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A while back we were discussing a setup issue and I realized that altho I have lots of photos of acoustic guitars being setup, I don’t have a good step by step series of pictures of an electric. I decided that the next time I did a setup I’d document it and post something here. Today I did the latest Barncaster so I thought it might be time.


This is a new guitar so we are starting from scratch. If this was a guitar that had been played for a while I would approach things a little differently. First, as anyone who has read my rants, er, posts, knows, I’m pretty anal about knowing where we are at the start – after all if you don’t know that how can you decide what to do to get where you want to go? So whenever I get a guitar to work on the first thing I ALWAYS do is measure EVERYTHING and write it down in a little spreadsheet that I made a long time ago. It has a column for the “starting” values of every parameter – I measure them before the strings ever come off. Let’s just assume that I did it with this guitar.


This guitar is a tele-clone, obviously guitars with different style bridges or maybe a trem or different style necks will have some slight variations in the procedure but most of the time I follow exactly the same step by step procedure. A lot of it is knowing which steps affect something else – I want to do things in the order that won’t require me going back to fix something that changes. We’ll discuss that as we go along.


The very first thing I do is assess the overall condition of the guitar – specifically any structural issues and the neck angle. A very good way to check the neck angle is to run the bridge or saddles to their lowest position and place a 24 inch straight edge on the fretboard pointing to the saddles. I just want the tip of the straight edge kissing the top of the saddle – in other works the fret plane when extended is the lowest position of the saddles. Look at it this way, that is an action of zero, the lowest you would ever want to go. As long as that is the limit of the adjustment down you can always come up to your desired action.






If the neck angle isn’t right, fix it before you go any further. Shim it, route the pocket, steam it off and reset it – get it right.


Next are the frets. If the frets aren’t perfect your setup won’t be perfect. If the frets are worn replace them or dress them or do whatever it takes to get them as close to perfect as you can. This is a new (commercial) neck, it must be perfect, eh? Here I am rocking each trio of frets and guess what, several of them are high




For this operation I have adjusted the neck dead flat using the truss rod. Some people will use a notched straight edge on the board, I do so many different scale lengths that I just reference the frets and figure that’s good enough.


There are several ways to level frets, I use a big long (expensive) leveling bar with 120 grit paper on one side and 400 on the other




I also have a shorter flat bar that’s a lot easier to handle, again with different grades of sticky back sand paper.




This is a very good time to do any other fret work – this new fretboard had sharp fret ends so I cleaned them up with a jewelers file and little shield






Edited by Freeman Keller
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OK, this is where the setup really begins. At this point the guitar and fretboard are as good as I can get them, time to put some strings on and tune to pitch. First thing to check and set is the relief – changing relief changes almost everything else, but changing all the other things has little or no effect on relief. Set it now and forget it.


I measure relief with a very straight line, a tight guitar string (duh). Relief is effective between the nut and the body of the guitar and is adjusted with the truss rod (Adjusting the truss rod WILL change the action but that is not what its there for). Put a capo on the first fret, hold a string down over the heel and measure half way in between (usually around the 8th fret depending on the guitar). This picture is kind of dummied – I didn’t have enough hands to hold the feeler gauge and the camera – in reality I would be sticking feeler gauge blades between the first and sixth string while holding it down at around the 18th fret.




Different techs have different ideas about what they want to see for relief – I like relatively flat fretboards with somewhere around 4 or 5 thousands of an inch. There are some rules of thumb for relief that we can discuss in another page. Relief is set with the truss rod, tightening the rod will take relief out (make the neck flatter)




Now I’ll start bringing the saddles up with whatever kind of adjuster they have. Hardtail bridges usually have adjustment for one or two saddles at a time




Tune-o-matic bridges adjust all together with the two thumbwheels. Measure the action (I use the 12th fret for everything that I do to be consistent and because the math is easy. I also like to measure action in thousands of an inch for the same reason)




Bad picture, that is the little StewMac action gauge and its one of the most used tools in my tool box.


Again, action is a personal matter and I won’t tell you what yours should be. What I will tell you is that it should rise slightly from the high E as you go across to the low E. Some people might use a radius gauge here but I prefer to measure each string and set it individually. I might do something like the following if I wanted 0.060 on the high E and 0.090 on the low – 0.060, 0.065, 0.070, 0.075, 0.080+, 0.090 (see how much easier that is than fooling with 64ths and 32nds and stuff?)


Now I go to the nut end and check the action at the first fret




Nut action is set by filing the nut slots with gauged files. Go slowly, its easy to take more off, hard to put it back if you go too far. Like the 12th fret action I like my first fret action to rise slightly from the high E to low, maybe 0.014, 0.014+, 0.015, 0.016, 0.017, 0.018. Again, different folks like different setting but you can definitely feel a couple of thousands at the nut.




Next thing is to set the intonation – the position of each saddle so each string plays in tune up the neck. Again, different bridges have different ways to do this but it usually involves an adjustment that moves the saddle(s) back and forth. Tune each string to pitch, then play the harmonic, it should be in perfect tune. Then fret the string at the 12th fret and pick it – if the note is sharp you need to lengthen the string by adjusting the saddle farther away from the nut. Adjusting the saddle will throw it out of tune, retune it, check the harmonic, fret at 12. Note that changing the action WILL affect the intonation so always get that dialed in first.




I’m using a little strobe tuner (which picked up the camera flash perfectly) and double checking with a little hand held tuner.


Now its time to balance the pickups (and pole pieces if they are adjustable). Basically raise or lower the pups and/or poles until everything sounds balanced - particularly as you switch from one to the other. This guitar has a P90 in the neck and a standard tele bridge - I'm actually going to let the owner work with this to get the sound that he wants. But anyway, now is the time to do it.


Only thing left to do is double check all the specs, fill out that spreadsheet




(you knew I was going to say that, eh?), open a nice cold adult beverage and play your perfectly setup guitar.

Edited by Freeman Keller
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post script - I got the guitar all set up and took it into my music room to noodle around. Then I got a message from the owner-to-be - he said "when you do the setup please make the action slightly higher than normal so I can play slide on it without fretting out", (This is a man after my own heart!)


I'll leave the relief and nut slots the same, probably bump the string gauge up one or two steps (its got 10/s on it now, might go to 11 or 12's). I'll raise the outside saddles a bit, maybe 10 thou but leave the middle ones about where they are, that will make the action slightly flatter and give a hair more clearance against fretting out. Obviously the intonation will have to be tweaked, but now it will be a compromise - fretted strings require compensation but slide doesn't. Since I've been known to play a little slide it will be fun to fool around with this until it plays right.


Then of course I'll add a new column to the spreadsheet.

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Quick update. The owner- to-be of that guitar stopped by last night (he is from out of town but was here for a recording gig). He wanted to see his barncaster - I told him he could play it but I wasn't ready to let it go - I wanted another week to let it settle in. He played if for a while, said he had to use it on the recording and would bring it back when the gig was done. Well, OK, I guess

Edited by Freeman Keller
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Quick update. The owner- to-be of that guitar stopped by last night (he is from out of town but was here for a recording gig). He wanted to see his barncaster - I told him he could play it but I wasn't ready to let it go - I wanted another week to let it settle in. He played if for a while' date=' [b']said he had to use it on the recording and would bring it back when the gig was done[/b]. Well, OK, I guess




You fell for THAT old line? :lol:;)


Seriously - sounds like he was impressed if he was that eager to use it on the recording.

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