bone nut blank from my stash.

Sanded it to shape and marked the string slot positions.

And checked the fit.

Normally I would fix it in place with a small dab of CA glue, but the fit is very snug and so I’m going to leave it as it is for now.

That just left me with giving it a final wax polish, installing the pickups, wiring it up, giving it a fresh set of Ernie Ball Slinkies and a rough setup.

There are a few jobs left to do, such as applying a headstock logo and making a truss rod cover, but I’m going to be too busy playing it for the next couple of days.

This one has been a smooth build. A couple of interesting challenges, a few new skills to learn, 10 days of work (in the region of 40-50 hours) over 18 elapsed days and a final total cost of £156.06. I’ll call that a result.

Carving the heel and preparing the Jazzmaster for finish

Into the final furlong now and there are just a few jobs left before the Danish oil goes on. To start the day I remove the neck clamps and check the joint.

For the neck heel carve I roughly mark where I’m aiming for.

With a spindle sander in my hand-held drill I start removing wood…

…until it is about the shape I want. I then finish by hand.

That’s the last of the woodworking finished. I drill the pilot holes for the hardware. The only complicated part is getting the bridge positioned correctly. As previously, I use a piece of cotton running from the bridge to the headstock and back again.

Drill the holes for the bridge.

While I’ve got the bridge unpacked I take a few minutes to run the base across a piece of 400 grit paper, to make sure it makes full contact with the body top once it is screwed down.

I mark up the legde of the control cavity and drill the 6mm holes for the neodymium magnets, and fasten them in place with CA glue. I glue magnets in position on the cover too, making sure the magnets are the right way round, so they don’t repel.

Check the alignment and fit.

All that remains is to sand and sand and sand. Working my way up through the grades to 320 grit, and then give the body a wipe with a damp rag to raise the grain.

And here are the first coats of Danish oil going on, using the approach I’ve written about previously.

One last thing, a couple of days ago Gtr1ab asked how I laid out the controls on the template. Below is a picture of the marked up template. If I was building an exact Jazzmaster replica I would have just transferred the positions from the paper plan, but I’m adding my own touches. I wanted the volume knob to be exactly level with the bridge saddles so using a square I extended the line down the body. I placed the centre of the volume approx half way between the bridge and the body edge.

I then drew a line, at a slightly descending angle, towards the tail end of the body. There was no science or measurement to this I just picked an angle that I found pleasing to the eye. I placed the other two controls and the jack socket along this line. When laying out controls previously I had measured equal distance between the hole centres but, because components have a different radius they end up looking mis-spaced. I measured each component and then made sure the gap between the edges of each was consistent. Again there was no science to this I just chose a distance that looked pleasing to the eye – in this case a 30mm gap.

Routing the Jazzmaster for the Gretsch Filtertron pickups

The Gretsch Filtertron pickups from Shanghai Guitars arrived in the post this morning so I have been able to crack on with the next stage of the build.

I had not realised that the baseplate of the neck Filtertron stuck out wider than the pickup itself. Because I want to have this in a tight rout, this needed modification. A few careful strokes with a hacksaw and that was easily sorted.

Next, to make the pickup routing template, I ripped some mdf to 35mm wide, the same width as the pickup and then taped them down, round a pickup, to the piece of MDF that will become the final template. NB: I checked the pickups were identically sized first because that is not always the case.

A run round with the top bearing cutter and I have the template…

…which matches the pickup perfectly.

I marked up their positions on the body, hogged out wood with a brad pointed drill bit, attached the template and routed to around 10mm deep.

Then removed the template and routed the final depth down to 19mm.

I check the fit, with bridge and neck in position.

Next job is to drill the runs for the pickup cables, and not forgetting a hole from the control cavity to just under the bridge, so that I can ground it. Here I drill through from the neck pickup cavity into the bridge pickup cavity. So much easier doing this before you’ve glued the neck in place, as I found out when I built my first guitar.

Final job for the day, with rapidly approaching storm clouds and a fierce wind picking up, was to sand the neck heel and neck pocket with 60 grit, give them a good clean and coat of Titebond Original, and clamp up the neck.

Suddenly it is starting to look like a guitar.

The next job will be to carve the heel to shape, drill pilot holes for all of the components, mount the control cover magnets, and sand it ready for finish.

Routing the bass’ pickup cavity and gluing the neck joint

Despite my earlier pessimistic post, I did finally get a rain-free hour and I was able to get on with the final few woodworking jobs.

I first made a template for routing the pickups. I started by drilling the three 13mm holes for the pickup ears and then cut the shape out for the body of the pickup.

I tested it a couple of times on a piece of scrap MDF, making slight changes with a rasp and sandpaper, until I was happy with the fit.

I attached it to the bass body with double sided tape and routed it to 16mm deep, testing the fit at the point where I needed to remove the template to get to the final few millimeters.

I drilled the two holes into the control cavity for the pickup lead and bridge earth strap and then just had time to pack everything away before the rain returned.

After packing away I moved inside, checked the fit of the pickup, and then glued and clamped up the neck.

Tomorrow, should I get a gap in the weather, I need to drill the pilot holes for the strap buttons and bridge mounting screws, and then I’m on to sanding it down in preparation for the finish. Thankfully these two jobs don’t need much kit so I can quickly jump in and out to take advantage of any breaks in the weather. If all goes well I should get the first few coats of finish on tomorrow. This is my favourite part – where you first see the true colour and grain pattern of the wood.

Setting pickup height

It has been a day of rain showers and after getting all the tools out and then putting them away again three times I gave up for the day. No progress on the custom bass. Instead I set myself to a couple of indoor jobs.

