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How to set up an electric guitar

Once you get your electric guitar, you will have to take a few steps before you can start to play it properly. The guitar set up will usually entail you making adjustments for action, intonation, and string buzz.

Change the guitar strings

The first step you should take is changing your guitar strings. As we mentioned above, the simple act of changing your guitar strings can completely change the sound of your guitar. Start any guitar setup with a set of new strings. If you want, you can switch up the string gauges or strings sizes. Just be aware that a different string gauge will pull on the neck and bridge differently, so you will have to change your set up of the guitar accordingly.

After you have changed the strings of your guitar, you should tune the guitar to the pitch you want before you change anything else about the electric guitar. Tune it to the standard pitch, or if you play in a different pitch, tune it to the pitch that you play in normally.

Straighten the guitar neck

Once the guitar is tuned, the next step is to straighten the guitar neck. You should do this before you do any other action or intonation adjustments because the straightness of the neck will affect every other adjustment. Therefore, the neck should always be straightened first.

To adjust the straightness of the neck, you must first tighten or loosen the truss rod. This step can be a bit tricky, so if you aren’t comfortable doing it your guitar, you should take it into the local guitar or music shop. If you do an improper truss rod adjustment, your guitar will be difficult to play, impossible to tune, and it might even break the neck.

The truss rod is a metal rod that is encased within a channel or cavity in the neck of the guitar to strengthen it. It helps to reinforce the neck while bending it back into a straight position. Almost all modern guitars have an adjustable truss rod that can be tightened or loosened using a simple tool like an Allen wrench or screwdriver. Truss rods in electric guitars come in two styles: one-way truss rods, or dual action truss rods.

Truss rods that are short single action will bend the neck in one direction when it is tightened. However, when the single action rod is loosened, it does not cause the neck to bend in the other direction. Instead, it eases up the pressure on the neck, which allows the tension from the strings to pull the neck the other way.

If your guitar has a dual action truss rod, or two-way, it will bend your guitar neck in both directions. When you tighten or loosen a two-way truss rod, it will cause the neck to bend either way.

When you adjust the truss rod, you might need truss rod wrenches, wrench set, and a notched straight edge.

The first step to changing the truss rod is to check the relief or back-bow in the neck of your electric guitar. Using a straight edge or a notched straight edge makes this much simpler to do. The easiest way to test it is to play the straight edge against the fret or fretboard and then shine a light behind it. If you can see light between gaps, then that means that your neck is not straight.

However, if you don’t have a straight edge, you can use your strings as the straight edge instead. Press the string at the first fret and then press down the string down on the fret where the body and neck merge. You will see that the string becomes a straight line. You can use a capos to keep the string down and in place as you measure the distance between the frets and the string using feeler gauges. If the neck has some relief, you will find that the sixth and seventh fret has the most distance. As you get closer to the capoed frets, the gap between the string and the frets will decrease. If you measure and the opposite is true, then that means your guitar neck has back-bow. However, if the neck is straight, you will find that the distance between the frets and string is all equal. Therefore, the neck will not have to be adjusted.

There is no correct amount of relief you should be aiming for in the neck. When adjusting the neck, aim for a slight amount of relief, but ultimately it is up to each player’s personal preference. The amount of relief will also be affected by the guitar type and the style of music the guitarist plays. Therefore, you should try to adjust your truss rod until it is flat and then play it to decide what fits you. You can add more relief slowly until your guitar neck feels comfortable to you.

The guitar neck changes with the seasons, so you will have to get used to doing the truss adjustment before too long. You will also get used to how much relief you want in the neck for more comfortable playing. That being said, the average relief at the 7th fret is roughly .007 inches.

Before you start to adjust the truss rod, make sure never to over tighten it. When it is tightened too much, a number of issues might occur, including the neck snapping, the fretboard warping, or the neck becoming twisted. All of these problems are expensive and time-consuming to fix, so it is best just to take care from the start and never over tighten the truss rod.

