How To Set Up An Electric Guitar

The reasons guitars of today are a lot more affordable than similar quality guitars of back in the day is that the guitars of today are factory-made. While affordability is great, the lack of human touch during production means that every guitar player must know how to set up an electric guitar.

Photo by C Drying on Unsplash

With this knowledge, you would be able to get the guitar to sound exactly how you want it to after you’ve bought it from the factory. If you don’t think you can do what we explain in this video, then we suggest getting a professional to set it up for you instead. 

However, we suggest you try to do it yourself. This is because setting up a guitar is a very personal thing. The way you want your guitar to sound might not be the same way another person wants their guitar to sound. Doing it yourself will give you room to design the sound the way it suits you. 

What Is The Ideal Guitar Set-up? — How To Set Up An Electric Guitar

While we have highlighted that guitar set-ups are very personal because everyone likes different sounds, there are still some basic rules to be observed. 

Although there might be slight differences from player to player, a good guitar set-up should contain the following features:

  • It must be able to hold a tune. A guitar that has been set up properly will be able to hold a tune for a significant amount of time, and not unwind or dis-tune frequently. 
  • It should have a pretty straight neck with a slight bow (relief) in the middle.
  • If the nut is set up properly, the string placement and movement should be good. 
  • A great action (fully depends on what you prefer).
  • The right intonation. 
  • Fair distance between the pickup and the string. 

Before You Start Setting Up — How To Set Up An Electric Guitar

Before you start setting up your electric guitar, it’s important that you first tune the strings. Tuning the strings will give you a proper understanding of how the guitar sounds, and the necessary adjustments you need to make. 

Also, you should tune the guitar to the pitch that you would normally play in, not just the standard pitch. This would give you the most accurate description of what your guitar would sound like when you’re actually playing it. 

Photo by Jeremy Allouche on Unsplash

Setting Up The Guitar — 4 Major Steps

Alright! Now that we know what we should be looking for in a guitar that’s properly set up, it’s time to actually set up our guitar that way. 

Straightening The Guitar Neck

The first step in setting up the guitar is to straighten the neck. Remember, you want your guitar neck to be fairly straight, with a little relief in the middle. 

The reason why we do this first is that it’s the basis for every other adjustment. The straightness of your guitar’s neck would ultimately affect all the other adjustments you make to the guitar. 

To straighten your guitar neck, you’ll need to adjust its truss rod. 

Step 1: How Do I Need To Adjust This?

The first thing you must figure out is whether the neck of your guitar is concave, convex, or straight. If your guitar is curved like a bow, it’s concave. If it’s curved like an outward bow, then it’s convex. 

You don’t want your guitar to be any of the three mentioned above. What you want, is a neck that’s relatively straight but slightly bowed in the middle. This gives you the best relief. However, this is not a rule of thumb. 

Depending on the type of music you play, you might want to have more relief or less relief. For instance, blues players often want more relief on their guitars as opposed to rock players who prefer little to no relief because of how fast they play. 

So, the first thing you need to do before beginning to adjust the truss rod is to determine how the truss rod needs to be adjusted. Does the neck need more or less relief? 

Step 2: Adjusting The Rod

AmazonBasics Hex Key Allen Wrench Set with Ball End - Set of 26

To adjust the truss rod, you’ll need an Allen Key. Most guitars come with their own Allen Keys. However, if yours didn’t come with it or you can’t find it anymore, then you should be able to get a new one for cheap. 

Adjusting the truss rod should be done in very minor increments. Don’t ever turn the truss rod more than a quarter for every turn. The smaller the turn can be, the better. This is because, if you tighten the truss rod too much, it can result in irreversible damage. 

Since you already know how you need to adjust the truss rod for your guitar’s needs, turn it clockwise to tighten it, and anti-clockwise to loosen it. 

One thing you should keep in mind, though, is that adjusting the truss rod should be used for straightening your guitar’s neck. Never use it to adjust the action of the strings. We are getting to that. 

Adjusting The Action

Once your guitar’s neck is straight, the next thing you need to do is to adjust the action of the guitar. This one is down to personal preference. You first have to determine what exactly is comfortable for you. 

However, like most other things, there is a general guideline or an “industry-standard”. This industry-standard states that the distance between the neck and the strings at the 12th fret should be around 1.6millimeters. 

Basically, the width of a dime. 

If the strings are much more than 1.6 millimeters, that means you it has a high action and you’ll need to lower the guitar’s bridge. If it’s lower than 1.6 millimeters, then it has a low string, and you’ll have to raise the bridge. 

Step 1

Use the same Allen key you used to adjust the truss rod to adjust the bridge. You’ll find really small holes on your bridge that should fit your Allen key properly. 

If you’ve realized that your guitar has high action, turn the Allen Key in a clockwise direction. This would lower the bridge, reducing the action. On the other hand, if the guitar has low action, then turn the Allen Key in the counterclockwise direction, increasing the action. 

Like we said earlier, this is only an industry standard that is comfortable for most guitars. If it’s not comfortable for you, then adjust the action to what would be comfortable for you. Make sure that the strings are not too close to the frets, though, unless they will buzz when you strike them. 

Adjusting The Intonation

To set the intonation of your guitar, put it where you normally would when you’re playing. So, if you usually play sitting, then on your lap, and if you play standing, hanging from your shoulders. 


Snark SN5X Clip-On Tuner for Guitar, Bass & Violin (Current Model)

  • Tune your 6th string with a guitar tuner
  • Play the 12th fret on the 6th string that you’ve just tuned. 
    • If the note is sharp, turn the bridge saddle counterclockwise. 
    • If the note is flat, turn the bridge saddle clockwise. 
  • Continue repeating step 2 until the open string and the note at the 12th fret are exactly the same. 
  • Do the same for all the other strings. 

Adjusting The Pickup Height

The final thing you want to do on your guitar is to adjust the height of the pickups. The heights of the pickups will affect the overall volume and tone of the guitar. The reason they are adjusted last is that they are adjusted in relation to the height of the strings. 

If you’ve been following the industry standard, then the acceptable pickup height for your guitar is between 1.6 millimeters and 3 millimeters. This distance is measured when the string is pressed at the first fret. 

Conclusion — How To Set Up An Electric Guitar

If you’re still not satisfied with how your guitar sounds, go back to the first step and do it all again. Continue until you are completely satisfied with how your guitar feels and sounds when you play

The great thing about setting up your guitar is that once you’ve finally gotten it done, it would be a very long time before you have to do it again. Also, even when you need to do it again, you would already have the knowledge and experience that would make it much easier. 

And that, folks, is how to set up an electric guitar. 

Leave a Comment