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Setting Up An Acoustic Guitar

There are varying opinions on the best way to set up an acoustic guitar.  Here is my take on the subject:

1. File the frets

NOTE: Let a trained guitar luthier do this step.  It requires special tools and knowledge.  This is what a good luthier will do:

Remove the strings
Use low tack drafting tape, or 3M blue low tack masking tape, that leaves no residue, but protects the finish when filing
File with a mill bastard file with the convex side down
Every stroke, file from the center to the two edges
Then round the frets with a special file
Use a tiny paint brush, or a 2x4 with carpet on it, to clean the filings off of the neck

2. Clean the guitar

Remove all six strings.  Loosen all six strings ten turns, then use dykes (wire cutters) to pull the pins out (pry against the saddle.)  Then remove the strings from the holes, and then you can easily wind them off of the tuners.

Get some clean cotton rags to use for cleaning.  White flannel with no chemicals (cheap at a fabric/craft store) is best.  Do not use anything that has been polluted with fabric softener.

A good cleaner for urethane gloss and semigloss finish (everything except the fretboard and bridge) is Rosinol lighter fluid or naptha (which is the main ingredient in lighter fluid).  It cleans but doesn’t damage the finish.  Second choice: denatured alcohol. (Note: naptha is highly toxic to breathe.  Use a mask and have ventilation.)

Next, wax the guitar so that when you clean the neck all the little steel wool fragments will be repelled off the body and you won’t scratch the guitar with them.  I use car Turtle Wax “Ice” spray-on car wax.  (Taylor Guitars uses Turtle Wax Express Shine spray-on clear car wax).  Do not use a heavy wax.  Also do not use a wax or polish with a heavy silicone base.  Do not ever put wax or polish on the fretboard or bridge.  But be sure to wax the back of the neck and (with the strings off) the headstock.

While all the strings are off, tighten the tuner nuts.  Use a 10mm deep well socket.  Don’t overtighten; just a little snug down. Also check the tension of turning the tuners.  Turn the tiny screw in the tuner button, clockwise to increase or counterclockwise to decrease resistance to turning, so that they are all feel the same.

Use 0000 (“four ought”) steel wool to clean the fretboard. You can get this at any hardware store.  Cover the sound hole with blue 3” low tack masking tape to keep steel wool fragments out of the electronics.  Also if the saddle has been removed, cover the pickup hole with masking tape to keep metal out of the pickup.  Don’t use any chemicals.  Don’t rub the steel wool sideways.  Go with the grain.  When clean, sweep with a clean new soft paint brush.

After cleaning, apply oil to the fretboard.  Taylor uses boiled linseed oil.  I use Music Nomad Fretboard F-ONE Oil Cleaner & Conditioner.  It has no lemon oil extracts, waxes, petroleum distillates, silicone, or water.  (Do not use Lemon Oil on the fretboard; lemon oil is highly acidic and also contains d-limonene, which is a strong solvent that is used to remove paint and glue.  Both the acid and the d-limonene will dry out the fretboard.)  Blot the oil into a paper towel.  Don’t drench it or soak it into the fretboard.  Just a thin coat is all you need.  When it’s been evenly applied, then wipe the excess off with a clean cotton flannel rag.  (I also do this to the bridge if it is not painted with urethane clear coat.) 

3. Put a new set of strings on

Be sure to do the set up with a brand new set of the exact brand and gauge of strings you will be using.

Put all six strings into the holes in the bridge.  Insert the ball end slightly then put the pin in while pulling up.  Make sure the ball is not pulling on the bottom of the pin.  After all six are in the holes and pins, reach through the hole to double check to make sure all six balls are seated on the pin plate.

I use a simple method of winding strings that is recommended by Taylor Guitars.  Stretch out each string one at a time and cut it to length with a pair of dykes.  Four of the strings should be cut to a length slightly longer than one tuning pin further than the pin it goes into (E string cut at A pin, A at D pin…)  For strings 3 and 4 just eyeball the distance where another pin would be past the end of the headstock.  The two strings most prone to breakage (string 3 G and string 1 E) I always cut just a little longer than the rest to get a couple more winds in order to push them below the bottom of the tuning peg hole (the sharp edge on the hole is where the string usually breaks).  This method will give 3 windings on the thick strings and more on the thin strings.  After cutting to length, insert each string straight through the hole so that it sticks out a few millimeters, bend the string with a sharp bend 90 degrees in the correct direction, and tighten with a string winder while holding the string with tension with the thumb and forefinger of the other hand.  Make sure the winds go downward, not upward, and that they are even and snug against each other.  There is no need to cross the string over itself.  The shape of the tuning pin will push each wrap against the wrap above it, which will provide tension so the string will not slip.

Some people recommend the twist under wrap method:
I have used the twist under wrap method in the past but have found the simple method recommended by Taylor holds the strings just fine and the guitar stays in tune just as well.  It is faster to install the strings and also easier to remove the strings when it’s time to change them, and it gives a cleaner, better looking wind.

