Tired of forking over $100 every time you need your guitar serviced?
I’ll show you how you can master the most common guitar repair service tasks in a few short weeks. So you don’t need to rely on anyone else to maintain your guitar.
Moreover, you'll never have to leave your gear with a stranger.
Before we dive in, here’s a secret that most luthiers don’t tell you:
Setups are fast and easy.
Setups cure just about everything.
90 percent of the time a truss rod turn is all the guitar needs.
A good technician can perform a complete setup in less than 30 minutes and will be happy to charge you $100 or more. To make these changes, there are only five essential tools. These tools are cheap, but help, and allow you to get started for about 30 bucks.
Five Tools to Start With
- Capo ($10)
- .010 feeler gauge ($7)
- Truss rod tool which fits your guitar ($6.50)
- Bridge adjustment tool which fits your guitar ($6.50 or usually comes with your guitar)
- String height measuring gauge ($8)
Setups may seem scary and mysterious - but they’re not.
You’re just taking measurements and making small adjustments. There's nothing going on here that could potentially damage your guitar.
Using your tools to set up your guitar
Tune the guitar and place a capo on the first fret. Place your finger on the last fret of the low E string. You’ve now created a straight line that goes from the first fret to your finger. You can measure the curvature of the neck as it relates to the straight line.
- Tune the guitar
- Capo first fret
- Place finger on last fret of low E string
- Measure curvature of neck on the straight line
The way you measure neck relief is with a feeler gauge. It’s a thin and very precise tool for measuring gaps. Feeler gauges can measure gaps within a thousandth of an inch. The one you need is the .010 gauge. Unfortunately, you must buy a whole set to get the one you need, although they're pretty cheap.
After you’ve got your straight line, you insert the feeler gauge. Let the feeler gauge ride on top of the 9th fret and underneath the Low E string.
Ideal neck relief is one where the gauge fits perfectly inside the gap.
You should be able to feel the grooves of the strings graze the top of the feeler gauge.
If you have no gap and the gauge won’t fit at all. That means you have no neck relief and the truss rod must be loosened until the gap is .010. If you have too much gap and the feeler gauge doesn’t touch the string at all, you have to tighten the truss rod until the gap is a perfect .010.
- No gap? Loosen truss rod until gap is .010
- Too much gap? Tighten truss rod until gap is .010
It takes about five minutes and setting your neck relief correctly will drastically improve your playability.
Ok, the whole point of neck relief is to give the neck a little bow. Just enough so the string has room to vibrate when fretted. Without neck relief, or room for the string to vibrate, you will have a lot of buzz.
That’s from the string vibrating and touching the next fret in line. When your neck relief is good, you can adjust the bridge to get your ideal action.
You’re looking for concave bow:
There are two main bridge types. Those with individual saddles, like a Stratocaster, and those where the whole bridge moves up and down.
If you’ve got individual saddles you need the little Allen wrench that fits the height adjustment screw. They are small and there is usually one on either side of the string. You can adjust each string to the height you want by moving those height adjustment screws.
On a bridge that moves up and down like a Gibson Tune-O-Matic or Floyd Rose there are two posts on either side of the bridge. The posts can be adjusted which moves your string up and down.
What’s the recommended string height or action?
Get out your string height gauge and measure the string at the 17th fret for electric guitars. Measure at the 12th fret for acoustics and basses.
- Electric guitars: Measure at 17th fret
- Acoustic guitars and basses: Measure at 12th fret
For electric guitars, look for 1.6mm on the low strings and 1.5mm on the high strings.
For acoustic guitars, aim for 2.5 mm measured at the 12th fret.
For bass guitars, I'd recommend the following measurements
- Low E string: 2mm
- A string: 1.75mm
- D: 1.6mm
- G: 1.6mm
Tune it up, play, and listen for buzzing.
Is there any?
Are there any that are so big, you need to raise the string a bit? Could you lower the string a hair? Maybe you could get away with lower action. Either way, you’re in control now - close to the sweet spot. Dial the bridge up or down until you find it.
If you've made it this far, you’re all done. The guitar should be playing great. If you want to keep going into general maintenance, I'll cover that next.
General maintenance is polishing frets, cleaning the fretboard, cleaning the guitar, and cleaning the electronics.
You'll need the following items:
Fretboard oil and guitar cleaners are easily found on Amazon. Buy a small bottle of oil unless you have a huge collection of guitars. A little goes a long way. With oil, you put one drop on each fret. Wipe it on and then wipe it off. If the fretboard is really dry, do that twice. Normally oiling is only done once a year or so.
Dunlop 65 is a good all-purpose cleaner that doesn’t break the bank. Use an old T-shirt and get your axe looking new again.
Deoxit spray is what’s used to clean electronics. It’s about $16 a can but it’s the only thing that works. Point and spray into potentiometers and switches. Turn your knobs back and forth to distribute the spray. If one spray doesn’t get rid of scratchiness, two sprays will.
Freshly polished frets are amazing when done right. You need a fretboard protector which is a little piece of metal you place over the fret. That protects the fretboard from any scratches.
Micro-Fiber Polishing Papers
Then you need micro-fiber polishing papers. Zona is the brand on Amazon. These polishing papers are measured in microns and they come in different colors according to grit. You can cut off small 1-inch pieces and rub them back and forth over the frets. You will see immediate results. By the time you’re finished going through all the grits, you will be able to see your reflection in the frets.
What about intonation?
Most often, intonation is done already - but not all the time.
You check intonation by letting the note ring in the open position and then fretted at the 12th fret. The note should differ by one octave but should remain in tune. So, when you fret the string at the 12th fret it shouldn’t be going sharp or flat.
If it is going sharp or flat, you must make small adjustments to the intonation screws:
If the note pulls sharp at the 12th fret, you need to tighten the intonation adjustment screw to lengthen the string.
If the note pulls flat at the 12th, you must loosen the intonation adjustment screw. That will decrease the length of the string.
- 12th fret note sharp: Tighten
- 12th fret note flat: Loosen
When making adjustments, make them in small increments, and check often.
Curious how much money you can make repairing guitars from home?
Tune into my new webinar: How To Make $70-$120 Hour As A Guitar Technician.
You’ll discover the three essential steps to building your guitar repair business, with real-life examples of how much you can earn. We'll cover helpful examples of the beginner-friendly services you can offer.
If you want to checkout my repair business, we're at NoVA Guitar Setups.
Wow. I was prepared to turn my nose up at another crap tutorial on how to do your own setup. But this is legit. Well done, Eric.
Bobby Kittleberger says
Thanks, Scott. Eric did a great job.
Ron Conkin Conkin says
I’m interested in learning more about doing my own setups/repairs
Hey Ron – I’ll go ahead and send your info onto Eric and he can definitely help you out.