Back in 1948, a radio repair shop owner named Leo Fender unveiled an invention he had been tinkering with in his spare time. The Fender Broadcaster, soon renamed the Telecaster, instantly changed music.
The Telecaster was the first solid-bodied electric guitar, and it’s still an obligatory guitar model in many scenes.
Everyone knows that electric guitars are a fixture of music these days, but it goes beyond that – just think about how many entire genres of music are defined by them! Let alone cultural movements like rock and roll, punk, grunge.
The electric guitar is a truly incredible invention. It’s hard to imagine how music would have developed without it.
So if you play guitar, you are part of a great tradition. And sure, writers love to portend doom and gloom for them – how many times have we heard that rock is dead? That Epiphone and Fender and Guitar Center are in trouble.
That electric guitars are past their prime. I say no, not at all. The popularity of electric guitars ebbs and flows, sure, but they are definitely here to stay.
Electric guitars are central to so many popular genres to this day. They can create such a sprawling variety of tones, feelings, and moods. Guitar playing can be flashy and attention-grabbing, or mellow and immersive.
And let’s be honest – you look cool when you play them. I don’t, but I’m sure you do.
But just like any piece of equipment worth owning, an electric guitar needs some amount of care and attention. They’re low-maintenance, but you’ll regret it if you treat them as zero-maintenance!
Other than swapping strings, the most common work a guitar will probably need is called a setup, which is sort of like a tune-up for a car or bicycle.
Guitars are made of flexible materials (usually wood) and the strings have hundreds of pounds of tension when they are tuned – so guitars gradually deform slightly over time. The result – bad intonation (out-of-tune playing) and high action (strings far from the fretboard.)
Basically, a guitar that is no fun to play, a guitar that fights back against your best efforts.
Can You Learn to Set Up Your Electric Guitar at Home?
Sure, you can take your guitar to a professional to get it set up. But it’s totally within reach to learn to set up your electric guitar at home too! You’ll save a lot of money in the long run, and there’s something to be said for the satisfaction of maintaining your own things.
Setting up your guitar yourself is quite a precise art, so it will take some trial and error to nail it. And while the basic setup is straightforward, more advanced work like fixing bad fretwork can be very tricky and labor-intensive.
When is it Time for a Setup?
A properly setup guitar just “plays right.” The strings are close to the fretboard, so not much effort is required from the fret hand to play. The guitar’s intonation stays accurate as you go up and down the fretboard.
Since the action is low, bends are easier. So basically, if your guitar is missing any one of these qualities, it’s probably time to set it up!
Incidentally, I used to think that guitars would need a setup regularly, every six months to year or so. But this isn’t always the case.
I recently took my vintage archtop acoustic guitar to my favorite tech, and he asked why I’d brought it. “It’s been like 18 months, I’m sure it’s time for a setup.”
But he told me that, believe it or not, the guitar was playing fine, and he didn’t want to waste my money! He had actually restored it 18 months beforehand, and apparently he did a damn fine job.
I felt like a jackass, but it’s good to know that you don’t need an additional setup unless something has gone wrong.
What is Involved in a Setup?
A guitar setup can involve any of a handful of tasks, and can be simple or very involved, depending on what you are starting with. No matter what, the essential setup starts with fine-tuning your guitar’s neck relief, action, and intonation.
The setup can then go on to include fixing uneven fretwork, cleaning electronics, and cleaning and polishing the instrument.
As with most hands-on technical work, there is some jargon involved, so let’s get a few terms straightened out.
The guitar’s neck has a fretboard on top – the flat board with the frets, of course. On one end of the fretboard, right where the strings enter the headstock, is the nut – the part that you can’t play past, essentially.
On the other end of the strings is the bridge. So the strings vibrate between the nut and the bridge, and that’s your playing area.
Guitars also have a truss rod. This is a metal rod hidden inside the wooden neck of the guitar. It plays a dual function- it helps keep the neck straight (a neck without it would become much more bent over time.) And it’s adjustable, usually with a hex wrench.
