Back to Articles

Noyce Guitars
Mount Clear
Ballarat, Victoria
Australia, 3350
+61 3 5330 2244


Guitar set-up/maintenance
Australian Musician
Ian Noyce 1/8/96

In this article I want to cover the basics of maintaining your guitar; the sort of stuff you can safely do yourself, and to give you some idea when you should see a professional repairer.

Firstly, we need to know that the guitar set-up is O.K. in the first place, and there are a few checks we can make to establish this.

Nut height:
To check that the fingerboard has been slotted to correct height, follow this procedure for each string. If you fret the string at the third fret, the string will be held down over the second fret. Now look at the string clearance over the first fret; there should be only a minimal gap and if you tap the string with a finger of your free (right) hand, you get a pinging sound. If there is too little or no clearance you don't get the ping, if there is too much clearance you also don't get a ping. Minimum clearance is a cigarette paper (0.05mm.) and maximum clearance is the cardboard cover on the Tally Ho pack (0.2mm.). This is for acoustics or electrics, according to taste.

Neck relief:
This is the slight concave bow in the neck, which facilitates a more uniform action than a dead straight neck. If you fret the neck at the first and thirteenth fret there should be about a business card thickness of clearance (0.25mm.) between the low E string and the fifth fret. For the high E, a tight Tally Ho pack thickness (0.15mm).

Given the nut height and neck relief are O.K. the action can taken as the string clearance at the twelfth fret. This can cover quite a range depending on the player, strings etc. but a very low electric action would be 1.0mm.- 1.5mm. (high E-low E) and a high acoustic action about 2.4-3.2mm. Electric Bass measurements are similar to acoustic guitar.
(A $2.00 coin is 3mm., 20c is 2.3mm., 10c is 1.8mm. and 5c is 1.3mm.)

Now, if you think your guitar is not set-up to the above description, then maybe you should see a reputable repairer; it won't cost anything for an appraisal and at least you've got an appraisal of your appraisal!

The adjustments made by a repairer in setting up a guitar include a combination of nut slotting, fret dressing / shaping / polishing, truss-rod adjustments, and bridge/saddle adjustments all done in conjunction with each other.

Once you know your guitar is set-up right for you, there's a few things you can do to keep it that way and that's really maintenance.

1. Machine Heads;
Check firmness of mounting screws, button tension screws and top mounting nut.(cheaper machines will only have mounting screws to attend to.)

2. Fingerboard nut;
If it's a plastic nut (preformed) there's not much you can do. If it's set up reasonably low, it 'll wear lower and eventually buzz on open string notes, so if you can, have a bone nut installed-it 'll sound better, tune more easily and last a lot longer. If it pings when tuning, you can rub the slots with ultra fine sandpaper to get rid any metal scrapings/grit etc.

3. Fingerboard and frets;
Depending on climate and your skin, a fair bit of gunk can build up on the fingerboard and the frets can corrode a little and get rougher in feel. Most supermarkets or hardware stores have OOO steel wool (superfine). A small piece of this can be rubbed up and down the fingerboard, cleaning and polishing simultaneously. If the fingerboard is too dry for you then a swipe and rub with most "fingerboard oils" available at music stores will fix it. If the neck feels too dry you can rub it too.

4. Bridge;
On acoustics the saddle should sit up straight in the slot and not develop sharp bits that can help break strings. Again, with plastic saddles, the strings will wear into them and cause problems; the best solution is replacement with a bone bridge saddle.

On electrics, all bridge components should be firm. Loose bits usually make all sorts of buzzes and this generally means if you can't stop the rattles, get a new bridge. Thread locking products can bog up loose threads but are not an ongoing solution.

5. Other stuff.
Check strap pin screws and all other screws and jack socket nut for tightness.

6.Clean and Polish.
General cleaning and polishing should be done with a guitar polish but particularly grimy jobs might need starting with warm soapy water on a soft cloth.

So, that's a very brief overview of checking that your guitar is in reasonable shape and keeping it that way between visits to your repairer for that refret you've played your way into!