Guitar Set Up - Strings and Neck
Make It Stable
#2. Now decide if you are still happy with the string gauge and string height. Warm temperatures make strings seem more slinky and if you bang hard on them there will be excessive fret rattle. Just by using the next heavier gauge of string set you can improve stability and tone, but you'll probably need to adjust the truss rod to maintain neck straightness.
#3. Tighten the neck to body anchor screws (please use the correct size screw driver and don't mess up the slots by over twisting). Now check to see if the strings are still centered down the length of the neck. If not, loosen, straighten, re-tighten.
#4. Tuners that feel smooth and easy to turn are real nice but they are easily bumped and vibrated out of tune. If the tuners have an adjusting screw (on the end of the tuning button) you can tighten it slightly to impove stability. The tuners will be harder to turn so don't over do it.
#5. With the old strings still on the guitar it is now time to do the initial truss rod adjustment. Some axes require neck removal to adjust the truss rod. See part 2 for these type necks. If you don't want to mess with the truss rod adjustment please go to part three at the end of this page.
#6. Loosen whichever two strings are in the way of the truss rod access hole. Lift the offending strings out of their slot in the nut and move them out of the way. Usually they can be slipped into the next slot over, on top of another string.
#7. Find the correct size allen key or hex drive for the truss rod adjustment screw. Please be careful not to damage any wood or paint.
#8. If the neck is bowed upward you should tighten the truss rod only one eighth of a turn. If the neck is bowed downward you should loosen the truss rod only one eighth of a turn. Now put the two loosened strings back in their slot and re-tune your axe to standard pitch. Sight down the neck to verify that it has become straight.
#9. The neck should have straightened out at least some. If you use light gauge strings this small adjustment might be all you need. Heavier gauge strings may require another one eighth turn of the truss rod. Don't adjust the truss rod more than one quarter turn, and wait at least a few days before deciding if it should be re-adjusted (unless you already over adjusted, in which case you should correct it immediately).
#10. PART TWO----If you must remove the neck to adjust the truss rod it is a good idea to plan ahead so you'll need to remove it only once. The strings will need to be replaced at this point on most guitars, so it's important to get it right the first time.
#11. After removing the strings, detach the neck and tighten the truss rod adjuster one quarter turn if the neck was bowed upwards. If the neck was bowed downwards loosen the truss rod adjuster one quarter turn.
#12. Are you planning to switch to a heavier gauge string set? If so you should add one eighth of a turn on the truss rod (these adjustments can vary in the effect they have. If the neck was only slightly bowed you should reduce the amount of adjustment). Be aware that the neck WILL NOT be straight while the strings are removed.
#13. Re-attach the neck, install your new strings and tune to standard pitch.
#14. PART THREE- If the neck is slightly bowed you can improve the situation without changing the truss rod adjustment. If the neck is bowed upwards, simply change to the next lighter gauge of string set. If the neck is bowed downward, change to the next heavier gauge of string set. During the days following the string change you'll probably need to re adjust the action at least one time. If this doesn't straighten the neck enough then you
should adjust the truss rod.
If you're new to guitar playing one of the first solid lessons you'll learn is that a guitar string can poke a hole clear through your finger with no effort required on your part other than touching the end of the string. Should you be fortunate enough to never experience this unpleasant event (I doubt it), you still need to be aware of the hazards, and never let children put their busy little fingers anywhere near the tuners.
There are a few important considerations before purchasing the new strings. *You should know which gauge strings the axe is currently wearing. *You should decide whether you want lighter or heavier gauge strings, or the same. *You should understand that changing strings will likely NOT fix most playing problems you may be experiencing. *New strings can remain usable for one day or one year depending on how often you play and the climate in your part of the world. Perspiration is also a major factor. Most busy guitarists change strings once or twice a month, and the really busy ones change strings for every performance. *If you don't know which gauge strings are on the guitar, take the axe along with you to the music store and let their experts enlighten you. *Changing string gauge may cause problems that will surface immediately, or can gradually creep up on you. If you change gauge in either direction, a truss rod adjustment and bridge saddle adjustment will probably be necessary. Acoustic guitars can handle a string gauge change with no ill effects more easily than an electric guitar, but there are no guarantees. Just be sure to stay attuned to any changes in the guitar's behavior after the string change and quickly make the necessary adjustments. If the action begins rising or falling, the truss rod should first be adjusted (this is assuming that the action was o.k. before the string change). Heavier gauge strings will pull the neck upwards causing the action to become higher, lighter gauge strings will allow the neck to bow backwards, lowering action and causing string rattle. Over time the guitar becomes unplayable. Make the adjustments soon, or switch back to the original string gauge.
Most guitars can accommodate a change of gauge one degree larger or smaller with no problems; again, no guarantee. When changing to a heavier set there is the possibility that the guitar's nut may not be slotted large enough for the strings. This will cause the string to bind in the slot (tuning problems), or it can cause the string to sit too high in the groove (imbalanced action). Heavier gauge strings will also pull the bridge plate up on tremolo equipped guitars, possibly topping out the plate. The opposite happens with lighter gauge strings. You may be required to add or remove one of the tremolo springs in order to bring the bridge plate angle to within its correct range.
It is best to change one string at a time while the old strings remain on the axe in standard tuning. This causes the least amount of stress on the neck and whammy setup and keeps new string tension constantly increasing until it reaches correct pitch. Make every effort to avoid sharp bends or kinks in the new string, and keep the windings around the tuner post neat and smoothly butted up against each other in one layer; no criss crossing of the winding, or tuning stability will suffer.
