Could a poorly set‑up guitar be compromising your recordings?
Whether you play guitar yourself or record other people’s performances, it’s helpful to understand how to keep guitars in good, playable condition, and how to spot when a poorly setup instrument is responsible for disappointing recordings. The good news is that most electric guitars available today are better made and more playable than ever. Still, you can’t expect a budget instrument to have had a premium setup, and even pricier models need a spot of maintenance from time to time if they’re to give of their best.
In this article, I’ll explain the basics of maintaining an instrument yourself, and how to recognise when it’s time to call on the services of a professional!
Hopefully, you already understand the importance of an instrument being in tune! But if the guitar feels OK to play and you’re experiencing tuning problems, there can be several causes. It’s important that you learn to distinguish between tuning stability, whereby the strings keep going out of tune, and intonation problems, where you’ve tuned the instrument but chords further up the neck refuse to sound in tune. Both need attention, but the solutions are different. I’ll take tuning stability first.
On electric guitars with no vibrato arm fitted, the bridge end of the string is usually fixed securely in place by its ball end. The same is true for acoustic guitars, as long as the bridge pins fit securely. At the headstock end, though, the strings are wound around the pegs of the tuning machines and care has to be taken when fitting strings to avoid slippage at this point: problems with string fitting usually cause the tuning to go flat as you play, as the windings tighten and shift.
An effective technique that many players use is to bend the end of the string back around itself once it has been passed through the hole in the tuner shaft, so that the string winds over its own end and effectively holds it in place. Three turns of string around the peg is usually enough — too many turns risks the windings slipping. It’s important that the strings wrap neatly, starting at the top and running downwards, without windings passing over each other. If you have a Fender guitar with slotted tuner posts, the best way I’ve found to fit strings to these is to cut the string to length, then poke the end down the hole in the middle of the tuner before starting to wind. This grips the string very securely. If your guitar has machine heads secured via a nut on the headstock face, also check that each one of these is reasonably tight, as these can work loose, causing tuning issues.
After fitting new strings, tune up, then give each one a tug by gripping it about half way along, then pull it away from the body for a few seconds. Check the tuning to see if it has gone flat — it almost certainly will have, in which case tune back up to pitch and repeat until the tuning remains stable. You may have to do this three or four times for each string.
Other causes of tuning instability can usually be traced to friction at the nut or bridge but, more rarely, it might be due to a bolt‑on neck that isn’t fixed securely. So, if you have a guitar with a bolt‑on neck, check that the securing screws are reasonably tight and that the neck doesn’t move from side to side in the neck pocket when you pull it.
Sorting out friction issues can be trickier. These show up very quickly if you do a lot of string bending: the note may go slightly flat due to the string binding somewhere, usually at the nut or as it passes under a string T. To check for this, plug in your tuner, tune to pitch and then push down hard on each string behind the nut to make the note go sharp. If the note remains slightly sharp when you stop pressing, the string is sticking somewhere, and the nut is the most likely candidate: strings will bind in slots that are a little too narrow, and if a string ‘pings’ during tuning the nut is almost certainly to blame.
Cutting nut slots is usually best left to a professional but for the wound strings, using an old string as the guitar equivalent of dental floss can help. Grip a section of string at each end and then saw it back and forth in the nut slot, applying a little sideways rather than downward pressure. This is usually enough to smooth the walls of the slot (though switching to much thicker‑gauge strings might mean it takes some time to achieve a smooth passage through the slot). For the unwound strings, I tend to use fine abrasive paper folded in half, running the folded edge back and forth in the slots a few times.
Both the underside of string Ts and nuts, as well as your bridge saddles, also benefit from a little lubrication. The lubricant can be a commercial nut lubricant, such as Big Bends Nut Sauce, but pencil ‘lead’ or even a chap stick will work too. In all cases use as little lubricant as possible, as too much risks damping the string vibrations.
After you apply these remedies, the strings should return to the correct pitch. Note that you may still experience a degree of slow pitch drift during the course of a gig or session, as the guitar heats up or cools down — that’s perfectly normal, and if you can get the guitar up to room temperature in plenty of time before you play, the problem should be minimised.
Vibrato units can be more of a challenge, as friction can occur at their pivot points. Again, a little lubrication may help. A traditional Strat vibrato is held in place by six screws and needs the screws to be just loose enough not to bind when the vibrato arm is pushed right down. Some players remove two or more of the screws to reduce friction and at least two of my Strats have the bridge fixed using just the two outer screws, which has improved their tuning stability. If there’s a trade-off, I’ve not encountered it yet — two screws is plenty enough unless your guitar is made of balsa wood! Also check that the edge of the bridge plate is not fouling on the edge of the pick guard. Guitar models that use a two‑point pivot system tend to be less problematic, but do check to see if any of the moving parts, such as the tension springs or tremolo block, are rubbing on the woodwork inside the guitar.
Before starting any nut work, be sure to check the neck relief — the amount of concave bend in the neck. If you hold the bottom string down at both ends, there should only be a very small clearance between the string and the frets in the middle of the neck. I like to set my necks almost flat, with just enough relief to allow me to slip a piece of paper between the middle of the bottom E string and the frets. With the guitar tuned to pitch, tighten the truss rod using the appropriate Allen key or spanner, checking the relief after each eighth of a turn. You can also sight down the neck to check for twists. Sadly, these are beyond the scope of home repair, though a very slight twist that leaves a higher action on the bass strings at higher fret positions is usually not too serious. If it runs in the other direction you may find that notes buzz when you bend strings.
