Before you even take your guitar onto the workbench, you have to clean the workspace free of debris.That means wiping it down, using a magnet to collect steel wool remains or even vacuuming it if the bench requires it.
Gather all the necessary tools.You will need:
Lemon oil (no lemon oil on maple necks!)
0000 Steel Wool
Fretguard (optional fret polishing tool)
Philips Screwdriver (If you have truss rod cover)
Flat head screwdriver (if you have TOM bridge)
Pack of strings
Decide what String set you need
There are hundreds of choices when finding the right string gauge and brand of string, but there are only really 2 factors when deciding on what strings you need
String gauge is the most important thing.The standard string gauge for standard tuning is 10-46.We call those 10’s in the shop.Fender and a few other brands will often ship their guitars with 9-42 (or 9’s) as they are easier to play and they want you to buy their guitars because they feel easy to play.String gauge is the thickness’ of the strings and when the strings are thicker they are harder to bend, but they sustain longer and generally can get the action a little lower as the strings are pulling tighter.I have played many guitars with 9’s and love them, especially for shredding and playing lines fast, but I always find myself going back to 10’s because the thickness tends to add fullness to the sound and ultimately thats what we want even if it is harder to play.This is why a lot of jazz guitarists will us 13’s.
If you are playing in other tunings be sure to compensate with appropriate string gauges.My opinion is that if you tune a whole step down (2 frets/2 notes/E turns into D) you need to compensate with 1 string gauge higher (10s->11s) This is not perfect and there are a few suggestions online as to what tuning should use what string gauge.Try a string gauge calculator or search to see if your favorite artist uses a specific string gauge and most importantly, with all strings, experiment with what you like.
The other thing to consider when choosing strings (besides brand) is the type of string.Most of you electric guitar players will want nickel wound (nickel plated steel) strings as they are the standard and offer a balanced tone.There is also pure nickel which offers a warmer tone, and pure steel which offers a brighter tone.Don’t forget we live in the future so there are an abundance of new elements being tested for strings like cobalt which offers more electromagnetic conduction.
There are equally as many string types for acoustic guitar except there are two types of strings considered the standard.Phosphor bronze and 80/20.Phosphor bronze is a bronze string with phosphor added into it.Its a warm tone (think boosted mids) and can last longer as the phosphor bronze doesn’t oxidize as fast as the other strings. 80/20 is 80% copper and 20% zinc giving it deep lows and bright highs but a cut middle.Both strings sound good, and one isn’t totally revered over the other as they are going to sound different but not totally better.It depends on your taste, genre you play and the physicality of your guitar.You may want to use strings to balance your tone or to highlight certain attributes your specific guitar holds.Personally, I recommend trying them both even though I generally prefer phosphor bronze to 80/20.
There is also nylon strings to consider and the types of strings range from pig gut, titanium trebles, composite G string and much more.
Play the guitar before taking old strings off and think about what this setup needs.Does the action need adjusting? Does the instrument sound in tune across the whole fretboard? Is it just dirty?
Take the old strings off
Loosen the strings first.If it is easy to take the strings off the pegs do so now.Sometimes I will lightly squeeze the string clippers on the strings near the tuning pegs, not to cut them, but to grip them and maneuver them out of the peg.You want to do this with plenty of slack on the old strings and very carefully as to not poke yourself with old rusted strings.
I will occasionally cut the strings about 6 inches away from the bridge to make it easier to work its way through the bridge and/or the body.
Once you understand the feel of the truss rod, you may consider sighting the neck now and adjusting the truss rod once the strings are off, but its much safer to adjust the truss rod once the new strings are on.
Clean the fretboard
As long as your fretboard isn’t maple, apply your lemon oil to the fretboard.If you are using lemon oil from a bottle, be easy with how much you put on.A little can go a long way.I might put a dab about one third to half the size of the first fret and spread it across the entire fretboard, and the coerce the oil into the frets using a paper towel.I recommend bounty over others as it doesn’t scratch the wood and some cheaper paper towels will.Regardless just make sure its not the cheapest paper towel as they tend to scratch the fretboard.If you are using an applicator, feel free to rub it all along the fretboard.Make sure you apply oil to the entire fretboard thoroughly and let it sit for a few minutes.