After installing the strings and partially tightening them, stretch the strings.  Start at the sound hole.  Lift the string with one hand.  Use the other hand to stretch ¼th of the string at a time.  Then move to the next ¼th, and so on.  If you do this, it will stay in tune much better and not keep going flat during the first few days (“stage ready”).

4. Truss Rod (neck relief)

The truss rod determines the height of the action (the distance from the string to the fret) on the low frets (from the middle of the neck to the end closest to the headstock).  The lower the action, the easier the guitar is to play, but if it’s too low the strings will buzz.

Capo at the 1st fret, and hold down the 6th string (low E) just above the 14th fret so the string is touching the 1st and 14th frets.  Use a feeler gauge (available at any automobile parts store) at the 7th fret.  Assuming that the saddle height is right, the frets are equal height, and the neck is straight, then the distance between the string and the 7th fret should be appx. .010.”

To adjust the truss rod, turn the truss rod nut (Taylor) or bolt (everybody else) clockwise to tighten the rod, which will lower the strings and decrease the neck relief.  Turn counterclockwise to loosen the rod, which will raise the strings and increase neck relief.  It is recommended to loosen the strings slightly (tune lower) before adjusting the truss rod so you there is not as much pressure on the threads so you don’t strip the threads.  I personally prefer to simply bend the neck back while turning the wrench to relieve pressure on the threads while turning the wrench in either direction.

Adjust the rod 1/6 turn at a time (one face of the nut or Allen head) then check the action for buzzing (if you loosened the strings you have to re-tune them before checking.)  Then check again after 10 minutes to let the wood settle to the new tension (wood is slower to settle in than steel).

Some people try for less than .010” relief.  Some guys on YouTube even argue there should be zero.  I disagree.  So do the Taylor Guitars techs, who say to press the string at fret 1 with one hand and above fret 14 with the other hand, then reach and tap the string at fret 7.  Taylor says “it should be just a little bit of tap.”  If you get a tick sound, it is perfectly straight.  If you don’t get any sound, it is backbowed.  I don’t know what a little bit of tap means but I’m guessing it’s probably close to .010”.

The following discussion of neck relief was taken from a web site:

It may be possible to get away with a tad less than .010, but it’s questionable if it is worth the trouble to find out.  Set the neck relief to a very low value, like .005''.  If you're an incurable optimist, you may even start with no neck relief at all.  Then set the saddle height.  As you try to find the minimal saddle height, you will probably find that string buzz occurs in the lower frets (second or third fret) way before it occurs higher up.  That means you've got too little neck relief.  Increase the neck relief a bit, then work on your saddle height again.  Repeat until you don't find that buzz in the lower frets is significantly worse than buzz in the higher frets.  By the time that happens, your neck relief will probably be right around .010'', which was the recommended value to begin with.  Now do the third and last step of the setup, where you set the nut slot depths.  If you actually ended up with less than .010'' of neck relief after the above iterations, you may still not be good.  The low neck relief may cause behind-the-fret buzz.  Behind-the-fret buzz occurs when you fret a string at fret x (with your finger or with a capo), and then the "dead part" of the string between the string nut and fret x buzzes on one or more of the frets below fret x.  One of the things that neck relief does is to prevent this buzzing by creating a tiny gap between the "dead part" of the string and the frets beneath it.  So if you have less than .010'' of neck relief and notice behind-the-fret buzz, it's back to the truss rod: increase your neck relief a tad, and go through the remaining steps of the setup (saddle height and nut slot depths) again.  It is of course also possible to counteract behind-the-fret buzz by leaving the first fret action a bit higher, that is, by having less nut slot depth.  But the consequences of a higher first fret action are so unpleasant that I very much doubt you want to go for that option.  The bottom line is that the .010'' neck relief is hard to beat.

5. Bridge Intonation

Tune each string perfectly and test the pitch of the octave harmonic and then the pressed octave note.  They should be same.  If sharp, it is possible to lengthen the string by filing on front side of saddle.  If flat, shorten by filing on the back side of the saddle.  Of course, this will lower the saddle, so you need to do this before step 6.

I never do this on acoustic guitars.  It is too hard to get the saddle the right height for each string if you file it to move it forward or backward.  On decent guitars, the factory stock saddles are good enough for my ears.

If you decide to mess with this, have a trained guitar luthier do it for you.

6. Saddle Height

The height of the saddle determines the height of the action (distance from the string to the frets) on high frets (from the middle of the neck to the end closest to the sound hole).  Like with the truss rod, the smaller that distance, is the lower the action is and the easier the guitar will be to play, but if it is too low the strings will buzz.  To measure the saddle height, place the guitar on its back with no weight on the neck.  Put a capo on the 1st fret, and measure the string to fret gap at the 13th fret with feeler gauges.

The left column below shows the recommended string heights at the 13th fret according to one web site.  They said “if you play soft you can subtract .010”.  But as you can see, I personally subtract significantly more than .010:

    Recommended    Irv’s Taylor    Irv’s Fender    Irv’s 12String
1E      .075                .040                .048                .054       
2A      .080       
3D      .085           
4G      .090       
5B      .095       
6E      .100                .054                .062                .066       

I think my Taylor is about .010 lower than it should be.  This makes it so I have to adjust the truss rod to give more than .010 relief.  The Fender is right on the edge, and the 12 string is fine.  I think with what I know now, I’d shoot for about .050 1E and .064 6E, as long as the neck is perfectly straight and the frets are perfectly filed and the relief is adjusted to .010.  (Someday I may buy another saddle from Taylor and start over.  I still have a buzzing on the A string even with the increased truss rod relief.)