By adjusting the truss rod, you can change the amount of neck relief in the guitar. Your truss rod may be single-action or double-action, and unfortunately it’s not easy to tell right away. But not knowing shouldn’t be an issue, unless your guitar needs really extensive work.
Neck relief refers to the amount of bend in the neck. As I mentioned before, a guitar will gradually bend its neck in a concave shape over time, hence the high action and bad intonation of a guitar that needs a setup.
When setting up guitars, some people prefer to have as straight a neck as possible, and others like to leave a little relief. A guitar with too much relief is referred to as having “upbow.” A guitar whose neck is actually curved upwards in the middle is referred to as “backbow.”
As I mentioned, action is just shorthand for the amount of space between the strings and the fretboard. Adjusting the relief of the neck lowers the action, and so does lowering the bridge.
Intonation means the guitar’s tuning relative to itself. For example, if a guitar has bad intonation, you can tune your A string so that it’s perfectly in tune – but as you play higher notes on that string, especially towards the top of the neck, the notes will become more and more out of tune! A good setup can address this.
Here’s some general advice, which I need to be reminded of once in a while as well. You will not regret having the right tools and workspace, no matter what you are working on! Having the right tools on hand saves so much effort and avoids so much frustration.
When working on guitars, there are some tools that are essential, and others that are recommended, but that you could do without. I’ll make a note of what you can afford to skip, and what you will definitely need.
****If you’re looking for parts and equipment to mod your cheap guitar, please check out my store page.****
For working on guitar neck relief, action, and intonation:
Hex key setScrewdriver set- flathead and phillips, small and medium at leastRuler with 1/64” ticksOptionalCapoGuitar neck cradleGuitar setup matFor working on frets:Notched straight edgeFret rocker (or credit card)Fret leveling beam (if leveling entire neck)240 grit sandpaper1200 grit sandpaperThree-sided fileTwo-sided crowning file (optional)Masking tapePermanent markerSuper fine steel woolFor cleaning guitarElectronic contact cleanerSoft cloth0000 Steel WoolGuitar cleaning solutions appropriate for your guitar’s materials (varies) including stringcleaner, fretboard cleaner and conditioner, and guitar body polish and wax
How to Adjust the Guitar Neck
Once you’re ready to start working on the guitar, the optional first step is to re-string the guitar. It’s common to use the setup as an excuse to swap out the strings, since you will be making a lot of fine adjustments anyway.
After that, the first necessary step is to figure out how much you’ll need to adjust the neck using the truss rod, if you need to at all. There are a few ways to figure out how much adjustment your neck needs.
The first way is to “sight” the guitar. Tune the guitar up to whatever tuning you like to play in. Then turn the guitar on its side, holding the headstock towards your face, and close one eye. Use your open eye to peer down the top of the fretboard towards the bridge.
Check both the treble and bass sides of the fretboard for a curve.
Pay attention to the area between the 3rd and 9th frets, where any curve should be the most obvious. If you’re having a hard time using the sight test to come to any kind of conclusion, you can try something called the tap test.
Hold the guitar as if you are playing it, and use your left index finger to press down one of the strings on the first fret. With your other hand, use your pinky to press down the same string on the last fret. With that same hand, extend your index finger and press the string somewhere near the middle, as far as your hand can reach.
Since the string is being fretted at its two extremes, any action in the middle of the neck is a sign of a bowed neck. It’s okay if there’s a tiny amount of space in the middle, say, enough to slide a razor blade in. But any more and your neck probably has an upbow.
The truss rod can be adjusted with a screw head that is set into the headstock, pointing down the length of the neck. Depending on your guitar, you may need to remove a screwed-on plate that covers the opening, and you’ll probably need to move some of the strings out of the nut and to the side to access the truss rod.
Important: The truss rod is both powerful and precise. Start out by adjusting it by a quarter-turn at a time until you become familiar with it. Make sure to tune up your guitar before checking your adjustments. And never force anything!
If your guitar has an upbow and needs less relief, turn the truss rod clockwise(righty-tighty.) If it has a backbow and needs more relief, turn it counterclockwise (lefty-loosy.) If you’re loosening the truss rod but it feels like it’s not having any effect, this can be a sign that you have a dual-action truss rod, so just keep turning it until it “catches.”
