A couple of weeks ago, Understanding Guitars reader Marjoline used Suggest a Topic to drop me the following line:

“How to ideally line up the bridge-neck-nut-trussrod to get the best results. I have seen experts starting with the bridge, I have seen equally big experts start with the trussrod. Who is right, and why?”

I didn’t want to keep her waiting and wrote back that there’s only ONE correct order (which I gave her), and said that I would explain why in a following blog post. To my surprise and amusement she replied the following:

“I am looking forward to that!  Because many in fact do say ‘There is only one correct order in which to proceed….’
We (the readers) need the convincing arguments why from each person, to decide for ourselves which of these ‘one and only correct ways’ is in fact THE one for us in our situations!”

 

Wrong order, big difference!

Horizontal or vertical: wrong order, big difference!

 

I can only applaud Marjoline’s attitude. She’s doing exactly what my blog’s baseline suggests: dare to question. That includes questioning ME. It’s all in my website’s Mission Statement.

So now I’m dared, and it’s up to me to come up with those “convincing arguments why” she so rightfully requests. Then, you may decide whether they make sense to you.

(I’ll require more than a few words of introductory explanation, though. It’s complicated stuff.)

 

The PTT Complex

 

In the medical world, PTT (partial thromboplastin time) is a blood test that looks at how long it takes for blood to clot. I’d like to introduce the same acronym into the world of musicians, now meaning playability, tone and tuning. These three key factors are what a setup is all about. All three should be optimal, for your instrument to be in top condition. Hey, now that I put it that way: sounds like kind of a blood test too, doesn’t it?

An instrument’s overall feel or playability is the result of several factors, including neck width, thickness and profile, fretboard radius, fret size and shape, neck bow, string gauges, string-to-string spacing and individual string heights – with most of these variables gradually changing along the length of the neck.

On top of playability, there’s tone and tuning. String height (usually referred to as “action”, and probably the variable that determines more than others whether a player will judge a certain setup as successful or not) influences both: higher strings sound stronger, beefier – but depressing high strings makes the notes sharp. Think of it as string bending, only this time in the vertical plane instead of sideways. The effect is the same: the pitch goes up. Anyway, this calls for compensation (via intonation of the bridge saddles) and minimization (for this, nut slot depths must be optimal).

 

Comparable to the way that string height is foremost a playability factor with side effects on tone and tuning, pickup height primarily affects tone and tuning but also influences playability! Many people don’t know this, but the magnetic field of a pickup can have quite dramatic impact on string vibration:

  • First of all, the pull of the magnets tries to bring the strings to a standstill, thereby noticeably reducing sustain.
  • The magnetic field also disturbs the harmonic content of any played note. When the pickups are too close to the strings (and depending on the strength of the magnets that were used), you may actually hear several dissonant notes chiming at the same time. This is most audible on the heaviest string, past the octave position. You might want to give it a try, temporarily of course: the result is a warbling, off-key and just plain ugly sound. Lower the pickups again and the phenomenon is gone. (By the way: the magnetic field also messes with your intonation.)
  • Did you know in some cases you can actually SEE the effect of close-by magnetic fields? Especially the thicker strings may start to vibrate in an awkward, almost arbitrary fashion. This, in turn, may induce fret buzz here and there – sometimes even along the entire neck’s length! In those cases, lowering the pickups paradoxically allows you to lower the bridge saddles AND get rid of buzzing at the same time. By analogy, raising the pickups often requires higher action – if you want to maintain good tone, correct tuning and buzz-free playing, that is.

 

Needless to say that all the aforementioned structural features combined make for a very complex whole. And while some of them are non-adjustable, others must be set up for best performance.

Obviously, the player’s preferences and playing style should be taken into account, but to a certain extent the instrument itself dictates what it will allow or not. Lowering the bridge saddle(s) too much will result in buzzing, no matter how weak your attack is, or how heavy your strings are. Strings need some room to vibrate, it’s as simple as that. Just physics. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a huge upright bass, a slim Irish bouzouki, a tiny ukelele, or anything in between: the same principles always apply.