One precaution you might take is to loosen your rod one complete turn. Once it is released, measure your guitar neck to see what the distance between the string and fretboard is. By releasing some tension from the start, you can get an idea of how tight the rod was before you begin the adjustment process.

Adjusting the truss rod on a Fender style guitar

Where the truss rod is placed will depend on what style of guitar you have. The Fender Telecaster gives you access to the rod in the heel of the neck, which means the rods can be adjusted when the neck is still bolted to the guitar. You will first have to remove the neck partially or entirely from the rest of the body. For adjusting a Telecaster and Stratocaster truss rod, first, loosen the strings and the two neck bolts that are farthest from the headstock/peghead all the way. Loosen the two neck bolts that are nearest to the peghead about 1/3 of the ways. Taking your time, remove the guitar neck away from the body so you can see the truss rod.

Next, use a flat-head screwdriver to turn the truss rod screw right or left. Take great care that the guitar does not hit the body of the guitar, or that your screwdriver does not slip and accidentally dent your guitar.

As you tighten or loosen the screw, only move the screw 1/8 of a turn. To add neck relief, loosen the screen. To reduce neck relief and add back-bow, tighten the screw.

Having patience through this stage is vital. Once you have turned the screw one-eighth of an inch, tighten the neck bolts and tune the guitar, keeping string tension on the neck. That way, you can measure the relief and see if you need to make further adjustments. If the neck still isn’t straight, continue to tighten or loosen at just 1/8 of a turn at a time.

Adjusting the truss rod on a Gibson style guitar

The Gibson style guitars give you access in the headstock or peghead, which is easier to adjust than the Fender rods. Because of this, many guitars have started to use the Gibson style rod more frequently for convenience of the guitarists. Many guitars will even have a decorative cover to hide the access hole, so you don’t have to remove the entire back of the guitar.

To get started, tune the guitar. Just like with the Fender style guitar, you need to have tension on the neck; otherwise, you cannot see how much you are moving the neck each time you adjust it. Next, remove the rod cover using a micro-screwdriver. If needed, try to lubricate the nut.

The tools you might need will vary depending on the guitar style you have. You might need a nut driver, screwdriver, or Allen wrench to perform this adjustment. Just like we discussed with the Fender style rods, you should only turn the rod 1/8 of a turn at a time. To add neck relief, loosen the screen. To reduce neck relief and add back-bow, tighten the screw.

Once you have slightly turned the screw, retune the guitar to re-add tension in the neck. If you skip this step, you won’t be able to tell if you have accurately adjusted the neck. Repeat these steps as often as necessary and replace the truss rod cover when the neck of your guitar is straight.

As you adjust the truss rod, it is better to take your time. It can take a few minutes for the neck to settle into its new shape. You might have to tune the guitar to pitch and then let it sit for a few minutes to give it time to adjust.

Set the guitar’s string radius

Before you can set up the action and intonation, the strings must be set to the same radius as the fretboard. Most guitar bridges will allow you to adjust the string radius through screws. Depending on the guitar type you have and what bridge the electric guitar you have will dictate how you do the adjustment.

Adjust the action of the guitar

Guitar action, or string action, is the height of the strings off of the fretboard. How high or low the action is will be determined by your playing style. A guitar with higher action is harder to play, but the advantage is that it gives the strings more room to vibrate. On the other hand, a guitar with low action is easier to play, but the string won’t have as much room to vibrate. How much action is on a guitar is the difference between long sustain and one with terrible sustain. If the action is too low, it might mean that there will be string buzzing. You might have to adjust the nut and the bridge to set the action on an electric guitar.

Set the guitar’s intonation

The intonation is the last thing you should adjust because it is the relative tuning of the guitar while you play up the fretboard and is affected by how straight the neck is the action of the guitar, and the string radius. Intonation is the reason why your guitar either sounds amazing or terrible. If your guitar isn’t correctly intonated, open chords will sound in tune while chords and solos played higher up on the fretboard will sound out of tune.


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