Top 5 Must-Know Guitar Setup Tips

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One of the most daunting aspects of playing the guitar is the routine maintenance procedure known as the “setup.”

Many new guitarists don’t even know what is involved with a setup, let alone whether it is possible to do one yourself.

A setup is easier to think of when you break it down into a series of smaller procedures, which are fine-tuning and basic maintenance adjustments. Similar to the way we must change the oil in our cars or put air in our bicycle tires, we must address the slight changes that a guitar will go through over time. Setups help to expose potential issues so that they don’t become huge problems in the future.

Let’s dive in and take a look at the top 5 must-know guitar setup tips so that you can keep your guitar in tip-top shape.

1. Check Your Neck Relief

The very first step to any good setup is making sure that your neck has the relief set properly. You do not want your neck to be completely straight. Instead, you want a slight bend, otherwise known as “relief,” in the neck. To do this, you don’t need a fancy straight edge tool, although they certainly help if you can buy one. To keep things as easy as possible, though, you can use a capo instead.

Start by clamping the capo down on the first fret of your guitar and another capo anywhere past the 12th fret of your guitar (ex. 14th, 15th, or 17th fret). To check the relief, you can use a feeler gauge to check the height in the middle of those two capos between the fret and string. Write down this reading, as this is the relief that your guitar neck currently has.

Do note that you don’t want to put the second capo at the very last fret, as a lot of necks on newer guitars have a slight falloff or fall away. Falloff is a technique used in fret leveling to prevent fret outs and ensure ample levels of sustain on the higher frets. Guitar manufacturers do this by making the last few frets slightly lower than the rest of the neck. If you place your capo on the last fret and your guitar has falloff, you could be wrongly accounting for that added dip.

Now when it comes to industry standards, you should usually have relief of around 0.010-0.020”. However, this depends on your preferences, and you can adjust to what you feel is the most comfortable.

2. Intonation

Once you have thoroughly checked the neck’s relief, you can begin intonating your guitar by chasing down that tuner needle. Many players like to refer to the process of intonation as “chasing the needle” because it reminds us which way to turn the saddle when intonating a guitar.

Let’s look at an example where you have the guitar in playing position and a chromatic tuner in front of your guitar. Let’s say you play the D string, and it is completely in tune. Then, you move up to the 12th fret on the D string and realize that the guitar is flat, as the needle on your chromatic tuner sits just to the left of the center.

To “chase the needle” and get that D on the 12th fret to play in tune on the center, you would know to adjust your saddle to the left or towards the headstock. Essentially, you’re moving your saddle in the direction of the needle until your guitar is in tune.

If you notice that your 12th fret on the D string, or any string for that matter, is flat compared to the open string, this is telling you that there is too much length between the fretted note and the end of the saddle, meaning you must move the saddle closer to that fretted note. If your note is sharp, you move the saddle back.

This is an incredibly handy tip for new and intermediate players who don’t want to have to head down to their local tech shop and pay a guy just to intonate their guitar.

3. Use Steel Wool To Clean Your Frets

000 steel wool is one of the best tools for cleaning and polishing frets. The beauty of steel wool is that it is also incredibly cheap. I recently bought a 12-pack of steel wool from my local hardware store for around five bucks, and it will last me for years.

If you change your strings and find that the frets look a bit gummy or grimy, all you need to do is rub a bit of steel wool on your frets. You may want to tape off your fretboard when doing this, to prevent damage, but at this gauge, the steel wool won’t do any damage. A good steel wool cleaning will make your frets shine like new.

4. Clean Your Fretboard With Lemon Oil

There are plenty of maintenance kits out there, one of my favorites being the Dunlop Cleaning Kit. They break down different maintenance processes in cleaning steps using individual bottles. However, if you’re someone who is constantly on the road or on a serious budget, good old-fashioned lemon oil will do the trick. All the pros use it, and it’s wildly effective.

Lemon oil is for guitars that don’t have a finished fretboard, such as ebony or rosewood. Because maple, for example, is glossed over, lemon oil won’t do any good.

On fretboards like the ones mentioned above, you can use lemon oil and a microfiber cloth to rub into the wood. Let the oil soak in for a few minutes, to allow your guitar to both replenish and rehydrate, then be sure to wipe it off. Lemon oil will also help clean up any minor scratches.

5. Lock Your Strings

Not all guitars have locking tuners. I recently saw a classic video from Mike Hickey (Joe Bonamassa’s guitar tech), showing how he gets guitar strings to lock with guitars that don’t have locking tuners. It is a simple winding technique where you put the string through the guitar and kink it before wrapping it one time. The string will then pinch and lock in place. It’s an incredibly handy and reliable way to create better tuning stability and minimize breakage.

I used to wind and wind and wind my strings, praying that the string wouldn’t slip. When I found this technique, I realized how dependable a method it was. I highly recommend checking out that Mike Hickey video if you can, as it’ll provide you with a better visual explanation of this technique.

Be Your Own Tech!

While the thought of setting a guitar up might seem challenging at first, breaking it down into smaller, actionable steps can help you whip your guitar into shape without the headache. While it might take a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best for you, the steps mentioned above are universal and will work with just about any electric guitar.

Plus, once you’ve perfected the setup, you can start charging your friends.

Tyler Connaghan Tyler is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles. In between duties at Humbucker Soup, he swims in the shark tank of music licensing for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.