Does your friend's guitar play easier and feel better than yours? Do you find yourself frustrated because your guitar seems to be in tune at one place on the neck but out of tune a few frets higher? Maybe your strings buzz in certain positions, or you occasionally 'fret out.' If so, chances are you've got an intonation problem, a setup problem, or both. Not to worry. Intonation and the proper setup of a guitar are relatively inexpensive maintenance issues players face on a regular basis. While touring guitarists traveling with professional techs may have their intonation and setup checked very frequently, sometimes daily, the rest of us can usually get by with an annual adjustment, or maybe twice a year if a guitar is handled roughly.
Most music stores will perform this work for between $15 and $40. (They'll almost always perform this service for free when you first buy your guitar, and many stores now sell maintenance plans with new purchases.) You might need to leave your guitar with them for a couple of days, too, since the luthiers and technicians who do the work are often part-time specialists rather than store employees. The services they provide can have a profound effect not only on your attitude toward your instrument but on your playing. It's a quick fix, well worth the minimal investment, and a must before you do any serious recording or important auditions.
For the mechanically inclined or the simply curious, there are a few things that can be done at home to keep a guitar in its best playing condition. Intonation adjustments, for instance, aren't all that difficult and require only simple tools: a small screwdriver, maybe an Allen wrench, and an electronic tuner. Feelin' brave? Let's give it a go.
The distance from the bridge saddle to the nut is called the scale length. Lengths are differentiated, typically, as either short-scale (24 3/4", as on many Gibson models) or long-scale (25 1/2", as on a Fender Strat), though many guitars have scale lengths somewhere between the two. Regardless of the scale length you're working with, the string must be precisely the same length from the nut to the 12th fret as it is from the 12th fret to the bridge saddle for it to be properly intonated. Now, if you look at the way your bridge is adjusted, you'll probably notice that the individual saddles are not lined up evenly. This is because the guitar, like other "even-tempered" instruments, is not designed to be perfectly in tune in all keys at the same time. The instrument's best intonation is actually a compromise among numerous factors, so you have to accept some small degree of out-of-tuneness. But the bridge saddles can vibrate out of position over time, causing more tuning problems and thus the need for an occasional resetting. So don't worry about how the bridge saddles look-it's how the string sounds that's important. To check your guitar's intonation, you want to verify that each string is in tune with itself; that is, you want to make sure that the open string, its 12th-fret harmonic, and its 12th-fret fingered note are all in tune with one another. If they're not, a simple saddle adjustment should fix the problem. Follow these easy steps:
Using a tuner, tune an open string (if you play in an open tuning instead of standard tuning, use the open tuning). Check to see that the 12th-fret harmonic is also in tune. Press down on the string at the 12th fret carefully, so as not to bend it sharp, and check that it too is in tune. If the fretted note is sharp, turn the saddle screw to make the saddle move away from the neck. If it's flat, turn it the other way. Repeat this operation until the open string, the harmonic, and the fretted note are exactly on pitch. Repeat the process for each string.
Other Setup Issues
We Want Action
Besides intonation, the setup of your guitar includes the proper adjustment of a number of components. The truss rod, bridge, nut, tailpiece, frets, tree strings, tuners, and tremolo assembly can all affect the tone, playability and tune-ability of your guitar. The positioning of the pole pieces in your pickups (let alone the pickups themselves) can drastically influence how your guitar sounds. And, the action on a guitar-that is, the height of the strings off the fretboard-can seriously transform your very playing ability.
You can set your own action up or down by simply adjusting the height of your bridge saddle. On most guitars this can be done with with a small screwdriver or Allen wrench. Be aware that your fretboard may have a slight curve, or radius, to it. Your action should mirror this radius. A good starting point is to set your low string so that the bottom of the string rests 3/32" above the top of the 12th fret. The high E string should begin at 2/32". Experiment a little. You can raise or lower the action from here to taste. The tough part is striking a balance between tone and playability: the higher you set your action, the better your guitar may sound, and the lower you set it, the easier it will be to play. Go too low, though, and the strings will buzz. You may want to re-check your intonation after changing your action.
