Mal’s big guide to guitar setup and troubleshooting

malcolm barclay

Your guitar comes with a whole panoply of features that should be able to tweak to get it into shape, and most of these adjustments can be made with nothing more than a screwdriver, a little care, and some patience. Find out how…

Warning/disclaimer The information in this article is provided free of charge, in good faith, and on the condition that it will only be used responsibly and entirely at your own risk.

The procedures outlined are based on 20 years experience of tweaking guitars, and have been confirmed through consultation with professional luthiers, etc., as good practice.

However, even something as simple as adjusting a pickup may be fraught with danger – simply dropping a screwdriver can horribly damage the finish on your guitar. It is up to you to proceed carefully and at your own risk, taking note of all the tips, tricks, and warnings where applicable.

Guitar set-up and troubleshooting So, you just bought a new guitar and it’s producing unexpected buzzing, and/or has playability problems.

Don’t worry – very few guitars ever play perfect straight out of the box. They are made of wood, and there is an old saying around these parts: ‘Never trust anything made out of wood.’

Wood expands and contracts with heat and cold or changes in humidity, it warps and twists, relaxes or sags over time, it occasionally does completely inexplicable things, just because it feels like it.

That’s not necessarily the manufacturer’s fault. Differences in climate, temperature, the vagaries of shipping – all can affect the set-up on a guitar. It may be an issue to take up with the shop you bought it from. They really should have checked it thoroughly and performed a set-up on it before letting you buy the thing, but not all of them do, of course!

But what if you bought it on the net, or second-hand? You can’t easily return it for servicing, and if you don’t have a good luthier or set-up guy in your neighbourhood, who do you turn to?

No problem – your guitar comes with a whole panoply of features that should be able to tweak to get it into shape, and most of these adjustments can be made with nothing more than a screwdriver, a little care, and some patience.

However, first you need to understand what it is you are trying to achieve…

What is a good set-up?

The term ‘set-up’ is a catch-all phrase that covers three main areas: playability, tone, and intonation.

  1. Playability:How easy the guitar is to play? If the strings on your guitar are too high above the fret board, then it will take a lot more force to push them down onto the frets, which makes the guitar more difficult to play. If the strings are too low above the fret board, they may well buzz against the frets when you pluck them. Exactly what the ideal string height is for you depends on your individual finger strength, what string gauge you use, and how hard you play the strings.

    This brings me to the first ‘Golden Rule’ of set-ups: Every guitar player is different, there is no such thing as the ideal set-up for everyone, only the ideal set-up for you.

    The playability of your guitar is governed by two parameters - the action (the height of the strings above the frets), and the neck relief (how straight or bowed the neck is, and to what degree it allows free vibration of the strings). We’ll come to the specifics of ‘how’ later.

  2. Tone: How your guitar sounds. This is affected by two factors. First, pickup height: adjust them too far away from the strings and the output of the pickup will be lower, making your guitar sound quieter with less attack and ‘bite’, and (especially where single coils are concerned) raising the background hum, or ‘noise floor’ of the pickup; adjust them too close to the strings, and the pickups may magnetically interfere with the vibration of the strings, decreasing sustain, causing bizarre overtones, possibly even pulling the strings out of tune. This also depends partially on the design of the pickups, because single coils behave differently to humbuckers (but we won’t get into that just yet). The second factor that affects tone is the action. The height of the strings affects tone as well as playability. The higher the action, the more room the strings have to vibrate freely; the lower the action, the more the vibration of the strings will be impeded by the frets, and the more ‘fret buzz’ you will get. A higher action will therefore give you more output, more sustain, more bass and a cleaner tone - a lower action will result in more fret buzz, less sustain, less bass and less output.

    So, already we have two interactive and potentially contradictory requirements; playability and tone – to get the best tone, logic dictates you set the action high; to get the best playability, logic dictates you set the action low.

    Which brings me to the second ‘Golden Rule’ of set-ups: There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ set-up, only the best compromise you can achieve.

  3. Intonation: How well the guitar plays in tune. There is no short way to explain this - so I won’t! Suffice to say that from a practical point of view the purpose of intonation is to adjust the scale length of each individual string so that it plays an accurate, in tune, octave at the 12th fret.

    Intonation is adjusted at the bridge — more specifically, the bridge saddles (on those bridges that have ‘em) — but may also be affected by: string height, because the further you have to push the strings to fret them, the more you will bend them sharp; neck relief, for much the same reasons; pickup height, because if the magnets are set too close to the strings they may pull them sharp; the freshness of the strings, because strings gradually lose accurate intonation over the course of their life; and your playing technique, because if you hit the strings particularly hard, you may be pulling them sharp.

    Did I already say that everything interacts? (See ‘Golden Rule’ no. 2)

Hopefully you will now have a reasonable understanding of the issues involved in the ‘set-up’ of your guitar.