Light gauge strings (9's or smaller) are thin and pliable enough to slip on the tuning post and come loose, even if you have a few wraps around the post. You may want to "lock" the strings to prevent slippage. To lock a string, take the free end of the string and loop it around the tuning post backward 1/2 wrap, slip it under the string (where the string enters the hole), loop it back over the string at this point. This creates a "noose" for the string at the post and prevents slipping. This should only be necessary for the plain (unwound) strings. Before bending the string to lock, make sure there is enough free slack in the string to allow at least three wraps around the post when tuned to pitch.
Here's how I determine the amount of free slack: After inserting the string in the tuner hole, pull the string taut from the middle of the neck while allowing the string to slip back through the post (maintain resistance with your hand...at the tuner). The ball end should be in its correct nesting. Pull the string (at mid-neck) up to a point three inches to six inches above the fretboard (string apex). Heavy strings will require about four to seven inches of slack; thin strings will require four inches or less slack. This should be enough slack to lay three wraps or more around the tuning post. Now apply the noose or simply bend the free end firmly against the post at the hole exit (bend it backwards). You may want to put another bend in the free end an inch or so beyond the tuner so that it (free end, sharp steel) sticks straight up in the air (erect). This prevents the free end from hanging up on the other strings and tuners as it spins around (as you tune up). Don't be surprised if blood appears during any of these routines. I try to keep the string taut during the entire procedure; it takes a little finesse but greatly enhances the pleasure of changing a string.
While still keeping the string taut, extend your index finger upon the top side of the string (pointing the finger toward the tuners) and keeping the string cradled in your other three fingers. The index finger can easily apply pressure upon the string. You can also twist the wrist a bit and increase or decrease the tautness of the string. Now, with finger still resting atop the string, slide your hand down the string to the point that has your fingertip just between the nut and the tuner (maintaining tension). Your index finger is now in position to "feed" the string onto the lower part of the tuning post. Feeding the string from an angle lower than the nut will result in even, clean wraps. Once again, the string tension is maintained the entire time you are turning the tuning key. Vary tension and slack by twisting the wrist. The fingers cradling the string can be wiggled as necessary to prevent any kinks at this position (apex).
Once the string is tight enough to rest in the nut, clip the excess off at the tuning post with wire cutters. Leave about one eighth of an inch or more sticking out at the end and press it cleanly into a safe spot against the post. Use caution. Now tune the string to pitch.
Locking tuners solve the problem of slippage by actually clamping the string to the tuning post. With locking tuners you only need one wrap or less around the post (but at least one half a wrap) when tuned to pitch.
Locking tremolo systems have their own unique quirks. Some locking trem systems require the removal of the string's ball end (snip it off with dykes). The plain end of the string is clamped at the bridge by a small vise and secured by tightening a screw. *There may not be enough distance between the locking nut and the tuner to easily slip the low e string through the hole in the tuner. Needle nosed pliers are the tool to use.
Now that your guitar's neck is straight and you have put on new strings, it's time to adjust the string height (action) and intonation (note accuracy).
#1.Heavier gauge strings stay in tune better, last longer and permit a more comfortable action without fret rattle. However, with heavier gauge strings you'll probably need to add an extra spring onto the whammy bar setup. This is necessary to maintain the proper bridge plate angle.The bridge plate should rise about one eighth of an inch above the guitar body on Strat style bridges. With lighter gauge strings you might only have to tighten or loosen the two tremolo spring anchor screws a turn or two to achieve the proper bridge plate angle.
#2.It's a good idea to loosen the tension of each string individually as you make these adjustments. If the relative height of the strings feel about equal to each other then action adjustment is just a matter of adjusting each bridge saddle screw the same amount of turns. To raise the action turn IN each of the twelve bridge saddle screws one sixteenth of a turn. Retune and play a little while. If that wasn't enough, turn each screw another one sixteenth of a turn. Do the opposite to lower the action. Always adjust in small increments.
#3.The higher the action, the more rearward (away from the neck) you must adjust the bridge saddles to maintain proper intonation. Each string's intonation should be set so the harmonic at the twelfth fret is equal to the fretted note at the twelfth fret. If the fretted note at the twelfth fret is sharp compared to the harmonic, adjust the bridge saddle rearward (away from the nut) one half turn of the adjusting screw. If the fretted note is flat when compared to the harmonic, adjust the bridge saddle toward the nut. After making any adjustment to the bridge saddle check to be sure the screw head and the height adjusting screws are making proper contact with the bridge plate. Retune after every small adjustment until you zero in on the same note value for the harmonic and fretted note. An electronic tuner can simplify this procedure. Often the g string and the low e string are adjusted farther back than their neighboring strings. This is not unusual. The g string action should be raised slightly more to obtain a proper relative height (moving the bridge saddle back also lowers the action of that string).
#4.Now that the neck is straight, the strings are new and the action and intonation are correct, the only remaining adjustment is to set the pickup height.If you're a lead player or if you use a thin pick then you probably prefer that the pickups are very close to the strings (1/32 to 1/16 in. clearance when fretted at the highest fret). If you're a rhythm player or use a thick pick then you probably prefer the pickups deeper down into the guitar body. Different string / pickup clearances change the relative volume, tone, and dynamics of your sound. Experiment.
#5.Be sure to check the straightness of the neck every month and eventually you will fine tune the variables enough so that all your axe's pieces work in harmony.
Stability is the foundation for consistent, reliable axe performance.
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"Ones And Os" by Tina Coggins at T.C. Design
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"colorsoundcheck" by Paul Chase at Graphic Guitars
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"Solar Flare" by Tina Coggins at T.C. Design
Image used by permission.