First I decided to properly set the pickup heights for my Voodoo Telecaster. As I was doing it it occurred to me that my approach may be of interest to someone else, so here it is. It is largely based on the common sense approach recommended by pickup guru Bill Lawrence (see point three).

I start with the bridge pickup. I find this is the most sensitive one to get right so I like to get this set up first.

  1. On the treble side, as a starting point I fret the E string at the highest fret and then adjust the pickup until it is around 2mm from the string.
  2. At this point Bill recommends setting the bass side to around double the treble side. I start here but then I strum a six string chord and listen to the relative volume and raise/lower the bass side of the pickup until I get a pleasing balance.
  3. Once I’m happy with the bridge pickup I turn my attention to the neck pickup. Flicking between bridge and neck pickups and with a consistently strummed chord I aim to balance the volume between bridge and neck. All the time I make sure the neck pickup is in balance with itself and neither the bass nor treble side predominate.
  4. At this point I’m fairly close but I like to take one extra step. One of my favourite sounds on the Telecaster is the bridge and neck pickup together. For this combination I like the bridge pickup to predominate slightly, so it has still got that Telecaster snap and bite, but with just a touch of warmth underneath it. I usually wind the neck pickup down slightly and then go back to step #3, and then back to step #4, until I’m happy with the compromise.
  5. Twang!

Adding out-of-phase switching to a Telecaster

As I posted previously, I’ve added “out of phase” switching to my Voodoo Telecaster and I thought it would be worth sharing the exact details of how I did that.

The Telecaster neck pickup has a very simple construction. There are two leads coming from it. The hot is connected to one end of the coil. The ground is connected to the other end of the coil and the pickup cover.

If you were to just add a switch to invert the phase of the pickup it would mean that the pickup cover would also get switched to be the hot signal and we don’t want that. This means we need to modify the neck pickup slightly. If you look at the underside of the pickup, you’ll see a small jumper wire that connects the cover (lower centre) to one end of the coil and the black ground lead (left).

First we need to break that connection. A simple snip of the wire does it.

Then we need to solder on a separate ground lead. In this case I used a brown wire, just so that when I get to the tangle of wires in the control cavity, I can easily identify it.

Once we get to the control cavity, the brown lead gets soldered to one of the common ground points (I used the back of the volume pot). The two remaining leads from the neck pickup go to the two centre poles of a DPDT switch (double pole, double throw). Like this.

Let’s talk through how this works… If the switch is in the “up” position (the top pair of poles are connected to the centre poles) then one end of the pickup coil (hot) enters at the right side, is connected by the switch to the top right pole and therefore connects to ground. The other end of the pickup coil (labelled ground in this picture) enters at the left, is connected to the top left by the switch and therefore connects to the hot going into the selector switch. Push the switch into the “down” position and the exact opposite is happens. Hey presto phase reversal.

The sound produced is not going to be to everyone’s tastes. It is a very thin twangy sound (think strat position 2 with the bass on your amp turned way down). I love it for reggae/funk style rhythm guitar and it really cuts through a mix well.

Here is a quick test of the four pickup combinations; neck, neck and bridge in phase, bridge, neck and bridge out of phase. In each case it is a simple E major pentatonic running from open low E through three octaves.

Recorded using a Fender Bassman sim on a Line 6 Pod XT Live straight into Reaper.

The Voodoo Telecaster revisited and rewired

While the finish has been drying on my current project, I turned my attention back to the Voodoo Telecaster I built a few months ago. I had never got round to giving it more than a perfunctory setup and nor had I wired in the two push/pull pots that I had fitted. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the switches so had just gone with the standard Tele wiring to start off.

Last night a spent a few hours tweaking the truss rod and action. It has transformed the guitar from something that was OK, into a beautifully playable guitar. Now on to the wiring. I’ve decided that the first push/pull pot will be a phase switch. This will of course only work when the pickup selector is in the middle position. It requires a modification to the neck pickup. As standard, one end of the coil is attached to the pickup cover and then on to the ground lead. I’ll snip this connection and run a separate wire to ground the pickup cover.

The second push/pull is going to be a “turbo” which will switch the volume and tone out of the circuit. A passive volume and tone control will sap somewhere between 8-12db from the pickup signal. Bypassing these passive controls gives a big boost. It is at the expense of having any control (other than the pickup selector switch) but it just sounds great when over-driving the pre-amp stage of my valve amp.

Here’s the schematic I’ve sketched out.

The neck pickup first goes to the phase switch which effectively flips the pickup’s coil round in the circuit. From there it joins up with the bridge pickup at the selector switch. The selector switch goes into the “turbo” switch. When engaged the signal is routed through to the standard Tele master volume/tone controls. When disengaged the output from the selector switch goes directly to the hot of the jack socket.

Edit 1: After completing the rewiring and playing with it for an hour or two I decided to disconnect the “turbo” volume/tone bypass. It just wasn’t working for me. I had previously tried this with humbuckers and P90s and loved it, but with the sharp, cutting single coil pickups it just didn’t sound as I expected. I’m going to investigate the “Arlo Cocked Wah” mod.

Edit 2: I’ve just spotted why the “turbo” mod wasn’t working as I’d hoped. If you trace the scematic through, then you can see, when the turbo mode is engaged, is still allows a path to ground for the hot signal via the vol and tone pots. No wonder I didn’t like the sound, it would have been the same except the volume knob wouldn’t work properly. To correct it I need to use the second poles of the turbo switch to disconnect the vol/tone part of the circuit from the hot. When I get time, I’ll redraw the schematic and retry this mod.