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Advice on learning how to adjst action/intonation?

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  • Advice on learning how to adjst action/intonation?

    For some reason, I don't see straight lines all that well. It's been a lifelong problem so I rely on a level to tell of something is straight.

    When I take my guitar to the shop to have the intonation adjusted, he looks down the neck and tries to show me what needs to be adjusted but I can't see what he sees. Is there a tool or something I can get or do to learn how to do this?

  • #2
    Boyd, I am an amateur guitar builder and setup guy. I do a lot of setups for my local music store and musicians. Frankly I would not trust anyone who "looks down the neck..." and then makes an adjustment. In my opinion the setup of any musical instrument involves carefully measuring several different parameters to very small amounts (typically thousands of an inch, a piece of paper is two or three thousands, a business card is about 10). These parameters are interrelated - changing one will affect others. All of them come together to make a playable instrument.

    Add to that each player has his own preferences for these parameters - an electric shredder would hate the way SRV's or BBKings guitars were set up. When I do a setup I almost always watch the owner play - I want to see how she attacks the guitar, where she plays on the neck, how she does bends and slurs - and I want to know why she brought me the guitar in the first place ("it seems to have a buzz at the 16th fret, it frets out when I bend the B string at the 10 fret.....").

    I'm also completely anal about my approach to each guitar. When it comes into my shop I literally measure everything before I touch anything. I pay particular attention to whether the guitar is properly hydrated, any structural issues, the neck angle and geometry and the condition of the frets. If any of those things isn't perfect they get fixed before I do any "setup" work. I have a spreadsheet that I fill out for each guitar - it has one column entitled "Starting" which gets populated with the measurements as it comes to me - that lets me talk to the owner about what needs to be done (and what it will cost).

    I'll add that I get to fix guitars that have been worked on by someone else - the owner, the kid at the music store, someone who doesn't know what they are doing. It almost always costs more.

    If you are genuinely interesting in learning how to do this or to understand how the various parameters work I would be happy to talk you thru it. I'm also willing to share my spreadsheet - if nothing else it forces you to be systematic about working on your guitar. And please be wary of anyone who "looks down the neck..."

    ps - before I forget my manners, welcome to HC


    • #3
      First welcome to the forums. Now, let's be clear about what you want adjusted. Intonation involves making sure the guitar is in tune up and down the neck. Is that what you're talking about? The only thing you can remotely adjust by looking down the neck is relief, the amount of curvature the neck has. It should have a very slight bow like, well, a bow. Action is the height of the strings above the fretboard. I always measure everything but it's possible for an experienced person who has worked on a lot of guitars to "eyeball" it when it comes to relief or action. But that doesn't work with intonation; you need ears for that, not eyes. What kind of guitar do you have? Acoustic? Electric? Does it have a trem?
      Last edited by DeepEnd; 06-13-2018, 05:05 PM.
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      • #4
        If the frets have little wear, then checking relief is super simple. Some people make a far bigger deal out of it then they need too.

        If you have a good eye then you can definitely look down the frets and detect any high spots and get a general idea as to the necks condition. Spotting whether the neck is forward or back bowed is pretty easy for a trained eye as is detecting fret wear or lifted frets.

        This is not the only check you'd use however. A professional tech would first make sure the fret board is level, then check and make sure the frets are level. If you only check the frets tops and the frets are worn in the center of the fret board you will wind up back bowing the neck trying to get the frets level. If the frets are worn, you level the fret board, then level the frets. Then you can add your relief to either and you wont have any fret buzz.

        You can very easily check this properly using some basic tools which I do suggest you acquire.

        The notched straight edges are only $15, the cost of a few packs of strings ...

        You can use a regular straight edge fir the fret tops but I've found the notched straight edges will do both jobs. If you simply mover it over a bit to where the notches don't align it will rest on top of the frets so you can compare the fret board and frets quite easily.

        The only other tool you need is a set of feeler gauges which you can buy at any auto parts shop for about $5. Get a set that has both metric and inch.

        Whet you do is tune to pitch, use the feeler gauge under the straight edge. If you use say .010 gauged string for the High E then you likely want to use a .010 feeler gauge. Make sure the feeler gauge will clear the straight edge at the 5~7th frets when you are in the upright playing position. Tighten or loosen the truss as needed.

        Realize the neck may nit change immediately. It can take up to a week for a neck to completely move depending on tits thickness. Typically you only need to adjust the nut 1/4" max, if it was really off allot. Its much more likely to be a matter of cracking the nut in very small tweaks over a period of days till its exactly right. You use the feeler gauge between the neck and straight edge as a Go/No Go test.

        After adjusting the truss, you must also check the string height and the intonation to round out the instruments action. All adjustments are "Interdependent" If you mess with one you can guarantee its going to affect the others. What you typically do is rotate through all three, Relief, Height, intonation till the adjustments become smaller and smaller and are no longer an issue.

        One other quick check you can do for relief which is very simple, is to use your guitar strings as a straight edge.
        Hold down the last fret and pluck the string in the middle of the fret board. The string shouldn't touch any frets. It should produce a clear tone all the way back to the nut.

        Next Hold the first and last frets down of each string and pluck the string between at the 5th to 7th frets. (use a capo on the 1st if need be) Again, the strings should just clear all frets in between the first and last. If you pull back on the neck at the headstock with some pressure you should be able to get the high E string to "lay down" on the fret tops and come to an immediate stop.

        Unless you have fret wear or bowed neck the High E should lay down on frets before the lower strings do. The low E should require maybe double the amount of tension pulling back to get the neck dead flat and have the string lay down.

        Whatever you do don't overtighten the truss so the strings lay flat on all frets. You'll be plagued with fret buzz if you do that and even if you adjusted the action high you'll have problems bending strings without some relief. Like I said, use your first high E string as a relief gauge. If you use .009 or .011 gauge strings leave that much clearance between the strings and frets in the neck center when using a straight edge and you should be cookin with gas.

        The Fender Setup guide is a fairly universal method for adjusting all guitars. The only thing that may vary a little is the actual specs but you'll find every guitar, has its own sweet spots for adjustments. I recommend you learn how to get things first to factory specs then worry about its sweet spot. Chances are your hands will simply adapt to however the instrument is set up and so long as its not sounding bad or is hard to play its where the instrument will sound its best.

        Anyway, check this out. Its got a list of tools you should have which can be modified for your specific instrument.