The setup of your guitar is very subjective, and is often
one of the main reasons for constructing a guitar in the
first place. Player preferences will dictate a lot of
how an instrument is setup as far as action, neck angle
and straightness, bridge and string height, and other
factors. When setting up a guitar, you will need to adjust
the truss-rod to control the straightness of the neck.
With traditional Fender-type necks (heel-adjustable truss-rod),
you may have to remove the neck several times before you
get it right. Setup can take several hours in many cases.
You will find that one adjustment will affect all of your
previous settings, and you will have to go back and reset
many things. Don't get discouraged! It's all part of the
learning process, and once you have done it a few times
you will be able to access an instrument's setup much
Here is Fender's Ten Step setup outline. It allows them
to quickly (from a production stand-point) setup the guitars
to make them playable and ready to ship. Use this as an
outline and fine tune the steps to your playing or setup
Fender uses a small wooden wedge (1" wide x 2"
long, tapering from 1/4" to 1/2") to "block"
the tremolo block when setting up tremolo guitars. It
removes the issue of dealing with the intricate string-to-spring
tension balance. It's probably worth the effort to have
a similar block of wood if you are setting up a tremolo
guitar. This means that the springs are not installed
until the very last step.
String up the guitar with your desired gauge of strings.
"Block" the tremolo so that there is a 3/32"
gap between the back of the bridge and the top of the
Install capo at 1st fret.
Set neck relief.
Set string height.
Set string height in the nut.
Adjust pickup height.
Play guitar and check for buzzes-make adjustments if necessary.
Install 3 springs (5 if you want a heavier feel) and tighten the tremolo claw screws until the wooden block drops out.
As with most setup operations, neck straightness should be checked in the playing position. Use a straightedge and backlighting to show the gap between the bottom of the straightedge and the tops of the frets. Measure the "relief" (a slight bow in the neck) of the neck with feeler gauges. We usually measure at the 7th or 9th fret and strive for something between .004" and .012". Some necks will play with .000" relief, depending on the player, the components, and the trueness of the frets.
some relief is required to eliminate excessive string
rattle (the vibrating arc of the string contacting the
tops of the frets above the fretted note), and to allow
for sufficient sustain. Experiment with different measurements
and see what works for you. Remember that changes in
string tension will affect the neck's straightness.
Be sure that the instrument is tuned close to pitch.
Once the neck is close to where you want it, you need
to bring the string's height into the picture. You may
want to make these adjustments with the strings capoed
at the first fret. This will eliminate any input from
the nut slots. First, adjust the two E-strings height
above the 12th fret by adjusting the saddle height.
Typical measurements are 3/64" - 4/64" for
the high "E" and 3/64" - 5/64" for
the low E. Depending upon your style, the "feel"
you want, and other factors, find the measurements that
work for you. After you get the neck the way you want
it and the saddles roughed in, you will need to radius
the saddles. Use radius gauges (#5432) to match the bridge
saddles to the fretboard radius.
Now that the neck and saddles are adjusted, you are
ready to finish the nut slots. The slot depth is generally
between .007" and .030" above the first fret.
Plain strings (high E, B, and G) are in the .007"
- .012" range and the wound strings (D, A, and
low E) are generally around .013" - .020".
The actual height is up to you, the gauge of strings,
and other factors. Start a little high and bring them
down lower as needed.
Once you complete your instrument setup, the intonation
(the tempering of the string length, gauge, and tension
to the fret scale) must be set. New instruments need
time to completely "settle-in," so you may
have to recheck the intonation a couple of times. Also,
if you have changed string gauges (.009s to .010s, .010s
to custom-lights, etc.), tension of the tremolo springs,
height of the bridge, radical changes in tuning (i.e.
drop-D, open-D, etc.) or anything else that would affect
the string lengths and/or the bridge's position, you
should reset the intonation.
Intonation is set by first tuning the instrument to
the desired pitch (A-440, down a half-step, drop "D",
etc.) in the playing position. Once you get the instrument
in tune, and the bridge is set where you want it (i.e.
height of the strings above the body, sufficient tremolo
up-pull, etc.), compare the 12th fret harmonic and the
12th fret fretted note (we sometimes use the 5th fret
harmonic for the wound strings). If the fretted note
is sharp, the string must be lengthened (move the bridge
saddle away from the neck). If the note is flat, the
string must be shortened (move the saddle closer to
the neck). Retune all the strings often to maintain
the proper bridge position and don't stop until all
of the strings are perfectly in-tune when comparing
the harmonic to the fretted 12th note.
A high quality digital tuner or a strobe tuner is best
for setting intonation. Inexpensive tuners generally
are not accurate enough to really nail the intonation.
Be sure to set the intonation with the guitar in the
"playing position," not flat on a table. Gravity
will take its toll on the setup and will cause inconsistencies
or a false setup, especially with floating tremolos
and/or thin necks.
Intonating a "floating" tremolo like a Floyd
Rose or a similar system takes extra care. You must
ensure that the plane of the bridge, relative to the
top of the instrument, is held constant. Remember that
a floating tremolo is a fine balance between string
and tremolo spring tension. Any deviations will cause
the intonation to be compromised.