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Acoustic Guitar Setup Guide

Do you love playing acoustic guitar? Whether you are a budding musician or a professional making a living out of your guitar music, you may have a fair idea about how guitars require maintenance from time-to-time.

No matter how careful you are while placing your acoustic guitar and playing it, over time & usage and due to changing seasons, your acoustic guitar may run out of its perfect set up.

And what does that mean?

An acoustic guitar is made up of a variety of components. From truss rod to the tuning pegs and mechanism, all guitar parts complete this beautiful instrument. But just like components on any other machine, the parts of an acoustic guitar may not always function properly.

And when these parts don't work fine, playability of your guitar lowers. Plus, the output sound doesn’t come as good as usual. That’s when the need for an acoustic guitar setup will arise, and in this post, we are talking about that only.

Do Acoustic Guitars Need to Be Set Up?

The fact that every guitar plays differently and every player plays every guitar differently is the reason why any new acoustic guitar that you pick up is going to need some sort of adjustments.

And yes, the same guitar in the same position may impress some players, but if it doesn’t feel right to you, you would like to set it up.

A general setup would include adjustments around the guitar neck, truss rod, bridge height and saddle.

This can happen too often. Say, you walk into a guitar store and pick up an acoustic guitar that you like. You start playing the guitar, it looks good and feels fine, but if the action is too high or low, you may be able to notice the discomfort.

And, thus, you may want to set up your new acoustic guitar so it can precisely match your playing style.

Generally, rhythm guitarists prefer keeping the action slightly high, and lead players prefer keeping the action low. You can choose what suits you best.

How Do I Know If My Guitar Needs a Setup?

Before one moves ahead with the acoustic guitar setup process, it’s crucial to observe the following signs that indicate the need for setup:

  • Intonation is off

  • Action is too high

  • Buzzing while playing notes

  • Frets feel too sharp around the edges

  • The neck seems to have a back-bow or an up-bow

Apart from these pointers, you can also set up your guitar if it doesn’t feel comfortable to play.

How to Set up Your New Acoustic Guitar?

Once you find out that your acoustic guitar needs to be set up, it’s time to start the process. But, how to do it?

Well, the set up isn’t always a tricky process, but yes, it needs the right knowledge, attentiveness and it can be time consuming. If you are new to setting up acoustic guitars, keep reading this guide and guitar setup will become easier for you.

Adjust The Truss Rod

The truss rod is a slim steel rod embedded in the neck of most acoustic and electric guitars. The job of this rod is to maintain a stable position of the neck, despite the high tension due to steel strings.

Sometimes due to changing moisture, and sometimes due to different playing preferences, one may need to adjust the truss rod on their acoustic guitar.

As you move forward to do the same, you must learn the following characteristics of truss rods:

  • When the truss rod is too tight, the tension is high and the guitar develops an up-bow. As a result, the distance between the strings and the fretboard reduces and you may hear a buzzing sound while playing.

  • When the truss rod is loose, the string tension is low and the guitar develops a back-bow which makes the action higher. A guitar with high action can be highly uncomfortable to play.

  • There are two types of adjustable truss rods: One-way (single action) truss rods: These are the truss rods that straighten the neck to remove tension and up-bow.

Two-way (double action) truss rods: These truss rods straighten the guitar against an up-bow and a back-bow too. This allows players to flatten the fretboard more accurately.

Moving further, let’s have a look at the set of tools you’re going to need to setup acoustic guitar:

  • Tapered Feeler Gauge Set

  • Precision Ruler

  • Pliers or string cutter

  • String winder

  • Truss rod wrench (0.5 mm Allan key/wrench)

  • Phillips’ screwdriver

  • Guitar tuner

  • Capo

the following steps will guide you to adjust the truss rod on your acoustic guitar:

Step 1: Find out the problem - As we said earlier, the need for adjusting the truss rod arises in two cases — when the guitar has an up-bow (hump) or a back-bow (bow). Before you pull out the wrench, make sure to know whether your guitar has a back-bow or an up-bow.

For this, start with sighting the neck. What you’ll need to do is place your guitar on your lap in the playing position, and put the capo on the first fret.

After this, fret the low-E at the point where the neck joins the body. Now note the distance between the top of the sixth fret and the bottom of the low-E string. Ideally, the distance should be around 0.10”. You can measure it with the precision ruler.

If the distance is more than 0.10”, your acoustic guitar would have a back-bow, and if the distance is less than 0.10”, your acoustic guitar would have an up-bow.

Step 2: Adjust the truss rod - Once you have found out whether your guitar has an up-bow or a back-bow, you’ll have to adjust the truss rod.

Coming to how you should do it if there’s a back-bow, it means that the relief on your guitar is higher than usual. So, we need to build some tension. For that, we’ll have to turn the truss rod nut in the clockwise direction. This will reduce relief.

And if there’s an up-bow on your acoustic guitar, you will have to turn the truss rod nut in the anticlockwise direction. This will increase relief, reduce the tension and bring the up-bow towards the flat-neutral position.

And that’s all. This way you can adjust the truss rod on your acoustic guitar according to your preference.

Adjust the Bridge Height

The main reason why you would want to adjust the bridge height is to lower the action or make it slightly higher.

Theek action height of an acoustic guitar meters a great deal for each player, and well it can vary largely from player to player.

