Guitar setup: how to set your guitar up for drop tuning

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Drop tuning can be great fun but the string rattle you get with a lower tension isn’t as enjoyable. So, let us show you how to keep your axe happy when sporting some beefcake strings. 

The first decision you need to make is which tuning to choose… you have to make your mind up as the set up can be specialised around that tuning’s tension. Whichever tuning you decide to go with will have a recommended size of string, some packs are designed and advertised for specific tunings, which makes it easy, but for more off - the wall tunings you will have to be creative. 

D’addario’s String Tension Pro is a useful web page, you can choose a reference set like 10-46s and figure out what size set you’ll need to keep a similar tension. Visit them at stringtensionpro.com.

Our ESP here is getting a set of 12-60s and it will be tuned in drop C (C G C F A D). Those big-boy strings will provide the necessary girth to handle anything the player throws at it. Djent ’n’ all.

What you need

  • A pack of suitable strings 
  • PH2 screwdriver
  • String winder
  • String cutters
  • Two capos
  • Feeler gauges
  • Short steel ruler
  • Allen keys
  • Tuner Lead

Step 1

Consider what tuning you’re going to use and stay at. For this LTD we’re going for drop C and have chosen a set of D’addario 12-60s, which will behave nicely. Some string makers are making specialised sets for more common tunings. Change tuning and you’ll have to set up your guitar again!

Step 2

String up your test patient with your new strings – don’t be put off by the setup or tremolo going wild. If you have gone off-piste here with some very large strings you may need to enlarge the tuner hole by means of drilling, just be sure to de-burr the sharp edges away to avoid string breakage.

Step 3

We’re now fully at pitch in your desired tuning. This means that the guitar is under the right tension – we now need to wrestle this guy back into shape. The first rule of setup is to look at the truss rod. If you go straight for the action screws, you will go round in circles.

Step 4

Using a feeler gauge and two capos measure the relief (the bend in the neck). Attach your capos at the 1st fret and 15th fret. We’re looking at the gap between 7th fret and the string using the string as a straight edge. The gap should be .006" to .012”. If it’s already laying on the frets, your truss rod is over tightened.

Step 5

The rule is ‘lefty loosey, righty tightey’ for adjusting the truss rod. Make a change then check your progress with the feeler gauge again – keep the guitar in tune for this process. You might aim for a larger gap if you’re planning to batter the strings and less of a gap if you’re planning to shred.

Step 6

The nut is always a tricky one. As the nut carries out a few important jobs all at once we recommend having a pro adjust your nut for you. They have specialised gauged files. The slots will have to be widened so as not to pinch the strings, the depth of the slots should not be altered unless required.

Step 7

If you have a Floyd, well, you will have 99 problems and the pitch will be one. The main issue is that our new tension is dictated by the strings and the tuning will have messed with the floating tremolo’s setting. This needs balancing again. The baseplate for the floating tremolo should be parallel to the paintwork of the guitar top.

Step 8

The two wood screws inside the rear cavity are responsible for adding more or less tension onto the tremolo. Tighten to increase, this will pull the bridge down to the body but will also raise the string’s pitch. Take a guess at how much to tweak the screw and retune the guitar – repeat until it’s balanced and in tune.

Step 9

Time to sort out your action, so adjust the grub screws to and fro until you get a decent height. Measured from the top of 12th fret to the bottom of the string a good clearance would be 2.2mm on the sixth string and 1.5mm on the first string. The remaining strings should be set according to the radius of your fretboard.

Step 10

With your action set and test played for buzzing, it’s time to set the intonation. Your new, larger gauge strings will have a different intonation setting required for sure. Play a harmonic at 12th fret then compare it to the fretted note at 12th fret. If it’s sharp, move the saddle backward, if it’s flat move it forward.

Step 11

Sometimes the saddle for these new strings needs to go further back and the spring is stopping it moving. Take out one of your springs and chop it in two to free up some extra room. If you don’t want to mess up your original springs, find a ‘clicky’ pen and nick the spring out of that!

Step 12

We’ve put some super-massive strings on, so they will have a greater mass for the magnets to work with, this means they’re louder! For most people of the drop-tune persuasion this is a good thing. Consider how flappy the string will be though and make sure you don’t clang the string onto your pickup’s top when playing.

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