Tech Tip: How to Get the Best Guitar Setup

Tech Tip: How to Get the Best Guitar Setup

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You finally bought that guitar you've been eyeing for a long time. You open the case, gently remove it from its plush cradle, and hold it in your arms. A fresh pick in your fingers, you begin an elegant and complex arpeggio that ranges across the fretboard. Suddenly, right in the middle of the run, the strings start buzzing. You check your technique and it's fine. So what's the problem?

By Dennis Kambury

Rest assured that it's not the quality of your guitar. The problem lies in the process of mass production. Without it, most guitars would not be affordable. To respond to demand and maximize profit, the factories build them and ship them as fast as possible. Very often, the human touch is involved, but setting up a guitar correctly is a painstaking, personal process that is best handled on an individual basis.

Although a complete tutorial is beyond the scope of this particular tech tip, we'll outline the basics, and give you some recommendations to further your pursuit of the perfect guitar! Caution dictates that if you don't know how to do the things we mention, you take your guitar to a qualified luthier who has the experience and tools to accomplish these tasks quickly and easily. It's relatively inexpensive and well worth it! (Ed. Note: Check out this tech tip for additional guitar setup instructions.)

Another caution--for any alterations you perform, make them small! Adjust truss rods by no more than a quarter turn, shave saddles or nuts carefully, and always exercise caution.

First Things First

To get results that work for you, you need to assess your style, technique, and preferences, and make sure your guitar is basically prepared for those considerations. For example, if you like low, quick action, you will most likely go for a lighter gauge string set. Conversely, if you are after a meaty, chunky sound, you're a candidate for heavier gauge strings. Before you start, set your guitar up with the string type and gauge you prefer, and make sure it's in tune.

Fender Guitar Work Station

The Fender Guitar Work Station provides a great surface on which to set up your guitar's action.

To get your guitar in top playing condition, you need to look at four specific areas: neck bow or relief, string height at the nut, string height at the saddle, and intonation.

Guitar Neck Relief

Take a look at your low E-string when you strike it, and note the curvature--how it "bows" in the middle. If you play hard or use lighter, low-tension strings, this bow is more pronounced; and if you play quietly or use higher-tension strings, you'll see a softer curve. If the strings are too close to the fingerboard, the vibrating string will hit the frets and result in buzz. You can solve the problem by raising the action high enough to prevent buzzing, but this can make the guitar difficult to play and increases the likelihood of intonation problems. Another way to avoid the buzz is to introduce a slight curvature to the neck that gives the middle of the string room to vibrate.

To check the relief of your neck, press the string at the first fret and where the neck joins the body. If you find your strings are actually touching the middle of the fingerboard, you're guitar definitely needs some adjustment! However, if the distance midway between the two points is around 1/64th of an inch, you're in the ballpark. If you are a light player you can get away with less. And of course, if you are a hard player, you'll want a little more room for your fiery passages. To adjust the neck, follow the manufacturer's recommendations and adjust the truss rod to compensate. Usually, this means loosening it a bit to increase the relief and bow in the neck, or tightening it to decrease the relief and straighten the neck.

Adjusting String Height On Your Guitar

The next thing you want to do is check the height of the un-fretted strings above the frets. At the first fret and at the 12th fret of the first and sixth strings, measure the distance from the top of the fret and the bottom of the string. As with relief, there is some room here for personal preference, but here are some general guidelines:

1st fret - 1/64th of an inch at the first string and 1/32nd of an inch on the sixth string. This is good for both electric and acoustic guitars.

12th fret - 5/64th of an inch at the first string and 7/64th of an inch on the sixth string. These dimensions are good for acoustic guitars. For electric guitars, the first string is 3/64th of an inch and the sixth string is 5/64th of an inch.

