How to restring your guitar and adjust its truss rod, action and intonation like a pro.
In managing a music store for over a decade, I did nearly every guitar setup for the shop. Working on all types of bridges and tuning machines as well as string types, I found that some aspects of guitar setup are nearly universal. These are the things we’ll focus on in looking at restringing, truss rod adjustment, setting the action and fine-tuning your intonation.
These beautiful Fender Custom Shop instruments are even more fun when maintained with regular setups.
You don’t need a dedicated workshop to set up your guitar. Just a little space and a few tools. Here’s a checklist of the stuff you’ll need for most guitar setups with links to my favorites at Musician’s Friend:
- String Winder
- Wire Cutters
- Truss rod wrench
- Small Allen wrench for saddles on the bridge
- Small screwdriver for bridge/saddle length adjustment
- Paper towels
- Lemon oil (on rosewood, ebony and unfinished maple only)
These are important and I recommend the following:
- Polish cloth - D'Addario Planet Waves Microfiber Polishing Cloth
- Guitar polish - Dunlop Formula 65 Polish and Cleaner
How to restring your guitar
A fresh set of strings can quickly revitalize the sound of your guitar. The first part of restringing your guitar is deciding what strings you need.
Classical guitars use nylon strings while their bass strings are wrapped with bronze wire. Steel-string acoustic guitar strings generally have bronze alloy windings with plain steel; (unwound) B and high E strings. Electric guitars strings are typically stainless steel or nickel, but new technology has brought more materials to the table including titanium.
After you’ve settled on the type of string you need, it’s time to pick the right gauge or thickness. I recommend .012s for acoustic and .009s or .010s for electric. (String sets are often identified by the gauge of the high E string—the smallest-gauge. A “medium” set of electric guitar strings for example might be just identified as an “0.11 set”.)
For players who tune down, a heavier string is preferred because it will hold tension better at lower pitches.
Removing the old strings and cleaning
On most guitars, I like to remove all the old strings at once. It’s easier to clean the fretboard and guitar body this way. There are two exceptions though. Restringing floating trems like the Floyd Rose should be done one string at a time to retain the bridge angle. The same is true for hollowbody guitars with bridges held in place by string tension. By changing one string at a time in these two cases, we keep the bridge in place throughout the process.
Once the strings have been removed, apply lemon oil on a paper towel to unfinished fretboards. After a minute or two, wipe off the excess with a clean paper towel. I spray Dunlop Formula 65 Polish and Cleaner on a cloth to clean the guitar body and pickups. Elbow grease goes a long way in removing grime.
When restringing your guitars be sure to wind the string to the inside of the peg! Think of the strings once they go over the nut as being like branches growing out of a tree. If the strings are not wound in the right direction the tuners will work backwards. As a general rule, turning a tuner left (counter clockwise) should make the string go up in pitch.
Thread the string through the bridge to the little hole on the corresponding tuning post. The string need only go around the post one full turn to hold well. I usually aim for two turns around the post, but it can be a little tricky to judge. Winding too much string around the tuning post can cause tuning issues later and is unnecessary.
The strings branch out on the headstock of the stunning Gibson Custom Peter Frampton 1954 Les Paul Custom Phenix. Gibson has only wound the strings around the peg a couple of times.
On the plain or unwound strings, I add an extra step by tying what I call the “Gibson Knot.” The unwound strings on a guitar are slicker than the wound strings so this knot helps keep them in tune and in place.
After the string passes through the tuner post, bring the excess back under the string and pull up. Once you start winding, the string will push the excess against the peg, ensuring the string doesn't slip.
Once your new strings are in place, trim the excess with wire cutters. I leave just enough extra string to bend it down. This keeps the headstock from chewing up the inside of your gig bag. Tune the guitar and then lightly pull each string at the 10th fret. Repeating this step a couple of times will seat the strings and minimize the initial stretch of new strings.
Make a Gibson knot on the plain strings by bringing the excess string back under the string and crimping against the peg when winding. When trimming the string, leave enough extra to bend down to avoid contact with people and your gig bag’s interior. Martin HD-28 pictured.
This is also the time to add any lubricant to the nut slots if you’d like. There are products like Big Bends Nut Sauce or the old fashioned approach—dressing the strings with pencil lead (which is actually graphite). Chapstick is also good nut lube. I only apply nut lube if I’ll be using a trem bar on the guitar. If you’re bending or using a whammy bar, slick nut slots help you stay in tune.
