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I have always wanted to learn how to play guitar, especially Electric. I had a birthday recently and my wife bought me a super cheap setup from eBay. I know there are a lot of reasons to use a more expensive guitar but I think she wanted to see how committed I am before spending a lot. It’s a Stratocaster style and I am having trouble getting it in tune (using the fender tune app). The saddle adjustment screws are not aligned at all and I am wondering if that is contributing to the problem. Basically I am a complete newbie and need some guidance on getting this into a playable state.

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    For the images everything seems to be OK, the saddles seem to be fine. Do you have a tuner? Good luck and enjoy (it's definitely better to learn with a low cost guitar) – hexadecimal Mar 10 at 19:06
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    When tuning the D string it doesn’t seem like it’s making a difference when i turn the adjuster. I am wondering if the string is getting stuck. I have seen recommendations of people putting some graphite or pencils lead on the nut slots and wondering if that would help. I have tuned my wife’s acoustic guitar and am familiar with the process – Steve Salowitz Mar 10 at 19:08
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    The graphite serves as a lubricant in those points of the nut to improve the glide, but it's a bit weird that the groove of nut hinder the slip so much, surely it is not more of a problem in the tuning key? or how is the rope twisted? – hexadecimal Mar 10 at 19:14
  • @hexadecimal I will double check the tuning key. Maybe I’m just afraid of breaking a string – Steve Salowitz Mar 10 at 19:20
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    We never had a stratocaster on our e-guitars and had to tune the strings on the tuning machine. Try to lower the D string a falf tone - could be it is not fixed well. Then control if it is tuning higher if you turn the other direction. This should help. dummies.com/art-center/music/guitar/parts-of-an-electric-guitar – Albrecht Hügli Mar 10 at 20:33
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There are many useful YouTube videos about setting up a guitar, but here are the basics:

Checking neck relief

Press each string down on the first fret, and press the other side of the string down on the highest fret with your other hand, and then look at the height of the string above the frets around the octave; if the string touches the frets, or if the string is more than a millimeter above the frets, take the guitar to a guitar shop to have the truss rod adjusted.

Setting action

Play each string at each fret, and listen whether each note rings out fully without the string buzzing against the higher frets and stopping the sound. Raise or lower the saddle with the two screws it stands on, to the lowest settings that has no problematic fret buzz. If you can't find a setting that works, take the guitar to a guitar shop to have the frets checked out.

Adjusting intonation

Tune each string with a precise tuner (a smartphone app may not be sufficient; try the tuner in the free version of the Guitar Rig Pro software, or buy a clip-on tuner with strobe function). Then check a few notes higher up the neck; if they are sharp, move the saddle closer to the bridge; if they are flat, move the saddle closer to the pick-ups. (Loosen the string before moving the saddle, and tune again after.) Be aware that the intonation can never be absolutely precise for every fret along the neck; it's always a compromise.

Tuning

A smartphone app may be sufficient for tuning once the intonation has been set correctly, but a clip-on tuner will be faster, more precise and more practical. Always tune starting from a slightly flat setting, give the string a good pull or play a large bend, then tighten the string until it's in tune; if you go too high, set it flat and start again.

Nut problems

If while tuning you notice that you can turn the heads without the pitch changing, and then suddenly it jumps up (sometimes accompanied by a ping sound), the strings aren't moving freely through the nut slots and/or the string retainers. Adding graphite from a pencil may help, but if the problem persists, take the guitar to a guitar shop and have them file the nut slots for the string gauge you're using.

New strings

New strings may take a while to 'set'. After you've changed the strings, put them roughly in tune, then pull them away from the fret board repeatedly at different points. It may be necessary to tune them up a turn or two and leave them like that overnight, until they are sufficiently stretched, and their tuning stabilizes. (Be careful not to break strings near your face!)

  • Thank you for this! I will definitely be going through these! – Steve Salowitz Mar 10 at 23:10
  • Is there an order of things to check that I should use? I don’t want to work against my own efforts on this and would like to try to do as much of the work myself as a learning experience – Steve Salowitz Mar 10 at 23:25
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    Doing things in the order I listed them should work. New strings need a lot of retuning, but they shouldn't be a problem during set-up. You can't really go wrong with any of the adjustments, except with the truss rod; don't do this yourself unless you've watched several videos and you feel confident that you know what you're doing. – Your Uncle Bob Mar 10 at 23:33
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    'Adjusting intonation'. While this may work for an experienced player, it's complex for a beginner. Strings may get bent as they're fretted, throwing it all out. Simplest (and I still use it after 60 yrs) is comparing 12th fret harmonic with 12 fretted note. If the action is too high, nothing works well, as the strings will stretch as they're pushed onto the frets. – Tim Mar 11 at 11:31
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    @Tim Indeed. I tried to keep the answer short and simple, but intonation is probably the hardest part of the setup, and many details will influence the result. However, with a precise tuner (and they have become really affordable) it shouldn't be too hard. (Btw, I've recently started to take my playing style into account when intonating; I fret the notes as I would while playing, instead of using an unrealistically light touch.) I'd only suggest using harmonics in situations where you don't have a good tuner at hand. – Your Uncle Bob Mar 11 at 14:16
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The saddle adjustment screws are supposed to be different, and it looks like what you have for saddle positions is not unusual.

If you can edit your question to include more details about what kinds of tuning problems you're having, we can give more detailed answers.

I will note that learning to tune effectively is part of learning to play, and you should practice tuning every day and expect that over time you'll get better at it. And it's normal to start off having some trouble tuning.

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    That G string saddle looks a long way back to me., and D A and E could do with moving back too. Obviously only going by eye. – Tim Mar 10 at 20:10

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