After this post I’ll be going into recess for the Summer. Writing these articles has taken up a lot of my already scarce free time, and I’m pretty sure you will all have other things to do besides sitting inside, reading. In the meantime, I thank you all for your encouragements over the last 7 months.
The easiest way to tell you where to start your setups, is by first explaining where NOT to, and why.
Huh? How is that possible? Well, I’m pulling your leg a bit here. You SHOULD start your setup with the truss rod. There’s nothing else left. But as I’ve already mentioned many times in several of my posts, the magnetic fields of the pickups interfere with virtually everything else. So to get a good clean setup without this unwanted interference, ideally you’d have to remove the pickups altogether. Since most of the time this isn’t very practical you should do the next best thing, and that’s to lower them quite far down (without unscrewing them completely and dropping them into the body cavity, of course). But this is only a preparatory step and not really part of the setup itself: you’ll set pickup height later on. Don’t skip it, though!
And another thing: don’t forget to put a fresh set of strings on your instrument! Worn strings don’t intonate as well as new ones. They tend to be out of tune. So unless you’re only happy with the hardly-any-treble sound of old strings (some people DO prefer that): change them now.
This was covered in one of my previous articles, but I’ll summarize things a bit here.
Conclusion: slight relief (just a little bit of upbow) is what you’re after. How much precisely depends on the instrument. There are no exact standards, but I’ve given some guidelines in the article I just mentioned. Since they are just that (guidelines), there’s a good chance you’ll still have to make slight adjustments later on. This, unfortunately, cannot be avoided. I’m sorry. Musical instruments are stubborn things. They like to bend the laws of physics a bit.
One last remark here: for ease of measuring place a capo on the 1st fret. This way, you’ll have both hands free: one to press the string down and one to measure the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret halfway. Just read the article. It’s all there.
So why is this our 2nd step?
Conclusion: you should set your string height now, with the pickups’ magnetic fields still safely out of the way. This way you’ll know how low you can go with those strings before fret buzz starts to appear.
Same remark here: you need to adjust bridge saddle height with a capo on the 1st fret! It’s that “balancing act” I talked about last month: without a capo, any string height could be achieved by numerous combinations of nut and bridge saddle heights. You wouldn’t know what you were measuring.
Think of it this way: when you finger a note, anywhere on the neck, nut height is no longer a factor. The string will vibrate between two points: the fret beneath your finger, and the bridge saddle. Now (since we’ve already set the truss rod the way we wanted it), the height of the string is ONLY influenced by the height of the bridge saddle.
At this point, you may raise or lower the saddles to get comfortable and buzz-free action.
VERY IMPORTANT REMARK: if, at this stage, you experience fret buzz in a specific location (at the beginning of the neck, or just the opposite: at it’s end), this may indicate you need to readjust the truss rod accordingly.
In the first case, you’d have to loosen it for a bit more relief (and then, if you wish, lower the saddles to compensate for the extra height you just created).
In the second case, you’d have to tighten it slightly (and then possibly raise the saddles to compensate for the loss of string height you hereby induced).
If the buzzing still persists, you’re probably in need of a fret job. Better take the instrument to a qualified repair person.
Let it be clear that this article deals with a “normal” setup, in which the frets are okay.
NOW it’s time to get rid of the capo. Measure the distance between the strings and the 1st fret, and adjust as needed: file down the nut slots if the strings are too high, or shim the nut if the strings are already too low. After shimming, the strings will probably be too high, so you’ll still have to file down the slots to the exact height you’re after.
Again, you’ll find guidelines in a previous article. But if you don’t have adequate tools for the job, or don’t feel comfortable filing slots or removing the nut to shim it, by all means: don’t do it! Take your guitar to a technician you can trust.
Now that you’ve tackled everything that influences string height (and were hopefully able to get the string height that you like), we’re going to find out how high we can raise the pickups without inducing all the negative effects this action can come with.
Many manufacturers, among which Fender, give their customers rough (or even pretty precise) guidelines concerning string-to-pickup distance. Luckily, Fender adds that these are “only starting points”, and that the distance “will vary according to the magnetic pull from the pickup”. Gibson simply says that “recommended pickup heights are a good starting point but don’t be afraid to use your ears to dial in the best position”.
I’d say: forget these guidelines. Different pickups indeed exert different magnetic pull, and the string gauge and alloy you’re using makes a difference too. No two guitars are the same.
Furthermore, I have found that in most cases you have to lower the pickups quite a bit more than what is recommended by the guitar companies. Just use your ears. They’re all you can trust in this matter.
By the way: if your bass or guitar comes with active pickups (like EMG), don’t think you can raise these as high as they’ll go. The magnets used in active pickups are indeed less strong, but over the years I’ve nonetheless witnessed many such guitars in which I had to lower the pickups to get rid of fret buzz or tone and tuning issues!
So how do you proceed exactly? (If your guitar has more than one pickup, just choose any one of them to begin with. It doesn’t matter which one. Just don’t jump from one to the other. If problems start to occur, you won’t know which pickup is causing them. Set one, and when you’re finished, set the next.)
Start raising the pickup. Do it gradually, while checking for negative effects like loss of sustain, or fret buzz that wasn’t there before. Play the heaviest string in several positions past the octave, and listen for the appearance of dissonant notes and the warbling, ugly sound I talked about last month. As soon as you start experiencing any of these phenomena, lower the pickup again – just enough until the effects are gone.
After you’ve set all pickups as described above, you may find they’re not all equally loud. In this case, instead of raising the quieter ones (which will bring back the negative effects we just got rid of), lower the ones that are louder.
You know how to do this. Or you can read about it here.
After that, stretch your strings and fingers, and you’re ready to play! All Summer long, if you’d like.