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How to set up your guitar: a DIY guide to intonation, truss rod, bridge and fretboard maintenance

Jack Ellis
(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Being able to do your own guitar maintenance doesn't just save you money, it's also a great way to understand how the different features of an electric guitar affect its tone and playability. We’ve teamed up with Jack Ellis from Manchester's Jack’s Instrument Services to come up with a guide to help you spruce up your guitar with simple tools and a DIY approach.

This essential checklist will help you identify and correct any issues with your instrument aiming to get the best from it. It's the full professional standard setup procedure undertaken at Jack’s workshop for brand new or vintage instruments.

While it’s true some guitar maintenance tasks are specialised, many are easily doable at home, with the right guidance you have the means to crack on safely with some of the advanced tasks too. 

Our guide will cover the maintenance and setup of your guitar - all handy skills to have. It’s important to get a handle on maintenance as electrical parts can degrade and become crackly and neck relief will undoubtedly move with the seasons.

Let’s dive right in!

Workspace

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

It's often overlooked but having a nice countertop really makes tinkering much easier, it’s got to be clean: pop a protective mat down to cradle the guitar and use a neck rest if possible – a cushion will help as a substitute.


1. Remove your strings 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Let’s whip off the old strings so we can check over a few things, stash the bridge and tailpiece somewhere safe.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

2. Tuners 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

The 10mm fastening nuts for tuners always seem to be loose… with a light bit of work with the spanner you can tighten them. 

Don’t go crazy, they can only handle so much pressure. Getting these set right helps the tuners themselves stay where they should be helping tuning stability


3. Fretboard and frets

The rosewood fretboard on our example guitar is unlacquered and will be a goo magnet. In some way’s if it’s mega dirty, props to you, all that time playing is clearly documented here including your favourite notes… it’s a potent combo of sweat, grease and other unsavoury dirt so it’s best outta here!

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Before we get started use wide masking tape to mask off the pickups and areas next to the neck to keep them out of harm’s way; this Gibson’s finish is particularly susceptible to damage.

Looking over the frets we can see some string wear and looking down the neck there’s only the expected forward bow of the truss rod showing up; no humps dips or high frets. 

If you do have any of these issues then it’s likely time for a fret dress, this is best left to a professional guitar tech to true your fret tops, recrown and polish.

But is how to give a quick light treatment without removing any of the fret height, it will also take care of the fretboard in one swoop too.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )


Using #0000 wire wool gently rub over the fret tops and fretboard surface, it will self sculpt to the profile of the frets and remove the tiniest top layer of corrosion from your frets as well as grime from the fretboard. 

Wire wool dust needs to be kept under control so keep a magnet in the palm of your hand to help out. But keep that magnet away from your pickups! Start side to side then finish from nut to bridge; this will improve the look of the fretboard.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Was that enough? If you still have a build up of grime fused onto the fretboard (like on this manky Strat) you may have to employ a more involved technique of using a razor blade to goo-scrape. After that then follow with the wire wool technique to finish it up.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Depending on how dry your timber is either use almond oil (for drier ‘boards) or lemon oil to nourish the timber. 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

As it’s unlacquered (like you'll find with most maple fretboards) we need to rejuvenate the timber to help it keep doing it’s job. If it dries out then not only does it look dull it can shrink and become brittle - shrinking can unseat the frets leading to all kinds of uneven fret troubles.

Apply a generous few blobs and work the oil into all the crevices next to the frets. Let it soak in for 10 minutes then remove the excess with blue roll.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

4. Re-string 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Pick some fresh guitar strings out and begin fitting them, replacing the bridge as you go. It’s important you use a gauge you’re happy with as the setup depends on it, if you are drop tuning consider using D’addario’s String Tension Pro tool to advise the best suited string gauge compatible to your guitar’s scale length versus tuning. The tuning you go for will also determine the setup tolerance too.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Fit your strings allowing enough winds on the tuner capstans for stability, stretch the strings in and trim the ends down - each of those tasks affords you greater tuning stability. Now tune up!

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

5. Adjusting the truss rod 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

The truss rod must be set first in the as the rest of the setup quite literally hangs from this setting. Most truss rods are on the headstock face and some under a truss rod cover, find it along with the right tool. 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

If you are unsure of the correct tool, check the manufacturer’s site or audition tools yourself - don’t rely on forums. Common allen key sizes are 4mm, 5mm, 3/16” and ⅛” and common box spanner sizes are ¼”, 5/16” and 9/32” and don't forget, some fenders use a large flat head screw driver for adjustment! 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

If a 4mm allen fits in but a 3/16” also does then please use the 3/16” for the sake of your truss rod, always use the tightest fitting tool to avoid wearing it out.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Relief is the word used to describe the bow of the neck, and yes it should be bowed forward slightly! When a string is plucked, strummed or twanged it vibrates in an elliptical pattern, we need to mirror that profile with the truss rod. 

