If you’re a guitarist who likes to do your own electric guitar setup, then you’re in for a real treat. In this article, a collection of renowned luthiers/builders from some incredible electric guitar companies (Novax, Blindworm, Rickenbacker and more) each offer an insightful tip on how to set up electric guitars—covering topics like neck relief, nut and string height, pickup proximity to strings and overall playability. Let’s dive in.
How to Set Up an Electric Guitar: Tips from Luthiers
Phil Sylvester | Website
The one setup secret built into my guitars is that I have no idea what the height is between the pickup poles and the strings. The reason is that I always set height by ear. I listen for the sweet spot where the sound has the most body and clarity, with none of the distortion, wolf tones, and muddiness that come from setting the pickups too close to the strings. With humbuckers the problem can be the coil height rather than the pole piece height. Once ideal height has been established for each pickup, I then start fiddling with string to string balance, output balance, and combined tone for the two pickups.
Dave Wendler | Website
Height of the nut is probably the most misunderstood of the various setup parameters. A nut that is too tall, will of course pull the strings sharp, particularly in the lower regions of the neck. However, there is an easy trick to figure out how tall the nut should be. After the frets have been properly dressed/levelled, string the guitar up and set the truss rod tension (with strings up to pitch) for the particular playing style. Now, with each string in succession (as you are preparing to cut the slot deeper), fret the string at the first and fourth frets. Check the gap between top of the second fret and the bottom of the string (if the string touches the second fret either the neck has too much back bow, or the fret dress is NOT correctly done). This is your target height for setting the nut slot depth. The caveat to this is if the player uses a slide. You may need a bit more nut height to counteract string rattle with the slide, and will have to deal with the string playing a bit sharp in the lower regions when fretted. As a personal preference on my own instruments, I tend to leave the 5th and 6th strings slightly higher.
Gerry Hayes | Website
There isn’t really one secret but it’s useful to remember that the “major” setup parameters—relief, action, nut-slot height—are interdependent. You’ll never get the best from a guitar by adjusting one of them in isolation without considering the others. Start with relief—it’s pointless doing anything else until the neck is where you want it. After each adjustment, play the guitar and check for choking or buzzing. Check the height of each string slot in the nut and take them down if necessary. Then you can move on to action at the bridge. Set it for each string and play again (actually, if you want the secret, that’s it: play every note after each tweak and you can get a great feel for a particular guitar’s limits). Don’t even bother looking at intonation until all of the above is right and remember: there’s no one-size-fits-all so suit the setup to the player.
Gerard Melancon | Website
I think the most important part of a guitar setup is the neck relief. Neck relief is the amount of controlled “up bow” in the neck. If you can imagine two children swinging a jump rope, the guitar string vibrates in the same manner. The elliptical pattern is smaller near the point at which the rope is held and is widest at the mid point between the two ends. A guitar string vibrates in this same pattern, so the neck can’t be perfectly straight without the strings hitting the top of the frets.
In the case of the jump rope the bow is very large, but in the case of a guitars neck relief, we are talking thousandths of an inch. If the relief is not set correctly because of too little relief, you will have buzzing due to the strings hitting the top of the frets when the string tries to vibrate freely. If you have too much relief, the action (distance between the bottom of the strings and the top of the frets) will be high which can create several issues. The first being the strings are harder to depress. The second being when you depress a string at any point along the neck you are actually stretching the string, so too much relief will cause you to stretch the string more, which can cause intonation problems.
There are several factors to consider when setting relief, so there is no one setting that will work for all players. The bigger the gauge strings, the more relief will be needed because bigger strings vibrate in a wider elliptical pattern. Strum across all 6 strings and look at the high E compared to the low E string and you will see what I mean. The other factor is how heavy a touch the player has, if you strum or pick the string harder, it will also vibrate in a wider pattern requiring a touch more relief. My standard ballpark setting when guitars leave my shop is .010″ for a set of .010-.046 gauge strings.
The way I set relief is to capo at the first fret and then depress the string at the 17th fret with my finger. What this does is use the string as a straight edge. I will mention that the guitar must be tuned to pitch before attempting to set relief. Once capo’d and depressed, I use a .010″ feeler gauge to slide between the bottom of the low E sting and the top of the fret at the 8th fret location, this is mid point between the capo and 17th fret. If the feeler gauge pushes the string up when slid between the string and fret then you will have to add more relief. If there is a gap between string and fret, then there is too much relief and you will have to adjust the truss rod to remove some relief. The object is to have the feeler gauge just touch the bottom of the string and top of the fret without deflecting the string. When you have this set then you have a relief setting of .010″.
Since the necks on new guitars have never been under tension, they take a couple of days to settle in under string tension. I normally set the neck and then check and tweak for several days until the neck remains stable, at this point I proceed to set the action, cut final nut slot depth and then set intonation. If you do any of the other setup steps before setting relief, when you adjust the relief, it will change the other settings, so it is important that this be the first step in setting up a guitar.
Depending on the gauge of string and touch of the player you can tweak from here, obviously lighter strings and lighter touch can use less relief and bigger strings or heavier touch may require a bit more relief. It is normally recommended to make slight adjustments to the truss rod normally no more than a 1/4 turn and then check. It is important to note that sometimes it may take a day or so for a neck to settle in on the initial adjustment so I normally tweak the relief and let it sit a day and then recheck. The goal is to have no fret buzz with a comfortable action.
Richard V. Cannata | Website
One secret to guitar setup, especially with Rickenbacker instruments, is to adjust the neck to as dead straight as possible. Most instrument manufactures call for a little relief in the neck of their instruments due to the lack of adjustability. However Rickenbacker instruments play best with the necks as dead straight as possible. Although personal preferences may call for some relief on the neck depending on the playing action preferred. Our dual truss rod system allows for this extreme adjustability. The dual truss rod design gives greater strength and adjustability to the neck. As the truss rods are separately adjustable allowing either side of the neck to be adjusted independently of the other.