What you are trying to achieve with a ‘good’ set-up is a guitar that plays in tune, that plays easily, and sounds clear and loud - OR - and this is really getting to the grist of it - achieves the best possible compromise between all these requirements. Take some time to focus on what problems you may be having with your guitar: is it hard to play, is the action ‘stiff’? Does it play in tune all the way up the neck? Is there excessive fret buzz? How do the pickups sound? Do they seem unnaturally weak, or are you hearing unpleasant overtones?

Preparation First of all you need to plan what you are going to do - it is no good charging at the guitar with a screwdriver waving in your wildly flailing hand, randomly tweaking stuff. That’ll get you nowhere.

It is also important to consider whether or not the changes you are planning to your set-up are either achievable or desirable, given your particular playing style.

So, here are some more things to think about:

Playing style

Remember, you are trying to optimise the set-up on your guitar to suit you. So what kind of music do you play? What are your priorities for a good set-up?

If you play very clean-sounding guitar, with the emphasis on rhythm work, you may consider that sacrificing some playability in order to achieve a loud, buzz-free tone is a worthwhile compromise - so you might be willing to consider a higher than average action.

If you play very distorted guitar, with the emphasis on shredding solo work, you may feel that a small amount of fret buzz is an acceptable compromise in order to achieve maximum playability - and go for a lower than average action.

Do you play very hard? Well you will probably need to set the action a touch higher and/or increase the amount of neck relief.

Do you play with a soft touch? Well you can probably get away with a lower action and/or less neck relief.

Can you actually hear any fret-buzz through the amplifier? If you can’t, it may not be worth worrying about – especially on an electric guitar.

Do you use very heavy strings? Heavy strings have a tighter elliptical vibration pattern, so you can probably get away with less neck relief and/or a slightly lower action.

Do you use very light strings? Light strings have a looser vibration pattern (i.e. they flap more!), so you will probably need a touch more neck relief and/or a slightly higher action.

What sound are you looking to get from your pickups? Maximum output? Less attack and ‘bite’? More body or ‘fatness’? More definition and treble response? A softer, more mellow tone?

What you want to get from your guitar will define how you approach setting it up - in the course of this thread I will assume that, like most guitarists, you are aiming to get the best compromise, the ‘average’ set-up - somewhere in the middle of ‘the zone’. I will give pointers along the way as to how to achieve variations on the average set-up - if you are looking for something more specialised - but this is only intended to be a ‘Trouble-Shooter’, to help solve the more obvious and immediate problems encountered with set-ups. Finding your perfect set-up is a lifetime’s journey - and I can’t possibly hope to cover it all here.

Tools

You will need a few basic tools to proceed with this, so lets make sure you have them…

WARNING/DISCLAIMER: before you go out purchasing tools based on these measurements, please bear in mind that some models may have different truss-rod sizes and some may be in metric rather than imperial, depending on where they were made: so please, use your initiative and confirm the size of your truss-rod. Either check with the manufacturer or just measure the damn thing.

  1. A cross-head (Phillips) screwdriver – not too big, the screws on guitars tend to be quite small, and you should choose something short: a big, heavy, long screwdriver will be hard to manipulate, and you risk damaging the finish on your guitar if you drop it.
  2. A flat-head screwdriver - ditto for size.
  3. A truss-rod wrench - what type and size will depend on what guitar you have: Gretsches and Gibsons will have a hexagonal nut at the headstock, for most of these a 5/16” nut socket will do. Most Fenders with a ‘bullet’ truss-rod, or an adjustment made at the headstock end, require a 1/8” allen key. Fenders with a ‘vintage style’ truss-rod are adjusted at the body end of the neck, with a cross-head screwdriver. You can get tools like this specifically for guitars, although a socket-set will do (bear in mind though, we only want to make small adjustments, so choose something you can manipulate easily), allen-key sets are easy to get at most hardware and bicycle shops.
  4. A metal ruler with small graduations like this. Make sure the graduations run right up to the end, so you can measure string-to-fret distances, and while it is up to you whether you choose metric or imperial, all the measurements in this article will be imperial.
  5. A set of fresh strings. There is no point in attempting to adjust your set-up with old strings, especially where intonation is concerned. Very often, most of the ‘problems’ you are experiencing will disappear with new strings anyway.

There are other tools that may be useful, but not necessary for a basic set-up &ndash feeler gauges, digital calipers, straight-edges, etc. It is between you and your wallet if you want to go and buy them, however, I will describe ways of proceeding without them. Only the tools listed above are what I would describe as absolutely ‘necessary’.

Hopefully you are now fully prepared to proceed:

  1. You understand what parameters are involved in a ‘set-up’.
  2. You have thought hard about your playing style and sound.
  3. You know what you want to achieve with your guitar.
  4. You have plan, a list, of what you are going to do.
  5. Tools? Fresh strings? check.

Now on to the ‘how’.

