DIY GUITAR SETUPS
By PETER HODGSON
There’s a reason the great techs earn a living from setting up and repairing guitars: it’s tricky, exacting work that can really benefit your instrument. But many techs will tell you there’s a lot you can do yourself. We asked pro tech Joseph Price for some pointers on how to set up your guitar and get it singing sweetly.
My Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster reissue is a great workhorse guitar: it’s pretty much bulletproof and idiotproof. That makes it a great guitar to demonstrate setup secrets with, so I brought it along to Melbourne luthier and tech Joseph Price for a once-over so we could have a look at how to get your guitar in top condition so that it can do its job and stay out of your way while you rock. Here’s a step-by-step look at the important stuff.
GET THE NECK STRAIGHT
Joe’s recommended way to do this is to clamp a capo at the first fret (you can just hold it down with your finger if you like, but doing this frees up both hands), then press the same string down at the 16th fret. Then, examine the gap between the bottom of the strings and the top of the frets in the 7th-9th fret area. At this point, it’s a good idea to get the neck as straight as you can without getting any buzz in the 5th-14th fret area. Aim for a minimum of 0.004” - 10” of an inch, or about the thickness of a top E string.
Here you can see the string pressed down at the 16th fret, while capo'd at the first for use as a straight-edge to determine neck relief.
On older Fender-style guitars like this, the truss rod adjustment is at the heel of the neck, and the neck itself needs to be taken off to adjust the rod. On newer Fender style guitars and most others (including Gibsons and the like), you’ll find the adjustment behind the nut, often under a plastic cover.
If the neck is bowed forwards - in other words, if there’s a dip in the middle - the rod needs to be tightened by turning it to the right with the appropriate wrench or screwdriver for your guitar. If the neck is convex - or in other words, has a hump in the middle - the rod needs to be loosened by turning it to the left. Go slowly - turn by just a little bit, then wait a few minutes for the wood to settle. You don’t want to risk damaging your guitar by turning the truss rod too far.
Note that if you pick really hard, you might want a little bit of relief in the neck, rather than having it utterly, perfectly straight - otherwise, you might run into fret rattle. This especially applies if you like low action, but really want to wallop the strings.