In these days of stompbox tuners, sometimes are we reluctant to revisit all the ingredients of being in tune. This applies to all forms of guitars and basses. Its important to note that change strings, especially gauge sizes, and adjusting truss rods for neck curvature must take place before you tune up.
For big gigs or recording, you should always allow time to look at the precursors of tuning up. You don’t want to change strings, have your neck bow, and bridge intonation wrong while on studio time, with everyone watching you fish for tools. That is a massive buzz kill and will hamper your performance and focus. Here is a decent outline I found with credit down below it.
Short Version: Bridge Intonation only:
Longer Article from ToneDog
I agree that a properly setup guitar is a joy to play. But I also think performing a basic setup is something every guitar player should know how to do. I can’t tell you how many times I was at a gig and checked my setup only to find that something had slipped. For you guys who don’t know how to do a basic setup, what do you do then?
I can make some recommendations that should help you – at least as a starting point. Keep in mind that this is just a primer, so it is not intended to be the final word on YOUR setup – but it should get you pretty darn close. It is geared mainly for Strat and Tele style guitars, but the basics should work on most any guitar.
1. Neck relief (bow). I check this by depressing the low E string at the 1st and 15th frets and then check to see how much gap there is between the bottom of the string and the top of the 7th or 8th fret. Tighten the truss rod nut to flatten the neck and decrease the gap, back it off (unscrew) the truss rod to loosen it to let the headstock come forward a bit to create more gap. Make small changes – ¼ to ½ turn at a time and give the neck time to settle in to the new setting if it is not a double action rod. If it is a double (dual action) truss rod, the change should be immediate so waiting is not required. The relief should be set for approximately .010″ – or roughly the thickness of your 1st string – and that ain’t much so use a feeler gauge if you have to in order to get it right.
2. String height. I measure from the top of the last fret to the bottom of each string. Do NOT capo or hold down the strings at the first fret (as Fender instructs). These measurements are taken while holding the guitar in playing position. I set the 6th and 5th strings (low “E” and “A”) to somewhere between 2/32” and 3/32″ (about 5/64″), and all of the remaining strings at 2/32″. Most of my guitars have a 12″ radius fretboard which allows me to use lower action without worrying about fretting out. But if you have a more curved radius (7.25″ or 9.50″) you may have to adjust the strings a bit higher to allow for the greater curvature of your fretboard – especially when bending and especially if you have a fair amount of fret wear.
After setting the string height, play up and down each string on all frets to check for excessive rattles or buzz. Be sure to bend notes as you would in lead playing to make sure the strings aren’t going to choke or fret out. I sometimes find I can lower the 6th and 5th strings and sometimes I need to raise the other strings a bit – each guitar is different and the condition of the frets and the amount of wear on individual frets will affect how high or how low you can set the strings. But I can usually leave mine at these measurements. My basic rule of thumb is that I set the strings as low as possible while avoiding excessive rattles and buzz. Higher action makes the guitar harder to play and contributes to bad intonation because it requires more pressure to make contact with the frets which may cause the pitch to go a little sharp.
Please note: Despite common thinking, a little buzz is ok and very normal and it rarely comes through once the guitar is amplified.
3. Pickup height. All measurements on the bass and treble side should be taken while depressing the 1st and 6th strings at the last fret. Measure from the top of the polepieces to the bottom of the strings.
Please note: AlNiCo 5 magnets exert a much stronger pull than AlNiCO II or AlNiCO III magnets. Because of this, they must be set further from the strings as the more intense magnetic field will actually slow down the string’s vibration and decrease the natural sustain. It can also cause non-harmonic overtones that will make your guitar sound out of tune – especially when playing in the upper registers on the low strings (the dreaded “Stratitis”).
For AlNiCO 5: While depressing the “E” strings at the last fret, set the bass side for 8/64″ and the treble side for 6/64″ on each pickup. This is a good starting point, but you should adjust by ear from here. But again, do not move the pickups too much closer to the strings. You can get away with moving the bridge pickup a little closer, but I would not recommend moving the neck pickup much closer than this.
If the sound is unbalanced from pickup to pickup, it is usually because the neck is overpowering the other two a little bit. When this happens, I typically set the neck pickup a bit lower and raise the bridge pickup a little higher. The middle pickup is usually OK right where it’s at.
For AlNiCO II / III: These have less than half the magnetic pull of the AlNiCO V’s so they really must be set a lot closer to the strings in order to get the full range of dynamics and tone. I set these exactly as described above for the AL5s, but I go half the distance – 4/64″ on the bass side and 3/64 on the treble side. I adjust by ear from there. Many AlNiCo II and III sets are wound for lower output. But because you set these so much closer to the strings, it compensates somewhat for that lower output so there is not as big a difference in the PERCEIVED level of output when compared to Vintage style AlNiCo V magnet pickups. Most calibrated sets of pickups will sound pretty close to balanced if setup in this manner.
4. Intonation. I do this last although it could also be done before adjusting the pickup height. There has been much discussion and debate about what the best method is to set intonation. Some feel that using the open string and the fretted 12th fret note is best, some (like me) prefer to use the 12th fret harmonic and the fretted 12th fret note. And there are other methods. But it is essential that you have a good tuner – like a Peterson or something as sensitive as that. An LED tuner like a Boss TU-2 is not going to cut it. The Strobostomps work fine and that’s what I use. Set the tuner for standard tuning and chime the 12th fret harmonic and tune to pitch. Once there, alternately chime the harmonic and fret the 12th fret note using a light touch – just enough to clearly sound the note. If the fretted note is sharp to the harmonic, the saddle is too close to the neck and needs to be moved further away so tighten the saddle screw to pull it back. If the fretted note is flat to the harmonic, the saddle is too far away from the neck and needs to be moved forward a bit. Loosening the string tension a bit will help the saddle move forward or back a little easier. Retune and check again. Repeat until the harmonic and fretted note are the same pitch. Do this on all strings.
It is imperative that all steps of the setup be completed and in the order described above. You don’t want to adjust the pickup height before you set (or at least check) the relief and string height. Good luck, and have fun!
by ToneDog at TheGearPage.net
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