Are you wondering how to set up an acoustic guitar? You're in the right place!
In my latest YMI guide, you will learn the following:
- Why should you set up your acoustic guitar?
- Are any special tools required for setting up your acoustic guitar?
- How to set up your acoustic guitar?
And much more!
So, if you're getting ready to set up your acoustic guitar for optimal performance, keep reading below to learn all our best tips to getting it right for you!
Why Should You Set Up Your Acoustic Guitar (And Is It Easy)?
Setting up an acoustic guitar can seem an intimidating task. That’s probably why the vast majority of guitarists buy their instrument off the shelf, and do nothing but tune it.
While there’s nothing really wrong with this (I’ve been guilty myself at times), the true potential of a guitar cannot be fully realized until it’s been set up properly.
Realizing your guitar’s full potential does seem a little non-specific though, right?
Well, don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about the specific benefits in a moment, but first, I just want to point out that if you’re thinking about doing your own setup and you’re new to all of this, start slow!
Your local guitar shop probably has or knows of a good luthier that can advise, or take on some of the work for you if there’s anything you’re not completely comfortable taking on yourself.
Setting up a guitar can drastically improve the playability and even the sound of a guitar if it’s done right, but can practically ruin the whole thing if it’s done poorly.
There are tons of benefits that come with having your guitar well set up. You might even be tempted to say that “I only have a cheap guitar, there’s no need to put all that effort in!”, and to you, I say, of course, there is!
Your guitar will become significantly more playable, when you correct your action, smooth down any rough frets, fix any intonation issues, upgrade your nut, oil your fingerboard, and replace your strings.
These are just some of the actions that can be taken during a guitar setup, of course, your guitar may need something outside of this range, or by some miracle, it may come from the factory in a completely perfect state (not likely!).
If you really want to take your playing to the next level, and you’re not in the market for something from the Gibson Custom Shop, perfectly tailored to your specs, then read on to find out what you’ll need to set up your axe, and how to go about doing it yourself.
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Are There Any Special Tools Required To Set Up Your Acoustic Guitar?
I can’t stress enough how important it is to use the correct tools when setting up a guitar - this isn’t the time to be trying to fit square pegs in round holes!
First, we’ll talk about the more specialized tools you’ll need in order to set up your acoustic guitar.
A tapered feeler gauge is the first place to start. I picked up this Tusk tapered feeler gauge set from Amazon for taking care of my setups.
It’s great value for money and covers a huge range of measurements - from 0.001” to 0.04” which in truth, is pretty much all you’ll ever need.
Another essential piece of kit you’ll need is a precision ruler or straightedge. I always use metal ones, the markings on this type are generally finer, and so are the tolerances.
Next, make sure you’ve got a set of snips or string cutters. Personally, I like this handy all in one tool from D’Addario Planet Waves.
It’s got a string cutter, a bridge pin puller, and a peg winder all in one handy package, and these are three tools you’re definitely going to need!
A capo is not only useful for altering the key of your guitar while playing! Did you know you can check the neck relief of your guitar by using the “string and capo” method?
We’ll talk more later on about how to do that. If you don’t already own a capo, I thoroughly recommend the Kyser Quick Change. It’s a fantastic capo that is super easy to take on and off, and even change position while playing.
If you need to make any neck adjustments, you’ll have to work the truss rod.
To do that, you’ll need a truss rod wrench. Truss rods aren’t a standard size across all manufacturers, which can make life a little difficult if you own multiple guitars!
This musician’s tool kit from Ernie Ball has a whole range of different truss rod wrench sizes, and as a bonus, it comes with a ruler, some cleaning wipes, and string cutters.
It’s a good option if you don’t own any of the tools we already talked about and you’re looking to get everything as one set.
A clip on tuner is another essential. Once you’ve changed out your strings, you’ll need to have the new ones properly tuned.
This Peterson Stroboclip tuner is among the more high end models you’ll find out there, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of setting up your guitar, you’ll want the most accurate tune possible.
Finally, it’s time for the obvious stuff. This is a great time to put a fresh set of guitar strings on! I’m pretty vocal about my love for Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze light gauge strings.
Have a set of small, quality wrenches handy. You might be tempted to make use of an adjustable wrench, but for the love of god please don’t!
This is a pretty quick way to round off nuts and cause damage to your guitar.
I also find that a set of precision screwdrivers is very useful, as is a sharp knife or razor blade.
Then there’s your consumables, too – lemon oil, cleaning solution, and microfiber cloths will all be essential.
How To Set Up Your Acoustic Guitar In 8 Steps
- Get Gather Your Gear
- Time To Strip Off
- Clean And Oil
- Tuner Tune-Up
- All Strung Up
- What’s All The TRUSS About?!
- You’re NUTs If You Don’t Take Care Of This!
- Get Ready for ACTION!
Step 1: Get Gather Your Gear
I know, I know, Simon is suggesting that we should be responsible and detail-oriented. You’re damn right I am! Setting up an acoustic guitar is a serious job, and having everything to hand is pretty important.