Tape up the pickups using painters tape
If your fretboard is disgusting and full of grime, feel free to use your 0000 steel wool and move it with the grain over your fretboard.(From neck to bridge, not along the frets)Steel wool will scratch your neck, but when moving with the grain and with lemon oil still in the wood, it seems to not show signs of scratching unless you rub it in the wrong direction.No circles here.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing that on a nice guitar, or there isn’t much grime on the fretboard, firmly scrub the fretboard with a paper towel after letting the oil sit on the fretboard until saturated.
If you have a fret guard (a metal sheet that has an opening the size of frets) use this now, otherwise some have taped up the entire fretboard with painters tape, and some have been risky and not used any protection as long as the steel wool is small enough to not move past the fret.
With steel wool half the size of a penny rolled up into a ball rub the frets.This is a dangerous step and can leave your fretboard scratched if you manage to make contact with the wood but will leave your frets shining and makes vibrato and bends easier, and also looks way nicer.
If frets are very rusted and need more work than steel wool will provide, I have used the smallest grit sandpaper I can find and lightly brush across the frets and follow with steel wool.Do note that every time you do this you are losing fret material but it will come out looking like a new fret, just be careful to not take too much off and try and be even with how much you take off per fret.
This may be a good time to take more off high frets.Use a small ruler, or a thick business card or something that is flat that can rock against three frets at a time.If the rocker moves, than the middle of the three frets is high and can benefit from being taken down a bit.Be sure to check regularly.If this is the case, take a sharpie and color in the fret, no need to color the whole fret just the top.Then take the smallest grit sandpaper and carefully file it down until you can’t see the sharpie mark you made and follow up with steel wool to smooth out any scratches made.
Now that your frets are clean go ahead and use that magnet again across the fretboard to collect the steel wool debris.Don’t go over the pickups with the magnet and feel free to use compressed air instead as long as you know that steel wool is going all over your workbench and cannot touch your microfiber cloths.Steel wool will destroy your microfiber cloths and make you rub steel wool all over your guitar body, putting scratches all over it. Ouch.
Go ahead and run the fretboard with one more layer of lemon oil, they love that and this will clean any remaining dirt caused from the steel wool. Wipe everything off with a paper towel.
If your nut is cheap and isn’t lubricated by its natural material i.e. a good bone nut, bone alternatives, graphtech, or even metal, consider using a led pencil and draw in the string slots in the nut.The graphite of the pencil will lubricate the strings as they slide through the nut.We all want our nuts lubricated.Especially if you slam on your whammy bar all the time.
Clean the body
Take the tape off the pickups
Spray the body with guitar polish
Use a clean microfiber cloth to wipe down the body
Lemon oil and steel wool can clean rusted hardware, but it might be easier to clean rusted hardware by letting it sit in a concoction of WD-40 and warm water or even using mirror glaze or even a compounding material lightly on it.Its very easy for all of these methods to rub color off hardware as there are many variables to types of metals and colors used so sometimes it best to leave the rust on.
Sometimes I will use q-tips to get into hard to reach areas on the bridge
Do not use steel wool to clean metal pickup covers
Put new strings on
One at a time guide the strings through the bridge and/or body.
It can be difficult to guide strings through bodies and bridges similar to strats as the saddles leave very little room to guide the string through.Use gravity to aid you in this situation.Guide the string straight through, you may need to poke around a few times before it goes all the way through.
With TOM (Tune-o-matic) bridges you may want to start with the low e string and then move to the high e string to balance the bridge but this isn’t terribly important you just don’t want the bridge to fall off.Sometimes I have seen people wrap their strings around the bridge but personally I see no reason to do that.
On tremolo bridges you may need to cut your balls off! The strings balls that is.Unlock the trem’s saddles using an allen key and stick your neutered string into the saddle and tighten the saddle with the allen key fairly tight.You do not need to wrap the strings through the tuning pegs fancy as long as you lock the nut down on the strings tight.
On Bigsby Trems, just give up and buy a new guitar (only kidding).You may need to place the trem upside down, ultimately you want to place the ball into the the proper place and wrap it around the trem in a counterclockwise motion so that the string moves away from the neck first, then wraps around and heads to the neck.You will want to do one string at a time with these bridges and be patient.
Grab the strings one by one and guide them into their respective tuning peg holes.
