How to Set Up Your Guitar Like A Pro

By Goncalo Crespo

As a student, aspiring guitarist or even a professional musician, you often wonder how to make your guitar behave exactly as you expect it to.

Most people take their guitar to a shop or luthier, expecting a pro set up (as they would call it) to their instrument. Most times, this leaves something to be desired. If you think about it, there are two main factors to have in mind:

  1. Quality of the work done on your instrument (this is as obvious as it can get)

  2. Your personal playing style and preference

 

As far as the first point goes, you will always expect to get what you pay for (quality-wise). But is the final result exactly what you expected? More often than not, the answer is NO.

There is only one way to ensure that your guitar plays and feels how you want it to… Do the set up yourself! Of course, have in mind that this is a process that needs to be learned bit by bit (by trial and error). Also, there are adjustments that are definitely much more difficult than others… fortunately, these are only “last-resort” type of measures that only need to be applied if your instruments was not manufactured properly, which is why I did not include them here.

 

My advice is, learn by doing! In order to make sure you can always come back to your default settings, take measurements at the beginning of each step for each E string (Low-E and High-E). This way, you can always revert back your changes and experiment with them over and over again.

 

Assuming you have a kick-ass guitar in good working conditions, these are the main steps you need to take in order to start (you need to follow the steps 1 through 9 in the order they are written here):

 

  1. Know your guitar “physiology” (components end to end)

  2. Have the right tools for the job

  3. Install a new set of strings and tune the guitar to pitch

  4. Adjust the Truss Rod

  5. Check ‘Action’ at the nut (only once, if the nut is OK from the start)

  6. Check ‘Action’ at the 12th Fret (commonly known as ‘string height’)

    1. Adjust string Radius to match neck Radius (depends on which type of bridge you have)

    2. Adjust Tailpiece for strings to clear the back of the bridge and have ideal tension (again, depends if your guitar has a tailpiece or not)

  7. Check Intonation (more on this later)

  8. Check Pickup Height

  9. Final Measurements

 

Does this list seem too complicated? Sure does, but it’s only a matter of perception…

In reality, these are all very simple steps to follow and there are measurement recommendations from each guitar brand that you can use as reference. The magic happens when you fine-tune it to your own preference, which only takes a couple of minutes per step… and guess what? You only need to go through this list ONCE for each guitar you own! (Aside from re-adjusting the Truss Rod once or twice a year to accommodate for temperature and humidity changes)

 

Good luck! In no time, you will be able to turn YOUR guitar into the guitar of YOUR DREAMS!

 

About the author

Based in Zurich Switzerland, Gonçalo Crespo is a professional guitar teacher and musician. He has taught guitar for over 8 years covering a variety of styles but focuses mainly on getting his students to guitar playing success in the most efficient way possible. Founder of Music&Co. guitar music school, Gonçalo also offers tuition for acoustic and electric guitar.

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