Do Your Own Setups: 8 Tools You Need

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Learn how to set up your guitar without breaking the bank! In this video Tomo, Erick and Gene showcase 8 essential tools every guitarist needs to perform their own setup, saving you money and taking your guitar playing to the next level.

Video Transcription

Gene Imbody: Today, we're talking about the essential tools needed to set up your own guitar. Instead of spending the typical $100 or so to bring it to a shop for a setup, doing your own setup means you can customize your guitar to get the best tone and playability for your style. And it's really the best way to unlock the full potential of your guitar.

There are hundreds of specialty setup tools out there, but we've narrowed it down to the eight MVPs. Well, nine or so if you're a Gibson player.

And today's an extra special day, because not only are we joined by Erick, a face you probably haven't seen for a while, we're excited, again, to have Tomo Fujita, guitar professor from Berklee. We just got done doing some work on your 65 Strat. We're going to use it today as an example to talk about some of our favorite setup tools.

Tomo Fujita: Please, don't drill anything though.

[everyone laughs]

Erick Coleman: Okay.

Gene Imbody: No modifications.

Tomo Fujita: Okay, good.

Measuring your action

Gene Imbody: I think the best place to start is with measuring [on-screen text reads: #1 String Action Gauge or Rule]. When doing your own setups, you're going to need a tool to accurately measure your guitar action.

We have a six-inch rule. This is what I use personally most of the time, but we also have a String Action Gauge. Which one of these do you use, man?

Erick Coleman: More often than not, I use the six-inch rule, but I do like the action gauge a lot-

Gene Imbody: Me too.

Erick Coleman: ... because of the different measurements on it, and it also has the handy... that's a cross-reference chart on the back. I use it a lot.

Gene Imbody: Right. What about you, Tomo, when you do your own setup work?

Tomo Fujita: This one [Tomo points to the String Action Gauge]. A lot .

Gene Imbody: Do you use this one?

Tomo Fujita: Yeah.

Gene Imbody: Okay.

Tomo Fujita: This way, I can explain to my students which one I'm using. Like Eric said, everything is there. Charts are there. Because, sometimes, centimeters, inches, if you only show the numbers, people get confused. So, this is really cool.

Gene Imbody: I think this is great. I use this mainly because this is what I learned on [Gene laughs].

Erick Coleman: Right. It was around before that.

Tomo Fujita: Oh, I didn't know.

Gene Imbody: And it happens to span the two frets where I like to measure action perfectly. But since we've come out with this, I do find myself referring to it a lot more, and it is great. I really like the string line measurements.

Tomo Fujita: Oh, yeah, yeah. Already, lined up.

Erick Coleman: Yep.

Gene Imbody: Yeah. It's already spelled out into decimals, or we do have a metric version, too.

Erick Coleman: Yep.

Tomo Fujita: If I use this tool, I just go around 12th fret and just look at adjusting.

Gene Imbody: And you're going by the string lines on there.

Tomo Fujita: Right. Yes, but also I don't have this everywhere, but you have a pick, right?

Gene Imbody: Uh-huh.

Tomo Fujita: So this is one millimeter, [Tomo holds up a guitar pick] one side, so two is two millimeters, so easy way to show to my students. I drop around the 12th fret. You see, like it moved and then stuck [the picks stay stuck between the strings and the frets]. That means it's good. Because I want to have close to two millimeters, not exactly. So if I drop here slowly, see it moved. That means very close too.

Gene Imbody: You don't want to have to force it in, but you don't want it to just completely fall through.

Tomo Fujita: Yeah, exactly. A lot of students and even guitar customer probably ask you guys, "Can you do lowest possible?" Because lowest, we guitar players believe fastest to play or easy to play. But what happened is show the distance between frets and a guitar, sometimes ended up you press too much-

Erick Coleman: Right.

Tomo Fujita: Or-

Erick Coleman: Picks it out.

Tomo Fujita: Exactly. Then no sustain. I found this way guitar sings more.