Some guitars and a good amount of basses will have holes facing into the headstock so the string does not pass through the peg.In this case you need to clip the string about 2-3 tuning pegs away from the peg it belongs in.2 pegs away for the wound strings and 3 pegs away for the unwound strings, and then place the strings directly in the peg hole.
Pull the string up so there is slack.About an index finger away from the 12th fret is about enough for each string however the G,B, and high E string should have more slack than the wound strings
This is the fun part.The string loop is an art and is nothing to rush through unless you have the process down to a science.
If the peg is on the left side of the head stock, the string needs to end up on the right side of the peg, if the tuning peg is on the right the string needs to be wrapped to the left.If the string needs to end up to the right of the peg wrap it clockwise; left is counter clockwise.6 in line tuners all on one side should have the strings wrapped the same direction and the 3 pegs on each side should have half on the left wrapped clockwise and half on the right wrapped counterclockwise.
Grab the string from behind the peg (you should still have string in front of the peg) and wrap this string in the direction it should end.This is a tight wrap and this one wrap should lie above the rest of the string that is in front of the peg.
After one wrap above, push and hold the string you wrapped down onto the headstock as you use your string winder to wind the peg.This creates one wrap on top of the string, and the remainder of the wraps on bottom so that each wrap tightens onto the string essentially creating a string lock.
Whenever you look at the winder directly on, it should be turned counterclockwise.Make sure if you have 3 tuning pegs on each side of the headstock that the direction you turn the winder will change per each side.
The low three strings should have one wrap on top and one to two wraps on bottom, and the high three strings should have one wrap on top and 2-4 wraps on bottom.
Do this for all strings and clip the strings close to the peg.I like to leave a little sticking out just in case but try to leave very little if you own a soft case.Those strings will tear apart the inside of the case.
You think your done? Close my friend, but we still have more.We have to stretch the strings.Push each string down near the bridge.Grab each string by the 12th fret and pull them up a few times.Grab each string near the nut and pull up while pushing down past the nut.Pull the strings roughly around the 12th fret and average tension by the bridge and nut.We aren’t trying to fray the strings by the bridge or grind down the nut, but we need the strings to be stretched all across.
Test the guitar for action.This part is wildly debated and wildly opinionated.Depending on your string gauge, tuning, and the style of music you play you may or may not want high or low action.Regardless of what you want I find that action that is relatively parallel to the neck is preferred for my play style .This is considered low action, and while low action certainly feels better it is more susceptible to fret buzz and the string will not sustain as much.So acoustics and jazz guitars will benefit from higher action and heavy metal shred guitars that you won’t even hear fret buzz with all the distortion will benefit from low action.
The action willbe adjusted from two places.The bridge and the truss rod.
The truss rod is responsible for the straightness of the neck and is often feared.But only having done it wrong the very first time I tried, I never broke a neck or anything crazy like that and if you do it slowly and carefully I honestly believe there is nothing to worry about.The truss rod mostly changes the action from frets 0-12 but can ultimately effect the whole fretboard depending on the severity of the neck.
Bring the headstock to your face so the fretboard is facing up and look down the neck putting your left eye by the headstock and viewing the neck with your right eye to view the bass side of the neck and do so with the right eye closed and by the headstock and use your left eye to view the treble side of the neck (sorry lefties).I prefer the left side to be almost exactly straight and the bass side to have only the slightest bit of curve to it.
Lets use science to really check.Grab a capo and place it on the first fret.Press down the string where it meets the body (17-21 fret depending on what model) and a business card should be snug when slipped into the middle of the two points (around fret 7) with no strings firmly pressed against the fret and very little space in between the fret and the string. Yes this is a delicate balance.
Once enough data is gathered, loosen up the two strings that block the truss rod (D and G) and place them in another slot on the nut.Remove the truss rod cover if you have one.
Tightening the truss rod will move the neck closer to the strings, generally straightening it (but not always) and loosening the truss rod will bend the neck away from the strings.Essentially when the truss rod is loose, the strings natural tension will pull the headstock up and cause the neck to warp.When we tighten the truss rod we are pulling the neck to combat the tension from the strings.Thats why changing different string gauges require truss rod adjustments.
