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7 Steps to Setting Up Your Guitar

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In this tutorial I will explain step-by-step how to set up your guitar to get perfect intonation. Having your guitar "in tune" is a perfect goal for any luthier or the guitarist himself. Poor intonation can be heard whenever we play a chord or play solo on high frets. But you can tune your guitar to achieve a more powerful sound than ever.


Step 1: The Tools

Prepare the tools you'll need to follow this tutorial: screwdrivers, Allen keys, and a chromatic tuner. You can use the chromatic tuner from a stompbox effects or digital effects, or even this audio file:

Important: Use a good quality chromatic tuner. Tuners that have accuracy 1/10th of a semitone are accurate enough, but tuners with an accuracy of ± 2 cents much more reliable. For reference prices click here.

Be sure you buy the best tools that you can afford. Not only do they last longer, but also they won't damage your guitar. Example, cheap screwdrivers are badly made at the tip and can chew up screw heads, making adjustment or removal well-nigh impossible.


Step 2: Make Sure Your Guitar Neck Is Dead Straight

If the neck is dead straight, and you have no buzzing, and you like the way it feels, it's pretty safe to assume that your truss rod is adjusted just right. Even if you have a little buzzing, if you don't hear it when it's plugged in - assuming that it's an electric, of course - then you can leave it. Not all buzzes will be heard through the amp.

If it does buzz when plugged in, it doesn't necessarily mean that the truss rod requires adjustment. You might find your problem is solved by raising the bridge or bridge saddles.

To check that your neck is dead straight, hold each of the two E strings down in turn at the second and sixteenth frets, and note the gap between the string and the crown of the frets. A gap of about .06 mm or .003" (the thickness of a piece of paper) on the eighth fret is ideal, but it can be a little more.

If it looks back-bowed (away from the strings) or relief (toward the strings) then your neck must be set first. If your neck is dead straight, you can go directly to Step 4. Otherwise, proceed to Step 3.


Step 3: Adjust The Truss Rod

The truss rod is essentially a long metal rod that is inserted into the neck of the guitar and fixed. Tightening or loosening it flexes the neck and allows curvature to be applied to the neck, altering its characteristics and, hence, its playability.

You may adjust the truss rod using Allen keys. If your guitar neck looks back-bowed then slowly tighten your truss rod by turning the truss rod clockwise with Allen keys. If it looks relief bowed, then adjust your truss rod by turning the Allen keys counterclockwise.

It's best to just make small turns, as a little turn can make a lot of difference.


Step 4: Use Brand New Strings

Remove of your old strings and use new strings in order to maximize your guitar intonation. For the standard EADGBE tuning you can use string gauge from 0.9 - 0.11. Remember, "the lighter the string, the weaker the tone".

Warning: Do not use string gauge 0.13 if your guitar used standard tuning (EADGBE ). This will damage your guitar neck, and isn't comfortable to play.


Step 5: Check the Gap Between the Strings and Frets

Tune your guitar again with a chromatic tuner. Use the standard EADGBE tuning. Then check the gap between the strings and the twelfth fret.

The standard gap between the sixth string (low E) and the crown of the twelfth fret 2 mm. And for first string (high E), it is 1.5 mm.

You can lower or raise the gap between the strings and the crown of the frets by adjusting the bolts located at the bridge. Turn clockwise to lower the bridge, and counterclockwise to raise the bridge. Measure the gap between the string and fret using a ruler.

When done, check out all of the frets for buzz. If you find a buzz on one of the frets, raise the bridge to minimize it. Always make sure your guitar has no buzz.


Step 6: Set Intonation

Tune every string again with a chromatic tuner.

How do you know your guitar's intonation is good? Pluck one of your strings (e.g. the sixth string, low E) unfretted, then press the twelfth fret and pluck it again. If the note shows E on your chromatic tuner display, then your guitar's intonation is OK.

But if the note is sharp, the bridge saddle needs to be moved back towards the tailpiece. If it is flat, the bridge saddle needs to be moved the opposite way - forward toward the pickups.

It's best to just make small turns, as a little turn can make a lot of difference. After every adjustment to the position of the bridge saddle, retune the string to pitch and compare the twelfth fret note with the harmonic. Repeat for all the strings until the intonation its correct.


Step 7: Final Step

After you finish setting up the intonation and action for optimum playability, try to play it. Notice the changes that we produced. The more often you set up your guitar, the easier it will be for you to get it stay in tune, and it will also train your sensitivity to its tones.

When do you need to set up guitar?

I set up my guitar whenever I change strings or I think that the intonation is suspect. Guitars are very susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity, resulting in the need to adjust the intonation.

If you keep your guitar in a case in an environment which has a constant temperature, and use the same gauge and brand of string, you may hardly ever need to adjust the intonation. It's a good idea to check it whenever you restring your guitar.


Conclusion

This tutorial has shown some simple ways to set up your guitar. I hope that it has helped you to get a better sound from your guitar.

If you encounter difficulties that you can't sort out, take your guitar to a tech. Ask him about the problem and ask him to explain what he did to remedy things. Remember "stay tuned". Enjoy!

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