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.

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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!

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.

Voodoo Telecaster: Reshaping the neck profile

As I mentioned in my last post I wasn’t 100% happy with the neck profile. This is down to my lack of experience and the flaws with the neck shape didn’t become apparent until I put strings on it and I had chance to play. Thankfully the neck is finished in Danish oil and so taking off a little more wood and then refinishing is relatively simple.

I used a cabinet scraper to remove the excess. This has become one of my favourite tools, removing wood almost as quickly as a rasp but with more control and leaving a smoother finish.

Once I’d got the shape I sanded it to 320 grit. Dampened it to raise the grain and then lightly resanded.

And applied four coats of Danish oil.

Tomorrow morning it’ll get sanded back with 600 and then a number of very thin coats during the day, at an interval of 1-2 hours and that should be enough.

Voodoo Telecaster: Finished

Well yesterday I ran out of patience. The VOC smell had gone and I couldn’t mark the lacquer when pressed in the pickup rout with a fingernail, so it got sanded back with 1200 and then 1500 and polished with a auto paint restorer followed by a good thick coating of wax polish.

Late yesterday and today I got it setup close to how I like but I’ll leave the neck under tension for a couple of weeks before finalising the truss rod adjustment and the nut slots.

After playing it for a couple of hours I’ve decided that I’m not 100% happy with the neck profile. That’s the beauty of the Danish oil finish though. I’ve just been able to break out the cabinet scrapers and reprofile the neck. I’ll play it for a few more hours tonight to see how it feels and, if I’m happy with it, refinish the neck tomorrow.