How to adjust your set-up

PROBLEM: Fret buzz SOLUTION: Check neck relief and action. Adjust if necessary.

There is always a ‘right way round’ to do things. In this case it is a good idea to check the neck relief first, then see if the action needs adjustment. They do interact, but should always be treated as separate adjustments.

It is NOT a good idea to use the truss-rod to tweak the action, or raise the bridge to compensate for a back-bow in the neck!

Checking and adjusting neck relief

Fret not Guitar Repair has some good, in-depth information on neck relief, including images which explain it better than words. If you don’t understand what I’m trying to explain, check it out!

Neck relief, or a forward ‘bow’ in the neck, simply allows the strings to vibrate freely without too much interference from the frets, which may cause buzzing. You are only aiming for a very slight amount of forward bow. Some people even swear by setting the neck dead straight, although this has never worked for me. What you definitely don’t want to see is backward bow, as this will cause horrible fret-buzz when the strings vibrate against the hump in the middle of the neck.

When checking neck relief, capo at the first fret and hold the high e-string string down at the 13th fret - you are looking for a little gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the 6th fret. Use your free hand to push the string up and down onto the crown of the fret - this will help you to see the gap better.

There are two ways of doing this, depending on the make of guitar: basically the same method with one simple variation.

For Gretsches and Gibsons with a neck joint around the 14th fret, use the method described above. The truss-rod on these guitars only affects the neck between the nut and the body joint, not the fingerboard extension.

For Fenders, use the same method, except you hold the string down at the last fret, and check the gap between the string and the top of the 8th fret. This is because the truss-rod on Fenders extends much further – and this is the method they recommend.

How much neck relief should there be? A good rough guide is that the gap between the string and the fret should be the thickness of your high e-string for moderate relief or your b-string for more relief.

With experience you can learn to judge it pretty accurately by eye, but if you need a reference and don’t want to shell out for feeler gauges, try this DIY method: get an old e-string and cut off a short length of about 1 ½”. If you cut it from the ball-end it will be much easier to manipulate. Slip the end of this precisely machined bit of wire between the string and the fret whilst fretting at the 1st and 13th frets. Does it fit easily? Is there a lot of room for it to fit between the string and the fret? Does it fit tightly? Does the string grip onto your little piece of wire? Not the most ‘scientific’ method! But it will at least give you a rough idea of whether you have too much, or not enough neck relief.

If you are interested in a ‘by the numbers’ approach: For 12” radius necks and light pickers, around .008” would be moderate relief. For 7 ¼” (vintage Fender) radius necks and heavy pickers, around .012” will probably be adequate. So, you can see that if you play a set of .010s, judging by the high e-string will get you in the middle of the ‘zone’, judging by the b-string will put you at the top-end of the ‘zone’.

You can potentially set the relief anywhere between .004” and .014”, depending on your playing style and personal preference - so as long as you stay roughly within those limits, feel free to experiment and see what works for you. I know at least one luthier who suggests making adjustments, ‘with your ear, not with a ruler.’

How to adjust the neck relief Neck relief is adjusted with the truss-rod, and adjusting the truss-rod is easy and relatively safe – as long as you go slowly. On Gretsches and Gibsons, the truss-rod is adjusted with the hex nut under that small plastic plate behind the nut:

Turn it Clockwise to tighten - which has the effect of straightening the neck (less relief) by counteracting the string tension.

Turn it Counter-Clockwise to loosen - which has the effect of adding more forward bow (more relief) by allowing the string tension to pull the neck forward more.

NOTE - Clockwise or counter-clockwise as seen from the headstock, looking towards the body.

Make adjustments in small increments. Imagine a clock-face and adjust it 1 hour at a time.

After each adjustment, assess the neck and see what effect it has had. Usually very small adjustments are enough. Don’t adjust it more than half a turn in one session, a quarter turn would be considered a big adjustment.

If the truss-rod won’t move, or feels very tight. don’t force it.

It may be that you have tightened the truss-rod as far as it will go, and there is still too much forward bow in the neck - however, if this happens, it is really important that you don’t try and force the truss-rod, because it may shear - and you really don’t want a broken truss-rod!

Alternatively, if your guitar has a rather stiff neck, you may find that even after you have loosened the truss-rod all the way off, there is still not enough tension in the strings to pull the neck forward. You can try changing string gauge - heavier strings will pull the neck forward more, lighter strings, less. BUT, like it probably says on your medication: ‘If symptoms persist, consult a Doctor’.

Use your common sense when adjusting the truss-rod. Make small adjustments and check the relief as you go. If the truss-rod seems too tight, or too loose, take it to a luthier for advice and counseling.

Checking and adjusting the action When you are happy that the neck relief is set properly, measure the action (the distance between the crown of the fret and the bottom of the string), at the 12th fret, without fretting the string. It is easy to do this with a ruler, as long as it has flat ends and graduations that go right up to the end.

