The 12-Step Guide to Electric and Acoustic Guitar Setup

September 6, 2016

One of the most bedeviling aspects of guitar playing is the maintenance procedure known as a “setup.”

What’s involved? Will it really make your guitar play better? And is it possible to do it yourself, or should you leave it to a pro?

A setup is actually a series of procedures, many of which fall under the categories of “basic maintenance” and “fine adjustment.” Much like a car’s seasonal tune-up, a setup should be performed to address the changes a guitar undergoes over time, with adjustments made to the instrument in order to match your preference of strings, pickups and playing habits. A setup can also reveal potential problems before they become major headaches.

The following 12 steps are considered absolutely essential in a basic setup. What’s more, these are the same steps—presented in the same order—as the ones taken by a professional repair shop.

We’ll briefly discuss each procedure and tell you what tools are required. Then, we’ll tell you how to perform them. We’ll also include a rating system to indicate the level of ease: from 4 STARS for easy to 1 STAR for those jobs best left to the most experienced players.

1. Adjust the Truss Rod

Virtually every acoustic and electric steel-string guitar built after the mid-Seventies has an adjustable truss rod, which runs the length of the neck and counteracts the tension of the strings to help keep the neck straight. Loosen it and the strings pull the neck into a concave bow, resulting in higher action—i.e., the distance between the strings and the fretboard. Tighten it, and the neck bends backward—this is call back-bow—against the natural curve the string tension imparts, moving the strings closer to the fretboard.

The adjustable end of the truss rod—either a male or female nut—can be found in one of a few places. On an electric, it is usually beneath the truss-rod cover on the headstock or at the body end of a bolt-neck. On an acoustic, it can typically be found within the body of the guitar, at the neck-body joint. Note: Classical guitars, which use nylon strings, don’t have truss rods.

TOOLS Small Phillips-head screwdriver (to remove the truss-rod cover), appropriate hex key or wrench (almost always supplied with a new guitar). Bolt-neck axes with concealed nuts require removing the neck and using a surrogate body and a neck jig—this is a job best left to a pro shop.

HOW TO DO IT With the guitar strung and tuned to pitch, press one of the strings both at the 1st fret and at one of the frets near the neck-body joint. The string is now forming a straight line between the two frets. By doing this, the nut and bridge—the other two arbiters of action (besides the neck)—have been eliminated from the equation.

If the neck is perfectly straight, there will be a tiny gap—just enough to slip a piece of paper or business card through—between the string and the frets in the middle of the neck. If the neck has too much bow, or relief, the gap will be wider, and so the truss rod must be tightened. If the neck is back bowed, the strings will lie flat against the frets, and the truss rod must be loosened.

An experienced repair tech might simply sight down the neck (PHOTO 1) or use a straightedge (PHOTO 2) to take a precise measurement of neck bow. When adjusting the truss rod (PHOTO 3), turn the nut in minute increments—say, quarter turns—checking the relief frequently, and use as little torque as possible.

D.I.Y. FACTOR Add one star if you’re confident, mechanically inclined or have seen a pro perform the adjustment. Subtract a star if you’re spooked at the thought of screwing up a perfectly good guitar, and subtract another if you own a bolt-neck guitar with concealed nuts.

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