Gene Imbody: It rings better.

Tomo Fujita: Yeah. So usually I said about two millimeter or-

Erick Coleman: What gauge strings do you use?

Tomo Fujita: 10. For this one I do 10 and then 46.

Erick Coleman: Got you.

Tomo Fujita: The reason is sometimes, again, people believe looking for Stevie Ray Vaughn, that kind of sound... Yeah. You laughing.

Gene Imbody: That hurts.

Tomo Fujita: Some people do 49 to 11, they end up people picking hard. I tried for a few years, ended up every night I pick hard because string can handle the power. Exactly the same thing, John Mayer doing the same thing. We are doing kind of same time and we say each other, forget about it. We are not Stevie Ray Vaughn, just play 10 and a 46 and be happy with it.

Gene Imbody: So there we have it. Essential setup tool number one, some kind of rule for measuring your action. Now one thing that can really affect your action is the straightness of your neck and to check that you're going to need a straightedge.

Neck straightness

Erick Coleman: Having a straight neck identifies other potential issues like high and low frets and nut slot setter possibly too low.

Gene Imbody: So not all straightedges are created equally. Just because it's straight doesn't mean it's machined within a tolerance [on-screen text reads: #2 Straightedge]. So a long ruler may get you in the ballpark, but it's not going to be accurate like one of the ones that we sell that is manufactured within a very tight tolerance.

Tomo Fujita: I didn't know that.

Gene Imbody: So you can get close, but really for accurate setup work to really know what you're looking at, a true straightedge is what you need.

Erick Coleman: Every so often we buy products from our competitors and test them out to see what they are. You do get what you pay for.

[everyone laughs]

Tomo Fujita: Right.

Gene Imbody: Do you rely more on a notched or a straight?

Erick Coleman: In the shop, I definitely rely on the notched straightedge more than I do a regular straightedge, because it takes the frets out of the equation. This guy's going over.

Gene Imbody: So you're eliminating the frets from the equation.

Erick Coleman: Yeah. So in case there's a high fret or something in there that the ruler or the straightedge might get itself hung up on. Removing that, and so what I'm looking for here is a gap between the bottom of the straightedge and the top of the fingerboard. Given that the frets are good and all that and you use a regular metal straightedge. A lot of times I'd want to have a backlight, have that underneath there and then that way I can look and see and I would do that with this as well.

Gene Imbody: You can flip that around and use the other side, right?

Erick Coleman: That is a great combo.

Gene Imbody: But the notched straightedge is really going to reveal to you the difference between the tops of your frets and the straightness of your neck.

Tomo Fujita: I used to do this before. I know using this gauge [Tomo points to the Precision Straightedge]. So then I hold a guitar, I look at train tracks [Tomo holds the guitar up in front of him and looks down the fretboard from behind the guitar body], this is straight. And then, oh yeah, when I show this to students, they just don't see same thing. We do this for about 10 minutes [Tomo laughs].

Gene Imbody: It takes a while I think to develop the eye to see what you're looking at.

Tomo Fujita: And sometimes I can see the angle goes like this [Tomo motions his hand like a ski jump]. So overall I think this is the best probably.

Gene Imbody: If you're just going to get one... Yeah. If you're not comfortable taking on fret work, you probably don't need a notched straightedge. For just plain setup work, a standard straightedge is fine. I think what's important too is how straight does your neck need to be. I always start dead straight. A straight neck sounds better. A straight neck feels better, but you can rarely get away with a dead straight neck.

Erick Coleman: It depends on the player.

Gene Imbody: It depends on the player. It depends on the guitar.

Tomo Fujita: That's great to know.

Gene Imbody: I start with no relief. Rarely do I ever end up there though, and I only add relief as I need it to correct some buzzing in this area. Another good thing to think about too is you can have the opposite of too much relief. You can have back bow, a neck that's going this direction [Gene motions his hand horizontally then in a downward direction], so these frets are dipping this way.

Erick Coleman: Then you're going to have big problems.

