What a setup can do for your guitar (and why it’s important)
Performing a setup simply means making adjustments to your guitar so that it plays optimally. Many times, when you pick up a guitar off the shelf of a music store (or from a friend), it’s difficult to play for various reasons. The strings might be way too high off the fretboard. The intonation may be off so the guitar won’t play in tune all the way up and down the neck. The pickups may be too far away or too close to the strings, causing them to be unbalanced.
A setup will correct these issues through a few simple adjustments. Once set up properly, your guitar will…
- Be at it’s optimum level of playability due to the string action and neck relief. It’s important to note, however, that not all guitars are created equal. Some guitars will play at a higher level than others due to many factors including quality of materials, level of craftsmanship, etc. But most all mass-manufactured guitars these days are made well enough to play pretty nicely.
- Be intoned and play in tune across the entire neck.
- Be balanced in output as you switch pickup positions.
- Achieve greater longevity. Keeping your guitar set up properly will increase it’s lifespan and help prevent things like neck warping.
Finally – it’s also important that you go through these steps in order. Each step builds off one another, and doing them out of order will cause your guitar to be set up improperly.
You will need a few tools to do this job correctly. I like to approach a setup from a very analytical perspective, taking precise measurements. This allows you to re-create a setup over and over again on just about any guitar with ease. Here are the tools you’ll need:
String Action Gauge (StewMac)
Buy from StewMac. The String Action Gauge allows you to take precise measurements. You’ll need to take measurements down to 1/64th of an inch. Most standard rulers don’t quite get there. The String Action Gauge also places measurements on both sides of the tool, which is very handy as you’ll need to flip it around a lot.
Allen wrench (Hex key) set
Buy from Amazon. You’ll need Allen wrenches (or Hex Keys) to adjust things like the truss rod of your guitar and some bridges. It’s good to have both standard (Imperial) and metric sets. Typically, guitars made in the US and the UK will use standard measurements will guitars made elsewhere in the world will use metric.
Buy from Amazon. A feeler gauge is used to measure the distance between the strings and the fretboard to determine the neck relief. Really you only need the .012″ gauge, but the full set is pretty cheap. In a pinch, you can use a playing card to take this measurement, as it’s about the same thickness. You can also pick these up at most any automotive parts stores.
Precision Screwdriver Kit
Buy from Amazon. You’ll need a precision screwdriver kit to make adjustments to things like the bridge saddles and intonation screws. They’re just really handy to have around. You’ll most need a full size screwdriver as well depending on the size of the screws you’ll need to adjust on your guitars.
Buy from Amazon. You’ll need a capo to take the neck relief measurement – and to change keys on songs without playing different chords :). I think G7th capos are the absolute best in the world, but any old capo will do for this measurement.
Buy from Amazon. If you’re a guitar player that doesn’t own a tuner, this is your moment of glory – get one :). I’ve linked to a cheap tuner here by Korg, but I’m going to assume you’ve probably already got a tuner somewhere. If you have an iOS device, I like the PolyTune app.