The tiniest of adjustments in the set up of your guitar can have a massive effect. If you’re trying to learn a new lick or just want to play smooth rhythm transitions, things go a lot faster with a guitar that’s not working against you. If you have problems with string buzz, have to fight with the machine heads to get your guitar in tune, or, even though you’re perfectly tuned, playing a chord sounds like you’re abusing a cat, then it might be time to give your instrument a little care and attention. Of course, you could take it to a local guitar tech (luthier), or you could learn to make some adjustments and set up your guitar yourself. Setting up an electric guitar doesn’t have to be difficult but there are a few basic rules that need to be followed. With the expert help of this here blog and some essential guitar tools, you can set up your new guitar or give your vintage, beloved axe the care it deserves.
Adjust the neck of your guitar
If your electric guitar is uncomfortable to play or is making noises that it shouldn’t, this is often because the neck is not correctly adjusted. There are a lot of factors that can throw a neck out of whack. The sensitive wood can get warped by humidity, temperature shifts and, when you switch to a heavier or lighter string gauge, this can also negatively affect the tension across the neck. To be sure that any problems you’re having are being caused by the neck, the first thing you need to do is check the curvature of the neck.
How straight is the neck of your guitar?
Many guitarists think that once a guitar is set up, the neck should be completely straight. However, since strings vibrate in an eliptical pattern, a straight neck can cause a lot of problems. If the neck is straight, you risk the strings colliding with the frets as they vibrate, leading to a rattling sound when a string is played open. The prevent this, the neck actually needs to be subtly warped. As such, the neck of your guitar can have a convex curvature, also called ‘back-bow’, or a hollow curvature, also known as a ‘relief’.
Check the curvature of the neck
To check the curvature of the neck, you can use the stright-line of a string as a guide and check your neck as follows:
– With your left hand, press down the low E string at the 1st fret
– With your right hand, press down the low E string at the 17th fret
Like the image above, there should be enough room between the string and each fret between the 1st and 17th fret. If this is the case, then the neck has a hollow curvature. If there’s no room between the string and frets and the string is even lifted a little, then your neck has a convex curvature.
If you’re struggling to see if there’s any room between the string and frets, you can also try the following methods to double check:
– With your left hand, press down the low E string at the 1st fret
– Spread the fingers of your right hand as far apart as possible and use your pinkie to hold down the low E string at the 17th fret. Then, using your thumb, press down on the low E string halfway between the 1st and 17th fret. If there’s any movement in the string, then the neck has a hollow curvature.
Is your neck twisted?
Since you’re already at it, you might as well check if your neck is twisted. Unfortunately, if a neck is twisted along its length, there’s a chance that it’s already beyond saving, so it’s worth checking this before deciding if adjustments can be made. To check this, simply hold down the high E string at the 1st and 17th frets again. If you get exactly the same result as you did by holding down the low E, then there’s no problem. If you have space between the frets and low E but no space between the frets and high E (or the other way around) then the neck is twisted. If you see only a small difference, then any good luthier will be able to fix this by levelling the frets. The image below shows the sorry looking, twisted neck of a classical guitar.
A convex or hollow neck
Before you go any further, it’s important that you’re 100% certain that the string gauge and brand of strings that you’re about to install are absolutely the ones you want to stick with. If you thread your guitar with a heavier gauge having set it up for lighter strings, then you create more tension along the neck and this can lead to an even more hollow curvature.
When playing with a hollow neck, as you go further up the frets (approximately from the 12th fret upwards) the strings tend to start touching the frets and create unwanted fret-buzz. With a convex neck, you’re likely to get fret-buzz between the 1st and 12th frets. Ideally, the neck needs to have an ideal hollow or ‘relief’ curvature giving you the space of something like two business cards between the string and the frets.
The tension rod
To make sure that the curvature of the neck is warped by the tension of the strings, a truss rod is usually built into the neck. These metal rods run the length of the neck and are fitted with a special nut that can be tightened to make the neck more convex as needed. Older or vintage-style guitars are often fitted with a ‘single-action truss rod’ which only straightens when tightened, in other words, no ‘forward adjustments’ can be made.
Most modern guitars are built with a double-action truss rod or two-way truss rod which can be adjusted both forward and backwards, meaning that it can be straightened or made more hollow.
Adjusting the truss rod
If your neck is too hollow, then you need to tighten the truss rod by using an allen key (or appropriate tool) and turning it clockwise to straighten the rod. If the neck is too convex or, then the truss rod needs to be loosened and this is done turning the allen key anti-clockwise. Whether tightening or loosening, always turn by a quarter then re-tune your guitar and check the curvature is where it needs to be. With some guitars, it take a little while before any movement in the wood is noticeable, so it’s important to let the neck settle for an hour or so after every quarter turn and make sure the guitar is in tune so that the correct string tension is maintained.
Please note: It can be that there’s no movement in the truss rod or it’s incredibly stiff when adjusting. In this case, it’s a good idea to take your guitar to a professional guitar technician or luthier to avoid snapping the nut or rod itself and rendering the neck completely useless.