 

Don’t trust support pages

 

What did he just say???
Indeed, allow me this word of caution: don’t put too much trust in your guitar brand’s support pages or printed setup guidelines. Some are not too bad (although even those are usually incomplete, or too vague to be of any practical use), but others definitely should have a BALONEY ALERT sticker on them!

I’ll elaborate on that subject in another post, but for now, let me just give you THIS to think about: both Fender and Gibson (they’re actually in the not too bad category – I’m merely using these companies as an example because their instruments are so widespread among musicians) have published reference distances to maintain between the bottom of a string and the top of a certain fret (the 17th in Fender’s case, the 12th in Gibson’s guidelines). However, neither company says whether the player should take these measurements with or without a capo on the neck? Since they don’t, I presume they mean without. But any given string-to-fret distance can be achieved by infinite combinations of nut slot depths and bridge saddle heights. So which exact combination should you choose, and why?? Again, they don’t tell you.

 

A given string-to-fret distance (the height of the pivot in this picture) can be achieved in many ways (all possible angles of the seesaw)

A given string-to-fret distance (the height of the pivot in this picture) can be achieved in many ways (all possible angles of the seesaw)

 

Balancing act

 

The previous paragraph takes us right to the heart of the matter. A certain string height is always the result of the interplay of 3 variables: neck bow, bridge saddle height, and nut slot depth. And the order in which you adjust them is crucial. If you do it wrong, you’ll lose time, you may ruin your nut, and you’ll definitely get frustrated in the process!

Need an example? Suppose you’ve just adjusted your bridge saddles to accomplish a certain string height above the 12th fret. Now you focus on the nut, and find that your strings are sitting a bit too high above the first 3 frets or so. Basic chords are hard to play, and their tuning is off. Let’s say you own a special nut file set (or you’re using a rat tail file, or needle files or whatever), so you trim down the nut slots until string height in this area is to your liking. Uh-oh, now your 12th fret string distance has dropped and you need to adjust the saddles again!

Next, you eye-ball the neck and see that it has severe upbow, a fact you failed to notice (or check) before. After tightening the truss rod to get only slight neck relief, you now have two new problems: the open strings are all buzzing against the first fret, and once again string height above the 12th fret has dropped. Oh my god. You sigh, and start raising the saddles (third adjustment there!).

Unfortunately, when you’re done, the open strings are still buzzing. This means you’ve gone too far when you were filing those nut slots. You’ll have to install a new nut (or pay someone to do it for you), and after that you’ll have to LOWER the bridge saddles because now that the (new) nut slots are less deep, the 12th fret string distance is again incorrect. Hopefully, this fourth bridge adjustment will take you home… Did I mention you’d get frustrated?

Anyway, I think this example clearly shows one thing: a sensible guitar or bass setup DOES NOT start at the bridge.

 

So where DO I begin, Marcus?

 

I’m afraid my answer to that question will have to be: by reading my next article. This post has already become quite long, and if I don’t get back to my workshop soon, guitars and basses will start piling up. But I guess a good cliff-hanger never hurt no-one, has it?
And if you REALLY can’t wait, ask Marjoline. She already knows.

 

Time to head back to the workshop!

Time to head back to the workshop!

 

Bye now,

 

Marcus signature

 

 

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    See you next month…

 

8 Comments

  1. Anto says:

    Hi Marcus,

    I just read this article and will read the others as soon as I can; it’s brilliant!! Very well explained and without the usual either pedant way or else amateurism you can find on the net!

    Accurate and down-to-earth is the best!

    Can I bother you and ask something?

    All these explanations seem to be about getting the best compromise between no fret buzz and low action. Which I understand of course because most guitar players seek that kind of setting.

    But I play with a high action (pretty high on the 1st and 2nd strings !)

    Can I apply all these tips to my setting or some things should be done a bit differently?

    The main reason I play with a high action is I play slide in standard tuning with the same guitar I use for usual playing. And I don’t use a stiff gauge (10-38) and don’t want to change it because I love the balanced tension of this set! There are other reasons too.

