Lights… Camera… Guitar action! Meh, it doesn’t quite roll of the tongue as well.
Besides, how the frick are action, like, action movies, and action, like, guitar action even related? That just makes no sense to me.
Aaanyway, today I’ll be going over how to adjust and set up the guitar action kind of action on electric guitar, so that you can play better stuff!
Let’s do this.
Check Your Guitar Neck Relief First
Necks warp, alright? This can be down to humidity, string tension, a fit of extreme rage, whatever…
And this can really effect how well you’re able to adjust and set up your electric guitar action. That’s why it’s important to find the type of neck curve we have, so we can correct it and get the action we want later.
So to find out which type of neck warp you possibly have:
- Press down on the 1st and 15th frets of the low E string simultaneously. (We all have two hands…)
- Then look closely from the side at where the string touches the frets.
- If the string touches the top of all the frets in between, then your guitar neck is straight.
However, if the string isn’t in contact with the frets in the middle of the fretboard, you have an up-bow.
If it isn’t in contact with lower frets, but touches the middle frets, then you have a back-bow.
A good way to check this is to prod around on the string with your available pinkie fingers whilst still holding the 1st and 15th fret down. It’s at these points that I wish I had a 3rd hand…
You’re looking to find the places where you have to push the string down to make it touch the top of the metal frets. That’ll show you where the neck has too much of a dip.
You can also use a ruler for this. Just place it across the top of the neck and look for gaps between it and the frets.
If you find that you have a straight neck and have double-checked it, you can skip the truss rod adjustment stuff and go straight to the string height part.
But because “guitar setup” and “easy” don’t fit in the same sentence, you’ve probably noticed some kind of curve. Either an up-bow (dip in the middle) or a back-bow (dip at the low frets/a hump in the middle).
In that case, write down the type on a piece of (preferably) unused toilet paper or something, and move onto the next step!
Adjusting Your Truss Rod
Chill, chill, chill… Yes, I get the thought of adjusting a truss rod makes you want to find some grass, eat it and throw it back up again.
But it’s an essential part of setting up guitar action, and is actually really easy to do.
The truss rod is basically a metal rod that goes through the length of the guitar neck, which is there to reinforce the neck, and help keep its shape. So if you’re worried about breaking it then, err… good luck with that!
But the reason we’d ever want to adjust this, is because a warped neck can make the action feel really high, and puts a cap on how far we can lower the action without fret buzz.
So to solve this:
1. Find the access point to your truss rod
It’ll either be at the tuning peg end, just past the nut (sometimes you’ll have to unscrew a cover), or at the other end of the neck, close to the neck pickup/soundhole (on some electric guitars, you’ll need to take the neck off if you can’t fit a screwdriver into the gap)
2. Get an Allen Key – that’s Allen Wrench for all you Americans out there – that fits the truss rod nut.
BONUS TIP: Place a mark on the top of the truss rod nut before you start turning. That way you’ll have a reference point as to where you started in case you want to go back.
Oh man, the number of times I’ve turned too far, lost where I am and got so frustrated I wanted to throw my guitar on the floor and jump on it… PLEASE do this. For my sake.
3. Adjust the truss rod
Turn 1/8 or 1/4 rotation clockwise if you have an up-bow, to tighten the rod. And turn 1/8 or 1/4 anticlockwise if you have a back-bow, loosening the rod.
It doesn’t require much to straighten out again, so stick to small turns.
4. Check your neck relief again
Those gaps between the string and the fret should’ve now reduced a little.
So keep making any more turns until those gaps are practically gone. A small amount of relief can actually be good, so you don’t have to be too strict.
If you’re getting any buzz now, even though your neck is straight, then don’t worry because we’ll fix that in the next step.
And after that, booyakasha! You’ve just successfully adjusted your truss rod.
Did it break? No. Did it bite? No. Did it make you feel warm and fuzzy on the inside? Probably not, but that’s what the action screws are for!
Adjusting String Height on Electric
Boom, that’s the bit that scares people done… Because adjusting the action on guitar can be actually as easy as pie.
So to adjust and set up action on an electric guitar, you’ll need to:
1. Find the action screws.
On most guitars, these will be the two screws on top of each bridge saddle.
But if you have a Gibson/Tune-o-matic bridge, then these’ll be the two screws either side of the bridge.
And if you have a Floyd Rose, these will be the two screws either side of the bridge too, close to the bridge pickup.
It’s particularly important that you first unlock and detune the strings a little on a Floyd Rose, before you turn any screws.
Changing the action will pull the strings a bit, and you DO NOT want a broken Floyd Rose string on your hands. Oh, no no no, you don’t want that at all…
2. Get an Allen Key or Screwdriver, and turn these screws clockwise to lower the string(s), and anticlockwise to raise it.
On Fender-style bridges you’ll have to do these one string at a time, but on Gibson-style and Floyd Rose, you’ll only have the two screws either side of the bridge to turn.
3. Play around and test the guitar out after each new turn.
Make sure you check every fret on each string for any fret buzz or dead notes.
The last thing you want is to be mid-solo on stage, ripping with your new ultra-awesome action, going for a bend and then… Buzzzz!