Different types of truss rod nuts
Truss rods can comes with various nuts and at different ends of the neck. Fenders from the ‘50s and ‘60s are fitted with single-action truss rods with the nut at the very end of the neck, where it’s joined to the body, and a philips-head screwdriver is needed to make any adjustments. These ‘slotted nuts’ can only be accessed by completely unscrewing the neck from the body. The easiest way to do this is to place a capo at the first fret and slacken the strings while the capo holds the strings in the string-nut at the head. Then, remove the four screws from the neck plate. Now, you’ll be able to lift the neck out of the neck-pocket until the nut of the truss rod is accessible. Tighten or loosen the nut by a quarter-turn, reassemble your guitar, tune up and check that the curvature of the neck is where it should be. If not, then rinse and repeat.
Please note: When a single-action truss rod is bending back (convex or back-bowed) and the nut is completely lose, then it’s usually and unfortunately the case that the neck is a complete write-off. If there’s a light back-bow, then a professional guitar tech or luthier can file the frets down to compensate for the warped curvature. Sometimes, the frets need to be removed completely before the neck can be straightened and the frets are then replaced. A process that could cost you a few hundred.
Fender guitars manufactured in the ‘70s comes with single-action truss rods fitted with so-called ‘Bullet’ truss-rod nuts positioned in the neck. These chrome nuts literally have a bullet shape and usually stick out of the head, just behind the string-nut and are adjusted using a 1/8-inch hex or allen-key.
Gibson style (Hex)
Gibson guitars come with a vintage-style single action truss-rod that can be tightened using a very specific 5/16-inch socket wrench. The bronze six-sided nut sits under a plastic cover (truss rod cover) on the head of the guitar, just behind the string-nut. High-end models by Ibanez and Jackson have very similar hex truss-rods.
Most modern two-way truss-rods have what most people call an ‘Allen nut’. To make adjustments to these, you’re usually going to need an allen key like this one. Allen keys come in various sizes but a 4 or 5mm key is the standard. The nut can be find at either end of the neck and manufacturers like Yamaha, Squier and G&L use these kinds of truss-rod nuts.
Another kind of adjustment nut is the unique ‘Spoke Nut’. These are always found at the body-side of the neck and tightens the truss-rod via a rotating cylinder with holes. A narrow screwdriver, allen key or another narrow and straight tool is inserted into one of the holes and used as a lever to loosen or tighten the truss-rod without the need to completely remove the neck of the guitar. Spoke nuts are used as standard by manufacturers like Music Man and EVH.
Check the String-Nut
If you’ve finished setting up your neck and you’re getting nothing but clean and clear notes when you fret the strings but nothing but string-buzz or other weird noises when a string is played open, there might be something up with your string-nut. It could be that, due to general wear and tear, the strings are sitting too low in the grooves and as a result, are touching or vibrating against the first fret. To see of this is the problem, simply hold down the string at the 2nd fret then check the space between the string and the first fret. Again, there should be enough space between the string and first fret to slot in a couple of business cards. Also, the nut-groove should guide the string upwards from the head (as seen on the left in the image below), otherwise, your guitar is going to have an unintended sitar-style, rattling sound. It could also be that the grooves are actually too narrow (especially if you’re changing to a thicker string gauge), leading to the guitar not holding tune since the strings are literally getting stuck in the nut.
Adjusting or Changing the Nut
The process of filing or filling the string nut grooves is a kind of specialised job that will definitely need specific tools and materials. It’s often easier and better to just completely replace the nut or leave it in the capable hands of an expert.
Bridge Set Up
Now that the neck has the right curvature, you can check that each of the string saddles are sitting at the right height. The space between the underside of the strings and the frets is known as the ‘action’. The higher the action, the more pressure is needed to get a clean note from the fretted strings. With a low action, you can get a clear note with a lighter touch which is great for fast playing but the possible consequence with a low action is the string touching or vibrating against the next fret up. Your preferred action will depend on your playing style. If you play with a light touch and subtle plectrum work, you’re going to want the lowest possible acton. If you hold your notes and chords with a tight grip and have a more agressive playing hand, then a higher action is better to avoid any unwanted noise. A medium action (measured at the 12th fret) sees the thick, low-E string sitting somewhere around the 2.5mm mark while the thin, high-E sits at around 2mm and the rest of the strings sit precisely inbetween. The string height and action is really a question of taste since this medium setting might be too high for some and too low for others.
To adjust the action, set the height of the string saddles of the bridge. With Fender-style tremelo bridges (like Stratocasters), fixed bridges (like Telecasters) and most ‘non-locking’ floating tremelo bridges, you get separate string saddles fitted with tiny 6-sided hex-nuts that can be adjusted to change the string height.
With the Tune-O-Matic-Bridge, found mounted to models like a Les Paul, the string saddles cannot be individually adjusted. Here, you get two screws (studs) or wheel-screws either side of the bridge that literally lift or lower the entire bridge.
The Wilkinson-style tremelo bridge (seen below) as well as double-locking tremelo bridges (like the ones from Floyd Rose), can rotate one or both of the studs to adjust the string saddles individually or raise or lower the entire bridge in case setting the string saddles didn’t finish the job for you.