Neck adjustment

Gene Imbody: That's an unplayable neck, so use a good straightedge to check your neck for straightness. What do you do if it's not straight?

Erick Coleman: Exactly.

Gene Imbody: You've got to adjust it, right?

Erick Coleman: Yeah.

Gene Imbody: That takes us to the next tool, which is a truss rod wrench [on-screen text reads: #3 Truss Rod Wrench]. It's going to vary depending on the brand, the type of neck you have, whether it's at the headstock or at the heel, whether it's an acoustic and it's inside the guitar. A lot of variation there. So this is a sixty-five Strat?

Erick Coleman: Yes.

Gene Imbody: The truss rod adjustment is going to be a crosshair and it's going to be at the heel. If you have a heel adjustment, where there's not easy clear access to that, you've got to take the neck off really to do it right.

Erick Coleman: Safely. To do it safely.

Gene Imbody: To do it safely. As far as wrenches go, we do carry some great ones. I like the long-handled wrenches.

Tomo Fujita: Which one is your favorite for Fender or Strat type?

Erick Coleman: I like this one a lot [Erick picks up the Truss Rod Crank for Tele tool] and it's especially useful on Teles, because you can lift the guard up and there's a little slot there and you can get into it with the Tele and stuff. With a Strat, you still need to take it off, but it's just a good size and get on that. This one works good too [Erick picks up the Truss rod wrench for Fender], but I think I get a better feel-

Tomo Fujita: Oh really?

Erick Coleman: ... with this action than that action.

Gene Imbody: I'll use that one a lot if the neck is completely off and I'm just using the neck, but I use that crank a lot too. If you can't get a clean shot at the rod, it's best to take the neck off.

Tomo Fujita: I teach so many students at the Berklee, I mean many great passionate students who play really well and they have nice custom shop Fender or Gibson, but maybe I would say more than half of them, their guitar not good, a set-up wise. And one student says, "This guitar really hard to play." And I said, "Can I see it?" Neck is like this [Tomo motions his hand to demonstrate a bowed guitar neck]. It's really like that. It's really buzzing just because height is so low, or just problem that they just didn't notice and they don't know and this is what happened. Then they bring the guitar to guitar repair store, only to say something is wrong with it. So really not saying what part is wrong, so that's why sometimes I spend many minutes just adjusting.

Gene Imbody: So let's adjust a neck. So a lot of this too is finding what wrench you need. That might be in your owner's manual. You might be able to find it online or the manufacturer's website or in the case of something like this Larrivées we have behind us. A lot of guitars, especially one like this will come with the wrench you need. So something like this, there's usually a hole through the fingerboard brace that will allow you to come in. There you even heard it. Find the truss rod, right?

Erick Coleman: Yeah.

Gene Imbody: So we would start by first getting an idea of how much relief we have or don't have. If it's a rod we've never adjusted before, I would start with just a little bit of a loosening to see how tight it is. And then an eighth to a quarter of a turn from there to see how the neck is adjusting. So that's truss rod wrenches. Make sure you have the proper one to fit your guitar and make the necessary adjustments to straighten your neck. Adjusting the truss rod is one step in setting your action. Our next adjustment comes at the bridge or the saddles. Now this is an acoustic guitar obviously, and setting the action at the bridge or at your saddle is a little more difficult.

Action at the bridge

Tomo Fujita: They're hard to do. I can do that.

Gene Imbody: With an electric, it's hard to make a mistake. You can always go back. If you go too high or too low, you can just change it again. Let's take a look at this 335. Anytime I need to make adjustments in height to my saddles, I don't want the variable of nut height to factor into what I'm reading down there [on-screen text reads: #4 Capo]. So an ordinary capo becomes an essential tool for setup. So right there that puts the strings right down on top of the first fret and I call that my zero point [Gene clamps the capo down onto the strings at the first fret].

