How to set up your own guitar: Do’s and Don’ts of guitar maintenance
Okay, in this lesson I will be showing you not only how to setup your own guitar regardless of what gauge of strings you use, what tuning you play in or what manufacturer your guitar is made by, but I will also be going over what the most common mistakes are and how you can avoid them.
Now I’m going to give you examples of problems that can occur with your guitar and when they might occur, but these tips will be for how to set up your guitar so that it plays well and feels good to play. I would recommend that any electrical alterations be performed by a professional, as they require a lot of background knowledge to truly perform well.
First things first, let’s go over the different things that can directly affect the playability of your guitar:
The gauge of strings you have installed on your guitar: this determines the tension that is acting on the neck, and therefore is very important to consider what you are changing your strings, especially on guitars in stalled with Floyd rose-style/locking tremolo bridges.
The temperature/weather: I will explain this in detail later, but this will affect the wooden components on your guitar. It’s not uncommon to take your guitar on holiday and for it to virtually become unplayable because of the change in humidity.
The height of the Bridge: pretty well known, but the bridge height is very important in determining the playability of your guitar, however it is not THE most important factor.
Truss Rod Tension: most people here will have heard of a truss rod, but won’t know what it actually does, and that’s something that you really need to change.
The first thing you need to know how to do is put the strings on your guitar so that they don’t snap later. What you need to do is after inserting the string into its slot on the bridge and you’ve made sure that the ball-end it tight against the bridge, you gently lay it over its slot on the saddles (the little metal things with grooves that the strings fit into near the bridge if you’re using a fixed bridge; don’t worry Floyd rose users, I am going to get to your guitars later in this lesson), and then also place the string through its slot on the guitar nut (the bar-like thing at the very top of the fret-board). Now you wrap the string at least three times around the metal tuner before you feed it through the hole, and then tighten up the tuner so that the string becomes tighter.
This technique of winding the strings around the tuner effectively increases the amount of metal that’s holding onto the tuner, making it much less likely that the string is going to break at this point. Remember, you must make sure that the string goes through the hole ABOVE the coiled string on the tuner to prevent the string from slipping of while you’re playing.
If you are using a Floyd rose style bridge, then you will have to cut the ball-end of the string off before you insert it into the bridge. This is because instead of there being a slot where the ball-end catches, there are a series of clamps that hold the string in place on the bridge. Now it will be harder to tune a Floyd rose style bridge, especially if you haven’t done it before, but I already have a lesson on how to setup a Floyd rose style guitar on this site if you need the extra help; just don’t whatever you do assume that Floyd rose style bridges are the same as normal bridges or you could end up doing your guitar some serious damage.
Next we’ll move onto what to do if you guitar doesn’t feel like it’s been set up properly.
We’ve all been there. You’ve just bought a really nice used guitar that was pre-owned but it’s been set up so badly that you can’t play it and you’ll probably have to end up paying to get it fixed. Well, with some luck, not anymore.
There is one rule that I have to tell you about now that I learned from a luthier (a guy who fixes guitars for a living) that a lot of people don’t know, and this could save you hours and hopefully some money if you remember it.
"The only thing on your guitar that can move on its own without you touching it is the neck."
This is because the other components like the bridge, the tuners and the inner electronics are all made of metal (and rubber insulation on the wires). The neck is made of wood, which is an alive or ‘active’ material, and it will change its shape in relation to the weather. This is because the fret-board and the neck are two separate pieces of wood, so as one expends, it causes the neck to bend away from it, and as one of them contracts it causes the neck to bend towards it.
This is important to note as if you pick up your guitar one day and it doesn’t feel the same way you remember it, you didn’t touch the bridge, so it can’t be the bridge that’s causing this problem.
The most important part of how your guitar feels to play is actually the neck relief and not the bridge height, although bridge height does play a large part as well. So the obvious question is how do you stop your guitar’s neck from bending and how do you bend it back into shape? This is where the truss rod comes in.
The truss rod is a device that runs the entire length of the guitar neck that allows you to counteract the tension caused by the strings and the expansion/contraction of the wood, and it is adjustable by means of a small hole under a panel on the top of your guitar’s headstock. This usually requires that you use an Alan key/hex key but some guitars may need you to use a screwdriver to change the way it’s set up. You will need to unscrew the covering panel to get at the truss rod anyway.
So which way do you turn the truss rod to put your guitar back in working order?
This depends on whether you guitar’s neck is showing too much of an up-bow (it’s bending up towards the strings) or whether your guitar is demonstrating too much of a back-bow (it’s bending down away from the strings). Now remember that you cannot tell if it has an up-bow or a back-bow unless you put the guitar in tune first, as then the strings will be putting the same amount of tension on the neck as when you play. If you don’t tune up your guitar before you try to check if the neck is correctly adjusted, you will be setting up the guitar to work perfectly while it’s out of tune. You don’t want to do this.