The ideal action be on your guitar will depend on your playing style, but here are some rough figures – factory specs, if you like – that will give you the ‘average’ action.

For Gretsches with 12” radius necks, Gibsons with 10” radius necks and all similarly appointed guitars - 3/64” for the high e-string, 5/64” for the low e-string.

For Fenders with a 7 1/4” vintage fingerboard radius, and anything up to 9 1/2” radius necks - 4/64” for the high e-string, 5/64” for the low e-string.

If a set-up by these figures doesn’t seem to suit your playing style, it is all very simple: Lowering the action will give you easier playability, but increased possibility of fret-buzz; raising the action will decrease the possibility of fret-buzz, but make for a ‘stiffer’ playing action.

However, it is important to have realistic expectations of what can be achieved, so remember what I said at the beginning about everything being a compromise. You can set the action as low as you like, so long as you are prepared to put up with a little more fret-buzz. For a cleaner tone, you can set the action as high as you like, so long as you don’t mind the guitar being slightly harder to play.

Searching around for the perfect ‘happy medium’ to suit your individual playing style takes a long time and much experimentation - so don’t worry if you don’t hit the ‘sweet spot’ first time, just try and try again. If setting your guitar up ‘by the numbers’ doesn’t work for you, make the adjustments ‘with your ear’ - and with your fingers, in this case - ‘not with a ruler’.

How to adjust the action

Couldn’t be simpler… on all guitars, the action is adjusted at the BRIDGE.

Gretsch and Gibson type bridges are adjusted by the two thumb-wheels at either end of the bridge - clockwise = down, counter-clockwise = up - you will probably need to loosen the strings to do this easily, unless you use extra-light girlie strings. For very fine tweaking, some adjustment (by filing) of the saddle slots may be necessary.

Fender type bridges are adjusted at the individual bridge saddles, in most cases with a very small allen key that should have come with your guitar - when tweaking Strat bridge saddles, make sure the saddle sits straight and is not tipped at an angle. This is OK for vintage Tele bridges, though - where two strings share a single saddle.

Tweaking the action on your guitar is one of the easiest and most fool-proof ways of personalising your set-up - as it is virtually impossible to break the guitar like this, and everything can easily be restored to the original settings, so long as you keep a note of all relevant dimensions.

Use the measurements listed above as your starting point - they will get you in the ballpark of the ‘average’ set-up, which should provide a good compromise between tone and playability for most players. See how they suit you, and experiment accordingly - just remember that setting-up a guitar is a balancing act: if you raise the action, for example, the strings will have more room to vibrate, and as a result may actually buzz more unless you increase the neck-relief to compensate; and vice versa, if you lower the action; and so-on and so-forth.

Adjusting the Pickups PROBLEM: Unsatisfying tone. SOLUTION: Adjust pickup height and/or pole pieces.

Adjusting pickups is one of the more fun ways for guitarists to spend hours and hours making almost imperceptible nano-tweaks to pole pieces, then playing their guitar with an intense expression on their face, wondering if the guitar actually sounds any better… hey, we’ve all done it!

The exact method for getting the best out of your pickups depends a lot on what type of pickup you have, and what you want to get out of it. I’m not going to go into much detail here, because there are too many different types of pickups and it would take me forever.

However, there are some basic ‘rules of thumb’ that we can go over:

Generally speaking, bringing the pickup closer to the strings increases the volume and output of the guitar - however, more output does not always mean ‘better tone’.

There are two parts to a pickup: the pole pieces, which are magnetised to pick up the vibrations of the strings, and the bobbin, around which is wound the coil that transforms those vibrations into electrical energy - to put it very simply!

There are also two types of pole piece: poles that are ‘magnetised’ by being threaded through a magnetic plate - characteristically these tend to be screw-headed, i.e., Filtertrons, P-90s, Gibson PAFs and similar humbuckers have at least one row of this type of pole piece - and pole pieces that are themselves magnets, usually referred to as ‘slug magnets’, i.e., Dynasonics, Fender single coils, and the ‘other’ bobbin in Gibson PAFs and most humbuckers.

So, with most pickup types there are potentially two different adjustments you can make:

  1. Raising or lowering the body of the pickup. In nearly every case, raising the body of the pickup will increase overall output, bass response, and give you punchier dynamics and ‘attack’. Lowering it will have the opposite effect.
  2. Raising or lowering the pole pieces. In nearly all cases, raising the pole pieces will give you a brighter tone, better string definition (depending on how you set them), and slightly higher output. Lowering them will have the opposite effect.
  3. The important exception to this is Fender type single coils, which have fixed position (sometimes staggered…) ‘slug’ magnets. In this case, you are effectively raising or lowering both the body of the pickup and the pole pieces - which makes adjusting Fender pickups a rather interesting balancing act.
To complicate matters, almost every different pickup type uses a different system for adjustment. Sometimes even – as in the case of P-90s – different systems within the same pickup type!