Truss Rod Adjustment
Yes, the scary one! It is true that you could potentially damage your guitar if the truss rod is overtightened. But that rarely happens, and if you understand how truss rods work, you won’t make that mistake. Over time, just about all guitars need truss-rod adjustments, so learning how to perform them really pays off.
Having the right tool is essential. If you do not have your guitar’s original truss rod wrench or an exact match, stop and do not attempt to do the adjustment until you have one.
Truss rods are usually accessible either at the headstock near the nut or where the neck meets the body. A truss rod is essentially a very long screw that goes all the way down the neck. By tightening the truss rod we straighten the neck. How often this needs to be done depends on the environment the guitar lives in and the type of neck it has. I’ve found that my Music Man guitars with nearly no finish on the neck require more adjustments than my lacquered Gibson necks. I’ve also noticed Ibanez SoundGear basses have such a thin neck that they need regular truss rod adjustments.
Always adjust the truss rod before adjusting action and intonation. A truss rod adjustment will affect both of them. Often times, a truss rod adjustment will fix intonation and action problems with no further adjustments needed.
To adjust the truss rod: In playing position, place a left-hand finger at the first fret of the low E string and a right-hand finger on the second body fret of the low E string. While holding the string against the neck at these two points, look at the space between the 7th fret and the low E string. It should ideally be about the thickness of a business card.
If there is too much space, the truss rod needs to be tightened (clockwise). If the string touches the fret, then the truss rod needs to be loosened (counter clockwise). Sometimes the truss rod can be hard to turn. This is okay if you are using the right tool and you are certain that the adjustment is necessary.
Put a finger on the first fret of the low E string and another finger at the second body fret of the low E. Look at the distance between the 7th fret and the low E string to determine if your neck is straight.This Music Man Axis is just right.
Setting Your Guitar’s Action
The term action refers to how close the strings are to the fretboard. By adjusting the height of the individual saddles of an electric guitar bridge, we set the guitar’s action. Acoustic guitars have pre-cut saddles and action can only be adjusted using the truss rod or shimming/ trimming the saddle.
Always start with a truss rod adjustment. It is nearly impossible for the saddles to change height but very possible for the neck to move a bit affecting your guitar’s action. Most likely a truss rod adjustment will bring everything right back where you had it. I set my action on feel and tone. If the bridge has height adjustment for each string, I’ll try to mimic the radius of the fretboard by making a very slight arch.
The Gibson tune-o-matic bridge has just treble and bass side height adjustments, which work quite well for me. I like low action so I set them just above the fret-buzz threshold—something that varies depending on the build quality of the guitar. I’ve played some guitars with such impeccable fretwork that even with the action set too low, there was no fret buzz or loss of tone!
If your bridge has height adjustment for each string, start by mimicking the fretboard radius. This Music Man Luke has been set up with a slight arch to the string heights.
If you tuned your guitar with an electronic tuner but your bar chord at the 10th fret is out of tune, your guitar has bad intonation.The length of the guitar string between the nut and bridge determines whether all of the notes played on that string are in tune. If the string is too long or too short, fretted notes will be too flat or too sharp.
Most electric guitars have individual saddles on the bridge making it possible to fine tune the intonation for each string. To check the intonation on each string: Play the 12th fret harmonic followed by fretting the note at the 12th fret. If the fretted note is sharp, move the saddle back making the string longer. If the fretted note is flat, move the saddle forward making the string shorter. Using a tuner to register the pitches is helpful when checking intonation. If you have a hollowbody guitar, you can adjust the intonation by moving the floating bridge closer to or further away from the neck.
Notice how each saddle on this Music Man Floyd Rose bridge is fine tuned to the perfect spot for good intonation.
So there you have it: not too many times around the peg, knot the plain strings, adjust the truss rod first, then set the action and intonation. Execute these steps and enjoy a great-playing axe…thanks to you!
Until next time...keep playing!
Read all Guitar Notes posts here.
Visit www.privatereserveguitars.com or contact Derek White directly at 866-926-1923. He can get you the absolute lowest price on your dream guitar. Connect with Private Reserve Guitars on Facebook and Instagram.
Brian Baggett is Video Presenter for Musician’s Friend Private Reserve Guitars. He curates the Private Reserve guitar collection on video, visits guitar factories and works closely with luthiers and signature artists to gain insight into the greatest guitars being built today. He is also a professional guitarist playing every Wednesday and Saturday night at The Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City. A former jazz guitar professor, Brian continues to teach guitar lessons and has a book and DVD titled Keys To Unlocking the Fretboard. Find Brian on Facebook and twitter.