So I start with a dead straight neck that's zero there, capo at the first fret, that's zero there. If you get these two points to zero, I think you get a more accurate picture of what's going on at the bridge. So on a Gibson guitar you can adjust the height of the bridge through the thumb wheels, but it's kind of tricky. So we have some tools to help you with that.

Erick Coleman: We have a little jack here [on-screen text reads: Bridge Jack for Gibson Players], just kind of gets underneath one edge of the bridge and then makes turning the thumb wheels easier when there's 70 whatever pounds of pressure pushing down on the thumb wheels, it can be a little difficult to adjust. And then in the case of a Les Paul Junior or something SG Junior, where the bridge is very similar to this piece. It just has length adjustments on it, and then you would use a tool like this [on-screen text reads: Stop Tailpiece Wrench for Gibson Players] with a captured bit to get on it to raise and lower the bridge without chewing up the studs. Somebody has been on there with a screwdriver that's-

Tomo Fujita: I see.

Erick Coleman: ... smaller than what the screw head is and then chewed it up.

Tomo Fujita: That's me. I use a regular screwdriver.

Erick Coleman: Gene mentioned that this works really well too, if you need to adjust.

Gene Imbody: They move smoothly. That will work sometimes too.

Tomo Fujita: Oh, I see.

Gene Imbody: But really that's the safest way to adjust a bridge or a tailpiece. So now we know what tools we need to adjust our bridge action. I think it's important to know, well, where do you set it? Everyone is different. There are different places to measure this, but on an electric guitar, a good place to start when you're talking about action height at the 13th or 14th fret range where this drop-off happens. I go for three 30 seconds on the bass E string and then about a 16th on the treble E string. That kind of represents to me on an electric guitar, a moderate action. I may have to go up, I may have to go down, but that's my starting point. So if you use a tool like this- [Gene picks up the String Action Gauge

Tomo Fujita: Show me that, yes.

Gene Imbody: ... you could use the string lines we have. So 330 seconds is like 92 thousandths, somewhere around there. So we have 90 thousandths is what I would be shooting for and 60 thousandths if we're talking decimals.

Tomo Fujita: But I like that. This really shows the height and then show the numbers.

Gene Imbody: That is a pretty clear way-

Tomo Fujita: Very clear.

Gene Imbody: ... to look at it. I shoot for something that I can hand anybody and it's not going to buzz. The last thing you want to do is work on a guitar and hand it to somebody and they hit it and then they look at you because it's buzzy. So then I give it to somebody like Tomo if it's his guitar because I obviously can't play like Tomo. So I get it to where I think it's a good starting point and then I let him play it and tell me where he wants it after that. It's an individual preference thing.

Tomo Fujita: How about one more thing, those radius gauge, do you use that?

Gene Imbody: Absolutely [on-screen text reads: #5 Understring Radius Gauges]. So these under string radius gauges come in after you set the action of your outside E-strings, they slip in under the strings and help you set the radius of all the middle strings [Gene slips the Understring Radius Gauge underneath the strings at the bridge]. The benefit of a capo is also that it's setting the radius down at the first fret. So if you didn't know, the radius of your string should more or less match the radius of your fretboard that's part of a proper setup. But you can also use them to check the radius of your fretboard too.

Erick Coleman: You just want to get underneath it. That's why we thin these out, sort of to get underneath there [Erick slips the Understring Radius Gauge underneath the strings at the bottom of the fretboard]. It should be a 12.

Tomo Fujita: It should be 12, right?

Erick Coleman: And that looks pretty good actually.

Gene Imbody: Yeah, pretty close.

Erick Coleman: I'm going to take a peek at it with a 10 just to-

Tomo Fujita: Oh, I see.

Gene Imbody: It helps to compare it to the two sizes around it. I find a light sometimes helps too. You can see there's a gap between the two radii.

Erick Coleman: And there's a little more gap in the center of the radius there. So I'm going to stick with the 12. You can see that there's just a little bit of the-

Tomo Fujita: Yeah, a little bit.

Erick Coleman: ... gap right on there.

