How to Set Up an Electric Guitar

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Adjusting the intonation of a Stratocaster.

It’s always awesome to get a new instrument—especially a sweet electric guitar. But excitement can turn into frustration when your guitar doesn’t sound quiiite right. Electric guitars have a few more adjustments and tweaks to make than acoustic guitars, so if it’s not set up right, it may buzz, sound slightly out of tune, or be harder to play than it should.

Even though most good guitar shops (like, ahem, Music Go Round—Albuquerque) will set your guitar up for you, it’s good to know the basics yourself. To get you started we offer the following photo tutorial and video featuring our very own ninja guitar tech Josh Bratton going through the basics of how to set up a Fender Stratocaster.

Step 1: Remove the old strings.

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First, get those old strings off. The quickest route is to loosen them up with the tuners and cut them with a wire cutter. Watch out for the sharp pokey ends!

Step 2: Oil and degunk the fretboard.

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Next, apply some fretboard oil to both clean and condition the fretboard. Here in New Mexico it’s especially dry so it’s wise to do this every time you change your strings. To clean out any chunky gunk at the nut, use an X-Acto knife (carefully).

Step 3: Restring the guitar and tune it.

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Run the new strings in through the body and up through the peg holes. There are plenty of instructional videos online about how to restring a guitar—including a couple on Music Go Round—Albuquerque’s YouTube channel. Bring it to tune (typically, standard E to E) once the strings are on.

Step 4: Check and adjust the neck for straightness.

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Make sure your neck is straight. If it looks bowed, adjust the truss rod. On most guitars you’ll use an allen key to adjust this.

Step 5: Tune the guitar again.

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Every time you make an adjustment, bring the guitar up to tune.

Step 6: Set the string height.

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Fender Stratocasters have individually adjustable saddles to set the height for each individual string.

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Measure the string height, from the bottom edge of the string to the top of the fret. Fender Strats are set at 4/64ths of an inch at the factory. It’s a personal preference, but this is a good starting point. Use an allen key to adjust the saddles to raise or lower the outside E strings.

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Then use a radius gauge to check that all the strings are equidistant from the neck, using the same curvature of your guitar’s neck. Slide the radius gauge under your strings, bring it up to the bridge saddles, check the remaining string heights and adjust as necessary.

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Every single adjustment, bring it up to tune.

Step 7: Adjust the intonation.

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Setting the guitar’s intonation correctly will make sure your fretted notes are equally in tune with notes on open strings. First play the open string, then play the fretted note at the twelfth fret, one octave up. Use your tuner to make sure they’re both exactly in tune. If they’re flat, turn it to the left; if sharp, turn to the right.

Step 8: Check the guitar’s electronics.

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This is the final step. Plug the guitar into an amp and play the strings. Go through your volume knobs, tone knobs and switches, making sure there are no scratchy or dirty pots. If you find any, you can give them a little blast of canned air to clean ’em out.

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We’ve embedded the full video below. Post any questions in the comments, and always feel free to pop into our store with questions. Happy playing!

All photos and video by Jeremy Kinter.

This post was co-produced by Pyragraph and its sponsor, Music Go Round—Albuquerque.

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