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Tours Tips and Tricks – Part 4: The Perfect Guitar Setup

with Larry Burnett

I remember the first time I tried to setup my guitar on my own. It was a really simple task, that still felt daunting. I had watched a few techs do this kind of job, and asked as many questions as I could to understand why they were approaching the task in the way that they did. One of those methods stood out to me the most though, which is the fact that a guitar MUST be played as you are adjusting all of the aspects needed to give it a good a rightful setup.

This seemed counter intuitive to me, since I thought that dealing with micrometers and such fragile elements might force the guitar back out of tune, or even further from the direction you first intended to make it go! No one likes a guitar out of tune – and there’s something even worse about it when you’re the one who made it that way. Writers’ Block, meet Musicians’ Fury.

But this was one of the best pieces of advice I ever received when I put it into practice. After all, it makes sense that your guitar needs to be tested before it’s ready to go rock a crowd of people all night. But the specific way that testing it needed to be done was art-like and intentional, not as cavalier as I might have approached it myself had the idea been born of my own crazy mind. You have to test the string position at the bridge, at the 12th fret, and then at the 2nd fret. We take a look at this on our channel and you can watch that video below.

But to focus on some of the parts that I don’t go over as much on that video, why don’t we dive into a few steps along this process a little deeper:

Flat Surface or BUST-

For some reason I have seen a lot of videos online where guitarists are just doing a setup in the lap, or kind of between their legs like you would when you normally change the strings. My friends, this is just ridiculous. To give your guitar a good setup, there needs to be balance on both ends of the instrument. Keep in mind, this whole thing is based on tension – and what effects tension better that gravity? Well, not much. Unless you are underwater doing this procedure…in which case, I have way too many questions to ask you than I have words to fit on this page. But I digress…

The access to the bridge, truss rod, and tuners is much easier when the guitar is flat. Keep in mind, several guitars place the truss rod adjustment at the base of the neck – not all are at the headstock. This is why I think so many YouTubers just sit the guitar on the ground to get access to the headstock pointing up. Is it the end of the world if you do? No – but the other steps along setting up the guitar intonation is like I said, much easier when it’s flat. So go ask your parents or your spouse if you can take over the kitchen table for a half hour. You’ll be happier.

Plug it in, plug it in-

This process is obviously centered around great playing action along the neck, but only if the guitar is in tune. And this sounds obvious, but keep the thing plugged into a tuner while you’re doing this – it just makes each step of checking your work that much faster. And again, if you followed our previous step, this won’t be too much of a hassle. If I didn’t have my setup process where it is now, I would likely setup on the kitchen table with a tuner sitting up facing me. We’re all about efficiency here people, work smarter not harder.

Test locations-

No this doesn’t mean that since you’re in the kitchen that you can bring your 4x12 in there and test the guitars’ power while melting the walls of the common space in your home. Although, that might give some great natural reverb…

But no, this is the part where you’ve already confirmed that the guitar is in tune when you pluck the string open, and also holding down the 12th fret. If that’s looking good, then you need to test the overall tension. This step is honestly best to save for last, by the way, because if the action on your guitar (string height namely) isn’t where you want it, then you’re wasting your time at this point. Again, we’re just trying to take a closer look at some crucial points of this process. Which is why here I would grab the strings one by one, at the bridge, the 12th fret, and then the 2nd fret, and make circular motions with it. Put a little bit of stress on it at these points, and you’ll be able to see how the wood of the guitar settles the string back into place. This will tell you if your truss rod needs a little more tweaking, or if maybe the string height needs to be adjusted. Check for fret buzzing (amp OFF preferably) and go from there as needed.

Now play it. And play it like a rockstar – or at least just one who isn’t afraid to strum pretty hard. You’re not trying to kick the guitar out of tune, but again we want the wood to do it’s just by giving and taking with the pressure (tension) applied to the strings stretched across it. And as I said in our video, take your time with this. There’s never a 1 size fits all with this kind of process, and you may love your string height super high versus others that keep it as tight to the fret as possible. Take small steps, small increments are going to benefit you much more than if you turn a screw really hard and break something. Cause if you do break something, you might as well just smash the guitar on the ground and scream, “Thank you Detroit, goodnight!”

But then you have a broken guitar…so maybe don’t do that, and just be patient.

Yeah, let’s go with that.

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