Gene Imbody: And a lot of times what I find is it's not perfect to any one number. It's like you've kind of got to pick. It's like, yeah, this is probably a seven and a quarter, but I do see some light gaps. I'll generally err on the over radius side, but it's kind of personal preference. So then you want to check the strings underneath to see where you're sitting on your saddles. When I do that, I always put the guitar on my shoulder.

Tomo Fujita: Oh, I see.

Gene Imbody: I balance it on my shoulder. I put a capo on the first fret and then that gives me both hands free to then come under and then look at what radius I'm dealing with. I'll just move the strings and see the gap between the gauge and the string. And then obviously on a Gibson, you're going to need nut files to actually deepen those slots. So if you have a flatter radius at the bridge, you're touching in the center, but on the edges, on the wings you're not, you're going to need to deepen the outside strings until you come down and touch. If you're not touching in the middle, you need to deepen the ones in the center until you touch. But on a Fender we get to adjust it. So let's look at your Strat again.

Tomo Fujita: Yep.

Gene Imbody: So on this guitar, since I've worked on it and I did some fret work on it, I was able to determine that this is actually a nine and a half inch radius.

Tomo Fujita: Kind of a little flat, right?

Gene Imbody: It's a little flat. So what I do and what I did on this guitar is I actually set this to a 10-inch radius. And the reason being is if I set this to a nine and a half to match the board perfectly, then starting at the E-string, this whole radius, if you think of this group of strings as one complete arch, this whole radius goes [Gene motions with his hand showing the radius going up and hinging] and hinges off of the E-string, which is fine and that's how a lot of people do it and there's nothing wrong with that. What that does though is it raises all of these strings up and I don't really want to raise the treble strings up so much. I mostly want the bass strings to come up. And the way I accomplish that is to set a little bit flatter of a radius on the saddles.

Tomo Fujita: So this is what I do. First I set with right radius, but after that I bring both in go higher, in other words, little bit more flat. The reason is I bend more notes. So higher string height, I have more room to bend. I strum a little hard on the bottom end to play funk, so I just raise slightly higher.

Gene Imbody: That comes back to the running theme of a setup is very individual.

Tomo Fujita: Yes.

Erick Coleman: Yes.

Tomo Fujita: It has to fit not only the condition of the guitar-

Tomo Fujita: Style.

Erick Coleman: ... the style of the player. So on a Fender, changing your individual string height at the saddle is really easy to do. You just need the proper sized Allen wrench. And I think I can speak for all of us [on-screen text reads: #6 Guitar Tech Screwdriver Set] when I say I love the Guitar Tech Screwdriver Set and that's an Erick tool. We can thank Erick Coleman for that one.

Erick Coleman: Well, that was a several month R&D project where I just basically went through all the guitars in the shop that Gene and I had at the time and determined which screws, which Allen keys, which screwdriver sizes best suited guitar work. And so we worked with a manufacturer and came up with the screwdriver set. Most of the American made Fenders with this style, the vintage style bridge. This screw was a fifty thousandths and that goes with our screwdriver set perfectly. Most imported Fender type guitars, it doesn't even have to be a Squier, but most Strat and Tele shaped objects that are not American made, more often than not, that's a 1.5 millimeter wrench adjustment for the saddles.

Gene Imbody: For the middle too, right?

Erick Coleman: Yep. That's in there too. This tool set is something that goes with me everywhere.

Action at the nut

Gene Imbody: That's invaluable. So now after we have our bridge set up, our radius adjusted, it's time to turn our attention to the nut. And this is a big one, these can be difficult. I've always said that making a nut from scratch is one of the hardest things you can do.

Tomo Fujita: That's hard.

Gene Imbody: But I think adjusting the slots is doable for most people.

Tomo Fujita: I think so, especially when you buy a new guitar, I think they tend to have this a little higher so then they don't buzz. But then when you really play, you need to adjust it.

