What I consider as a guitar set up is probably different from what most local music store “experts” would give you. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of talented and skilled guitar guys out there, but as I have said before, they are not you and have their own way of setting up a guitar or bass. What I am hoping to do here is give you the ammo to do it yourself. Just about anyone can change a set of strings, adjust a pickup or adjust a bridge saddle height. When I’m doing a set up for a client I try and get inside my customer’s head. Find out what type of music they play, how they like their action, do they like a straight neck or a lot of relief, do they use a slide? Their playing style will affect what I will do during the set up. You already know what you like!
So let’s Rock! Before you tear those lifeless old strings off and start making adjustments STOP, leave those old strings on, we are going to put them to work for us. We’re going to use them to bring your guitar or bass back to the factory specs. By doing this, you will be doing a pre-set up of sorts.
Factory specifications are a great place to start when doing your own set up. They establish a base line that you can go back to, time and again, when checking your axe. I have included a few Specs below to help get you started. These are for Fender and Gibson guitars and basses. If you are playing on another make, check out the manufacturers FAQ page or email them and they will provide you with the original set up specs for your guitar or bass.
* The Clapton Strat is not a floating Tremolo. The bridge plate lays flat on the body and is blocked in the body cavity.
The first thing that I start with is checking the relief in a neck. Personally, I like playing on a flatter neck than what typically comes from the factory. My 1960’s Strat has between .007” to .008” of relief and my Les Paul and Tele are both set at .005 of an inch.
1) To measure the relief on your guitar, install your capo at the first fret.
2) Then fret your treble E string (G on a Bass) at the last fret on the neck. You are now using those old strings as a straight edge. There should be a gap between the top of the seventh fret and the underside of your treble E string. That gap is the relief that you have in your neck.
3) Take a set of feeler gauges and measure that gap at the seventh fret (ninth fret on a bass). If the gap is larger than the numbers given in your factory specs, you will need to tighten your truss rod to remove some relief. If the number is less than the factory specs, you will need to loosen your truss rod to add some relief.
The truss rod is a metal or carbon fiber rod that is installed in a guitar or bass neck to strengthen it against the tension generated by the strings. Some guitars do not have a truss rod. When Leo Fender original designed the Telecaster or Broadcaster he did not feel a truss rod was needed. He felt that the one piece maple necks they made were more that strong enough to counter the tension of the strings. What Leo had missed was the fact that most of his guitars were being played in the southern U.S. where the temperature and humidity levels were fairly constant. As touring guitarists started moving around North America their guitars were subjected to different temperatures and humidity levels. These climate changes started to affect the playability of the necks and musicians started complaining. Leo always had a huge amount of respect for the musicians that played his instruments and finally installed a truss rod in his guitars to remedy these problems.
Most truss rods are made of metal and are adjusted with either a screw driver or an Allen key. Modern Fender necks and Gibson set necks are adjusted at the headstock. Gibson truss rod adjustment is made by removing the cover plate on the headstock to get access to the Truss rod adjusting nut.
Necks that can be adjusted at the head stock are easier to adjust because of the simple access to the truss rod adjusting nut. Vintage style Fender necks or most necks that are adjusted at the body end are harder to adjust because in most cases you will need to remove the neck to adjust it.
When you do any adjustment on your truss rod, make sure you have loosened your strings all the way. NEVER adjust your truss rod with your strings tuned to pitch, you can cause binding of the rod and possibly strip the thread on the rod. (Big $ Money $ repair job for me, that’s if you want to give me your business and cash).
Remember, to straighten the neck and remove relief, turn the truss rod adjustment nut clockwise i.e. tightening it. To cause a back bow and add relief turn the truss rod adjustment nut counter clockwise i.e. loosen it.
Also, be careful, it does not take much adjustment to make a big change to the neck relief, so only make 1/2 turns on the nut at a time. After each turn of the adjustment nut return your strings to pitch and check the neck relief. If it’s the first time you are doing this, it will probably take a few tries to get it right. Just take your time and repeat the steps until you are satisfied with the amount of relief in your neck.
Vintage Style Fender Necks
Truss rod adjustments on vintage style Fender necks are made at the end where it joins the body. The problem is in most cases you will have to detune the strings and loosen the four neck screws and partially lift the neck out of its pocket to properly access the truss rod adjustment nut. The adjustment procedure is the same as described above; it just takes more patience because to do it right you have to loosen and re install the neck each time you make an adjustment. I’ve seen tons of Strat’s where someone has tried to force a screw driver into the small gap in the pick guard at the base of the neck. I don’t recommend this, it’s a good bet that you will screw up your pick guard or worse scratch the finish on your neck.
Once you get the neck relief adjusted to specs the next step is to adjust the string height to the factory specs. 1) Take the capo off and using a 6” steel rule measure the height of the treble E (G on a bass) at the seventeenth or twelfth fret. 2) Adjust the height of the individual bridge saddle or the bridge height on ABR style bridges to get the string height to spec. 3) Set the height of the bass E string. Make sure you are measuring from the top of the fret to the underside of the string. I typically will set my bass E string 1/64” higher than the treble E to give the larger string more room to move above the fret board.
4) If you have individual height adjustable saddles on your bridge use your fret board radius gauge to adjust the rest of your strings heights. To do this place your radius gauge on you strings close to your bridge so it is resting on both the treble and bass E strings. Play you’re A string and at the same time raise the height of the string until it buzzes out on the bottom of the radius gauge. Now repeat the procedure for each of the other strings.
Cheers and remember
“Sometimes you want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re gonna be rewarded.” Jimi Hendrix
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