How to set up your new guitar to get it playing like a dream

Most of us buy guitars online these days. But often these instruments haven’t been given the TLC they need by an experienced tech. Here’s how to give your new budget axe a tech-approved glow-up.

With lockdown gripping the world in 2020, sales of new guitars suddenly hit an all-time high, with companies struggling to fulfil online orders to satisfy demand. Many of these newly purchased guitars were shipped directly from warehouses and distribution centres. When you buy a guitar online, you can’t try the instrument out. Depending on the guitar and the retailer, there’s a chance that your new guitar hasn’t even been touched since it left the factory.

The result? For your hard-earned cash, you’ll likely receive a tired, jet-lagged and poor-playing instrument. In this article, we’ll cover a few basic steps that should ensure your new squeeze is all set to provide years of enjoyment and productivity.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

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Most of us reading this will have probably started out on a Squier Strat or similar, and so what better guitar to provide our subject than a brand new Squier Classic Vibe 60s Stratocaster in the ever cool, Lake Placid Blue, which arrived at my shop absolutely brand new, straight out of the box.

There is categorically no perfect or standardised setup for any guitar. It’s all personal preference. Some like a high action, others like it low. Nobody, however, likes tarnished frets. Let’s get started.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Before we get started you’ll need:

  • A set of replacement strings of your choice (we’re using Ernie Ball Regular Slinky 0.010 to .46 for this guitar)
  • Fine grade wire wool (.0000 grade – this can be obtained cheaply from eBay)
  • Wire cutters
  • Low-tack masking tape
  • Small jar or pot
  • Guitar oil (we’re using MusicNomad’s F-One oil)
  • Guitar polish (we’re using MusicNomad’s The One Polish)
  • Soft lint-free cloth
  • Kitchen roll
  • The large and small Allen keys you should have received with your new guitar (if you didn’t, contact the retailer)
  • String winder
  • Small adjustable spanner (we’re using MusicNomad’s handy Wrench)
  • Flathead screwdriver
  • Mat or towel
  • Neck support (we’re using MusicNomad’s support but a small folded towel would also work in a pinch)

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Step 1: Remove your strings

Lay the guitar flat with the neck supported and loosen the strings. This guitar (and most like it) is fitted with 0.009-.42 strings. The strings that ship on many entry-level guitars are not the best – they’re there to ensure the guitar plays and sounds like it should, and to facilitate quality control in the factory.

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In short, these aren’t strings you want to keep on your guitar, and installing decent-quality alternatives will dramatically enhance your playing experience.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Once you’ve slackened your strings, cut them in half with your wire cutters, which will allow you to coil them up from the top and bottom for easier disposal. Next, remove your guitar’s backplate and screws and store them in a jar or pot. We’ll address this area once the guitar has been restrung.

Should any of your strings not move smoothly out of your guitar’s bridge, it’s likely that the string’s cheap ball ends have swollen and got stuck in the block. Fortunately, this is an easy fix: either use the thicker E string and poke it into the string hole to push the ball end out or, if the E string is too soft, use the thinnest Allen key you received with the guitar.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Step 2: Ditch the plastic

Now that you’ve removed the strings, it’s time to peel off the polythene pickguard cover. This is thin and translucent, and can be difficult to see. But it’s good practice to remove it as it can cause problems later should you not. You’d be amazed how many new guitarists don’t realise this protective film is there and leave it on for months or years.

The plastic comes off easily but you might want to remove your Strat’s control knobs to make the job easier and cleaner. You can leave the knobs on and peel away the plastic, of course, but doing so will likely leave small bits of plastic beneath the knobs, which will attract dust and grime over the years, damaging the controls internally. Taking off the knobs is a three-minute job that will save you future issues.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

To remove the knobs, gently pry them off the guitar with light, even pressure – we’re using the MusicNomad Wrench here. Next, use your wrench or spanner to delicately loosen the nut on each of the controls. But do not fully remove them. Doing so will cause the pot to drop into the guitar and create a whole other mess for you to fix.

Once you’ve loosened the nuts, pick the polythene from the corner of the pickguard and smoothly peel it all off (bonus points if you can get it off in one piece).

Once you’ve savoured the satisfying feeling that comes with peeling plastic film from a smooth surface, carefully tighten the nuts and push-fit the knobs back onto the controls – be sure to turn the control all the way up and position the 10 on the knob in your line of sight.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Step 3: Condition your fretboard and frets

Guitars bought online have often spent a year or so in a cardboard box packed with silica gel sachets, which means their fretboard is probably dry and pale. The frets may have suffered too. Both will need attention.

If your guitar has a maple neck, your ’board likely won’t require much other than a polish. If you have a rosewood or pau ferro ’board like that pictured, some of its grain may have lifted and it might feel rough to the touch. Gently rub each fret with wire wool to smooth it down to a silken feel.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Next, use masking tape to mask off the wooden frets, leaving just the metal fret wires exposed. Shine each fret wire by rubbing from side to side with a small ball of wire wool. Repeat the process all the way down the neck. When you get to the very top of the ’board, place a piece of tape over the neck pickup to avoid getting wire wool fibre stuck in the pickups. Once you’ve shined the frets, dust away any remaining wire wool fibre and remove your protective tape.