Gene Imbody: This is why I do these things, why most of us do these things in this order. Because the relief of your neck will affect the height of your nut action over the first fret, and the height of your saddles will affect the height of your strings over the first fret and vice versa. It's kind of circular. Each one of these adjustments has an effect on the other. So that's why I start with a dead straight neck and a capo just to eliminate that. And then I set this and then go back and adjust this, which then may mean you have to come back and adjust these. You kind of have to juggle these three things until you find an equilibrium.

Tomo Fujita: And my question is, what tool do you recommend?

Gene Imbody: So we have gauged nut files for this kind of work [on-screen text reads: #7 Gauged Nut Files]. This is our standard set. You can splurge and get the fancy diamond coated files. They're awesome, but the standard cut files work great and they're what I've always used. There's some key things to keep in mind that will help keep you from making mistakes. One is to have the proper file. Really, if you want to do it well, you should have a file that matches each gauge of your string.

Now that's an investment. Some people may not want to do that. And I talk to a lot of our customers and some who don't want to spend that much money at once. So I generally say as a rule of thumb, anything two thousandths under to about four thousandths over can be made to work. Especially if you're dealing with your own guitar and a plastic nut and you just want to make it work with some sandpaper or that abrasive cord. You can open up a two thousandths small slot to the right size and at four thousandths over, you're only talking two thousandths on each side of the string. To me, that's not a major deal.

Now if you're making brand new bone nuts on really nice guitars, you really need the right files. So how do you determine where to set the slot height with these files? Well, you need to figure out how high you want your string over the first fret. What I do with the capo on the first fret is I go for double the height that I see over the second fret. If you think of the nut as a zero fret, a fret that's always fretted, then you should be about the same height over the first fret that you see over the second fret when you capo at the first. I do double to give myself some insurance and I lower and test until I find the spot where it plays comfortably without buzzing.

Erick Coleman: In my drawer of nut making tools, I have a bunch of cutoff guitar strings in various gauges, and then I'll dogleg them like this [Erick makes a 90 degree bend at the end of the string]. So when I'm setting the string action over the first fret, depending on what that measurement might be, this is a 13 gauge string. Usually I'll do the D and G string at that height. And so I'll get in underneath there and I'll measure. There's just a little bit of distance between the top of the feeler gauge and the bottom of the string. And so I would go in and then file that slot a couple strokes with the file in order to lower that slot.

Tomo Fujita: So you used that for the [inaudible 00:21:59].

Erick Coleman: Yeah, until the string just sat perfectly on the top there. Another thing that you don't want also is if a nut slot's too high, it's going to play sharp in these lower frets and that's unacceptable.

Gene Imbody: The other thing I tell people a lot is it's very important to angle these slots with the approach of the string. So if you look, we have a string retainer here, but all of these strings are heading down. It's even more so on an angled peghead, like a Gibson or a Martin. You need to follow the approach of the strings. If the slots are too flat, you'll get a buzz in the slot. We even sell some tools, the safe slot or the nut gauge that if you want to get more advanced, if you want to be more precise, you certainly can.

Setting intonation

So setting the right nut slot depth with nut files, very important to a great setup. Now let's talk about setting intonation [on-screen text reads: #8 Tuner] and doing that with the help of a good tuner. And the reason we save that for last, is because the height of the strings, the height of the nut slots, the bow of the neck, all affect your intonation. If that's too high, you're going to be more sharp. We try to get that in the ballpark first. I also think it's probably important to kind of start out in the ballpark, because the length of your string is going to affect everything else.

Tomo Fujita: Sometimes I ask a student to play first string all the way up the melody and I play chords. Then as you go up, pitch slightly, go lower, and that's usually I notice that the guitar is not intonated.

Gene Imbody: So then you're going flat as you work?

Tomo Fujita: Yeah. Then next step I do, it's just I tune everything open string and I use the guitar. I demonstrate play all the triads chords everywhere how horrible the guitar sound is.

Gene Imbody: Show us what you mean, Tomo.

