Signs Your Guitar Needs a Set-Up

Four Tips for Choosing the Right Instrument

Over time, the quality of sound your acoustic or electric guitar produces will start to decline. Guitars are primarily made of wood which makes them susceptible to damage from temperature, moisture, string tension, and being played. Your guitar will gradually expand, contract, and warp which all cause the sound to suffer. For many people who are just learning to play the guitar, who think they are sufficiently and diligently maintaining their instrument, it comes as a surprise that every so often, their guitar needs what’s called a “set-up.”

A set-up is a thorough adjustment of your guitar’s key components. It’s an important series of procedures which can be considered basic maintenance. Think of it like a tune-up on a car; it needs to be done periodically in order to keep the instrument running smoothly. If you’re doing a set-up on your guitar regularly, you may be able to detect and correct potential issues before they become major problems.

While many of the procedures involved in a set-up can be done on your own, you can also have a professional repair person do them for you. If you’re just starting out with the guitar and don’t feel comfortable doing the set-up on your own, this is a good option. A professional repair person would be happy to show you what you need to do to keep your guitar in the best playing condition. If you’re planning on doing a set-up on your guitar, you’ll first need a number of tools. Make sure that you have screwdrivers, Allen keys, and a chromatic tuner.

How Do You Know When Your Guitar Needs a Set-Up?

There are several telltale signs that a guitar is in need of a set-up. If the intonation is off, the action is too high, the guitar buzzes when you fret a note, strings stop vibrating and buzz as you bend them, frets feel sharp, or neck appears warped, then your guitar definitely needs a set-up. If you’re new to the guitar and don’t fully understand all of the terminology yet, don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. We’ll go through each below.


Intonation refers to a guitar’s pitch accuracy up. You can test intonation simply by playing a harmonic at the 12th fret, then fretting a note in the normal fashion at the same place. If the two notes match, the string is intonated correctly. If the fretted note is sharper or flatter than the harmonic, then you need to make adjustments. If the note is sharper, that means that the string is too short. You can use a screwdriver or Allen key to move the saddle away from the nut. If the fretted note is flatter, the string is too long. Use a screwdriver or Allen key to move the saddle closer to the nut, usually a counterclockwise turn. If you find that you’re at the end of the screw and your string still isn’t intonated correctly, you’ll want to head over to an experienced repair person.


Action refers to the height of the strings relative to the fretboard. The higher the strings are from the fretboard, the harder you’ll have to press to fret the strings. This can seriously slow down your playing. First, measure the action at several places along the neck of the guitar to check for consistency. 5/64” is considered to be a low action, which facilitates easier and faster playing. If your action is measuring greater than that, you should consider making adjustments. The way that you adjust depends on your guitar, but the easiest way to adjust action is to raise or lower the bridge (or individual string saddles). If your bridge has individual string saddles, you can use an Allen wrench to turn the screw. Turning the screw clockwise will raise the action, and turning it counterclockwise will lower it. Make sure to keep both sides of the saddle the same height. If your action is off because of a floating tremolo bridge, then adjust the bridge tension before you adjust the string saddles. If the action is too high at the nut, you can file the nut. Before doing this, consider that it can’t be undone. If you’re inexperienced or concerned, it’s best to take it to an experienced repair technician.

If the action is higher or lower in the middle of the neck than it is at either end, the guitar’s neck is probably curved or warped. If you want to avoid warping a guitar’s neck, make sure to keep your instrument in a climate controlled area where it won’t be subject to damage from humidity or extreme temperatures. If it’s too late, and the damage is done, don’t worry. You just need to adjust the truss rod. The truss rod is the metal rod that runs inside the neck of the guitar. You can correct small misalignments with a quarter turn using an Allen wrench. If you’re adjusting an electric guitar, you can locate where to make adjustments under the truss-rod cover on the headstock. On acoustic guitars, it can be found in the body of the guitar at the neck-body joint. Tighten it, and the neck will bend backward, which is called a back-bow. If you loosen it, you’ll pull the neck into a concave bow. If the damage is more than slight, once again, you’ll want to take your guitar into a shop for repairs.

Check the Electronics

An important part of every set-up is checking the guitars electronics. Amplified acoustics and electrics with active pickups will require a battery check and possible replacement. Next, you should tighten all nuts and screws that anchor the guitar’s electronics. Once this is done, remove the plastic cavity plate and plug in to find the source of any strange noises you might be hearing. The usual source of this noise is dirt or oxidation, which can be sprayed away using contact cleaner. Finally, spray into the volume and tone pots at their openings. This should clear up any electronics related noises you may be hearing.

Final Steps

After addressing the intonation, action, and truss-rod, you should change your strings. After you take the old strings off, but before you put the new ones on, clean and polish both the fretboard and the frets. Remove any buildup of dirt and grease. Finally, put the new strings on and test the intonation and action. If all’s been done correctly, your guitar should look, feel, and sound just like new! If you’ve made all the proper adjustments and something still seems off, you should take your guitar in to a qualified repair person for a second look.



Need help removing and changing your strings? Check out this post. Need a repair technician but don’t have one yet? Check out How to Find a Qualified Repair Technician and find one in your area today.

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