If you can’t get the neck curvature right, no matter how you adjust the truss rod, you are probably safest taking your guitar to a professional, as there may be a problem such as a broken or stripped truss rod. Necks with no relief or a back‑bow can only be adjusted if the guitar is fitted with a dual‑action truss rod, in which case just turn the nut anti‑clockwise. If you have only a single‑action truss rod, the only way to get more bow into the neck is to fit heavier strings!
Many guitars are shipped with nut slots which are wide enough but aren’t cut deeply enough, making the action too high, particularly over the first few frets, and causing fretted notes to sound slightly sharp. As explained, fine nut work is a skill best left to professionals — or at least practised first on cheap guitars! But if you do want to attempt the job yourself, nut‑slotting files are the best tools to use. While you can find cheap Swiss Army Knife‑like devices, they’re not the best tools, and a good set of files can be expensive — upwards of £60$75. At a pinch, you may be able to use a junior hacksaw blade on the unwound strings and use old strings to saw downwards on the slots holding the wound strings. If you have access to a grinding wheel, you can also customise your saw blades to get them closer to the correct width.
Before attempting any fine nut work, optimise the neck relief as outlined above, then adjust the bridge height to give the desired string clearance. You can check this using feeler gauges between the strings and 12th fret. The clearance is often recommended on manufacturers’ websites but if not it’s usually between 1.8 and 2.5 mm, and the clearance at the bass side is usually fractionally higher than at the treble side.
If the note remains slightly sharp when you stop pressing, the string is sticking somewhere, and the nut is the most likely candidate.
Note that the bottom of the nut slot should be angled backwards (towards the headstock) very slightly, so that the string bears on the front edge of the nut slot; sloping it the other way may cause buzzing and tuning problems.
Cut only a few strokes at a time and be sure to keep rechecking, as cutting too deep will cause the string to buzz on the first fret. As a safety measure, place feeler gauges just in front of the nut, under the strings: set the thickness of your stack of gauges so that when you press the string down onto the gauges, the string only just touches the first fret. Then add seven to 10 thousandths of an inch to your stack of feeler gauges to provide adequate clearance, and you can then cut until your blade reaches the gauges. Run an old string through the slot a few times to clear any rough edges, add a spot of lube and you should be good to go. You can simply lift each string out of its slot as you do this — no need to take the strings off.
If you come across a plastic or bone nut whose slots are already too deep, you can either remove the nut and place a very thin shim underneath it or, after cleaning the slot with alcohol to remove grease, you can fill it using superglue followed by a pinch of baking powder. This will quickly set hard, so you can re‑cut the slot.
Having sorted out any nut issues, you can fine‑tune the action (the height of the strings above the fretboard), and you may need to depart from the manufacturer’s recommendation to suite your playing style. For example, if you are heavy‑handed and do a lot of string bending, the action may need to be higher than for a shredder, who needs a low action but plays with a lighter touch and rarely bends strings.
Adjust the bridge saddle height to get the strings as low as possible without them buzzing when you play on the high frets, particularly when bending notes. Strat‑style bridges have individually adjustable saddles accessed by small Allen keys, whereas some fixed bridges are only adjustable at either end. Where each saddle can be adjusted independently, the first step is usually to set the action for the highest and lowest strings, then set the other string heights to match the fretboard radius. You can buy gauges to do this but if you have a large pair of school compasses, you can make your own on a piece of card, then cut it out to make your own gauge.
If you’re lucky and find that the action goes lower than you like without buzzing, you can increase it to taste. Note that the flatter the fingerboard, the lower you can get the action without buzzing when bending notes, especially in the higher regions of the fingerboard. If you find buzzes still occurring but just on specific frets, it may be that some of your frets are too high or too low, which is a job best left to a professional luthier.
If your guitar plays fine without buzzing and the nut slots are cut correctly, you can probably go directly to this step, but fit new strings first, as worn strings can cause intonation problems even on a perfectly setup guitar. The adjustment process involves ensuring that octaves played on the same string are accurate. Using the open string and 12th fret isn’t accurate, as fretting a string increases its tension slightly, so compare notes on, say, the third and 15th frets. If the octave sounds sharp, adjust the bridge saddle to move it away from the neck and check again. If the octave is flat, adjust in the opposite direction. With some bridge types, the intonation is adjustable only by moving either end of the bridge forward or backwards, and with traditional Telecasters, whose saddles each carry two strings, you have to seek a compromise. If you find any of the bridge screws are rusted into place, spray on a little WD40 and try again later.
We can’t all afford to replace them every week, so if you want a guitar set up and ready to record when inspiration strikes, it’s good to have strings that last a little longer. Coated strings are one option, but cleaning your strings after use will also help. If you don’t have a dedicated cleaning product, a squirt of WD40 on a cotton rag will do just fine. If your hands tend to get sweaty when playing, dusting them with talcum powder before you play will also greatly extend string life.
Any badly worn pots may need to be replaced, but first it is worth spraying them with Deoxit D5 from Caig (there are dedicated ‘pot sprays’, but I’ve found Deoxit works well in cleaning pots, switches and jack sockets). You won’t find it in many high‑street shops, but you can find online suppliers easily enough.
To get this into a pot, the best entry point is where the three tags emerge, but if you don’t want to dismantle the guitar, try laying the guitar on its back and then spraying around the pot shaft, as the liquid is very runny and usually seeps through to where it is needed.
Strat‑style jack sockets that work loose can usually be tightened by removing the socket plates held in place by two wood screws, then manually bending the longer of the socket contacts inwards very slightly so that it grips the plug more securely.