G UITARTEC H
Set ‘Em Up and Knock ‘Em Down!
Over the years many people have asked me get under the strings with no slipping. If you
how to set up a guitar. The unusual aspect have a lighter touch, you’ll want the neck to
of this question is the amount of fear and be straighter with little or no bow.
trepidation it accompanies. So this month
I’d like to tell you that if you follow these
relatively easy procedures, no one will get
hurt, your spouse or significant other will
not leave you and your guitar will become
an even greater friend.
Next, you need to check out your saddles.
With all of the guitar’s strings at full tension,
measure the distance from the top of the
12th fret to the bottom of the sixth
There are basically three adjustments for
setting up any guitar: adjusting the
amount of “bow” (or relief) in the neck,
adjusting the string height at the sad-
dle and adjusting the intonation.
Let’s start with adjusting the amount
of neck bow. While there are a num-
ber of adjustable truss rod designs,
each share the same basic principles
of operation. Adjustment of the rod
involves tightening or loosening the nut
on the rod. Tightening the nut increases
the tension in the rod and consequently
increases the amount that the rod coun-
teracts the pull of the strings, thereby
reducing the bow in the neck. Loosening
the nut does the opposite, increasing the
bow in the neck.
First locate where to make the truss rod
adjustment; the truss rod nut may be locat-
ed at either the guitar’s head or from inside
the soundhole. At the guitar’s head the nut
is often concealed under a small plastic or
wooden plate, fastened with small screws.
From the soundhole, the truss rod nut may
be directly accessible through a hole in the
cross brace or may be located at the heel
block, often accessible only by completely
loosening the strings. To tighten or loosen
the nut, you will need either an allen wrench
or a specialized socket wrench, which is
often included with the guitar.
Usually, the truss rod nut is tightened by
turning clockwise and loosened by turning
counter-clockwise – right tighty, lefty loosey.
Loosen your strings and begin by making
quarter-turn adjustments. Bring your guitar
back to pitch and sight down the neck from
nut to soundhole to observe the amount of
bow present. If you do a lot of string bend-
ing, you will want a little relief so you can
You can set
your intonation by ear, but using a
strobe tuner will greatly increase your accuracy
string. Although the ideal string height
ultimately depends upon the preferences
of the player and the type and construction
of the guitar, a typical string height for a
steel string acoustic guitar is about 3/32” at
the sixth (bass E) string and about 5/64” at
the first (treble E) string; an electric guitar
would be slightly lower.
The intermediate strings increase in string
height gradually from the first to sixth
strings. To lower the string height from
the saddle on acoustic guitars, you have
to loosen your strings, remove the saddle
and gently sand down the bottom of your
saddle; afterwards, replace it, tune back to
pitch and make the same measurements.
More importantly, play your guitar and pay
attention to the amount of difference your
adjustment made. Repeat this until you have
the action just the way you like it. For elec-
tric guitars, this adjustment is usually much
easier and quite obvious.
Lastly, let’s set your intonation so you’re
more closely playing in tune. To adjust the
intonation, you want to alter the precise
length of each string until the pitches of
two notes produced on the same string are
identical. The two notes we’ll compare are
the note produced by fretting a string at
the 12th fret and the note produced by the
harmonic at the 12th fret of the same string
– these notes are both octaves of the open
string and should be in unison. The two
pitches can be compared by ear, although
more accurate results can be obtained by
using an electronic tuner. The intonation is
correctly adjusted when the two pitches are
Beginning with the sixth string and
continuing similarly with the other five
strings, compare the 12th fret note
with the 12th fret harmonic. Notes
that sound sharp require the string
to be lengthened, while notes that
sound flat require the string to be
shortened. If the notes are of the
same pitch, no adjustment is required.
Electric guitars usually have fully adjustable
bridges with roller saddles that move for-
ward and backward for this very adjustment.
Acoustic guitar saddles can get a little
more complicated, but typically have this
adjustment made by angling the bridge and
notching the B string.
So now you have the power – go forth and
adjust! Just be patient and take your time
when setting up your axe. Then go to the
gig and knock ‘em down!
Rick Wheeler currently works as Larry Carlton’s guitar
tech and front of house engineer. He is also an accomplished jazz guitarist, vocalist, and educator. You can
contact Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org