You will need a guitar capo, it doesn’t matter what kind or how cheap it is (mine cost £2.99 which is about $4.50) and you will need the card packet that your strings came in. You will see why in a minute.
First you must place the Capo on your guitar so that it blocks off the strings on your guitar on the 1st fret.
Next you have to cut out a thin piece of card from the packet that hasn’t been folded (i.e. just one piece of card, not two laid over each other). This is what you will use as a reference for neck relief in a minute, and means that you don’t have to use a ruler or a measuring tool, which again saves you money.
You have to do this with the guitar in a vertical position however, as gravity will slightly pull you guitar’s neck up or down unless you are holding it as if you are standing up (i.e. so that the guitar body faces out sideways and the fret-board is not facing up or down but facing sideways, pretty much how you would also play sitting down). If you don’t believe me, hit a note on your guitar now and then turn your guitar upside down with the note still ringing and listen to what happens.
With the guitar capo still in place on the 1st fret, place one of your fingers on the highest fret possible (strictly speaking the gap between the highest two frets but you get what I mean) on the highest/thinnest string on your guitar. Make sure the guitar is still in tune before you do this. As you hold down the sting on the highest fret, take the thin piece of card you cut out earlier and slide it flat under the thinnest string on the 10th fret. Keep a close eye on what the string does, you can usually tell by looking at the 11th fret. If the piece of card fits smoothly underneath so that it is virtually touching the string, but the string doesn’t move as you slide the card under it, then the neck relief is set up just right. If the piece of card causes the string to rise up as you slide it under the string, this means that the neck has too much of a back-bow. If the piece of card slide under the string and there is still a sizeable gap between it and the string, then the neck has too much of an up-bow.
To change the way the neck bends is fairly simple.
If you insert your Alan key/hex key/screwdriver/etc into the slot and turn it clockwise, you are recreating a back-bow and you are counter-acting an up-bow (you will see this as the string getting lower when you repeat the check that I described above as the neck is starting to bend backwards away from the strings).
If you insert your Alan key/hex key/screwdriver/etc into the slot and turn it anti-clockwise, you are recreating an up-bow and you are counter-acting a back-bow (you will see this as the string getting higher when you repeat the check that I described above as the neck is starting to bend forwards towards the strings).
To sum up, if the neck is bending up, then you need to bend it back down using the truss rod, and vice versa. Once you have made sure that the neck relief is set up correctly with this technique that I have shown you your above while you guitar is in tune, you will have completely ruled out the neck as causing you any problems with how your guitar feels. This may seem time consuming, but believe me, this occurrence with your guitar neck bending is going to happen far more times than you are going to be willing to pay someone else to fix it for you. This will leave you with more money in your pocket with a little bit of practice.
After this, if the strings on your guitar still don’t feel like they’re the right height, then you can adjust the height of the bridge using the screws on either side of the bridge, or you can raise the height of each of the strings if your guitar bridge only allows for individual string heights to be adjusted rather than moving all of them at once; this simply a case of moving them up and down until they are the right height for you. If you think that the neck relief has changed while you are doing this then you can always check the neck relief again, but as long as the strings are in the same tuning as before then the tension in the strings that’s pulling on the neck should not have changed.
So, what difference does string gauge make?
The heavier the strings that you are using are, the more tension they will exert on the neck, meaning the neck will bend further up towards the strings (an up-bow), and similarly using lighter strings will cause less tension to be exerted on the neck, causing the neck to bend backwards away from the strings (a back-bow) as the tension the neck has previously been under has been lessened.
Will I damage the truss rod by changing the tension in it?
Not if you make sure to only make minor adjustments at a time. It’s impossible to make a full turn at once anyway due to the shape of the guitar, so as long as you’re sensible it should be fine.
Does it matter whether my guitar is acoustic, or whether it’s made out of a different sort of wood to your guitars?
No, these techniques work for all guitars.
Short-list of do’s:
- Check the neck-relief before anything else on your guitar if it feels funny to play
- Check the neck relief after you change your string-gauge or if you just changed to a different make of strings, as this can sometimes make a difference because of the different metals present
- Tune your guitar properly using a tuner before making any adjustments
Short-list of don’ts:
- Don’t adjust the bridge height at all until after you have checked the neck relief
- Don’t make very drastic alterations all at once, make sure to do things one step at a time, as some necks will take a different amount of time to react to truss rod adjustments
- Don’t fit different gauge strings and then leave the neck-relief unchanged. If you fit a very high gauge of strings without changing the truss rod tension, there is a change you could splinter the wood of the guitar neck, or worse snap it. The fret-board makes this less likely to happen, but it could still permanently damage you guitar if you work too quickly.
And that’s pretty much it for this lesson on how to adjust your guitar. I hope that this lesson has helped some of you out there in teaching you how to set-up your own guitars. These techniques have already saved me quite a few quid.
Take care guys and I’ll see you next time!