The truss rod when operating correctly can only bend the general curvature of the neck but cannot take out a hump at the end of the fretboard for instance. When set the truss rod holds the neck in place fighting the pull of the strings allowing a comfortable feel.

We need to read the truss rod to figure out if it needs to be tightened, loosened or left alone. It’s paramount that you’re in tune here, the tension of the strings dictates the truss rod setting.

With the guitar on its side, place a capo on 1st fret and if you can a capo on 15th fret, we’ll measure the clearance under 8th fret with a feeler gauge.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Insert the right tool and only the right tool and tweak the truss rod as necessary. Clockwise tightens the nut and will close the gap, anticlockwise will loosen allowing the strings to pull the neck forward increasing the gap.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Some truss rods are “Single action” (can only counter the string pull) and some offer “double action” where they can force the neck in both directions. Each type of truss rod will have a neutral point where the adjustment nut has little to no tension.

Go in-depth

When you’ve arrived at the golden .007” clearance remove the tool and check once more with the guitar in the playing position.

That was quite a lot of truss rod blurb but it’s perhaps the most important part of a guitar setup, this affects all other string height settings. 


6. Check the nut height 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

With the rod set, let’s inspect the nut in a similar fashion. Fix a capo on the 2nd fret and check clearance underneath. 

You want to be able to post the feeler gauge underneath without disturbing the string. Use .004” on the high E string to .008” on the low E (thick) string. We leave a little more for the Low E string as it tends to get more of a beating!

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Too much clearance means the string is unnecessarily high and too low is in danger of buzzing on the 1st fret. Too high can also present intonation issues.

Setting these depths involves using specialist rounded bottom files and is best left to a professional guitar tech as the nut is responsible for action, intonation, tuning stability, buzz-free playing and string spacing. But if you fancy a go yourself here’s our advanced guide on making your own bone nut.


7. Checking Bridge Radius

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Now it's time for the bridge to get some loving.

Les Paul Tune-o-matic bridges have a pre-set radius we need to check that it’s correct and matches the fretboard, you’d be surprised at how often this is wrong. Using a radius gauge you can inspect a few areas of the fretboard to determine which is the closest match curve to your tool, in our case it was a 10” radius.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Hold the radius gauge under the strings next to the bridge, the curves should match. A great way to test this is to play each string whilst holding the tool in place, you should get the same amount of buzzing on the tool on each string. 

If this is not correct you have some options, replace the bridge, get the bridge re-radiused by a guitar tech or put up with a higher action. We can only set the bridge height as low as the lowest saddle otherwise we’re in fret buzz town.


8. Setting the bridge height

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

In the playing position and using a ruler, measure the gap under the Low E (thick) string from the top of 12th fret to the bottom of the string. The setting should be 2mm and 1.5mm on the high E string. 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Simply turn the adjusters at the bridge to set the desired height.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Higher Vs lower action

2mm and 1.5mm is the setting agreeable for most players that’s also weather safe. Setting lower is possible if that suits your desired feel and playing style but beware you may have to keep on top of fighting the fret buzz as your neck relief fluctuates with heat and humidity. Hard hitters can go higher on string height to avoid fret buzz with only the consequence of a harder feeling action. The choice is yours and now you know how to set it you can experiment!


9. Setting intonation 

Intonation is the term for ensuring the guitar plays in tune as you reach higher frets. Whilst it’s not possible for your fretboard to be 100% tuned to equal temperament we can get it damn close. 

To balance the tension and achieve a different pitch on each string the strings are designed with ascending thicknesses of course, these need their scale length compensating to behave in tune, If you have a set of six strings each .010” and tuned to the same note (a bit pointless!!) you could have your bridge saddle set in a totally straight line.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

To set a normal set of strings up follow these steps:

Plug into an electronic tuner or better a strobe tuner, play a harmonic at 12th fret. Compare that with the fretted note at 12th fret, they should be the same. Beware that when fretting you have to be careful not to over exert or accidentally fret off to the side making an accidental pitch bend! 

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

Here’s the rule, if the fretted note reads sharp you have to move the saddle toward the bridge. If the 12th fret reads flat you move it toward the headstock. Flat: forward, sharp: back. 

Take a fresh reading and try again, when set you should begin to notice a pattern emerging between the plain strings and the wound strings.

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

10. Setting pickup heights

Jack Ellis

(Image credit: Jack Ellis )

We're getting close now, and pickup heights are certainly worth checking, now if you were getting some strange readings with intonation the magnets of your pickups might be to blame. 

Drop the pickups lower and try again if so. Usually it’s Fender style single-coils or outrageous humbucker magnets which can interfere with intonation as the magnets pull the strings down.

Future

(Image credit: Future)

There’s no set reading for pickup heights as the magnet strength varies greatly. Experiment to find the optimum but here’s the laws; too close can interfere with intonation, create unnecessary fret buzzing and can create audible overtones.

Fret the high up frets particularly to check for overtones. If your pickup is set too low, it decreases electrical output and often sounds thinner. Set them low then work up giving it a good test play while also testing for intonation.

How to change your guitar's pickups