If your string height is much higher or lower, you'll need to make some adjustments. The easiest place to start is the saddle. Most electric guitars have either thumbwheels or set-screws that make it easy to raise or lower the strings. To determine how much to raise or lower, a good rule of thumb is that it will take twice the correction at the saddle as the amount that needs to be corrected at the 12th fret. For example, if you want the sixth string to be 5/64th of an inch and it's 7/64th, you'll need to lower the string by 1/16th inch at the saddle.

Acoustic guitar is a bit more involved, as the saddle will have to be removed and either carefully shaved to lower the strings or shimmed to raise them. When shaving a saddle, use a flat file and make absolutely sure the bottom stays flat to prevent the saddle from rocking in its cradle!

You can also trim the nut but that takes specialized tools and, unless you're already proficient in this area, we recommend the services of a pro.

Checking and Adjusting your Guitar's Intonation

To check the intonation, play each string at the 12th fret, and compare it to the natural octave harmonic at the same location. If the fretted note is higher than the harmonic, adjust the saddle toward the tailpiece of the guitar to lengthen the string. Conversely, if the fretted note is lower than the harmonic, move the saddle toward the neck. Some bridges allow you to adjust each string independently, which makes it easy to get perfect intonation. Otherwise, you'll have to settle on a compromise that works for your particular style. (Ed. Note: Don't forget to grab a tuner before you start!)

Acoustic guitars are more demanding, requiring that saddle itself be cut to adjust each string's break point, and should be done by a pro.


Setting up your guitar properly will make it sound better, make it easier to play, and could possibly improve your playing! If you take your time and work deliberately, you should have no trouble making basic adjustments and keeping your guitar in top playing condition. 

We offer a great assortment of guitar tools & toolkits to help keep your guitar in tip-top shape. 

Tags: Electric Guitars Acoustic Guitars Guitar Accessories & Parts Guitar Repair & Maintenance


# Vieux Clou 2016-06-13 08:49
Dunno if I've just discovered something everyone already knows, but a set of picks (e.g. Dunlop or Thomann's Harley Benton 12-pick set) make useful feeler gauges for checking the action roughly.