Tomo Fujita: Well, it means this guitar is probably intonated, but if you have like D chords like that, then go like that [Tomo plays a series of chords on the 65 Strat]. But then what's happening is if some of the strings are too high like that...

Gene Imbody: You can hear it.

Tomo Fujita: Yeah. So then what happens is intonation is off. That's why strings go higher. But then so easy like that, but then sometimes it sounds like that... Like that. You know what I mean?

Gene Imbody: Sure.

Tomo Fujita: Then completely wrong. Then I say, "Wow, really off." So I have several different tuners. I use this type quick one, but also I plug in this one-

Gene Imbody: Those are good too.

Tomo Fujita: ... to the amplifier so the students can plug in and play, and this way people really see how accurate.

Gene Imbody: So that's going to be a lot more accurate than the D'Addario one?

Tomo Fujita: The D'Addario one is pretty good, but in other words, I don't want to rely on one thing. So I have this for accuracy and this is about close enough. Then I use our ears to really finalize then understand how off or how in.

Gene Imbody: It's important to train your ear.

Tomo Fujita: Exactly. Exactly.

Gene Imbody: Well, we have the clip-on strobe here, the Peterson. These are great, right?

Tomo Fujita: That's great.

Gene Imbody: And this is a little more accurate than your normal clip-on tuner.

Tomo Fujita: Oh yeah, that moves.

Gene Imbody: So this is going to be pretty accurate, but like this one or the snark that you see on everybody's guitar, I don't have a major problem with those. I think those aren't going to be as accurate as this or a strobe tuner, but it's accurate enough for most people.

Tomo Fujita: Close enough.

Gene Imbody: A lot of people will compare the fretted note to the harmonic. I don't do that. Do you do that?

Erick Coleman: No.

Tomo Fujita: No.

Gene Imbody: Because I don't play harmonics. I play open notes and I play fretted notes. There's error built in when you press the string down.

Tomo Fujita: Exactly. Mostly we play pressed note, right?

Gene Imbody: Yes, or open strum notes. When I said intonation, I'm not worried about that fretted and open.

Tomo Fujita: That's why most beginner students believe if you tune open string, everything's all set.

Gene Imbody: Yeah, not quite.

Tomo Fujita: But not quite. But then if you go higher, intonation is off, then sounds not good.

Gene Imbody: So if you're sharp at the 12th fret, you're going to move the saddle back. You're going to crease the string.

Tomo Fujita: You're going to crease it. Right, right. Exactly.

Gene Imbody: If you're flat, it's the opposite. You're coming forward.

Tomo Fujita: Yes, exactly.

Gene Imbody: So make small adjustments, retune, check again, you should have every bit you need in a set like that to make the adjustments on these saddles on a Tune-o-matic just about any bridge, you're going to be able to... And that extension that you've got on there, that is great, because it's going to allow you to get out a little bit further. Let's just check the treble E. So you got to realize too, on a strobe tuner, it's very hard to keep those wheels from spinning. Its tuner is so accurate. So we're in tune there and then... So that one is a little sharp.

Tomo Fujita: So then you have to adjust the saddle.

Gene Imbody: Right. So this is where I was talking about that extension is great, because it allows us to get in and make this adjustment without bumping the handle into the top of the guitar, which I think is important, especially when you're working on someone else's guitar and you don't want to be the one to put a ding in it.

Erick Coleman: Someone else's vintage guitar.

Gene Imbody: Vintage guitar.

Erick Coleman: Someone else who's standing right next to you.

Gene Imbody: It wasn't me, Tomo [everyone laughs]. So if I'm sharp, I'm going to move this saddle back a little bit. Just again, a small adjustment, just even that little bit of an adjustment. And then we'll have to retune the open note again. I drop back down and then check again. And that did it, we're good to go. And I think it's also important to use the amount of pressure you're going to use when you play to be aware of how you play and not to muscle everything. Because look, I'm in tune there and I'm in tune there. But listen, you really push hard. You could probably even see it on the tuner.

