Welcome back to the blog! I’m excited for today’s topic because as a guitarist and a bassist it's an immense passion of mine to dive into the collective science behind how to make those instruments sound good when recording them, or simply just hearing them played in general.
So, in a slight deviation away from microphones, I wanted to share some of my tips and best practices to make sure you can setup your own guitar or bass at home, without the need to take it to a repair shop every time, hopefully saving you both time and money, but also allowing you to adjust anything on the day of a recording for another guitarist that doesn’t have this skill set.
Let’s dive in!
A Bit About My Background…
During my guitar playing life, I’ve played both bass and guitar for over 20 years now, which has seen many different guitars, bands, but more importantly shows and tours that I’ve played. When I wasn’t on tour with my own band, however, I was always looking for a project in between that would still keep me on the road or keep me busy in general, which is why I started guitar tech’ing for other bands.
Aside from doing some of the most incredible tours and shows of my life when out with other bands, It occurred to me that this skill set was adaptable, allowing me to use it in a studio environment to a certain extent and overall, gave my passion another branch to grow out on - helping others feel comfortable playing their instruments!
A few passes from the shows where I've practiced these tips I've written today at.
So, to get us underway, let's go through the main things that will affect either the sound of the guitar/bass, or how it feels to play.
Action and Intonation
In my mind, the action of a guitar will result in poor playability and performance, which then makes it harder to play well affecting the sound, so we’ll start there! Simply put, action is the way the strings feel to play in relation to the fretboard, i.e. the distance between the board and the strings, but there are other factors to take into account which we’ll touch on later. Action is so important as it can be adjusted in so many ways, but with the wrong action or not enough adjustment, it won’t just result in the guitar not feeling comfortable to play, but also result in poor tuning, fret or string buzz, and overall make the instrument sound poor when recorded.
Adjusting the action can be a simple task:
- Firstly address the saddles of the strings and work on only half turns checking in between to accurately determine the change in each turn of the Allen key.
- If this isn’t resulting in enough change then we move to the bridge itself, which is where complications can arise.
- With a fixed bridge, it’s any easy adjustment up or down usually with a flathead or Philips screwdriver to get a more functional height for the strings to sit at.
- With a floating Tremolo bridge (i.e. one that can use a whammy bar) that isn’t using a locking nut, the springs at the back, coupled with the right string gauge will give you an equilibrium of tension across the guitar. Here’s a great look into how to adjust that properly in intervals:
- A Floyd Rose bridge, or an Evertune bridge is a professional adjustment, as this can severely damage the instrument if not set up or adjusted correctly; if that's the case with your instrument, seek out your closest professional.
Intonation is very important, especially for guitarists. When you play an open string, such as the low E on a guitar, and then the 12th fret (the full octave of that note, E) then when you are plugged into a tuning pedal or plugin, they should register the exact same tuning - this goes for all the strings on a guitar no matter the amount of strings. If when you perform this test the readings are different for the open note, compared to the fretted note; you have an intonation issue, and I’m here to help!
Adjusting the intonation of the string is very simple; but first we need to break down what it is we’re trying to do. In order to adjust the intonation of a string, we need to either increase the length of the string, or decrease the length. In this case, we’re not talking about the string out of a packet, we’re talking about the distance from the two points that the string connects and resonates from - the saddle on the bridge, and the nut below the headstock of the guitar.
On most guitars you simply adjust the screw that connects the saddle to the bridge at the back of the base plate of the bridge. Tune your guitar to a perfect open note, then see if the 12th fret played note it reading above or below the intended pitch:
- If the pitch is reading that the 12th fret is a sharp note (above perfect pitch) then the saddle needs to be tightened which increases the length of the string
- If the pitch reading of the 12th fret is a flat note (below perfect pitch), then the saddle needs to be loosened, shortening the length of the string.
Make sure you tune each time you adjust the saddle, and work in quarter turns to get the most accurate pitch you can, and simply repeat the process for every string until they’re all adjusted.
The Best Tools for the Job
There’s a multitude of different tools out there to get started with guitar and bass setups, but there are some discrepancies between various models of guitar, and if you have a guitar made by a luthier that's not one of the big names in guitar of bass such as PRS or Ibanez, then there can be some more complications which require a range of different tools for various manufacturers.
Since starting out on working on my own guitars and basses, I’ve now got a small arsenal of Allen keys that are both standard US and EU sizes, as well as a few different lengths and sizes of Philips Head and Flathead screwdrivers that come in handy - however, a good multitool such as my one made by Cruztools is a great place to start and will give you many of the basic tools in one very small and travel friendly size.
Other than a good multi-tool made for guitar and bass, having a small pack designed to be for every guitarist is a good idea rather than purchasing the individual tools separately; thankfully there’s a bunch on the market but some of my favourites to recommend are those from D’addario or Ernie Ball Music, both of which specialize in the needs of guitarist and bassists.
The Ernie Ball kit is a good affordable starting kit, and there's a few things that are always welcome additions down the line.
We all want to set up our V67 or HH1 in front of a guitar cab, and play a great sounding guitar or bass, to a great sounding song, and this is why I wanted to write this blog today to help you all achieve that! But there are some things that are best left to the professionals, rather than risk damaging your instrument or someone else's.
There’s been times in the studio where I have been happy to look over someone's instrument, clean their frets, clean and adjust the fundamentals of making the instruments play well and feel comfortable - however, there have been other times when the musician I’m recording has taken it upon themselves to adjust all of these things, but also much riskier operations such as a Truss Rod adjustment, which in a couple of cases has been not just adjusted incorrectly, but also resulted in the rod breaking and the guitar being totally written off as if it were a car that had crashed and couldn’t be fixed.
As I said above with bridges such as Floyd Rose styles or Evertune bridges, along with operations such as refretting the guitar, or even cleaning the frets, Truss Rod adjustments, and so on, are best left to a professional and I urge anyone who is unsure of a situation that they at least reach out to a local guitar tech with experience to advise you further.