Tech Tip: Setting Up Your Solidbody Electric Guitar, Part I

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Part 1 | Part 2

By Dr. Spot

So you've picked up a decent axe off a buddy for a great price. It looks cool and sounds cool, and when your buddy played it last Halloween it sounded GREAT. But when you get it home it doesn't quite fit you like a glove. If you have a few simple tools available and can overcome your fear of screwing something up, you can probably get it playing more comfortably without resorting to a professional repair guy.

Fender Guitar Work Station

A  work surface like the Fender Guitar Work Station makes it easier to set up your guitar’s action.

Strings and Springs

String up your guitar with guitar strings of adequate weight. Super-light strings may feel nice, but they'll also get less sound out of your pickups, which generate sound only as a response to the movement of metal through their magnetic fields. The more metal moving through the field, the more signal is generated. With any guitar, there's a constant trade-off between powerful, buzz-free tone, and ease of play, so you have to find a balance you can live with. Using either powdered graphite out of a bottle, or just scrapings from the lead of a #2 pencil, put some graphite into the string notches in the head nut before you string up. This goes a long way toward preventing string binding and tuning problems, especially if your guitar has a vibrato.

If you have a rocking vibrato, the process of setting up your springs is pretty basic, but it requires some patience and tweaking. You have to balance out the spring tension against the weight of strings you use. You can do this by tightening or loosening the spring claw, rearranging the springs, and adding or subtracting springs.

Figure A

Tune up the guitar and remove the back cover. If the bridge is not perfectly flat, tighten the spring claw screws to bring the back end down, or loosen to bring it up. Tune up again and repeat until you get the bridge perfectly flat. If you can't get enough change from adjusting the spring claw, experiment with the number and placement of springs. To get a little more stability on the low strings, hook two springs into the first two openings on the low E side of the counterbalance and onto the first two claws. On the high E side, hook the third spring from the outermost hole on the bridge counterbalance to the second claw from the end (Figure A).

Figure B and C

If your guitar has a Fender-type rocking vibrato, you can make it much easier to tune and keep in tune by stiffening up the spring tension to the point that the back of the bridge is resting against the body of the guitar. Tighten the screws that hold the spring claw as far as they will go into the wood without stripping. Hook the springs from the outer holes and middle hole on the bridge counterbalance to the three inner hooks on the spring claw (See Figure B). Alternatively, use 4 springs and hook them from the outer holes to the outer claw hooks (Figure C).

Some players who play guitars that aren't routed under the bridge (Jeff Beck for instance) will let their bridge rock up slightly so that they can pull notes up a bit with the vibrato bar. This works but makes tuning less stable.

Straighten The Neck

Hold the guitar up to your eye level with the headstock pointing away from you and sight down the fretboard. Basically, you want the neck to look perfectly straight. A VERY slight bow making the strings farther away from the middle frets is optimal; but if you can see it easily, it's probably too much. If the neck is not straight, your only simple option for adjusting it is the truss rod. This is a rod that runs the length of the neck and resides in a groove beneath the fretboard.

Most solidbody electrics give you access to the truss rod via the headstock veneer. Usually there's a little plate to remove which gives you access to an Allen nut on the end of the truss rod. Tighten this nut to pull the head back, thus bringing the strings closer to the middle frets, or loosen it to give the strings more clearance off the neck. Move in increments of 1/4 turn or so, and DON'T ADJUST THE TRUSS ROD MORE THAN A FULL TURN. If you can't straighten the neck out with a full turn one way or the other, you've probably got big trouble. Take it to a pro.

Some solidbodies with bolt-on necks give access to the truss rod only through the body end of the neck. Sometimes there's a groove routed out to give access, but otherwise you'll have to take the neck off to make your adjustment. This is obviously a great deal more trouble. Because the tension of the strings bends the neck slightly, you can't tell what effect you've had without putting the neck back on and tuning it up. To test the adjustment of the neck, fret the low E string on the first and last frets simultaneously. There should be a tiny gap-somewhere between a 64th and a 32nd of an inch-between the string and the middle frets.

Don't miss Part II, when we'll cover adjustment of the pickups and string height plus setting your intonation and fine tuning.

The Musician’s Friend selection of guitar tools and toolkits will help you make the right adjustments to get your guitar set up perfectly.

Tags: Electric Guitars


# Dr. Spot 2015-08-18 10:55
Mark, I'm afraid you're being too cautious. I've adjusted 40-years worth of truss rods without detuning with no ill effects. Most of the string-pull force stays in the horizontal plane (if the guitar is laying down). In fact guitar makers use just a five-pound weight to simulate the vertical pull on the neck when adjusting it in the factory. If you strip the threads on a truss rod you're cranking on it WAY too hard
# Dr. Spot 2015-08-18 10:54
G[blocked]e, you're right this method is not how the rocking trem is designed to work and it's not for everybody, only those who struggle with the circular process of tuning. It doesn't allow the intended freedom of motion, but it won't hurt anything and still permits the occasional dive bomb. (And it won't work with guitars that are routed behind the bridge) BTW, A Floyd Rose bridge stays in tune because the strings are clamped down at both ends, so heavy use of the wiggle stick doesn't cause detuning from the string wraps around the peg, where most tuning problems originate.
# George Skarzynski 2015-02-25 10:35
I am sorry, but I have to disagree with tightening the tremolo all the way on a Fender tremolo. Think of a Floyd Rose. A Floyd Rose stays in tune for a month, why? because it floats. I adjust my Stratocaster the same way, floating, and it stays in tune just fine. Even the instruction booklet says it shouldn't be tightened all the way down. That's my 2 cents, God bless!
# Mark G 2014-09-21 06:05
An important thing you neglected to include - when you adjust the truss rod, especially when tightening it, you should significantly reduce the tension on the neck by detuning the guitar quite a bit. You run the risk of stripping the threads on the truss rod, or mucking up the allen nut, if you try to crank it with full tension on the neck.
# José Antonio 2014-09-21 02:50
Hola! Yo tengo una Fender Stratocaster y son dos problemas; El switch de cinco cambios de tonalidad producen ruido (tierra) en tres posiciones, y la tensión de las cuerdas en la afinación universal me parece un poco dura para los bendings. Felicidades y gracias por toda su información.
# Jeff Hinton 2014-09-20 21:14
Great post. These issues I usually leave to a pro due to fear of making things worse.Helps to take the fear out of doing minor repairs.
# Musicman97 2014-09-20 15:11
Always nice to see a clear, easy to understand explanation for techniques for aspiring guitar tech types like myself... thank you so much..!

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