    So my question would be, can I follow these tips and get good intonation and playability with such a high action?

    I always struggle to get the right intonation (mainly on the G string obviously…)

    Thank you very much in advance!

    Anto

    • Marcus says:

      Hi Anto,
      Thank you very much for your comment and compliments!
      Obviously, high action is going to make it harder to get good intonation all across the neck. Experimentation will be needed. I’d start with a little upbow as usual, but having high action, you’ll need to move those bridge saddles further to the back. This way you should be able to get reasonable intonation when playing in the middle and high sections of the neck. You may even get away with a straight neck and a slightly taller nut, combined with normal (or only slightly raised) bridge saddle height. Like I said, experiment and see what works best.
      In both cases, the biggest problem will be, getting reasonable intonation at the first three frets or so. Pressing the strings far down will raise the pitch of the notes. To compensate, you’d need to move the nut closer to the first fret (the Buzz Feiten approach — this requires some serious guitar surgery!). You can get a similar effect by installing an Earvana nut (the kind with the fretboard overhang). But you’d still need to raise the overhang somewhat; otherwise, your slide will probably bump against the frets.
      Anyway, if you doubt your skills, DO get a good luthier to perform the necessary actions.
      All the best,
      Marc Terreur
      PS: I just thought of a way to move the nut without actually moving the nut! 🙂 Place one or more thin, narrow wooden strips underneath the strings. Try different heights AND different widths. There’s going to be a combination that sticks out as the best. This way, your guitar remains intact, although you may need to replace the nut with a taller one so that the strings don’t pop out of their grooves…

      • Anto says:

        Hi Marcus,

        thanks a lot for your quick and complete answer!

        Yes, you put it right, the main issue I’ve always experienced is bad intonation in the first frets… The G string drove me made so many times! Like trying to play and A and ending with nearly a quarter step higher!

        I’ve tried to play very gently on those first frets but when in full flight, I press them too much.

        Do you think that a more pronounced upbow could solve a little bit the intonation problem in this area? As it would slightly reduce the neck scale?

        I didn’t get your PS, you mean those little wooden strips must be placed under the strings but against the nut on the fretboard?

        Anyway, as you said, I may show this to a good luthier but my main concern is finding one! I’d love to get to you in Sint Niklaas but I live in France… (2hours + from here) Would you know someone that could do that properly?

        Thanks again for your kind answer, I can feel the passion here!

        Anto

        • Marcus says:

          Hi Anto,
          More upbow will make the problem worse since you increase the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret. You end up ‘bending’ the string (downward), thus raising the pitch. To compensate for this, you need to shorten the distance from the nut to the first fret. And you understood correctly: you can do this with strips under the strings, pressed up against the nut and making good contact with the underside of the strings. This shortens the vibrating length of the strings, which will lower the pitch. Just experiment to find the best distance!
          Unfortunately, I don’t know any luthiers in your region. Best search the net, ask fellow musicians and so on. Take a look on Luthiers.com, maybe. Or: DIY?
          Keep ’em vibrating,
          Marc Terreur

          • Anto says:

            Hi Marcus,

            thanks a lot for the clarification!
            It all makes sense now.

            I’ll take a look at luthiers.com but I’ll definitely give it a try and “do it myself” as your strip tip seems to be the best non-invasive way to correct the intonation in that area.

            Just hope it won’t muffle the high end on those strings…

            Won’t forget your kindness if I go some time around Sint Niklaas ; I sure would contact you before and drop a guitar or two for a good setup 🙂

            Anto

          • Marcus says:

            To avoid losing high end, make sure there’s good contact and use maple or ebony strips. Or try plexiglass!

  2. Steve says:

    Marcus …………. thank you!
    My mind works on constant questioning.
    ABC, Assume nothing – Believe no one – Check everything. Comes from my work environment, which is like watching YouTube.
    In the end I need the ‘Why’
    Which is what you so eloquently have provided.

  3. I do trust all of the concepts you have offered on your post. They’re really convincing and can definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are too quick for newbies. May just you please prolong them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

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