So, for the moment, let us just imagine a ‘pickup for all seasons’ – a pickup that magically combines the properties of all the main pickup types – and look very generally at some of the principles of adjustment:

PROBLEM: weak-sounding pickups, with poor bass response. SOLUTION: raise the whole body of the pickup closer to the strings. Raising the whole body of the pickup will give you more ‘punch’ and output.

PROBLEM: dull-sounding pickups, with no sparkle and poor string definition. SOLUTION: raise the pole pieces and adjust to balance the output of each string. Raising the pole pieces will give you a brighter tone, and enable you to emphasise individual strings as needed.

PROBLEM: pickups are very loud and/or too muddy. SOLUTION: lower the whole body of the pickup. Lowering the whole body of the pickup will lower the output and ‘clean up’ the dynamic response.

PROBLEM: harsh-sounding pickups, with unpleasant overtones on some strings. SOLUTION: lower the pole pieces. Lowering the pole pieces will ‘mellow’ the tone of the pickup, and reduce magnetic interference with the strings which can create ‘wolf-tones’, ‘stratitis’, or other strange overtones.

Obviously some adjustments will require a combination of tweaking the overall pickup height and the individual pole pieces. If you are keen to experiment, try both separately, then both together, and see what effect each type of adjustment has. Somewhere in the middle will be the ‘sweet-spot’, just waiting for you to discover it.

How to adjust the pickups

This varies enormously with pickup type - so for the sake of economy, I have grouped them according to adjustment methodology, rather than by manufacturer or any other categorisation.

Gibson PAFs and similar humbuckers. I’m sorry if it seems sacreligous to start with Gibson PAFs, but it is simply because they are the easiest to adjust and explain!

Gibson style humbuckers are incredibly easy to adjust:

Adjust the overall height of the pickup using the two small screws on either side of the pickup surround. Gibson suggest 1/16” from the string for the treble side, 3/32” for the bass side, as a starting point. When measuring distances from string to pickup, fret the strings at the last fret. This will help to balance out the neck and bridge pickups.

Use the Gibson recommended height as your starting point, then adjust by ear. You can balance the treble and bass response of the pickup by raising or lowering each side of the pickup.

Adjust the pole pieces with a flat head screwdriver. It is best to set the overall tonal balance with the pickup height adjustment screws, and then use the pole pieces to adjust the individual string-to-string balance. You can raise them as much as sounds good to you, but it is not a good idea to let them touch the strings. I would leave at least 1-2 mm clearance.

Pickups adjustments are incredibly personal, and depend largely on what sort of music you play. You may need to accept a compromise if, for example, you switch between very clean and very distorted sounds - it is difficult to set up a pickup for both equally: for very distorted sounds raising the pickup for maximum output may be desirable; for sweet clean sounds, lowering the pickup for a smoother, more natural tone may be preferable. A lot of experimentation may be required to find the perfect balance for your playing style - so take your time, don’t expect to get it done in one session, and remember to test your tweaks out live or in the rehearsal studio at gigging volume.

Filtertrons.

Filtertrons get their own section, because, despite being outwardly similar to other humbuckers, there are two important differences: They do not have pickup height adjustment screws, and they do have a double row of pole pieces.

First, some advice from TV Jones:

If you want a Growl in the bridge position adjust the pickup as follows:

From the top of the pickup cover to the bottom of both E strings, 5/32”

For a full neck pickup tone:

From the top of the pickup cover to the bottom of the low E, 3/16”, and 7/32” on the high E side…. No strings depressed. Just a quick measurement to get you in the ballpark.

What a class act! Of course, these measurements refer specifically to his TVJ Classics, but they should be good ball-park figures for most Filtertron types.

How to adjust Filtertrons: The two screws on either side of the pickup are not height adjustment screws, they actually fix the pickup onto the parallel bracing under the top - so if you loosen them, all that will happen is that the pickup will fall off! You can raise the height of Filtertrons by shimming them. First use some ‘lo-tack’ masking tape to fix the bridge base and bigsby to the guitar top and secure the bigsby arm, remembering that TOM bridges are not actually fixed to the bridge base, so remove it carefully. What you don’t want to do is remove the strings, forget about the TOM, and have it fall off and damage your finish.

Unscrew the pickups from the top of the guitar and pull them out gently. It is a good idea to use a soft cloth to protect the finish of your guitar. You will be able to see the screw holes where the pickup rests on the parallel bracing, either side of the pickup cavity - to raise the pickup, all you need to do is pack something (i.e. a ‘shim’) between the bracing and the pickup. Mouse pad foam seems to be the most popular choice - although a piece of wood, or even card, would do at a pinch.

Lowering the pickup is more tricky, and involves carving into the bracing - so unless you have some experience in this area, it’s probably best left to a professional.

