By Ronny North
As a pro guitarist, it’s very important that my guitars be set up to make them play as best they can so I can play anything I need to on stage or in a session. I’m constantly surprised when I meet fellow players and play their axes to discover that their instruments don’t play or sound very good and that they know nothing about easy setup tricks and maintenance. I’m definitely not a luthier by any stretch of the imagination, but I can do minor setup, intonate and maintenance on my guitars. If you are serious about playing then you should know at least the basics. I will run through a couple of tricks for setting your action.
The first is adjusting how high your strings are off the fretboard. Obviously, the lower they are the easier the guitar is to play. I like mine as low as I can go without fret buzz. This can be accomplished pretty easily. When lowering the action, remember that your fret board has a radius (a curve) so you want to keep in mind that the outer strings will be lower than the strings in the center of the Bridge. On the Gibson, the bridge is already radiused for the fretboard, so you should be able to lower the action pretty easily, so if you have a Gibson-style guitar with a Tunamatic-style bridge, there are two flat-head screws facing up on the bridge. Turning the screws to the right lowers the bridge and going left raises the action. On the Fender bridge, since Fender fretboards have a more pronounced fretboard radius, you will have to radius the bridge when lowering the action. This is easily accomplished since you can adjust each string individually to the fretboards curvature. You will need a little allen wrench the size of the height adjustment screws on each saddle. Each bridge saddle will have two screws. To get the lowest action on a Floyd Rose-style bridge, you will want to radius the bridge by using shims under the saddles. (We will get into adjusting Floyds in an upcoming blog.)
Another key to getting your action the lowest possible is to adjust your Neck with the least amount of relief as possible. The term “relief” means that your guitar neck has a little bow in it usually between the 5th and 12th frets. Most guitars have various amounts of relief on their necks. I myself adjust my necks on my main guitars with no relief and have the necks perfectly straight. To determine how much relief is on your guitar’s neck, sight down the neck from the headstock down along the top corner of the fretboard. You will see how the neck bows a little down the middle. To adjust it, you will need to determine from where you can adjust the truss rod. On Gibsons and most other guitars, it’s on the headstock under the truss rod cover. On Fender-style guitars, it’s unfortunately at the end of the fretboard under the pick guard. On newer guitars, you will need to look in the owner’s manual to see where your truss rod’s adjustment end is. Once you determine this, you will need the proper wrench (supplied with your guitar) and if the guitar has a deep bow in the neck you will want to do a quarter turn to the right if you’re adjusting from the headstock or a quarter turn left if you’re adjusting from the bottom of the neck. Never turn more than a quarter turn unless you really know what you’re doing. If you notice that your neck is starting to have a convex bow (bowing up instead of down then quickly loosen the truss rod a quarter turn. If this seems like too much for you, then a qualified guitar repair man can easily do this for you. If you flatten the bow a little, you will be able to get your action much lower making your guitar a much better playing instrument. Now just experiment with the action so you get it how you want it without excessive buzzing. I personally like it low but not so low that I can’t get a grip on the strings.
Once again it doesn’t hurt to know these things and if it seems a bit overwhelming, there are many books on guitar set up, or, at the very least, go visit a qualified guitar repairman and have him show you how to do it. You can even go online and watch a few tutorials. Just be sure you understand what you’re doing before you start. If you go too crazy adjusting the truss rod, you can seriously damage your guitar. Be careful and good luck setting up your guitar.