Wrong order, big difference!
The REAL ‘One And Only’ Sensible Setup Sequence
22 April 2016
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The REAL ‘One And Only’ Sensible Setup Sequence – finally!

Guitar Setup - Guru Ate Tips

 

Dear readers,

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.

 

Don’t do THAT, because…

 

The easiest way to tell you where to start your setups, is by first explaining where NOT to, and why.

  • Last month’s post already made it pretty clear that starting by adjusting bridge saddle height could possibly drive you nuts. You may use the link to refresh your memory; I won’t repeat those arguments here.
  • Certainly don’t try to intonate your instrument as a first step. Intonation is fine-tuning. A finishing touch. You should keep that for last.
    You intonate a string by moving its bridge saddle back, away from its theoretical point of placement. (This might be a good time to read the first chapter of one of my previous articles.)
    In theory, you should double the distance between the nut and the 12th fret, and position the saddle there. However, it’s necessary to back off to compensate for several factors, including string mass (thickness, gauge) and string height. Since string height is influenced by neck bow, saddle height and – to a lesser extent – nut slot depth, THESE should be set first. Doing it otherwise is pointless. You’ll end up redoing what you so meticulously did before.
    And another thing: you know from several previous posts that raising your pickups too close to the strings can cause your tuning to be off. Therefore, pickup height should be optimal BEFORE you actually begin to adjust intonation (string length, bridge saddle placement).
  • What about starting off with open string height? In other words: setting the optimal distance between a string and the 1st fret? Should you begin by filing the nut slots down when the strings are too high above the 1st fret? Should you replace the nut (or shim it), when the strings are too close? Can you start your guitar setup with that?
    Please don’t. Again, you’ll regret it. Adjusting the truss rod or the height of the bridge saddles as a next step will ruin your so carefully set distance between the string and the 1st fret. So once again, you would have to start over.
  • Okay, this leaves us with only two possible choices: adjusting the truss rod, or setting pickup height. There are no other moving parts!
    So shall we start with the last option, and set the distance between the undersides of the strings and the top of the pickups? Nope. If you raise or lower the bridge saddles afterwards, or if you change the tension on the truss rod, by consequence the strings will move up or down and your string-to-pickup distance will be altered in the process.
    Okay! By elimination, we now know that we’re going to HAVE to start by tweaking the truss rod, right?

 

Wrong!

 

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.

 

 

Here it is: the REAL ‘One And Only’ Sensible Setup Sequence

 

 

Step 1: adjusting neck bow, using the truss rod

 

adjusting the truss rod

adjusting the truss rod

 

This was covered in one of my previous articles, but I’ll summarize things a bit here.

  • A neck with backbow will yield fret buzz, along most or all of its length.
  • On a bass or guitar with a straight neck the first positions will tend to buzz, unless you raise the strings really high.
  • With severe upbow, you get extremely high action; if you then lower the bridge saddles, your strings will buzz in the highest playing positions, past the octave.

 

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.

 

Step 2: setting the height of the bridge saddles

 

So why is this our 2nd step?

  • I’ve already explained why setting intonation comes last: it’s influenced by everything else.
  • Can’t I adjust nut slot depth now? No you can’t. Suppose your bridge saddles are too low. By consequence, you might find that the strings are too close to the 1st fret. So you’d raise the nut, right? But after that, adjusting the saddles to their proper heights would increase string-to-1st-fret distance and you’d have to lower what you’d raised before?
    And if the strings were too high above the 1st fret to begin with, you would file down the nut slots. If you then lowered the saddles, the open strings might start buzzing against the 1st fret. So clearly, this is NOT the right sequence.
  • You know by now that having your pickups too close to the strings can ruin your tuning. It also often causes seemingly inexplicable fret buzz all over the neck! In other words, if you were to raise your pickups now (and unknowingly take it too far), the buzz you might experience would probably lure you into raising your bridge saddles to get rid of it! As a result, you would be sacrificing comfortable action for totally wrong reasons.

 

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.

 

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)

 

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.

 

 

Step 3: the nut!

 

measuring string-to-1st-fret distance

measuring string-to-1st-fret distance

 

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.

 

Step 4: setting pickup height

 

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.

 

Step 5: intonation

 

You know how to do this. Or you can read about it here.

 

compensation high E

compensation high E

 

 

Summary

 

0. Preparatory steps: remove the old strings, lower the pickups, and put on a fresh set of strings.

1. Put a capo on the 1st fret and adjust the truss rod.

2. With the capo still in place, set bridge saddle height.

3. Remove the capo and adjust the nut (string-to-1st-fret distance).

4. Raise the pickups to their optimal position.

5. Set intonation on all strings.

 

After that, stretch your strings and fingers, and you’re ready to play! All Summer long, if you’d like.

Bye now,

 

Marcus signature

 

 

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  • Also, I thank you for clicking on the product links. I receive a (very) small percentage should you buy anything from these websites in the days to follow. Some sort of income, however modest, keeps a person going. So again, I thank you. You are wonderful people. Musicians make the world better.

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3 Comments

  1. Peter says:

    Again this is very nicely explained, thnx Marcus ! Enjoy the holidays

    • Wim says:

      Thank you so much for these blogs. I only found them like … yesterday. Wished I had found them sooner …

      I used them to set up my new Yamaha 5-string bass which I liked to death regarding sound and of which the setup was, well, OK. Now, it’s playing like a charm. Next stop will be my Fender Stratocaster (American Standard) which I will be tackling.

      Anyway, I usually bought guitars based on how they sounded and – if they were a bit off regarding setup – I would just take that for granted. These articles were an eye opener for me. I have been playing for like forty odd years now and start to get quite the collection of different guitars. I quickly checked them all out and luckily, not one has major defaults. But all need adjusting … got my work cut out for me.

      Again, thanks for the insights and please keep this going.

      W.

      • Marcus says:

        Hi Wim,
        I’m sorry I didn’t find your message any sooner: apparently, it got buried in my spam folder.
        Well thank you for the nice words. I’m happy to have been of service to you. Good luck with setting up your instruments. And should you ever run into a hard-to-solve issue, you know where to find me. Just pay http://www.marcusguitars.be a visit.
        Cheers,
        Marc Terreur

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