Once your guitar is clear of debris, add a drop of guitar oil about the size of a small coin to each fret, and gently rub it in until the ’board looks like glass. Leave the fretboard for a few minutes so that the oil can work its way into the wood.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Some parts of the ’board will probably soak up more oil than others. If that’s the case, these frets are clearly thirsty – just reapply a smaller amount of oil and repeat.

Use a piece of kitchen roll to wipe off any excess oil sat on top of the wood. As you make your way down the frets, you’ll see oil begin to seep out. Wipe once more with a fresh piece of kitchen roll.

Congratulations. You’re halfway towards truly making the guitar your own. Next, take a second to give the guitar a thorough clean using a soft, lint-free cloth and some guitar polish. Try to get the whole thing shining.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Step 4: Straighten your springs

Flip your Strat over and you’ll see its exposed springs from the back. With the factory setup, these are usually arranged in a triangular formation. In our experience, this is not conducive to solid tuning. Instead, slacken the two large screws, remove the two outer springs set at an angle, and replace them so that they’re straight.

This involves some strength and skill but can be aided with a flathead screwdriver. Once all the springs are straight, it’s time to restring the guitar.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Step 5: String ’em up

Working from the low E to the high E – that’s the thickest to the thinnest string – thread each string through the back of the block to ensure that each is in the correct position.

Now take the low E and pull it all the way through the block and up to the corresponding machinehead. Take the end of each string approximately three inches beyond its machinehead and cut off the excess with your wire cutters. Repeat the process for each string. Once the strings are cut, it’s time to start winding them up.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Thread the string end through the tuning post’s hole. Hold it in place and begin winding. It’s important to get the string to travel straight across the nut and not at an angle. Ensure that each string goes clockwise around the post and that each new wind does not overlap the previous. Take your time if you haven’t done this before.

Once all the strings are tuned up to tension, gently pull each string using your thumb and index finger to stretch it. This will mitigate setup issues, as your strings should now be ready to play in tune consistently.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Step 6: Adjust your neck

Give your guitar 10 minutes to acclimatise to its new home and treatment before coming back to check how the neck has reacted to the instrument’s new strings. If your action is high around the middle of the ’board, you’ve likely got one of two issues: your neck is bending under the pressure of the new strings, or your saddles are too high.

To quickly check the neck, hold the guitar like you would a rifle and sight down from the body end. Focus your eye on the edge of the fretboard. If it’s curved, you’ll need to adjust the truss rod. If the neck is straight, you’ll need to adjust the saddles.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

To adjust the truss rod, use the Allen key provided with the guitar. Slackening the strings closest to the truss rod’s adjustment area should allow you to turn the key more comfortably. It’s also good practice to slacken all your strings when adjusting the neck.

This part of the job relies heavily on feel. Overtighten your truss rod and you can write off your guitar, condemning it to major surgery, so be careful. If the truss rod is too tight, something may be wrong elsewhere on the guitar. In that case, return to the retailer.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

In many cases, the truss rod will be fine, and will require only a small turn so that the rod tightens up (usually left is loose, and right is tight). Tightening the truss rod is simple but be mindful of how much you need to turn the Allen key, and always ensure a correct fit of key in the truss rod.

Once you’ve adjusted the truss rod, sight back down the neck to see if the curve has flattened. Repeat the process until the guitar has an almost flat neck with very little relief. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect setup. But generally a flatter neck brings a smile to the player’s face.

Tune the guitar up and check the action again. If it’s too low and the neck is straight, adjust the saddles at the bridge and make the guitar more playable on each string, according to your own preferences.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Step 7: Check your intonation

Intonation is the final piece of the puzzle. With correct intonation, your guitar should play in tune across the ’board, between the nut and the bridge.

Playing every note on the fretboard is a good way to work out whether you’ve got intonation issues. Any notes that don’t ring out properly can be solved by adjustments made at the bridge. If not, this may be an issue of poor fretting at the factory, which is an issue for the retailer.

Once all your notes ring out at a comfortable action, plug in a tuner and play the harmonic at the 12th fret. Now fret the same string gently at the 12th fret and check if the tuner is in tune with the note. Depending on whether the note is sharp or flat, adjust the saddle accordingly by bringing it forward or back. You’ll likely have minor adjustments to make here. Factory setups, although not great, often get the intonation about right.

How To Setup Your Guitar
Image: Gino Deblasi

Step 8: Remove that washer

Finally, where necessary, we recommend removing the felt washer from the strap buttons. These washers are there to protect the guitar’s finish from being damaged as the strap buttons are screwed in by the factory. In the long run, though, they tend to cause damage to the screw itself if not removed early. Pulling half a screw out of a nice guitar sucks, especially when the culprit is made of felt. Remove the felt washer as shown before screwing the button back on, being sure not to over-tighten it.

Give the guitar a final polish and test. Play all over the fretboard and ensure that it plays how you like it. There may be no ideal setup but, with a bit of determination, you can get your guitar playing perfectly and get the best out of your purchase, whether it be new or second-hand.

If there are any notes still not playing comfortably for you, repeat the process on a minor adjustment level. If in doubt, speak to a local repair shop.

Sam Orr is a guitar tech, writer and guitar shop owner from Chester, check out Sam’s Guitars on Facebook.

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