LOOK AT THE TRUSS ROD.Righty tighty, lefty loosy. Take your 3-5mm allen key, the standard is 4mm but also some guitars come with there own key (Gibsons, Taylors, and old guitars) and turn the truss rod usually at quarter turn increments.However over time you will develop a feel for how tight the truss rod should be and you may require more of less of a turn.In my case I turn the truss rod until I feel tension and the lessen the force of the turn so its tight, but not too tight.YOU DO NOT WANT TO TURN THE TRUSS ROD TOO TIGHT.This is the only worry, and seriously its hard to turn to it too tight just remember you really do not want to tighten it all the way.But you can turn it too lose, especially if you need to reset the neck.Thats an extreme case when the neck is warped.Some truss rods, and most modern truss rods will also turn in both directions.You want to start with checking the normal direction, however some warped guitar will benefit when you turn the truss rod past the most lose point and continue tightening it to the left.I don’t always recommend this option.If your neck is still bent like a banana or warped beyond control there are a few options left to fix the issue, but its best left to a professional.That is unless you feel comfortable ironing your fretboard.Yeah I didn’t think so.Take it to a professional.
When the neck is where you want it, and the action still isn’t perfect, or is good for the first few frets but too high or too low on the following frets, take it to the bridge.Can we take it to the bridge?Loosen each string before adjusting the bridge.Using a flat head on TOM or (usually) the second smallest allen key on a strat style bridge saddle, adjust the height of the bridge.I usually take it down past the lowest amount I can so there is fret buzz, and then slowly raise it so the buzz is gone.On individual saddles (more so for necks with a contoured radius) you want the heights the look almost like… a bridge… in a sort of curve so that the E strings are lower than the D and G strings.This will also come to taste and the radius of your fretboard.Some fretboards are more curved than others.My Ernie Ball JP6 is a 16” radius and is crazy flat.My American strat is 12-16” contoured radius and needs more of a curve in the saddles.Ideally you want the heights to be closely related, but I prefer the B and high E string to be slightly lower than all the strings with the idea that when the string is thinner you can lower it down the level difference of the string guage.Don’t go crazy on this one, just feel it out and test all frets.Adjusting the bridge height will mostly effect frets 12 and above, but just like the truss rod can ultimately effect every fret.
Ok wow we are getting there.In fact some of you might even be done right now!As a last step your going to want check the intonation.Intonation is checking to see if each fret is in tune and can make the guitar sound like a more expensive guitar when done right.Now the guitar naturally is never going to be in tune perfectly for each fret unless you have those drunk looking True Temperament frets.So in order to check we hit the 12th fret harmonic and tune that up PERFECTLY.Then we very lightly press the 12th fret and play the 12th fret without bending the string or pushing down too hard.This depressed fret should be the exact same pitch as the harmonic.If it is not we will use our screwdriver (philips for strat based saddles, flathead for TOM) and move the saddle forward or back to match the exact pitch of the harmonic.This can be the most frustrating part (and you thought the truss rod was frustrating) as it requires you to detune the string in order to move the saddle, then tune it back up to check to see if the placement was correct.The theory is the longer the string length, the flatter the fretted notes, and the shorter the string length, the sharper the fretted notes.So if your fretted 12th fret reads flat compared to the harmonic, you need to move the saddle closer to the pickups.Ideally, but as always not always the case, the saddles should be grouped somewhat in threes.The low E string is low or closer to the back of the bridge. The A is in the middle, and the D is higher up closer to the pickup.The next three strings should look identical to that but possibly in variable positions.G is low, B is in the middle, and E is high.This will vary from model to model and it has a lot of a variables so rely on your tuner, not your eyes to reach perfection.
OK! I think we did it! If your anal about your setup like I am you would polish the damn thing one more time, but you worked hard on this setup and you deserve to PLAY IT NOW! GO crazy man, you deserve it!Hopefully this is the best your guitar has ever played and this should last you another half a year give of take the climate, humidity, temperature, usage and storage of your baby.When you play right after your done throw a few bends and pick a little harder than normal to stretch out the strings some more and also tune frequently.You probably need another string change or 4 between then depending on the acidity of your sweat and how much you play, but you wont necessarily need the full setup like we did today.I recommend a full setup quarterly during each drastic change in season, but some can get away with a full setup twice a year.This whole process takes me on average about an hour but has been done in as little as 15 minute minutes and as long as 2 hours.The cost of getting your guitar setup is on average anywhere from $40-60 plus strings.