Set up in a nice, quiet area, free of distractions, and with plenty of space to work, you’ll thank me later for this.
Gather your tools, and lay everything out so that you’re ready to begin. Keeping the neck supported as you work is hugely important, so be sure to have a pillow or cushion ready to bear the weight as you work.
Step 2: Time To Strip Off
Time to get those old strings off. Loosen the strings using your string winder for speed, remove the bridge pins and take them out.
I make a point to throw the old strings away immediately rather than let them clutter my workspace.
Don’t worry about installing the new ones yet, keep them in the packet until we get round to putting those on later.
Step 3: Clean And Oil
Once you’ve got the strings off, you’ll have unencumbered access to your fretboard. This is a great time to clean it off and hydrate the wood to prevent it from drying out and cracking. If it’s already started getting dry, some lemon oil will be absolutely necessary.
You’ll know if the fretboard is getting dry if it’s starting to lose its color.
The great thing about lemon oil is that it’s appropriate no matter which finish is on your fretboard, be it rosewood, Indian laurel, Pau Ferro, ebony, or any other natural, unfinished wood.
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Step 4: Tuner Tune-Up
This is a quick job, but important nonetheless! Before you restring, just check to see if the nuts are tight on the tuning machines.
They do tend to work themselves loose over time, so now that the strings are off, it’s a good idea to just tighten them up.
If you leave them loose it can play havoc with your tuning stability, which pretty much defeats the whole purpose of setting up in the first place.
Step 5: All Strung Up
Once your tuning heads are all snug, it’s time to go and whip out those shiny new strings. If you need guidance on this, why not take a look at my article that focuses on this topic in depth?
As the next stop might mean getting your face pretty close to the headstock, go ahead and trim off the dead ends before moving on!
Once the strings are on, it’s time to get them tuned.
Step 6: What’s All The TRUSS About?!
I do love a music pun! OK, friends, next, one of the more intimidating stages of your guitar setup – truss rod adjustment.
The function of the truss rod is to keep the guitar neck straight. Think about it, you’ve got 6 metal wires keeping a wooden neck under tension.
Tightening the truss rod counters the string tension, and straightens the neck.
Loosening the truss rod will cause a bend in the neck due to string tension. It goes without saying that the strings should be in tune when you adjust the truss rod.
The key thing to understand is, which way should you adjust the neck? This is where the string and capo method I mentioned earlier comes in.
After the strings are tuned, place your capo on the first fret to remove the height of the nut from the equation.
Next, with one of your thumbs on the fifteenth fret, use your feeler gauge to measure the gap between the string and the seventh fret.
There’s a James Bond joke in here somewhere, but .007” is generally seen as the standard clearance. If you’re an experienced guitarist you might have your own preference, though.
If the clearance between the string and the 7th fret is less than .007”, you’ll need to loosen the truss rod, and vice versa if the measurement is larger.
Step 7: You’re NUTs If You Don’t Take Care Of This!
I’ll start off by saying that even with a fair few years of guitar experience behind me, I’m not hugely comfortable with adjusting the nut of any of my guitars.
But, whenever I do a set up, I always check for any issues that might need the services of a pro – this is really important if you’re buying used, as a new guitar shouldn’t have any issues here.
Slide your capo down to the third fret for this one. Once again, take your feeler gauges and check the clearance between the strings, and this time, the first fret.
A good setup should be .008” on the 6th string (low E string), and .004” on the first string (high E string).
If the measurements on your guitar are significantly outside of these tolerances, I strongly advise you to take it to a luthier or guitar tech for further assistance.
Step 8: Get Ready for ACTION!
The last stage in the acoustic guitar setup process is making final tweaks to the action. The action is essentially the string height above the frets. Too high, and it makes the guitar very uncomfortable to play.
If you’ve got an excessively low action, you’ll hear buzzes when you play open strings. Neither situation is ideal, so get it adjusted by modifying the saddle height.
To change the saddle height, remove the bridge saddle itself. If the action is too low, you can place shims underneath it to raise it. If the action is too high, you can remove any existing shims.
If there are no shims for you to remove, take a file, and carefully shave the bottom of the saddle until it meets the height you need.
Your playing style will have an impact on how you want your action in the end. Intricate solo work usually benefits from a lower action, while heavy rhythm players often like higher actions.
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My Closing Thoughts On Setting Up Your Acoustic Guitar
A proper guitar setup is as close to having a bespoke guitar as many of us will get.
Modifying what you can to suit your guitar playing style will definitely help to make you a better musician, not just inability, but also in a fundamental understanding of how your guitar works.
Your guitar wants to be set up, don’t make it sad! It’s as much of an individual as you are!
Leaving it in factory mode means it’ll sound just like everyone else’s and with that, the personality just seeps away. Set your guitar up properly and you’ll truly bring your instrument to life.