Hi, you're in the studio with Luke from GuitarIQ.com. Welcome to Guitar iQ&A, where you send in your burning guitar questions and I do my best to answer them! Today's question comes in from Blake, who writes:
"Hey Luke, I have another question for Guitar iQ&A. It’s one I struggle with sometimes. Can you talk about guitar setup including neck adjustments and string height etc.? Thanks!”
Hey Blake, thanks for another great question! Guitar setup is one of those things that can seem really difficult to understand at first. However, the logic behind basic guitar adjustments is actually quite straightforward. Guitar setup is all about achieving a balance between two key things: tone (the sound if your guitar) and playability (the feel of your guitar). In this video, I'm going to talk about the 3 main things you need to understand to make sense of what guitar setup is and why it's important. These are: neck curve, string height, and intonation.
First up, let's talk about neck curve or truss rod adjustment. Ever seen someone pick up a guitar and look down the neck like it's a rifle? This is what they're looking at. Generally, guitar necks will have a metal truss rod running through the center. The tension of this truss rod can vary the neck between two general positions. If it’s too tight, the neck will bow slightly outward (toward the strings). If it’s too loose, the neck will bow slightly inward (away from the strings). Neither extreme is ideal. If the neck bows out too much, it will interfere with the natural vibration of the strings. This means you'll get excessive fret buzz and your notes won't sustain clearly. If the neck bows in too much, it increases the distance between the strings and the fretboard. This means the guitar will feel more sluggish and harder to play around the middle of the fretboard and you'll likely have more issue with intonation. Personally, I like to start with my guitar neck set as straight as possible. However, most of the time the guitar neck will need a small amount of what we call relief. This means keeping a slight natural curve to compensate for the midpoint where strings vibrate the most.
The next key thing involved in guitar setup is adjusting the string height or action of your guitar. This has a massive impact on a guitar’s playability. If the action of the strings is too high off of the fretboard, the guitar is difficult to play and again you'll likely get intonation problems. Likewise, if the action is too low, there’ll be excessive string noise and notes won't ring out cleanly. You can compensate for these problems by adjusting the string height at the guitar bridge. And as long as you avoid either of those extremes, setting your exact string height is largely a matter of personal preference. It depends on the feel you like and the string gauge you like to use. Some players prefer a higher action. Personally, I like the action to be as low as possible, while still making sure there's no ugly buzzing or fretting-out happening up the length of the fretboard.
The third and final key thing involved in basic guitar setup is fine tuning the guitar's intonation. For a guitar to be relatively in tune across the whole fretboard, the 12th fret needs to be the tonal center point for each string. Again, like the string height, we can compensate for the individual string length at the bridge of the guitar. If the string length is too long, notes will sound flatter as you move up the guitar neck. If the string length is too short, notes will sound sharper. So, although it might seem logical to just set the bridge consistently across all strings, intonation is calibrated by a string’s pitch, not its physical length. This means that each string is usually set slightly differently to account for variables such as the neck curve, fretboard radius, action, and so on. In general, the concept of setting your intonation itself is relatively easy to understand. Remember though, in practice we're talking about very small, often fiddly saddle adjustments. As will all of these things, it can take some practice (and patience) to get the knack of it.
So, that's a brief overview of the 3 main things you need to understand to make sense of guitar setup. Again they are: neck curve, string height, and intonation. To reiterate, the goal with all of this is balance. You want a guitar that's easy to play but allows notes to sustain clearly with minimal buzzing. Now, just like changing strings, with some trial and error these are all things you can learn to do yourself. Of course, if you take your guitar to a good guitar tech, they'll make these adjustments for you. Additionally, they should also put on a fresh set of strings, check your frets, saddles, and guitar nut for signs of wear and tear, give everything a good clean and polish, and even tweak the pickup height (if needed). If your guitar has major issues it might need further repair or restoration work. In the context of this video, this moves outside the realm of basic setup. So, a word of caution, if you're unsure about something always get it checked out by a professional tech first.
Well, that's it for this video. If you found it helpful, please like, subscribe, and leave your comments below. When was the last time you had your guitar set up? Do you set it up yourself? Also, the information in this video was taken from my book Play Guitar Better. Now, this isn't a book on guitar setup. It's written as a quick-start guide to great guitar technique but it does recap the ideas we've just talked about. All of my books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Nobel, and a bunch of other places. So to check them out, just head over to the website, GuitarIQ.com. Last of all, if you have a question that you'd like answered just leave it in the comments or head over to the Q&A tab on our website. And you might find your question featured in a video! All the best in the practice room this week. Chat soon!