While a lead guitarist’s acoustic guitar would generally have a low action, a rhythm guitarist would prefer keeping it high, so the strings don’t buzz while playing chords.

But the question is, how can you lower the action or push it up?

On an acoustic guitar, it can be a tiring process, but well, it’s worth it. To adjust the bridge height one must adjust the saddle height as in most acoustic guitars, the bridge is fixed to the soundbox, while the saddle can be taken out, shaved up or given some height.

So, when a guitarist talks about adjusting the bridge height on an acoustic guitar, they may be talking about adjusting the saddle height, as that’s how the action is generally lowered or pushed up.

If you want to adjust (shave) the saddle on your acoustic guitar, refer to the next-to-next section.

Adjust the Nut Height

To enhance the playability of your acoustic guitar, you’d need to adjust the nut height to as low as possible, without causing fret buzz. In an ideal situation, the nut height would be below 0.20” (0.5 mm).

If the nut height on your guitar is higher than this, playing may become uncomfortable.

To check whether the nut height is optimal or not, fret the strings one-by-one on the third fret, then tap gently on the second fret and look for space between the bottom of each string and the second fret crown.

If the space is too much, you’ll need to lower the nut, if space is too less, playing the guitar may cause buzzing and hence the nut should be lowered.

In case the nut is too high, you’ll have to file away the base of the nut using sandpaper (as in the previous section). And if the nut is too low, you’ll have to shim its base (like we did for the saddle in the previous section).

Adjust (Shave) the Saddle

While adjusting the saddle on your acoustic guitar may not be the trickiest thing to do, it is still very challenging when compared to doing the same on an electric guitar.

Most electric guitars have screws to adjust bridge height and individual saddle positions, but acoustic guitars don’t have such mechanics. To adjust the bridge height on an acoustic guitar, you’ll have to take out the saddle and file it down, so the action becomes lower to your comfort.

To carry out the process, you will need the following tools:

  • New strings

  • String winder

  • String cutter

  • Bridge pin pulling equipment

  • Capo

  • Scissors

  • Double-sided tape

  • Mechanical pencil

  • Coarse 80 grit sandpaper

  • Medium 240 grit sandpaper

  • A flat table

  • Superglue

  • 0.6 mm hardwood veneer

Please note: Before adjusting the saddle, ensure that the truss rod is in perfect position.

Step 1: De-string the guitar - Put the capo on the first fret and pull out the pins with the bridge pin pulling tool. Carefully take the strings out of the guitar and put them away. Now your guitar has no strings attached.

Step 2: Sandpaper - Cut out one piece each of the 80 grit and 240 grit sandpaper and stick them on a board with the double-sided tape.

Step 3: Take out the saddle and sand it off - As we have to adjust the bridge height, we’ll have to sand off the saddle to some extent.

For this, take out the saddle from the bridge and recall the measurements we did to adjust the truss rod.

If you want to lower the action on 12th fret by 1 mm, for most guitars you’ll have to sand off 1.5 mm from the saddle. So, go ahead with it and rub it on the 240 grit sandpaper. Also, before placing it back on the bridge, give it mild rubs on the 80 grit sandpaper.

Step 4: Put it back in place and test - By following the steps above, you’d have adjusted the saddle to your desired height. After that, you can simply put it back in its original position, string your guitar and test it.

If by chance, the saddle needs to be lowered further, you will have to repeat the above steps.

What to do If the Saddle Height is Already Low?

Whether it’s because of a manufacturing defect or because the previous owner liked to keep the saddle too low, adjusting it will be important.

To do this, simply take out the saddle and glue a shim on its base.

Just make sure that the saddle bottom is flat before glueing. A single layer of maple veneer is generally 0.6 mm in thickness. To add more height, you can paste two layers and file them down to your comfort after the glue dries.

You can also consider buying a new saddle for your acoustic guitar and then adjust it by following the steps above.

Check the String Height

Once you have completed the acoustic guitar setup procedure, you should make sure that the changes that you made are giving you the desired results.

For that, you can play the guitar and see how it feels, and for further precision you can check the string height and see if it’s what you feel most comfortable with.

To check the string height on your acoustic guitar, you’ll need the following tools:

  • String action gauge with a millimetre or inch scale. You can also use the precision ruler that we used to measure the back-bow and up-bow.

  • Feeler gauges: Only if you wish to measure the string height on the first fret.

Moving further, let’s see how you can accurately check the string height on your acoustic guitar.

Step 1: Sit down on a chair and hold the guitar in the playing position.

Step 2: Use the string action gauge to measure the distance from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of the low-E.

Step 3: Repeat the same process for the thinnest string (high-E).

Once you have checked the string height, you can match it with the recommended string height or your professional preferences and adjust it again using the methods mentioned above.

Final Piece of Advice

Adjusting your new acoustic guitar isn’t rocket science (yes it’s slightly easier), however, when not paid enough attention to, things may go south.

From disturbing the truss rod’s position to extremes to filing away too much from the saddle, all of these mistakes can give rise to more problems, leaving your guitar even more unplayable than earlier.

You wouldn’t want that, right? So make sure that you are careful while setting up your acoustic guitar.

The pointers mentioned above in this article will help you adjust your acoustic guitar and set it up as per your playing preferences.

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