How do you know if you have enough relief in your neck? Check for fret buzz in the first five frets– if you have any, you may need a little more relief. But if your frets buzz across the entire fretboard, or even just above the 12th fret, then just set your neck relief as straight as you like and then focus on raising the action.
How to Adjust Guitar Action
Really, your guitar’s action is the star of the setup show. A guitar with particularly high or low action will be one of the first things you notice when you play.
A guitar with high action is something like driving a car without power steering – and if you’ve ever had to, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
Straightening your guitar’s neck will help the action, of course. But it will only help the action in the middle. Now that the neck is straight, or straighter, you can use the bridge to set the action all the way down the fretboard.
Just as you do when adjusting the neck, the first step is to actually measure what work needs to be done.
Start by tuning up the guitar, having already set the neck relief. You may want to put a capo on the first fret, so that the nut doesn’t factor into your measurement.
Use a ruler that has ticks on the scale of 1/64ths of an inch, and place it on the fretboard around the 12th fret. Measure the distance from the top of the fret to the bottom of each string.
The amount of action you desire is a matter of personal preference. For some context, 3/64” is considered particularly low, and 7/64” is high.
Based on your reading, you may want to adjust the action. This adjustment happens at the bridge.
Most guitars have one of two bridge styles, known as a Fender or Gibson style for hopefully self-explanatory reasons. Fender bridges have individual adjustment for all six strings, and Gibson bridges only allow two points of adjustment, on the treble and bass sides.
How to Adjust Fender-Style Bridge Action
To adjust a Fender-style bridge, start by adjusting the height of the entire saddle based on the height of the low E string. Use both set screws.
Tune the guitar up again. Measure the action of the low E string again, and if you’re happy with it, use that height and match the other five strings to it by raising or lowering them individually.
At this point, you may want to set the string radius, although this is optional, and only really possible on Fender style bridges (or any bridge that allows individual string height adjustment.)
Setting the string radius requires a little explanation. String radius doesn’t refer to the gauges of the strings themselves- the radius actually refers to the slight curve of the neck. And this isn’t the same kind of curve we looked at with neck adjustment either.
The string radius actually refers to the curvature of the neck across the six strings. Although the fretboard looks flat, it actually gently curves, as if it were cut from a giant circle.
As I said, setting string radius is optional, and you can easily just set the string action using the method I laid out above.
But some people swear by this more precise method. Start by setting the saddle heights for the high and low E strings, respectively. Set them so that you can bend a note by a whole tone on the high E string before it chokes out.
After you’ve done that, print out and cut out a radius gauge, which you can find online. You can also purchase an inexpensive set of radius gauges.
You have to know your fretboard’s radius to know which side of the radius gauge to use – I’d suggest googling your guitar’s model.
Place the radius gauge across the strings, using the two E strings you have already adjusted as your reference points.
If your middle four strings are too high, you may have to lower them first.
Use the radius gauge to adjust the height of the middle four strings. Then try playing on the guitar, and make small adjustments based on the feeling if necessary.
How to Adjust Gibson-Style Bridge Action
By comparison, adjusting Gibson-style bridge action is very simple, and might even be self-explanatory if you’ve just read all that.
Start again by measuring and adjusting the low E string’s action, using the bass side bridge adjuster and making sure to re-tune the guitar after every adjustment.
Once you’re happy with the action on that string, measure the high E string’s action, and adjust the treble side of the bridge so it’s about 1/64” lower than the low E string.
Tune up again, and try playing- make fine adjustments if you feel you need to.
That’s all you can easily do, without trying to modify the components of the guitar. Since the bridge only has two points of adjustment, you can’t do much to set the string radius like you can with Fender-style bridges.
How to Adjust Guitar Intonation
After re-stringing the guitar, adjusting the truss rod, and adjusting the action (and at this point, you may have done all three) it’s important to fine-tune the guitar’s intonation, as any one of those things can knock it out of whack.
Once again, the first step is to measure where you are, and use that to figure out how much work you need to do. To measure your guitar’s intonation, use a precise tuner and play each string.
