Guitar tracking is serious business. You’re making a sound that will be committed on record for eternity – so rather than fumble around on a poorly-maintained instrument, you want the sharpest tool you can get.
Of course, unless you’re an experienced guitar tech yourself, the best way to approach this is to find a local guitar shop that does a good setup. This is especially the case if you’re finding it physically uncomfortable to fret notes, or if you’re experiencing chronic fret buzz. Both issues are often caused by a badly bowed neck or poorly set nut – and in this situation, it’s best to either invest a couple of hundred dollars in a comprehensive setup before you record, or find another guitar that plays more cleanly if you're pressed for time.
But if you don’t have serious issues like those, and you’re keen to get your hands dirty for an hour or so, there’s a lot you can do yourself to make your guitar sing. This blog deals with a basic DIY setup for an electric guitar – and for that, you’ll need:
A string winder
Wire cutter pliers
Phillips head screwdriver
A microfibre cloth (the finer the better)
A clip-on tuner, or a pedal/plug-in tuner if you prefer (just don’t use an app!)
First of all, use your string winder to loosen the strings until they’re slack, and then cut the strings off with your wire cutter pliers.
Spray the fretboard with some conditioner. Once you’ve soaked it up generously, use your fingernail and a Chux wipe to work across both sides of each fret, and dig into the grime. You might need to make more than one pass along the neck for a guitar that gets played a lot.
When you’re done, buff the fretboard with a clean patch of your Chux wipe. Now is also a good time to spray some polish on the guitar body and buff it using a microfibre cloth. Some say that spit also works as a polish substitute… but it’s not for everyone!
Next, put some new strings on. The 10-46 gauge is common for an electric guitar – but you might want to go up a bit heavier (e.g. 11-48) if you tune your guitar below E standard, or if you have a shorter-scale neck (e.g Fender Jaguar/Mustang, and most Gibsons). On the other hand, if your top priority is playing solos with enormous bends, you could try going lighter (e.g. 9-42) to make it easier on your fingers.
When it comes to actually putting the strings on, different guitars require different procedures, due to the variety of hardware they all use. If you’re not sure how to string yours up, ask your guitar shop for help or check out some YouTube videos to follow a visual tutorial.
Once the new strings are on and tuned up to pitch accurately with a tuner, pull the bottom string up away from the fretboard – don’t go yanking it as hard or as far as you can… just pull up until you feel reasonable resistance. Then gently wiggle it side to side a bit, before gradually releasing it down to the fretboard. You’ll notice the string is now out of tune – likely very flat. Tune it back up to pitch, and repeat the process of stretching and tuning until the string is stable (i.e. you stretch it and it doesn’t go flat). Then do the same thing for each other string on the guitar.
Next, use the right-sized Allen key to adjust your bridge for a comfortable ‘action’ (the height of the strings above the fretboard). Again, the process depends on the guitar – in some cases (like the Jazzmaster below), you’ll only need to adjust a screw on either side of your bridge to raise it up and down. In other cases (like the Stratocaster below), you'll need to adjust the height of each individual bridge saddle - and you must ensure you’re maintaining an overall convex shape, where the innermost strings are higher than the outer ones. Best practice is for the treble side to sit very slightly lower than the bass side.
You want the action to be low enough that the guitar is comfortable to play, but not so low that you’re getting smashed with fret buzz. If you’re struggling to find an acceptable balance, that’s a sign you’ll need some setup help from a guitar shop – because you might need adjustments to the truss rod or the nut to make the guitar play both cleanly and comfortably… and while they are very common, those jobs are best handled by a professional!
Once your bridge height is dialled in, tune up again, and check you’re correctly intonated. On each string, you want to make sure the 12th fret note tunes to the exact same pitch as the 12th fret harmonic. You can tweak this by moving the string saddles with a screwdriver (or on some guitars, an Allen key). If the fretted note is flatter than the harmonic, the saddle needs to come forward, towards the headstock of the guitar. Yet again, the saddle adjustment process varies between different types of guitars, but unless you have something really weird, you’ll find a relevant tutorial on the Internet. Repeat the process of adjustment until the 12th fret note matches the harmonic perfectly. And remember to tune the string to pitch again immediately after each saddle adjustment – otherwise you’ll confuse yourself.
Lastly, you might also like to experiment with the height of your pickups, to help balance the tone of your guitar. This is usually done by turning the screws immediately next to the pickups with a screwdriver. Plug into an amp, select a pickup, play some chords, and listen; if it’s too muddy, try raising the treble side (i.e. 1st string side) or lower the bass side (i.e. 6th string side) of the selected pickup, or even do a bit of both. If it’s too bright, do the opposite adjustment. You should also consider the difference in volume between multiple pickups on the same guitar; if one pickup is quieter than the rest, try raising its overall height to get it closer to the strings. To maximise tone and power, it’s generally advisable to get your pickups as close to the strings as you can without inducing a magnetic pull on them – which will create sustain issues and some ugly noises. You can find measurement guides online for most types of guitars that tell you how close you should run the pickups to the strings, so it’s worth a quick search.
So there you have it – a nicely prepared guitar that’ll sound great and make you feel great playing it. And now that we’ve officially broken new ground with some guitar recording advice, stay tuned for more to come!