Adjust the pole pieces with a flat head screwdriver. On Filtertrons you have two rows of pole pieces to play around with, which enables some extremely precise tone-tailoring: raising the pole pieces on the bridge side of the pickup will give you a brighter, snappier tone. Raising the pole pieces on the neck side of the pickup will give you a warmer, twangier tone. The consensus is that raising just one set of pole pieces per pickup and leaving the other set low will give you a much clearer tone, you just have to decide which half to raise. You can raise them as much as sounds good to you, but it is not a good idea to let them touch the strings - I would leave at least 1-2 mm clearance.

Dynasonics and Dogear P-90s

These are obviously different pickups, but have one thing in common – they do not have pickup height adjustment screws, and so need to be shimmed, just like Filtertrons.

Why would you want to raise them? Well, like I said before: raising the pickup body increases output and ‘fatness’, raising the pole pieces increases brightness, but not necessarily volume. With Dynasonics the problem is exacerpated by the amount of magnetism generated by the huge ‘slug magnet’ pole pieces - which may interfere with the strings and actually result in a reduction in output!

P-90s are more forgiving, because the pole pieces are less magnetic, but still, raising them does not really add more output, just brightness, and a common problem with dogear equipped guitars is that the bridge pickup is often set too low, resulting in less output in that position. Raising the pole pieces will not really help.

With both these types of pickup, the consensus seems to be: raising the body of the pickup, while keeping the pole pieces low, results in a better (louder, fatter) tone.

Finding spacers for these pickups is sometimes difficult, but not impossible. AllParts stocks P-90 spacer sets, and they are a reasonably common item (just use Google). Dynasonic spacer sets are a bit more specialised, but Blackrider Guitars (one of the board sponsors) usually stocks them.

Shimming them is just a case of unscrewing the pickup (again, carefully, and taking care to protect the finish on your guitar), fitting the spacer underneath the pickup, and replacing it. You may need to split the spacer to thread the wires through.

Dynasonics - from the strings to the top of the pickup cover, aim for around 3/16” for the bridge pickup, 1/4” for the neck.

Dogear P-90s - from the strings to the top of the pickup cover, aim for around 3/32” for the bridge pickup, 4/32” for the neck.

Remember, these measurements are only ball-park figures, not gospel! Use your ears and experiment to find what suits you. If you can only find ‘your’ tone by breaking the rules, then do so. When measuring distances from string to pickup, fret the strings at the last fret - this will help to balance out the neck and bridge pickups.

On Dynasonics the pole pieces are adjusted by the little screws in the top of the pickup, one next to each pole piece - on P-90s, the pole pieces are the little screws in the top of the pickup. With the pole pieces on both these pickups, sometimes less (lower) is more, especially with Dynasonics. Here is a diagram courtesy of board member Paul Setzer, showing you how to balance Dynasonic pole pieces;

P-90 pole pieces can be raised as much as sounds good to you, but it is not a good idea to let them touch the strings - I would leave at least 1-2 mm clearance.

Soapbar P-90s: If you are lucky enough to own a guitar with these fine pickups on - it couldn’t be easier!

There are two screws in the top of the pickup for adjusting height - you can set P-90s as close to the strings as sounds good to you (I’ve never had any problems setting them really close) but be careful – if you go too high there is a possibility that the adjustment screws will fall out of their threads in the pickup cavity, and they are extremely fiddly to get back in!

Follow the tips above on adjusting Dogear P-90s - they are the same, tonally.

Fender single coils: Huge amounts of internet ether has been wasted discussing Strat pickup adjustment, to no conclusive end. This is because there is always a compromise involved in adjusting Fender single coils: they have pickup height adjustment screws, but the individual pole pieces are not adjustable - and to make things worse, they are powerful slug magnets, like Dynasonics, so they have some of the same problems vis-a-vis raising them too close to the strings.

So, raising the pickup will give you more output and body, but because the pole pieces are also being raised, also a much brighter tone - get too close, of course, and they will affect the strings magnetically, resulting in a harsh sound, unpleasant overtones and ‘stratitis’.

So, what to do? Well, here are the Fender recommended adjustments:

  1. Texas Specials: 8/64” bass side, 6/64” treble side
  2. Vintage style: 6/64” bass side, 5/64” treble side
  3. Noiseless Series: 8/64” bass side, 6/64” treble side
  4. Standard Single-Coil: 5/64” bass side, 4/64” treble side
  5. Humbuckers: 4/64” bass side, 4/64” treble side
  6. Lace Sensors: As close as desired (allowing for string vibration)

These figures should be a good starting point - although personally I think they set the pickups a touch too high – but then, I’ve always been prepared to sacrifice a bit of output for a smoother, woodier tone, and that might not necessarily suit you.

Use your ears, and go with whatever works best for you. Just remember, there is always a compromise necessary with these pickups, you just have to find the best compromise for your playing style.

