Saturday, 6 June 2009

Set Up

Setting up guitars is hard. I think its one of the hardest things I do.

There's a popular idea among some players that they should be able to set their own guitar set up, if you're any good as a player then you should be able to do it. I don't agree with this.

There are so many factors which interact with each other it becomes a complicated task - everything interacts with everything else. Change one little thing and it all needs to be changed. Each extra element - string guage, tuning, player's approach, truss rod, nut height, required action, type of music, type of bridge, woods eg. increase the complexity exponentially.

I always like to have a chat with the player about their playing style and requirements. I often ask to see them play to get an idea how they attack the string with their plucking hand. I try and tailor a set up to the player, after all its not me that's going to be playing their guitar.

As well as making adjustments to get the most out of the instrument (and the player) I do a lot of extra stuff with a set up. Its all this extra stuff I'm going to talk about.
This is just what I did on this particular instrument - a Les Paul would have been treated differently. I can't think of a way to write comprehensively about set ups - even exactly the same model as this one might need a different approach. So this is just an example of what's involved, I adapt these techniques and use others as and when required.
I try and make my set ups as personal to the player as I can and this is an example of the extra stuff I do to try and achieve this.
I'm going to talk about setting up a Strat - although in this case its a Godin version of the Fender.

Check out to hear this guitar in action.

The first thing to be done in the set up process is measure the action.
I need to know the starting conditions - if the player wants a higher or lower action I need to know where it was to begin with.

Then I strip the guitar down completely. On a Strat I spend a lot of time on the bridge.

Every screw needs to be removed, cleaned, lubricated and put back. On this bridge the small grub screws that adjust the saddle height on the bass strings were seized. They needed to be heated up to release them.

I have a stand to hold the bridge while working on it, there's a platform to hold the parts and a place for the tools. This speeds the process up and keeps everything in order.

This is the bridge after the work. Not only does it function better but it will last a lot longer too. With regular maintenance a Strat bridge should last for decades.

The body where the trem rests on it is vital to the bridge's performance - it needs to be clean and lubricated for the tuning to be stable.
The earth wire to the trem claw was disconnected on this guitar so I soldered it back on to the volume pot casing.

Next I buff the frets up to remove any corrosion and to help playing feel and tone. It is a joy to bend strings with highly polished fretwire - the string just glides.

There's a lot of wear in these frets but that's not my job today. I've already spoken with the owner about it and that's a job for another time
I mask the fingerboard off to avoid buffing the wood. I don't want to damage or stain the fingerboard.

The buffing arbour is a very useful tool - saves a lot of time and effort. Its geared down to run at 900rpm to stop things getting too hot. The pyramid shape makes it really stable - if you want to make something tall without it falling over that's the shape to make it - nothing new in that idea :-)

The final stage of the preliminary set up is to polish the body and neck. My favourite polish is 'Mr Glyn's Luthier's Finest'. It would be  - I make the stuff. It's available direct from me or . It only needs a very light spray and it leaves no residue. The 125ml bottle pictured lasts me about 3 months so it will last you years.

So then its into the set up proper - stringing, truss rod adjustment

filing the nut slots with special files and setting the action, pickup height and intonation.

Typically this guitar also had loose strap hooks and jack socket. I often change pickup springs and solder loose wires.

All these little things get checked for and sorted out with a set up.

Here's my workshop check list I use when setting up electric guitars - the acoustic and bass check lists are slightly different :
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Mr Glyn’s Guitar Repair

Guitar set up check list (electric guitar/bass)

1) Discuss set up requirements with customer inc. desired action, playing style, string gauge, tuning(s), picking technique(s), any problems with present set up…
2) Measure and note action on treble and bass sides at 12th fret
3) Play guitar to check for string buzz on all frets inc. 3 semitone bends on 1st ,2nd and 3rd strings
4) Sight neck, check for ‘rising tongue’ and neck angle
5) Check neck for twists
6) Check neck/body join
7) Check strap hooks are secure
8) Check fret wear
9) Check for lifting or loose frets
10) Check for uneven fret height
11) Check for dented or damaged frets
12) Assess truss rod relief
13) Check nut slot depth, bridge height and general instrument condition
14) Check electrics - pots, switches, jack, pickups…
15) Check pickup height adjusting springs, replace if necessary
16) Check pickup height
17) Clean pots, switches and jack with contact cleaner if required
18) Remove bridge
19) Remove, clean, lubricate and re-fit all bridge screws/bolts
20) Polish frets
21) Clean and oil/polish fret board
22) Check tuners are securely fitted
23) Re-fit bridge, make sure mountings are secure, lubricated and adjusted.
24) Fit strings and tune to pitch
25) Adjust truss rod to set neck relief
26) File, polish and lubricate nut slots
27) Adjust action at bridge
28) Measure action on treble and bass sides at 12th fret – compare with starting action and customer’s requirements.
29) Set pickup height
30) Intonate
31) Stretch strings
32) Play guitar checking all frets and bends, tremolo system(if fitted), pickup balance, all switching options, tuning stability…
33) Apply ‘Fast Fret’ if required
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Its so much more than just a little tweak

Feel free to contact me about repair work (if you are in NZ). I only check emails weekly so the workshop phone is always the best 09 307 6501.

Workshop Hours

Mon……. 8-6
Tues……. 8-6
Wed…….. Closed
Thurs …..8-6
Fri ……….8-6
Sat/Sun ..Closed

Mr Glyn’s Guitars

  21a Khyber Pass Road
New Zealand
09 307 6501, 021 912678


  1. Great article, and tips.. I am learning to be a luthier, and this "checklist" helps a lot.. :)

    Great Job!1

  2. Ps. Greetings from ARGENTINA!! :)

  3. Hola Prelibro, glad you find it useful. I email this list to potential customers inquiring about set ups. They can see what they're getting for their money. A lot of people don't realize how much goes in to it.
    Good luck becoming a luthier - if there's any way I can help...