I recommend using the guitar’s 12th fret harmonic rather than an open string, and make sure not to strum the string too hard, as that can throw off the reading.
Compare each string’s tuning, to the same string fretted at the 12th fret. Any string that’s very close to being in tune on the 12th fret is good to go! But chances are, they will not be right on.
All six strings have flathead screws on the saddles that slightly lengthen or shorten the string length. For each string that is too sharp on the 12th fret, adjust the saddle back, towards the bridge.
Strings that are too flat must be adjusted forwards, towards the neck. Just as with the truss rod, start with ¼ turn adjustments until you get a feel for how responsive your instrument is.
Be careful not to strip the screws. This process is time-consuming, but the results are well worth it!
How to Fix Uneven Fretwork
Now that you’ve adjusted your neck relief, action, and string length, your guitar has a fullbasic setup! Hopefully, the playability is showing the results already.
But sometimes, guitars have trickier issues affecting playing.
Uneven fretwork is one of the more insidious. I warn you that this sort of issue is probably a higher skill level to address at home, and you can make things worse if you overdo it – but if you’re willing, you can certainly tackle it!
How do You Know if You Have Uneven Fretwork?
Uneven fretwork can be tricky to notice. It’s easier after setting your guitar up- if you’restill having issues, it’s time to look at your frets.
Uneven fretwork can cause fret buzz, intonation issues, lack of sustain, and even dead spots in the neck. “Uneven fretwork” can refer to wear on certain frets due to use over time, loose frets, or simply frets that are uneven for any other reason.
Fixing uneven fretwork is also known as “fret dressing,” and involves leveling, crowning,and polishing the frets.
The first step is to prepare your guitar to work on the frets. Start by removing the strings,and it’s also a good idea to cover the nut, pickups, and other electronics with masking tape.
If you have a bolt-on neck, consider just removing it so you can work on it individually.
Use a piece of wood to press on the frets and check for any movement, which wouldindicate loose frets. Pay particular attention to the ends of frets. Mark any loose fretswith a permanent marker.
If you’ve left any relief in your neck, next it’s important to fully straighten the neck so youcan check if the frets are level. Adjust the truss rod as necessary, and use a purpose-designed notched straight edge to check the straightness of the neck.
Using a typical straight edge may not be precise enough for this task.
Once the neck is straight, use a fret rocker to check whether each fret is level. If you didn’t want to buy a fret rocker, a credit card or similar object can do the job as well, but a fret rocker is nicer to work with as it’s designed for the task.
The fret rocker’s sides are cut to the right length to span three frets. Use the long side for the lower, farther-spaced frets, and switch to the medium side around the 10th fret, and the small side around the 17th fret.
To use the fret knocker, span three frets and rock it back and forth. If you hear knocking on either of the two side frets, then the middle fret is too high.
Mark off each fret that’s uneven (mask off the wood of the neck if you are concerned about leaving permanent marks.) Keep in mind that a fret may be too high on one side only.
If you have up to 5-6 frets that need work, you can spot level them. If more need work,you may want to use a fret levelling beam to level the entire fretboard.
If you are levelling the entire fretboard, affix 240 grit sandpaper to the fret levelling beam. Mark the top of every fret with permanent marker, so you have a quick visual guide as to which frets have already been sanded.
Use a gentle touch with the fret levelling beam. Use the weight of the tool as downwardforce, and don’t push down further- if you’ve ever shaved with a safety razor, you know what I mean.
Work carefully, and check your work frequently– it’s very hard to fix if you take too much off! As you work, also keep in mind that the higher frets (starting with the 15th or so) should not be the same height- they are lower by design.
If you are spot leveling the frets, skip the fret leveling beam and use a fret file to work onthe individual frets that need work.
Once you’ve finished leveling the frets, you must crown them. As it stands, their tops are probably too flat from the process of filing. Frets need a curved top, or the guitar risks further fret buzz and intonation issues.
You can use a two-sided crowning file that’s purpose-designed for this task, which will make the process much simpler. If you don’t have one, you can use a typical three-sided file.
When crowning the frets, mask off the areas of the neck close to where you are filing. You don’t want to accidentally dig into the neck.