If you’re going to adjust the action on a guitar with individual string saddles, then you need to check the fretboard radius. If the fretboard is convex (has a slight buldge), then, to set the action correctly, the height of your strings saddles needs to be convex as well. The two middle strings (the D and G) should therefore be the highest; the two strings either side of the central strings (the A and B) should sit a little lower, while the outermost strings either side (the high and low E) should be sitting the lowest. With bridges that don’t come with adjustable saddles, like the Tune-O-Matic and the Floyd Rose tremolo, this step isn’t necessary since the saddles are already installed in the bridge at a particular height.
Adjust the Neck Angle
Sometimes it can come to the point where a bridge or string saddle can’t actually go any lower. To get a lower action when this happens, it’s a good idea to adjust the angle at which the neck is bound to the body. The neck angle can only be adjusted if the neck of your guitar is fitted using screws. Guitars with glued necks really must be taken to a specialist for this kind of adjustment.
If your string saddles cannot go any lower and the strings are still sitting too far above the fretboard, then you need to make sure that the end of the neck is higher than the point where the neck is bound to the body. If the neck draws a straight line from the body to the head, then you want the neck to tilt backwards a little. Here are two methods to make this adjustment:
Loosen the neck as described when adjusting the truss rod then cut a piece of cardboard (e.g. a business card) or medium-grain sandpaper, and place it at the back of the neck-pocket, as shown in the picture below (padding-piece number 1 highlighted in blue). A padding-piece like this is often referred to as a ‘shim’. To prevent the shim from sliding, it’s best to cut a piece that’s big enough to cover the two screw holes. Don’t worry about what happens when you reattach the neck since the screws will just punch through the shim. Put your guitar back together and tune it up. It might be that the action is immediately perfect. However, some of the string saddles might still be at their lowest setting. You want to avoid this, since you want to have some adjusting space left. If this is the case, then simply loosen the neck again and either use a thicker shim or put two on top of each other and try again.
Fender guitars from the 1970s are fitted with the Micro-Tilt system that includes a special hex-bolt to adjust the neck angle. To adjust the neck in this way, you’ll need to loosen the three or four neck screws a little, after which you can tilt the neck backwards with a 3/32 inch Allen key. Once you hit the right angle, make sure to retighten all neck screws again.
If you can’t get your strings saddles or bridge high enough, maybe check if a shim has already been inserted into the neck pocket. This is sometimes done by the factory when building a guitar with a badly fitting neck. With guitars that include the Micro-Tilt system, you can also check whether the hex-bolt has come completely loose. If you don’t find any shim or the hex-bolt can turn freely, then repeat method one only this time, apply a shim to the front side of the neck pocket (the area marked ‘2’), the effect of doing this is seen in the image below.
A third method to fix this problem is filing the bottom of the neck pocket at the right angle. Doing this maintains contact between the neck and body over the entire surface, which is preferable for better sound transmission. However, this is another one of those jobs that is best to hand over to an expert.
If the neck, string saddles and bridge are all looking good, the nut grooves all have the right height and you’re still getting unwanted noises from a particular string, then it might be that there’s a burr on the saddle. Here, the groove needs to angle down towards the back, otherwise you get that sitar-effect mentioned earlier. If you’ve managed to file your nut grooves, you can easily file away any burrs on the saddle.
If you’re fully tuned up but the open strings of certain chords still sound off, or if notes higher up the neck are sounding to high or low, then the intonation of your guitar probably needs some attention. To do this, the string saddles might need moving further forward or backwards. With most bridges, it’s simply a case of turning the screw on the end of each string saddle. In some cases, like with Sandberg guitars, you’ll need to loosen a locking screw to do this. Guitars with double-locking tremelo bridges (Floyd Rose), are a little more awkward so it might be worth checking out a good tutorial on Youtube about how to properly set up a Floyd Rose.
In Which Direction Should You Move the Saddle?
To check the intonation of a particular strung, simply check that the note at the 12th fret is the same pitch as the harmonic over the 12th fret. The harmonic is produced by lightly holding your fingertip over the string then removing it as soon as the string is played. Then, follow the two rules below to know how the string saddle needs to be adjusted:
– Harmonic is a higher pitch than then the fretted note → move the saddle forwards, towards the neck
– Harmonic is lower than the fretted note → move the string saddle backwards
If you’ve followed every single step and you’re still getting fret buzz in one or two places, then the problem lies in the fret-work of your guitar. It can be that some frets are sitting lower or higher than the rest and in this case, it’s worth getting a luthier to file and level all of the frets, round them off and polish them for you.
This humble blog may contain a lot of information, but it mainly comes down to determining the curvature of your neck and possibly adjusting it with the truss rod, then adjusting the bridge or string saddles to the right height for your ideal action, after which you might also have to change the neck angle. Finally, you need to intonate your guitar by shifting the saddles forwards or backwards, so you have pure chords or notes at every fret. We hope this chunk of writing has only inspired you to take better care of your guitar and get it set up to your preference and playing style.