Fender pickups are adjusted with the two screws on either side of the pickup, or three screws, in the case of Tele bridge pickups - it is pretty self-evident how they work. It is best to start with all the pickups low, then raise the bridge pickup until you get the tone you want, then move onto the middle pickup, and leave the neck pickup until last - this will help you to balance the output between them. A useful tip is that the bridge pickup can be set the highest, as it does not magnetically affect the strings so much , while the neck pickup should be set the lowest because it tends to magnetically affect the strings the most.

If you are anything like me, you will probably spend the rest of your life tweaking the pickups on your guitars. The tone you get from your pickups depends on string gauge, string type and playing style, as much as it does on how you set them up. How you want them to sound will depend on what amp you use, what effects you use, and what style of music you play. So, it is a constantly evolving process - what I have outlined here is just a basic guide, your most important guide is your ears.

Intonation and tuning problems

Problem: Guitar does not play in tune. Solution: Check intonation, adjust if necessary.

Understanding the physics of intonation requires a good knowledge of Pythagoras’s theories on the harmonic series, compromises involved in the tempered scale, and how harmonics originate from the mathematical ability through fourier decomposition of any periodic signal into sine waves with frequencies integer multiples of the fundamental frequency. Or something…

Anyway, from a practical point of view all you need to know is that intonation adjusts the scale length of each individual string so that it plays a perfectly in-tune octave note at the 12th fret. This should ensure that your guitar plays in tune all the way up the neck, and chords sound in-tune across all 6 strings, all the way up the neck.

How to adjust intonation

Before starting, it is really important to have fresh strings on your guitar. Old strings lose accurate intonation, and there is no point compensating your guitar for worn-out strings.

Tune up your guitar – it is probably best to use an electronic tuner, unless you have perfect pitch – and check the harmonic at the 12th fret against the fretted note at the 12th fret for each string. They should be the same.

The harmonic is played by lightly touching the string directly above the 12th fret and plucking it.

If they are not the same, you need to adjust the scale length of the string to compensate. The harmonic will stay the same, the fretted note is what we want to change.

If the fretted note is sharp compared to the harmonic, make the string longer by adjusting the bridge saddle backwards.

If the fretted note is flat compared to the harmonic, make the string shorter by adjusting the bridge saddle forwards.

Keep tweaking the string length until the 12th fret harmonic and the fretted note are the same. Quite small adjustments may have a big effect, so go slowly, carefully and patiently.

Tune-o-matic and Melita Bridges: Both these types of bridges have individual string saddles which may be adjusted backwards or forwards according to need. Tune-o-matics have a screw for each saddle, usually in the front of the bridge (some versions have them in the back…), which moves the saddle as you turn it - Melitas have a small grub screw for each saddle, which you loosen to move the saddle, then re-tighten when the intonation is set.

Strat and Tele Bridges: Fender string saddles are adjusted individually using the screws in the back of the bridge, which move the saddle backwards and forwards. Strats have individual saddles for each string, so no problems there. Teles with ‘vintage’ style bridges have two strings per saddle, so you will need to find the best compromise for both strings, although you can buy compensated saddles with the correct angle.

Bar Bridges, Space Control Bridges, Aluminum Bigsby Bridges, and Wooden Bridges: All these bridges have two things in common: they do not have adjustable saddles, and they are normally ‘floating’ bridges.

Bigsby bridges have some built-in compensation, most wooden bridges are also compensated (usually for a wound third) however Bar bridges and Space Control bridges are not compensated, so you will have to search for the best compromise you can get.

To intonate a floating bridge, you need to move the whole bridge from the base. The best approach is to intonate the high and low e-strings as accurately as possible by wiggling each side of the bridge forwards or backwards, and then hope that the other strings fall into line!

Some compromises and a bit of experimentation may be necessary to get the best intonation out of these bridges.

Due to compromises in the tempered scale and the way guitars are designed, it is impossible to achieve 100 percent perfect intonation. So, it is important to have realistic expectations of what can be achieved. Some people with perfect pitch never get used to these compromises, in which case the only option is the ‘Buzz Feiten’ system, which uses a compensated nut and special tuning system to get more accurate intonation.

Staying in tune

Problem: Guitar does not STAY in tune. Solution: Check nut slots, stringing technique, stretch-out new strings.