Pick It Up
You can adjust the height of your pickups, and sometimes the pickup pole pieces, with a screwdriver or Allen wrench. Listen to the guitar through your amp as you do this to determine the optimal position for your tastes. When a pickup is set high, you can get unwanted distortion. Also, the strings may buzz because they're hitting the face of the pickup. Be sure to finger notes high up on the neck before you decide on a position for your pickup. If the pickup is too low, it's too far away from the strings, resulting in a reduced output signal. The advantage to adjustable pole pieces is that you can essentially "bring" the pickup closer or farther from each string. Strum across the strings evenly and see if some are more pronounced than others.
The truss rod, as you may know, is the steel rod in your guitar's neck that helps support the neck against the pressure of the strings. That pressure changes every time you change your strings, and every time you tune up or down. Pressure also varies since the rest of the neck is made of wood, which reacts organically to environmental changes like humidity and temperature.
To help solve such problems, which bow and twist the neck in various degrees, your truss rod can be adjusted. Truss adjustments are fairly easily, but over-correcting can really screw up your guitar. If you have a severe neck problem or are just plain nervous about making adjustments, leave it to a pro. It's a cheap job and not worth the risk. For the rest of you, here are a few things to know about truss adjustment:
Truss rods are adjustable at one end or the other-usually you can get to it by unscrewing a small plate behind the nut or at the other end of the neck, where the fretboard ends. (On some acoustics, the truss is accessed from inside the sound hole.) Your guitar probably came with an Allen wrench that fits into the nut at the end of the truss rod. Fit the wrench in snuggly, and then turn it to adjust the rod. You don't want to turn the wrench more than a quarter of a revolution at a time. Since you're moving wood here, give the guitar a few minutes to adjust after each quarter revolution.
Always start by turning counter-clockwise, which loosens the nut-you don't want to break it off, which can happen if it's already tightened all the way. To correct upward bows, where the strings are far from the fretboard in the middle of the neck, tighten the truss rod by turning it clockwise. To correct back bows, a more rare problem, turn counter-clockwise. If you find that you've adjusted either way by more than one and a half revolutions from your starting point, do us all a favor and put it in the hands of a pro.
You should visually inspect your tuners and string trees (if you have them-they hold strings in position between the nut and the tuners on your headstock) to see that they aren't loose. Many manufacturers produce affordable guitars by cutting down on the quality of the tuners, so if yours are always loose, or fall apart, consider having them replaced. You can have good tuners put on for under $100. Your bridge, nut, and tailpiece should almost never need adjustment, though these items can occasionally need replacement. Most bridge and tailpiece replacements are do-it-yourself jobs, but let a pro handle the nut.
Fret jobs are also best left to the pros. Fret wire wears out over time, especially in the positions in which you play most. Frets can be "dressed" or "crowned"-filed down to remove the low spots that cause intonation problems-but these are temporary fixes. It may take years, but eventually you'll wear the frets down and need to replace them. Replacement usually runs around $150, dressing and crowning around $50. Tremolo assemblies, last but not least, can be a world unto themselves. Anyone who has ever tried to use the tremolo bar and still keep a vintage Strat in tune, or has restrung a guitar with a Floyd Rose-style floating tremolo, can attest to this. In general, you'll want to remove the back panel of the guitar that covers the tremolo assembly to gain access to the springs and "claw" that attaches the tremolo to the guitar body, and then, if necessary, tighten or loosen the screws that connect that assembly to the guitar. Tighten the springs if your floating bridge is tilting toward your headstock. Loosen if the bridge is resting on the body of the guitar. The optimum position places the floating bridge parallel to the body.
There are several excellent books on the market that explain maintenance routines in more detail. Ritchie Fliegler's The Complete Guide To Guitar And Amp Maintenance (Hal Leonard HL00330117) is one. Dan Erlewine's Guitar Player Repair Guide (Miller Freeman 00183633) is another. Look for them in your local music stores. You might also ask to sit in while a repairmen goes to work on your guitar. There's a lot to learn-make sure your knowledge is in line with the types of repairs you attempt.