To work on the saddle, you can unwind the strings 10 turns, then put a capo on, then remove the pins, and you can take the saddle out of the bridge without taking the strings off.

To remove a tight saddle, put masking tape or a polishing cloth on the soundboard on one side of the bridge, and pry/lift that end of the saddle using small dykes (wire cutter).  Pliers will slip off but dykes will grab it.

The objective is to remove twice as much from the saddle as you want to lower the action (at 13th fret).

It is recommended to use a razor blade or Exacto knife to scribe the saddle with it in the bridge, then remove the saddle and measure and mark a line where you want to bottom to be when you’re done.  (Or what I do is mark the two ends of the bottom of the saddle with an ultra fine point Sharpie so that the mark is the same width as the feeler gauge of the amount I want to take off.)  Then use 60 grit sandpaper on a flat surface and rub the saddle on it.  (I use 3M sander sheets; they are fantastic!).  I sand until just before that black mark disappears from both sides.  Then reinstall, retighten the strings, and re-measure.

Make sure you sand the saddle straight so it stands straight up when you set it on a hard surface. Check frequently.  You can press against a 1/8” piece at right angle to stay straight, or just pay attention.

7. Nut Slot Depths (open, measured at first fret)

NOTE: Let a trained guitar luthier do this.  It requires special tools and knowledge.  This is what a good luthier will do:

The last thing that affects string height and how easy the guitar is to play is nut height and nut slot depth.  This affects string height at the end of the neck closest to the headstock, for open strings that are not being fretted with your fingers.  The objective is to get as low as you can without the strings buzzing when they are played hard open, with no fretting.  This is a tricky and extremely time consuming process because if you go too low and they start buzzing, you have to start all over again from scratch with a brand new nut (ask me how I know this!).

The Left column below shows recommended open string heights at the 1st fret according to one web site.  As you can see, I personally prefer to go just a little lower (NOTE: I was shooting for .014 for the 1E on the Fender):

    Recommended    Irv’s Taylor    Irv’s Fender    Irv’s 12Str
1E      .018                .014                .013                .016/.016   
2A      .019                .015                .0145              .017/.017   
3D      .020                .015                .015                .015/.017
4G      .020                .016                .016                .016/.018   
5B      .021                .017                .0165              .017/.019
6E      .022                .017                .017                .017/.019

Loosen the string you are working on 6-8 turns, and pull from slot
Start with the file the next size larger (.001”) than the string gauge
When filing, use the same angle as the back of the nut
File very slowly and check string height frequently
If you file too much, use baking soda and super glue (or bone dust or filing dust)

My personal philosophy is that the nut shouldn’t make the open string much farther from the first fret than the fingered first fret makes the string from the second fret.  My method is to capo the 1st fret, play the open string, make sure there is no buzz, then measure the string to fret gap at the 2nd fret.  Then file the nut until the open string at the 1st fret with no capo is .002” more than the measurement was of the 2nd fret gap measurement was with the capo.

Not everyone agrees with me.  Some say you need more than that to prevent “behind the fret buzz.”  That same web site quoted above said:

If we want the strings to be as low as possible on the nut, then what is the lower bound?  One constraint is of course that the open, unfretted strings should never buzz on the first fret.  However, there is another thing to be kept in mind: raising the strings at the nut will also prevent the behind-the-fret buzz that I mentioned earlier.  Therefore, your ideal first fret clearance is usually a tad more than what you would absolutely need to prevent the open string from buzzing.  That is true especially if you prefer less neck relief.

I’ve never noticed any such buzz on my guitars that are set up my way, and mine are much easier to play, so to each his own!

8. Before performing

Humidity, temperature, and random things can cause the neck relief go out of adjustment.  Periodically check.  Press the string at fret 1 with one hand and above fret 14 with the other hand, then reach and tap the string at fret 7.  There should be just a little bit of tap (i.e. .010”).

For polishing the body, neck, and headstock between gigs when not doing guitar maintenance, I use Dunlop 65 Guitar Polish on the body.  Just one spray on the front, and one on the back, then wipe with a cotton felt or microfiber cloth.  A little bit goes a long way.  Good stuff.

I also use Dunlop 65 String Cleaner and Conditioner on the strings.  This stuff is great.  It cleans off gunk, and strings feel silky after application.  (I don’t think it is needed with coated strings, but still like to use it to keep them clean.)

Be sure to wash your hands with soap, and thoroughly rinse, before playing.  Dawn dishwashing detergent is even better, to remove all oil off your fingers.  Sometimes I even use brake cleaner and a cotton rag!  Making sure your hands are completely clean and dry will make your strings last longer whether using coated or uncoated strings.  Use lotion on your hands if desired, only AFTER you are finished playing.