If your guitar won’t stay in tune, check the following:

  1. Make sure the strings are locked around the machine heads in the approved manner, just like this. Two wraps seems to be the magic number.
  2. Make sure the strings are properly seated on the Bigsby string posts, and tightly wrapped around the bar. Remember to pre-bend the ball end when replacing strings on a Bigsby, so they wrap around super-tight.
  3. Stretch out new strings while you are changing them. Tune to pitch and simply pull up the string about an inch, do this all along the length of the string between the bridge and the nut and repeat until you achieve tuning stability (probably 2 to 3 times will be enough) . Notice the first couple of times you do this, the note will go flat as the ‘slack’ is stretched out of the string.
  4. Make sure the strings are not binding at the nut or bridge saddles, use a bit of lubricant, or get the nut re-cut, if necessary. Strings sticking at the nut are responsible for 90% of all tuning problems, it happens when you bend, or Bigsby the strings and a ‘sticky’ nut prevents them returning to pitch. This happens particularly if you change up to a heavier gauge than the ‘standard’ strings your guitar came set up with.
  5. Think, could I go up a string gauge? Heavier strings stay in tune better; 10s or above on 25.5” scale guitars, 11s or above on 24.6” scale guitars would be my personal suggestion. Of course, you can use lighter strings if you want, just don’t come here bitchin’ about how your set of 08s won’t stay in tune when you waggle the Bigsby on your 6120!
  6. Bigsbys were originally designed for ‘vibrato’, i.e. a ‘flutter’ of about a semitone up and down. They were also designed at a time when 12s were considered ‘medium’ gauge strings! - and indeed they stay in tune much better with heavier strings. The key to getting tuning stability from a Bigsby is subtlety, a gentle touch is needed (it is not a Floyd Rose!), ‘dive-bombs’ of more than a tone will get you in trouble, tuning-wise.

Strat Tremolos: These are notoriously difficult to set up right, either ‘floating’ or flat on the body, however there are some ‘secret’ Strat users tips that might help.

Part of the problem with Strat tremolos, is that there is quite a lot of side-to-side movement compared to a Bigsby, because the screws don’t hold the trem tight onto the body, the trem pivots on them, balanced by the strings and the springs, so it never returns to quite the same place every time. This is the most important factor in tuning stability with these particular beasts, in my opinion.

There are two things you can do to balance the trem:

  1. Balance the springs - if you are using three springs, run the two outside springs from the outside edge of the trem block, to the two ‘inside’ claws next to the middle spring, in a ‘V’ shape. If you are using 11s, and want the trem to rest flat on the body, you could probably use four springs, in which case, use the outside holes in the trem block and the corresponding claws, leaving the middle one free. This will help control any lateral movement of the bridge.
  2. Set the 6 pivot screws like this: The two outside screws should be almost flat on the tremolo base-plate. The best way to judge this properly is to take off the strings and springs, allowing the trem to rest flat on the body, then tighten each of the two outside screws in turn until the back of the trem raises off the body, then loosen them off a touch until it rests flat again. the four middle screws should be raised ever so slightly, so there is a tiny gap between the screw-head and the base-plate, about the thickness of a couple of sheets of paper. This reduces friction by stopping the trem binding against the screw heads, so it will return to it’s original position better. Don’t worry, it won’t fall off like this.

Remember that no ‘vintage’ design whammy system will ever play 100 percent in tune, particularly compared to a Floyd Rose or other modern designs, so it is important to have realistic expectations of what can be achieved. Bear in mind that those of us who love these antiquated pieces of technology simply accept the limitations and get along just fine, regardless of the odd note going sharp.

The myth of bad tuners

I’m not going to tell you how to spend your money, but I will advise you not to waste it; in my experience very few tuning problems are down to the tuners. Tuners either work, or they don’t. If they are genuinely broken, it is usually obvious. Small tuning problems as a result of bending strings, etc., are nearly always down to sticking at the nut, and I would advise you to address this before spending money on replacement parts. If you really feel you need to change tuners, any reasonable quality 16:1 ratio branded tuners will do the job.

So, good luck, and remember this: playing out of tune never did John Lee Hooker any harm!

What next? Setting up a guitar really well takes a lot of experience, so it is not necessarily something you will be able to get right first time. There is nothing wrong with a bit of trial and error in the initial stages. As long as you go slowly and patiently, making small, progressive adjustments, there is very little you can do to that isn’t easily reversible and correctable. Here are some tips to help you along:

  1. Make sure you have a good idea of what you are trying to achieve.
  2. Address each problem individually and as a separate adjustment.
  3. Don’t try and get it all done in one day.
  4. Make a note of everything you do and all relevant measurements, so you can ‘undo’ any mistakes.
  5. Find someone, a luthier or even just a more experienced friend, who can give you ‘technical support’ when you need it.
  6. If you feel like you are just making things worse, STOP!
  7. Don’t panic!

The important thing is not to give up: any guitar can be made to play properly, you may just need to find a good technician who can optimise your guitar and make sure the nut slots are the correct width for your gauge of strings, etc. It is really worthwhile finding a reputable luthier, even if you have to drive a bit further to get there. A good setup can make all the difference!

Hello and thanks for the article. I messed around with my guitar and moved the saddles of my individual strings up and down in different amounts. I want to get it back to a playable state. I’ve looked at a few articles about setting string action but they only mention the high and low E-string. This may be a dumb question but what do you do if all the strings in between are set at random saddle heights? Should I just set the E strings at the recommended heights first and then put the other strings somewhere in between until they sound right, or is there a standard way to calculate each string?

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