The audience will then start running around screaming in panic because they think they’re being attacked by a horde of invisible, flesh-eating bees. And you don’t want that.
So if you find any, you may want to raise it a bit more. Generally speaking, people have higher action of the lower strings for riffiage, and lower action on the higher strings for speedy solos.
And as soon as those strings are at a good height for you, and all notes sound out clearly – even on bends – then you’re good to go!
Set Your Intonation Next
After you adjust and set up electric guitar action, your intonation will need resetting. Intonation is basically about getting your guitar to sound in tune up and down the neck.
Bad intonation will make notes on higher frets sound out of tune, even if your strings are perfectly in tune. And that’s rubbish! It’ll sound like your guitar’s been sat in a derelict Egyptian tomb for the past couple of millennia.
So to fix this, we’ll have to turn a couple of screws to shorten or lengthen the strings, and that’ll be guitar set up complete.
But to ensure we intonate accurately, we’ll need to do a couple of things first…
Preparing to Intonate Your Guitar
When intonating, we want to get the most accurate reading from our tuner as possible, you’ll see why later.
And so some things we can do to help with this is are to:
1. Make sure the strings on your guitar have been stretched out and played in.
So if you’ve changed your strings recently, just make sure you’ve done as follows:
- Tuned the strings to pitch.
- Pulled a new string once you’ve put it on the guitar, tugging upwards all the way along to stretch it.
- This should cause a fresh string to go out of tune. So tune it back up and stretch the string again.
- Each time you do this, the string will go out of tune less and less.
- Finally, you’ll get to a point where you stretch the string, and it doesn’t go out of tune any more. And that my friend, is the sweet spot.
2. Select the neck pickup on your guitar
Not everyone has one, especially you black metal lovers out there… But this’ll give your tuner a clearer signal than the bridge pickup.
3. Intonate your guitar with it on its side, as if you were playing it.
Some gravity mumbo jumbo means the strings are pulled down differently to when laid flat. Hey, we want accuracy!
4. Weird thing to do number 4: mute all the strings & springs on your guitar with elastic bands.
Throw one past the nut and wrap others around the springs in your tremolo system if you have one.
This is all to do with sympathetic vibration. Don’t ask questions, just do it.
5. Mute all the strings that you aren’t currently intonating with your other fingers.
This stops any other strings distorting your signal – and again, sympathetic vibration…
Yup, these demands seem like they’ve come fresh out of a mediocre dance class – and to an extent they have – but you’ll see why all this makes a difference later.
How to Set Up Intonation
Alrighty, so hopefully you’ve enjoyed following doing those wacky things. But now let’s put all that to use.
So to intonate your guitar, follow these steps:
1. Get the best tuner you can find, and tune the low E string to pitch.
Tuners that you can plug your guitar into are the best for this, due to their accuracy.
But clip-on tuners will also work fine, just bear in mind that they won’t be quite as accurate as a plug in one.
2. Play the open low E string, then play the 12th fret of the low E string.
Do you see the needle on the tuner move when you play this E note an octave higher?
If not, you can skip this string and move onto the next string. But for most people, this note will be a slightly different pitch to the string played open.
If the 12th fret note is lower than the open string, then it is flat. If it’s higher than the open string, then it is sharp.
It’s important that you note whether the 12th fret is flat or sharp of the open string for the next step…
3. Find the screws that sit just behind the bridge, and turn them.
If the 12th fret is flat, then turn anticlockwise to push the saddle forwards. This shortens the string, and increases the pitch.
And if the 12th fret is sharp, then turn clockwise to pull the saddle back and lengthen the string. This decreases the pitch.
On Gibson-style bridges these are sometimes just in front of the bridge.
In this case, the direction you have to turn is inverted. (Turn clockwise if it’s flat, anticlockwise if it’s sharp)
But at the end of any adjustment on either bridge, you’ll want to pat down on the top of the saddle you’ve moved with a screwdriver head. This just puts the saddle back into place.
4. Retune the string after moving the saddle, and test the 12th fret note again.
It probably won’t yet be perfectly in tune because then guitar set up would be way too easy, painless and not I-wanna-smash-my-guitar-frustrating.
So you’ll probably have to adjust the screw a couple more times before you get it bang on. You’ll know it’s right when the pitch doesn’t shift at all between the open string and 12th fret note.
5. Repeat this process with all the other strings
And after that, congrats! I hereby decree your guitar set up complete.
Wrapping It Up
Boom. Your guitar arrived like a rusty 2-person tandem bike with stabilizers… And it’s left like a Lamborghini!
And all you’ve had to do is set up and adjust the action on your electric guitar properly 🙂
Even though guitar setup absolutely drives my nut in, I do like the way that a good set up can make an affordable guitar play like an expensive one.
Plus, unless you decide for some reason unbeknown to mankind, to fling your guitar into Niagara Falls, you won’t have to fiddle with anything again for a long time.
I’ve been Sam Olverson,
P.S. If you want to learn the 5 pentatonic scale positions on guitar so that you can play better solos, improvise and write your own too, then click here to view my post on that.