Erick Coleman: Just enough pressure to where the note sounds cleanly.

Gene Imbody: Right.

Tomo Fujita: See, that's really important.

Pickup height

Gene Imbody: So setting your intonation with a good tuner is one of the last steps of a great setup. But there's one more thing we got to do on an electric guitar and that's set the height of the pickups. The gap between your pickup and your string plays a really big role in your tone.

Tomo Fujita: Yes.

Gene Imbody: It can also play a role in your intonation a little bit.

Erick Coleman: Sure.

Tomo Fujita: Yeah.

Gene Imbody: Some of these magnets are really powerful and if they're too close to the string, it will affect-

Tomo Fujita: Yeah, pull the string.

Gene Imbody: It'll pull the string. So how do you know where to set them? So Tomo, when this guitar got here, I saw where you had your pickup set and I know you have a particular way you like these set. I recognize that. So what I did was I readjusted your neck pick so that you can kind of run us through where you set that.

Tomo Fujita: I kind of remember. So bass side probably around here... About here [Tomo adjusts his pickup].

Gene Imbody: So you have this side a fair amount lower than this side. Why is that?

Tomo Fujita: Yes. Just because bottom string has a thicker string and magnet pull really effectively pulling bigger strings, especially lower notes. So that lower part, I just like that, so that magnet pull is a little less, more sustained. But somehow higher string not effective as lower string. That's why I keep this size slightly higher and this size always little bit lower.

Gene Imbody: So we did take a measurement too to make sure we got it back to where he had it. But Tomo, you would plug this guitar in and listen to it, make that the final determination, plug through an amp so you could hear it, right?

Erick Coleman: Uh-huh, right there [everyone laughs].

Tomo Fujita: Right there?

Gene Imbody: Right back to where it was at.

Tomo Fujita: I'm glad. Basically you get more sustain.

Erick Coleman: Yes.

Gene Imbody: Yeah.

Tomo Fujita: Amazing. You get more sustain, sounds better in a better tone.

Erick Coleman: Not only are you trying to find the best tone of these pickups, but you're also trying to achieve an even volume match between the three of them, because you only have one volume control that's controlling all these pickups. And when you go flipping through the switches, you don't want one of those to be louder or more quiet than the other, so it's-

Tomo Fujita: That's a great point.

Erick Coleman: ... a balancing act of tone and volume.

Gene Imbody: If you're just starting out, here's how I do this. Hold your two E-strings down at the very last fret and set a gap from the top of the pull piece to the bottom of the strings of three thirty seconds of an inch. That's a good starting point, and from there you can adjust as needed by ear raising. The pickup will make it louder, but you'll get less of a clean tone out of it. Lowering the pickup may give you a sweeter, clearer tone, but you're going to lose volume. So find the spot that suits your ear best. And once again, to make that adjustment, well, that brings us back to the screwdriver tech set again. That's our VIP today.

Tomo Fujita: I bring this everywhere. I bring this everywhere.

Gene Imbody: It's got the right bits for doing this-

Tomo Fujita: So good.

Gene Imbody: ... for everything. So I think that's probably the most used tool I own. So there you have it. These are the eight essential tools we recommend to start doing your own setup work, maybe nine or so if you have a Gibson. When you add up the total cost, of course it varies based on which truss rod wrench you pick, how many files you invest in. But all said and done, you're going to be about a few hundred bucks. But again, at the cost of around a $100 or so for a setup that's only a few setups.

Tomo Fujita: Plus everybody has five, six guitars.

Gene Imbody: Right.

Tomo Fujita: And the more you repeat-

Gene Imbody: It's going to pay for itself. Thank you guys so much for helping out with this.

Tomo Fujita: You're welcome.

Gene Imbody: We'll see you folks back at the bench next time.

[funky electric guitar music plays]



Gene Imbody, Erick Coleman, Tomo Fujita

StewMac Guitar Tech and Customer Service
StewMac Senior Technical Advisor
Guitar Professor at the Berklee College of Music

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