Posted by: Jon | January 23, 2007

Setting up your instrument: A simple guide for beginners

So, you have just purchased your dream bass from your favorite music store. You loved how it sounded at the store, but then suddenly when you get home. Bamm!! Something happened. If you are like many amateur musicians, you don’t have a clue what happened, or know how to fix it (no offense to amateur musicians…we all were one at some point ūüėČ There are three major issues that will affect the playability of your guitar or bass, and I will attempt to go over them below.

The action of your guitar or bass, is simply the height the strings are from the surface of the instruments neck. The higher the strings are off the neck, the higher the action, and the lower they are, the lower the action. Quite a simple conceptfender_telecaster_reg_tele_guitar_b24670.jpg really :). A high action eliminates most “string buzz” while normally decreasing the “playability” of your instrument. A lower action will give you more speed, but can also create much more noticeable string buzz. This can be very useful when playing “slap” style guitar or bass, as its easier to “slap” the strings. Setting action is fairly simple. All you have to do is adjust the vertical screws on the instrument’s bridge. Action is all about personal preference, and setting it right will improve your overall tone, the playability of your instrument, and even give you confidence while playing.

The first thing I dowhen purchasing a new guitar is changing the strings. I don’t like the feeling of knowing that numerous other hands have touched my guitar. I also, normally do not like the factory strings that are put on new guitars. Changing the strings on your new instrument will provide greater hygiene along with cleaner, “new” tone, that only new strings can provide. But keep in mind that fresh strings normally need to be stretched about three times before actually holding a tune. In other words, they will go out of tune quite fast for the first few hours/days of playing your guitar. This is very normal, and should be expected.


Intonation is simply the way a note sounds as you travel up and down the neck. An example of this is found when plucking an open string, and then fretting at the 12th fret. Proper intonation on a stringed instrument is crucial. Without correct intonation the same note will sound different as you move around the fretboard. Setting the intonation of an instrument is fairly simple. First tune your instrument with a tuner. Make sure that it is PERFECTLY in tune, not a smidgen off. Then fret the 12th fret of each string one at a time. The string should still achieve a perfect tuning. If not, your intonation is off. This can be fixed by adjusting the horizontal screws on the bridge of your guitar or bass. Adjust them until the open strings, and 12th fretted strings match in tune. Intonation of an instrument normally only gets thrown out of whack if you change to a different gauge of string. But you may want to check it every once in a while even if you do not change string gauges.

Those three things will drasticaly improve your experience with your new instrument, and help you become more successful as a musician.



  1. In my experience, adjusting the truss rod of the neck also helps in setting the action. Making it [very] slightly convex or concave helps with string height and is also a good way to make your guitar unique to your playing style. Although, to be completely honest; Most guitarists, myself included, don’t notice a radical change in the feel of the neck after adjusting the truss rod.

  2. But be careful.

    You don’t want to rely on the truss rod to set action initially… That is what the saddles on your bridge are for. Make sure you exhaust all bridge height/length possibilities before messing with the truss rod…then determine if a truss rod adjustment is even needed.

  3. I’ll 2nd RipVanWinkle… be careful with the truss rod. Too much tweaking on it will leave you with a very expensive piece of firewood or perhaps a nicely painted rake.

    I don’t think I’ve ever tweaked the truss rod more than a quarter turn.

    Good rule of thumb… if you have to ask where the truss rod is… you shouldn’t be the one to adjust it. Take it to your local shop…

  4. Haha I totally agree with Tony and RipVanWinkle. The truss rod isn’t something that just any guitarist should mess with. I’ve been playing guitar for 9 years and I still won’t adjust it. But for guitarists (professional and amateur) who are extremely picky about the action of their guitar, the truss rod is a good way to fine-tune things once all other options have been exhausted.

  5. Absolutely, Eric, it’s the way to go to get it juuuuuuuuuuust right. I was just picturing me as a 14 year old with my little Fender Squier tweaking away on the truss rod and wandering what that snapping sound was…

  6. I have a Gibson J-50 acoustic 6 string which I sent out to gibson to be restored.It came back beautiful,but I’ve noticed the strings are higher up than when I got it back.There are no cracks or warping to blame,some one told me I should take the bridge out and file it a little,does this sound right?

  7. Typically that’s what they do to it… If you do try it, be very careful with it! This is just me, but that’s something I wouldn’t attempt personally, because I wouldn’t want to mess up such a beautiful guitar. But if you feel your ready and up for it, go for it.

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  9. try messing with a truss rod on a cheap guitar, it is not hard to do. playing with these things is the only way to learn. if a neck is really bad i loosen the truss completely and let it sit for a few days with the strings loose. then make small incremental adjustments till i get it where i want.
    be carefull if it gets to tight as you can break it,

  10. Good point about changing the strings – your just don’t know how long they’ve been on the guitar and who/what has come into contact with them.

    It’s also a good idea to keep your own hands clean before playing by using some alcohol based gel. This helps keep your new guitar strings sounding clean and sounding new.

  11. I would recommend getting your guitar setup by a tech with new strings as soon as you buy it.

    Once you’ve chosen a gauge and the truss rods all set, it should be very minor adjustments to keep it in check from then on.

    P.S. It can take a while to see any effect after changing the truss rod.

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