Electric Guitar Setup

How to setup your electric guitar [9 easy steps]

Trying to get your guitar to play great, feel smooth, and have perfect intonation?

This step-by-step guide will tell you how to achieve exactly that.

Perfecting the intonation of the guitar is the prime objective of any guitarist or a luthier. Poor intonation can be easily made out when you play a chord or solo, especially on high frets. But tuning your guitar to perfection is always achievable and will save you from embarrassment.

If you prefer a video demonstration here you go.

Here are the steps you should take to setup your guitar at home.

Step 1: Get the necessary tools

The following tools are required to follow this tutorial:

  • allen keys
  • screwdriver
  • chromatic tuner (can be from stompbox effects or can be of digital effects as well)

Important Note: Only use high-quality chromatic tuners. Tuners that have an accuracy of at least 1/10th of a semitone are enough, but tuners with an accuracy of +/- 2 cents should be preferred.

Buying the best tools under your budget is what you should prefer. They will be durable because of the high-quality build and most importantly they will never damage your musical instruments.

For example, cheap screwdrivers that are available at flea markets can chew up the screw heads, making it very tough for future adjustments.

Step 2: Remove your strings

The first step in a guitar setup is to remove our strings. You will be restringing it with new ones anyhow.

The strings have a lot of pulling force on them. To make sure you don't warp the neck of the guitar, it is a good idea to loosen the strings in the following order:

  1. Low E string
  2. High E string
  3. A string
  4. B string
  5. D string
  6. G string

Step 3: Clean your fretboard

With all of the strings gone, you can clean the fretboard of your guitar.

If you have a Maple fretboard, it will be finished with a lacquer. You can only use a damp cloth to clean it, otherwise you will destroy the lacquer.

If you have a Rosewood or Ebony fretboard, there won't be any lacquer, so you can use lemon oil or another cleaning agent to clean the gunk off the fretboard

Maple Ebony Fretboard
Maple on top, Rosewood and others on bottom

Step 4: Changing the strings

For maximum intonation, you can replace your old strings with the new ones. Here is a guide on electric guitar strings.

Note that for standard EADGBE tuning the string gauge to be used is from 0.9 – 0.11. Lighter strings make the tone somewhat weaker, but the guitar becomes easier to play.

WARNING: Using very high string gauges in standard tuning, like gauge 0.13, may damage your neck.

Step 5: Ensure that the neck of the guitar is straight

The first step in setting up the guitar is to make sure the neck is straight.

Sight the guitar neck

  1. Tune the guitar to standard tuning
  2. Look down the neck of the guitar from the head to the body on both the bass and treble sides of the neck.
  3. You want to compare the string (which is straight between the nut and the saddle) with the fretboard itself.

The neck should be straight, without any curvature.

Tap test the guitar neck

Another way to check if your guitar neck is straight is to use the tap method.

  1. Place the guitar in your lap as if you were to play it
  2. Place a capo at the first fret
  3. Hold down the fret where the neck joins the body on the low E string
  4. Check how far the string is from the frets in between the frets you are holding down
  5. A normal gap is 0.01 inch, which is about the width of a business card.

Repeat the above on the high E string as well.

Electric Guitar Neck Relief

This is also a good test to perform if you experience string buzzing. More often than not, the culprit will be too low action, which is easy to fix.

For electric guitars, if you hear a little buzzing but you don’t hear it through the amplifier, it can be ignored. Most likely these buzzes will not be heard through the amp.

But if it makes a buzzing sound when plugged in, it is not that the truss rod can be blamed for creating the problem. The problem might get solved by adjusting the bridge saddles as well.

If the truss looks back-bowed (away from the strings) or relief (towards the strings), then the neck should be adjusted first. If your neck is straight, proceed to the 7th step otherwise go to the 6th step.

Step 6: Adjusting the Truss Rod

The truss rod in the guitar is basically a vertical metal beam that goes in the guitar's neck. Through the adjustment of this rod, you can adjust the curvature of the neck.

Truss Rod Adjustment

The truss rod can be adjusted by using Allen keys.

If the guitar neck is back bowed then tighten the truss by rotating the truss rod clockwise with an Allen key. This decreases relief and lessens the clearance between the strings and the frets.

In case guitar’s neck is relief bowed, then make arrangements in the truss rod by turning it in the anti-clockwise direction. This increases relief and increases the clearance between the strings and the frets.

  1. Adjust the truss rod in quarter-turn increments
  2. Retune your guitar after each turn, as the tension on the strings is altered

WARNING: Over adjusting your truss rod can cause irreparable damage to your instrument. If you don't know what you're doing, let a guitar technician do it instead.

Step 7: Setting the action (clearance between the strings and frets)

After tuning your guitar with a chromatic tuner under the standard EADGBE tuning, check the clearance of the strings at the twelfth fret.

The standard gap between the low E (sixth string) and the crown of the twelfth fret is 2 mm but for the high E (first string) it is 1.5 mm. Home rulers are not precise enough to measure this, it is best to get a precise guitar tool for this.

Guitar String Height

The clearance between the strings and the crowns can be lowered or raised by turning the bolts at the bridge.

Some people prefer to play with higher action, while others prefer lower action. It's your choice really.

The only thing you have to be mindful of if you like low actions is fret buzz. After measuring, check all of the frets for buzz. If you find buzz on any of the frets, raise the bridge to reduce it.

Step 8: Setting the intonation

Proper intonation is very important if you play your guitar up the neck.

As always, start off by tuning your guitar to standard tuning.

To check whether your guitar’s intonation is perfect or not, pluck one string unfretted and then after that hold the twelfth fret and play it again.

The tuner should display E at the 12th fret as well, which indicates that the guitar’s intonation is OK.

If intonation is off, the tuner will show your E to be either sharp or flat at the 12th fret.

  • If it is sharp, then the bridge saddle has to be moved back in the direction of the tailpiece.
  • If it is flat, then the bridge saddle is to be adjusted the opposite way towards the pickups.

Be cautious while adjusting the notes. Always make little rotations, as a slight turn can also bring a lot of alteration. Be careful with your screwheads as well.

After performing any adjustments, check the result with the tuner.

Repeat the steps for all the strings until correct intonation is achieved.

Step 9: Play the guitar

After checking for everything mentioned above and doing all the steps as stated, try to play the guitar. Try to feel the changes that we produced. Listen very carefully, you will notice many changes.

One thing is clear that the more often you tune your guitar yourself, the time taken to tune your guitar will reduce drastically further. The more you adjust your guitar the more you will feel the tones of your guitar.

Guitars intonation is prone to temperature, humidity, etc. so it might happen that if you leave the guitar in room conditions then you might feel some changes in it, the next time you play it.

If this bothers you then you can go for a hard case for your guitar, then you may never need to change the intonation. But this will be the case when you play your guitar at very professional levels. In this case, having a correct intonation is very important.

Final note

This tutorial has tried to show you how to set up a guitar in very simple and lucid manner. It might have helped you to get a better sound.

In case you still have issues with your guitar then you should bring it to the notice of a technician. Never ever experiment with your guitar, don’t try to learn engineering on your guitar, this way your guitar will be yours forever.

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