By: E. Lucktong
Like any precision instrument guitars will perform their best when they are properly set up. By setting up your guitar properly you can maximize your guitar’s potential and also customize how it will feel, play, and sound to your liking. There are some adjustments that are best left to a professional but you can do a lot yourself with just a few simple tools. Here are 3 easy steps you can take to adjust your guitar’s action, intonation, and pickup output.
The action of a guitar refers to how easy it is to fret (push down on) the strings. A guitar set up with good action will play effortlessly. The easiest way to affect the action of a guitar is by adjusting the string height at the bridge. Most electric guitars will have an adjustable bridge to allow this.
Most guitar bridges will have either a hand-turned bridge height adjustment knob (like on Les Paul type guitars) or a hex-wrench driven mechanism (like most Strat-type guitars). Simply turn the screws to lower the string height. The goal is to go as low as you can before the strings start to ‘buzz’ meaning they are resting on a the fret wire.
There are some instances where you may want a higher string height, for example if you play slide guitar, but in general the lower the better. Other adjustments that affect string height and action such as height at the nut, neck angle, and truss rod adjustments may be better left for the professional.
Intonation of a guitar refers to the relationship of the frets to the precise string length. A guitar that is intonated correctly will sound ‘in-tune’ at all neck positions. Poorly intonated guitars will sound ok at one neck position, but will sound ‘out-of-tune’ at other neck positions. The length of a guitar string from nut to bridge needs to be exactly bisected at the 12th fret. In other words the 12th fret must divide the string exactly in half.
Here the adjustable bridge comes into play again. Most bridges will have individual saddles for each string that can be moved to adjust intonation. Moving the string saddle, in effect, changes the length of the string. You will need a good electronic tuner to adjust your intonation. The goal here is to precisely match the tone of the fretted 12th string to the tone of the 12th string natural harmonic. A natural harmonic tone is achieved by only lightly putting your finger over the fret wire (the 12th in this instance) and picking the string normally.
Natural harmonics will ring like a chime. They are easier to hear when the guitar is plugged into an amp and even easier when using the overdrive channel of your amp. Use your tuner to match the tone of the 12th string harmonic to the fretted 12th string tone by incrementally moving the string saddle one way or the other. Do this for each individual string, and your guitar will be intonated.
Pickup output can greatly be affected by the proximity of the pickup to the string. The easiest way to adjust this is by adjusting the pickup height. The closer the pickup is to the string the higher the output. Most pickups will have a height adjustment screw on either side of the pickup housing. Simply turn it to raise and lower the pickup.
Fret the strings at the highest possible fret and raise the pickup so that it’s about 1/8” from the string. This should produce a good high output sound. From here you can customize your sound by either raising or lowering the high E or low E side of the pickup to enhance or subdue the treble or bass response. Make sure that you match the output between all of your pickups so that you won’t get a big volume change when you change pickups.
With these tips your should be able to improve and customize your guitar and maximize the its performance. Remember that a properly set up guitar has a great impact on how it will play. It can be the difference between a guitar that plays good or one that plays great. Visit www.2ndstringguitars.com for the best value in new and used guitars, factory 2nds, and refurbished instruments at cheap guitar prices.