Mark the frets with permanent marker again so you can visually check your progress. Only file in the direction of the file’s grain, so you don’t over-file them.
Once the frets are crowned, the last step is to round off the fret ends. Otherwise, your hand won’t slide up and down the neck as easily. You can use the fret leveling beam again, working on the side of the neck this time, or you can use a three-sided file.
Finally, polish the frets to ensure flawless playing. Start with 1200 grit sandpaper (which is so fine that you don’t really need to worry about getting the neck with it.) Finish the job with super fine steel wool.
Be careful to polish the frets without taking any more material off– they should already be the right size and shape.
And there you have it! Even fretwork at home. Your uncle won’t be impressed, but I am.
My notched straightedge.
This is the Fret Dagger. A very useful tool for filing high spots.
How to Clean Guitar Electronics
Once your guitar is fully setup, and playing beautifully, it’s a good chance to give your guitar a good cleaning. For an electric guitar, that involves cleaning both the electronics and the instrument itself.
Cleaning guitar electronics regularly is important as preventative maintenance! An electric guitar is a relatively simple electronic device, and the switches and knobs are mechanical.
That means that dirt and dust buildup over time can cause scratching and popping sounds, buzzing and noise when you’re plugged in, or even cause a component to quit altogether.
You’re much better off keeping them clean in the first place, rather than scrambling to fix them when you notice an issue.
Do not use WD40! It might seem to do a good job cleaning, but it ultimately attracts more dirt and dust. Use an electronic contact cleaner.
The goal is to go over your pots (potentiometers, or as you may call them, knobs), switches, and input jack with contact cleaner. There are different ways to get the cleaner where it needs to go for each of these.
For pots, you generally need to get the contact cleaner into the back of them – the part that’s not accessible from outside the guitar.
For Strats and Teles, this means unscrewing the panel they are mounted to. For semi-hollowbody guitars, you will probably need to go in through the F-holes or pickup slot.
You can loosen the pots to rotate them and make access a little easier, but it’s likely to require some monkeying.
Cleaning switches is usually much simpler– in this case you can put some contact cleaner right into the switch’s mechanism, and work it back and forth a few times to even it out.
A clever way to get contact cleaner inside the guitar’s input jack involves a screwdriver and some steel wool. Tear off a piece of steel wool, and wrap it around the end of a screwdriver, making sure your entire tool head is small enough to enter the input.
Use this to lightly clean out the input jack, then apply some contact cleaner inside the jackand use the screwdriver with steel wool once again.
How to Clean the Guitar Neck and Body
Once your electronics are cleaned up, why not clean and polish the entire guitar? The way you tackle this depends on what the different parts of your guitar are finished with.
Make sure you know what your guitar’s neck and body are made of, because using the wrong product can do more harm than good!
Use a string cleaner to wipe the strings clean, and then remove them to clean the neck.
The fretboard is the most important part of the guitar to give a regular cleaning. If your neck is rosewood, ebony, or pau ferro, then you can use a fretboard cleaner to wipe theboard clean. Follow it up with a conditioner to rehydrate and fully cleanse the surface.
If your neck is very grimy, you may need to start with 0000 steel wool to clean the fretboard before moving on to the cleaning products.
If your fretboard is maple, do NOT use typical fretboard cleaning products. Instead, use the 0000 steel wool and a dry (or slightly damp) cloth.
After cleaning your fretboard, clean and polish the guitar body. If your guitar is gloss or poly (like most guitars) use a guitar polish. Spray it onto a soft cloth (there are even specific guitar polishing cloths) and then rub it into the guitar’s finish.
You can finish off the polish with a guitar wax. Just like with a car, this will protect your guitar from getting dirty again for longer.
If your guitar has a matte or satin finish, it should only be polished with a dry cloth- not any products. A nitrocellulose finish should also be wiped with a dry, or possibly damp cloth – but not wet.
And there you have it! A thorough guide to basic guitar maintenance at home. Keep thatguitar in good shape, and you’ll be rewarded with an instrument that can easily last decades. Keep working, and feel the joy of the music!