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How do I set up the pickups, neck, etc. in an electric guitar? I'm not concerned with producing a particular sound as I am with keeping the neck from warping, prevent string buzz, improving playability, and that sort of thing.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I would like to add a little bit of info when it comes to strings, action, and intonation.

Whenever setting up/recalibrating a guitar, set the action of the strings first, depending on what your personal preference is. - How you do this depends on your model of guitar, but there should be a screw or something else that adjusts the height. - Remember, if it is a screw, turning to the right increases height. Adjust to desired height. - If your preference is low, make sure there is no fret buzzing on any frets on any strings, particularly at the higher frets. Do this by naturally fretting the strings at higher frets (while the strings are in tune) and listening. If there is some buzzing, you may have to raise the action ever so slightly.

Next, you have to check the intonation. - Tune up the guitar to perfect pitch (according to a tuner) - On each string, hit the 12th fret harmonic, listen, then play the 12th fret note. - If there is any difference in the two, then your intonation is out, which will affect the ability to tune the guitar correctly, and mean the guitar will not be in tune with itself. - The G and B strings are usually the worst culprits when it comes to intonation, particularly in my experience.

The rule when it comes to this is:

If the fretted note is higher (sharper) than the harmonic, then the length of the string needs to be lengthened. If the harmonic note is sharper, then the length of the string needs to be shortened.

Again, adjusting intonation depends on your make of guitar, but their should be a screw or adjuster on the bridge. - Adjust, tune, and then check the harmonic and 12th fret notes again. - Keep adjusting and repeating until they are exactly the same as each other.

The first time during your ownership of a guitar that you come to the point where it has to be set up, my suggestion would be to take it to a qualified guitar tech who will set the instrument up for you. If you ask him, he will talk you through what he is doing, so that you know a bit more about it for yourself. He will fix any problems on the action, nut, neck, truss rod, and bridge piece that will be affecting how the instrument sounds/plays/tunes.

Full setups CAN be expensive, but nearly always a very good quality job is done, and is worth it, particularly if you are having problems with your guitar (it always sounds out of tune, even when in tune with a tuner etc). The first time you play your guitar in a perfectly re-setup condition you will know what I mean.

Hope this helps.

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It is difficult to provide a concise answer on this subject, so I'd highly recommend checking out this book by Dan Erlewine:

How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great

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Seconded. I actually have a couple of copies of this book, for some reason, but it's so good I don't mind having paid for it twice. :) –  Anonymous Jan 13 '11 at 21:29
    
Is setting up a guitar something a newbie can easily learn? Or am I likely to screw something up? –  Kevin Lawrence Jan 14 '11 at 0:21
    
I maintain that the first time you have a need to do any kind of setup on your guitar, you take it to a qualified guitar tech. Here you will learn more about how to do it for yourself, particularly if you ask questions and observe. The cost you have to pay will not only cover a very fine job by the technician, but also the invaluable experience you will gain. Cheers. –  Ali Maxwell Jan 17 '11 at 21:27
    
I second Dan Erlewine's books. They gave me the confidence to tackle basic setup and fretwork on my guitars. –  Devan Apr 28 '11 at 0:35
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Besides what Alistair Maxwell has already stated and I think is a fine answer you should also learn how to make adjustments to the truss rod. Depending on the humidty and other conditions that I'm not entirely sure of, perhaps time, the concave of the guitar/bass neck will change. It's a relateively easy adjustment to make although I'm not going to post exactly how to do it I will post some random guides; you can find more by googling truss rod adjustment.

I personally like a flat neck it's good to experiment a bit though and see what you like. And depending on what you read some people will say it's bad to have a flat neck and you should have a slight concave, where as, others will say a flat neck is good.

One other thing that wasn't mentioned is floating bridges. I suggest avoiding them or at the very least getting some sort of blocking mechanism. Tremol-no(?) are awesome.

truss rod adjustments: http://users.powernet.co.uk/guitars/setup5.htm http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-adjust-the-truss-rod-on-a-guitar.html

information on tremolo adjustments: http://www.glowingtubes.com/p/FloydTuning.htm

Also as a disclaimer, I very briefly looked through these sites and they looked alright but if they're not 100% accurate please remove them. Truss rod adjustments can completely break your guitar and if you're not 100% comfortable following instructions I'd either take it somewhere or have someone show you in person. It's relatively easy to do but unlike other adjustments, it can permanently ruin your guitar.

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