With the instrument in tune, sight the neck for a bow or under-bow by resting the body on a level table at an approximate 45 degree angle holding the top horn near the strap bolt. Do not hold by the neck or head, as doing so will change the actual position of the neck. Repeat the sighting step to confirm the amount of bow or under bow (relief) in the neck. Using a ¼ inch nut driver wrench, turn only a half a turn at a time. Turn the nut clockwise to correct an under bow (relief), counterclockwise to straighten an over bow. Repeat until the desired angle of the neck is obtained. Following these guidelines, you should have one excellent playing instrument in your hands.
Ed Schaefer | Website
When I am cutting a new nut and setting up a new guitar, or just putting a new nut on any guitar and setting it up, I always press the string down on the fingerboard side of the nut before I cut the slot to its desired height. I actually do this after I start the slot on each string. The reason is…if you don’t do that and lower the string to a very low height…it may start fretting out down the road when the string does finally settle in and achieve the pressed bend on its own. If you press the bend in at the nut before you get to the desired string height, then you will not have this issue!
Chris Siegmund | Website
A simple and effective upgrade modification that I figured out when I started setting up guitars is to swap the Audio and Linear taper pots of the Volume and Tone controls with magnetic pickups. The industry standard for guitars of using audio taper for Volume and linear taper for Tone controls results in most of the signal change to be confined to a small sweep area, rendering most of the pots sweep less useful. Swapping the taper of both controls is a simple method to achieve an even and balanced sweep for both Volume and Tone. No added resistor is needed, and with some pickups I add a low value capacitor across the Volume pot for a more even frequency balance when rolling off. I have incorporated this principle into all my guitars, and the hundreds I have set up over the years, and players love it.
Whenever I am finished with a setup, I always explain to every player that this is a starting point and encourage them to experiment with strings and gauges from various manufacturers and fine tune the bridge height, pickup/pole-piece height and intonation to what sounds and feels right, regardless. After all every player has a unique approach, feel and sound and no one sounds alike.
There is an ideal way to slot the nut, adjust the neck relief, use quality tuners and various bridges, anchoring the strings on both ends. All that is mostly about precision, mechanical principles and function. However the relationship of the strings with everything else on the guitar is the only true variable that is in direct connection with the player. And with an amp that also feels right, ultimately only the player can discover the sweet spot that brings it all together just right.
Bill Conklin | Website
Our setup secret is that we approach just about every step more viscerally than scientifically. We are not too tech heavy and don’t incorporate lots of gadgets or gauges, instead preferring to use our senses of sight, feel and sound just as the end user would. It all starts by getting the fingerboard dead level, carefully installing the frets and then leveling all the frets at once with our full-length, precision ground fingerboard and fret leveler. From there we complete the fret crowning and dressing, nut slotting, saddle height adjustment, truss rod adjustment and pickup height adjustment by using basic tools and old school techniques.
Kari Nieminen | Website
I prefer bone nut for my guitars. Over the decades I have found that local wild moose shin bone is the best material, hard and has a nice vintage style color, but most of all it gives great tone. First I cut the bone with a band saw and shape with a belt sander then continue carefully with hand files and sandpaper to exact dimensions. Then the nut is glued in. The nut slot spacing is the same between each string. First, I install all strings over the nut and then mark E string slots positions with a sharp scalpel. I have pre-calculated string spacing with certain string gauge set and use a single wood piece between strings to get the exact spacing between each string, marked again with a scalpel. Then, I slot the nut very carefully with different files to exact depth and after that nut is final sanded and polished and instrument will be tuned for the first test playing. The image above is a Versoul Raya Blue Lite Guitar in Gold Leaf Finish, held by Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones (photo credit: Alan Rogan).
Andrew Scott | Website
Make a dummy electronics board to work your wiring wizardry on. Use an old cutting board or similar, and drill the right size for each hole. Great way to keep a guitar body safe from burns and scratches during repairs, or while test-wiring that snazzy new pickup mod.
Ralph Novak | Website
My best set-up secret is not a tool or technique – a pro is expected to have the equipment and proficiency required to achieve the player’s goal. Listening to the player is the “secret”. After a general set-up, some one-on-one time with the player will guarantee the best set-up. Small “tweaks” with player input to accommodate their specific needs will get the best set-up for that player, and that’s the best set-up – the one that’s right for the player.
Michael Spalt | Website
The secret is that there is no secret. All the techniques and tips are out there, to be found on the internet.
However, there are two ways of going about getting the best setup, the first one somewhat subject to chance and the second one guaranteed to satisfy. The previous contributions contain a lot of good information, and they also point out the potential problem with the first way: take your guitar to a tech (preferably a reputable one with good references) and have him set it up for you. Now, why is this the less preferable way? Because most techs (this is not a reflection on their skill!) have their own preferences and will set the guitar up accordingly. These preferences may not be the best ones for you. And if you don’t know any better, you might never find out. Still – you might get lucky and find the right tech for you.
So let’s return to the second option: do it yourself! As you learn to do what is really a rather simple process (described very well by some above), you will find out what works and what doesn’t work for you. Everyone has a distinct playing style and as you tweak first one thing and then another, you can start to see how they interact with your playing. You might even find that this will improve your playing, since you will get to know your instrument intimately and become sensitive as to how the setup can facilitate or hinder your playing. There is no ideal setup that will work for everybody – the secret lies in learning to do it yourself.
What’s Your Electric Guitar Setup Secret?
If you were asked, what would your secret electric guitar setup tip be?