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How to Set Up Your New Guitar

So you just got a new guitar. Congrats! You’ve spent some time playing it at the shop, or maybe you like to live more dangerously and you bought a used one online. Regardless of where you found your new baby, it’s good practice to give the instrument a close examination once it’s in your possession. 

I got a chance to talk to Stephen White, Guitartricks.com’s resident Guitar Tech. Full Access members can pick his brain right here on the forums. I asked Stephen what he does when he gets a new guitar. Here’s what he had to say! 

Checking the fretboard

Whenever I examine a new guitar (or bass) that I’m thinking of buying, I always examine the exact shape of the fingerboard, to see whether the distribution of ‘relief’ (the slight forward ‘bow’) in the neck is correct. Next, I try adjusting the truss-rod in the guitar’s neck, to check out whether it adjusts properly.  So, you can see that I’m not thinking like a guitarist - I’m thinking like a tech.  Assuming that the instrument passes this first test, I will usually change the strings, to a set that I’m planning to use on that instrument (at least, initially) - this gives me a much clearer idea of what I’ve got to work with, sonically.  Changing the strings also let’s me examine the tuners, in detail - if any are damaged, I’ll immediately think about replacements - I have a lot of 'hardware' in stock, so (unlike a normal musician), it’s usually no big deal, for me.

"...you wouldn't believe how far 'out' the string-height at the first fret can be, even on expensive, 'big name' instruments."

After that, I perform a quick, initial setup - I adjust the truss-rod and the action, at the bridge (just to get it ‘in the ballpark’ - at this point, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to want, from the new instrument), followed by checking the frets, and re-cutting the string-slots in the ‘nut', as needed - this is important, because it corrects the action in the ‘low register’ of the neck (below the 7th fret), and can improve playability tremendously - you wouldn’t believe how far ‘out’ the string-height at the first fret can be, even on expensive, ‘big name’ instruments.

But what if there's a vibrato system?

If the guitar has a vibrato, I’m going to be very concerned with the vibrato mechanism’s functionality - that is, does the thing pivot without any significant friction, or does it have any other mechanical problems, like corrosion, or excessive wear?  I always want a vibrato-equipped instrument to stay in tune very well, when using the wammy bar. Otherwise, I’ll disable the vibrato-system, until I can completely 'go through’ it, replacing whatever parts it needs to work perfectly.  I’d much rather have a non-vibrato guitar, than one that can’t be counted on to stay in tune.

And finally, the electronics!

Next, I check the electrical system (if any exists), to make sure that it’s all working well. I’ll use CAIG ‘D-5’ spray, to de-oxidize and lubricate pots and switches as needed, and then replace components (read: output jack!) as needed.  


Special thanks Stephen for the insight! I hope everyone was able to learn a little something from these tips. And for a quick refresher on the different parts of the guitar that Stephen is referring to, watch the video below where Lisa goes over the anatomy of the instrument.

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