1/64" = 0.39 mm so the 0.46 mm pick should just lift the 1st string slightly on the 1st fret. 1/32" = 0.78 mm so the 0.71 should slip through and the 0.81 should bind slightly. Etc. You can use combinations, e.g. 2x1.5 mm = 3 mm and 7/64 = 2.8 mm. Very nifty.
# Steve 2016-02-06 17:39
And if you are as adept as I am, the first sentence of this page should read, "Call your guitar tech". lol Actually, I have done the work, and have had both good and bad results. The key is to have excellent tools, accurate measurements, .....and PATIENCE!! Don't start the project when you have a few minutes before you gotta run....if you need an hour, make sure you have 3. Also, I have my guitar set up for SUMMER months, when humidity levels are higher, and it is perfect. You can have a second saddle cut, and swap it out when the buzzing starts in late fall, early winter, or, what I do, is use a shim made of the same or denser material than my bridge. Make sure it is absolutely level and snug. You don't want loose anything. If you notice a major change, something is wrong. I have very sensitive ears, and believe those who swear by a huge tone change wouldn't notice if someone slipped it in without telling them. The keys, dense as or denser than bridge, and great fit.
# Steve 2016-02-06 17:49
Cheaper guitars with plastic saddles usually come with strips....the MIJ guitars in the 70's used to have a couple shims included, or even installed, I guess as the last thing they did before leaving Nippon Gakki or wherever they were built, and you will can use them....lastly, and another option, and I will get heat on this, but I have done it and it was fine....a simple 1/4 turn of the truss rod!!! Did it for years, and was always fine. I know this is for relief, but most of us can do this for seasonal changes....make sure the truss rod turns easily, and never give more than a 1/4 turn for this....remember, it may take a couple hours to settle in, and overnight is best after a truss rod adjustment. Total end result is NOT immediate.
# John B good 2015-12-05 11:34
Good advice as the action is all important. My Strat & Gibson have the same action but play totally differently. The frets on the Strat are closer to the fret board, making for easier playing. The Gibson has high frets but still a very low action which allows a finger to push the strings more sideways to bend notes.
You are correct, the cost of setting up a guitar can cost more than buying it in the first place.
# Tony 2015-09-01 13:53
Any one got any idea what the saddle height should be for a small 37 inch kids guitar. I've shaved about half off and the string height on the low at 12 fret is still way over 2.5mm. The strings are actually the correct height with no saddle should I keep shaving or new saddle completely?
# Joel 2015-07-12 21:08
I have a kh 202, all the strings are in tune, floyd rose is level with the body tensions are all set, yet I have a problem with the g and the b string, they seem to be sharp all the time when I hit the 12th fret. Need help people.??.. I've moved the saddles back and forth several times and yet still nothing, but It seems that the b string seems to be a little bit slack, is it time for a new set of strings perhaps?....
# Mikey L 2015-07-13 01:12
Yeah throw a new set of strings on every time you attempt to intonate your guitar. Trying such with old strings typically yields zero results because the integrity of the strings have been compromised to to wear and tear and the elements. Change all the sings and try again. If that doesn't work, write me and we'll figure it out. Best of luck.
# Michael caira jr 2015-06-15 13:24
Im installing a hartail bridge on a jackson body, im using charvel 22 fret neck,25 1/2 scale, i measured from the nut to 12th fret, doubled that and added an 1/8 of an inch, is this right, cauae it seems to far back.
# mark wallow 2015-05-17 18:09
On a Silverstone ssla-30 jazzmaster I've got my strings going to a dead sound when I press them down how high should I raise the bridge and stop bat to get it right?
# MITCELL 2015-03-26 09:35
DO you know what the cost of setting up a guitar should be
IF you need frets set properly
# ray wright 2014-11-20 09:07
I recently purchased an Epi.339. I am having trouble getting the G string intoned. It keeps telling me I need to set the saddle farther toward the tail piece but It wont adjust any farther back. What do I do?
# Mikey L 2015-01-05 21:36
Your problem sounds typical of high string action. Having too far of string travel to the fret will cause it to pull sharp thus creating the need to move the saddle back. Lower the string and see if that helps. If that doesn't work I suggest detuning the string then move the saddle forward a good amount. Retune to pitch then check intonation and make the appropriate adjustments. If that doesn't work change the string out for a new one. Bad strings are more common than musicians sometimes realize.
# michael Elzey 2014-06-18 22:48
Get yourself a fret rocker from steward mac. follow the direction to check for high frets. Most guitars need a fret dressing or a leveling. Its the best 50 to 60 bucks you can spend. To set the truss rod. hold the 1st and last fret string down. a capo may be needed. look for a 1000th of a inch at around the 7th fret from the bottom of the string to the top of the fret. maybe a little higher but not too much. if your frets are level, you should be able to get a good set up.
if you have no clue, take it to a guitar tech. That's not always at the store you bought it at.
# Leon Robitaille 2014-05-02 21:28
I have an Ibanez Actcore 100 with Humbucker pick ups.
Everything is set up as per factory settings.
I cannot get lower action without string buzz.
It calls for ridiculous settings: Like a measurement of 2.3MM on Base side and 1.7mm on treble side at the 14th fret. If I try to adjust the neck to a backward bow, even a 1/4 turn , I get string buzz on the B & high E string. The frets look good. If I tighten the neck for backward bow just enough, I get a beatifull sound out of the guitar, but with string buzz again. Can you help??
# mike 2015-01-22 09:16
Those action settings are not that bad in my opinion. I keep the bass side at about 2 mm and the treble at about 1.5 on every guitar i own (Yngwie has his action like 4 mm!)... any lower than 1.5 mm and i get buzz when playing hard. But if you want it lower you're maybe gonna want a fret dressing to get those frets all at perfect height. Maybe give the neck a bit of relief first though... truss rod 1/4 step counter clockwise. See if that works??

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