I show you my beastly guitar strings...and pajama shorts - I collect almost all the tools and household objects that I'll need - 1 fun use of a credit card that won't ruin your credit - Garnish your guitar with a little bit of vinegar to make its taste less bland (serve on a bed of lettuce) - Yoga for your strings - In guitar we truss - How to not poke your eyes out - More pictures than ever!
In the world of digital recording, reamping, and amp emulators, it can be easy to underestimate the effect that your guitar setup has on your tone.
You might wonder if you would really be able to tell the difference between a heavily distorted guitar with brand new strings vs strings that are old enough to start potty training. Whether you can or can’t tell the difference may be debatable but here’s the thing: the difference between a professional sounding, fully polished track and an amateur-ish sounding track is the sum of the little things. It’s not any ONE thing. Further, every decision we make has implications for downstream processes. For example, recording with a guitar that’s out of tune will make it very difficult to make that guitar sound good with any downstream processing. You can therefore argue that earlier decisions we make in the recording process carry more weight than later ones.
The goal is always to maximize the quality of our recording to give the mix engineer the best possible chance of cranking out a killer mix
This is what we’re talking about today: maximizing the quality of your recording before you even a play note.
How? Through a (sort of) quick guitar setup.
A guitar that you take through this process will:
Be easier and more fun to play – leading to a better performance
Have more consistent tuning along the neck
Have a cleaner and more consistent output
Have better tone
Look better. I know. You're way punk rock and don't care about your image. That's why this one is last.
Here's a list of things to stage
Clean polishing rag
Allen wrench set
Small screw drivers
Fret polish or 0000 steel wool (or copper wool)
An old credit card or similar piece of plastic
Lemon oil or light mineral oil for your fretboard
Masking tape or fret polishing kit fretboard protectors
Little bit of white vinegar or fretboard cleaner
A towel or something soft to use between your guitar and work bench
A mechanical pencil
Here are the steps:
Note: For just about every step except step 1, the order does matter. You'll see why as you read on.
1. Quick Surface Clean
Do a quick wipe down of the guitar body and any areas that are accessible. Also, if you know you have some scratchy pots (volume knobs, tone knobs) or selector switches, this is a good time to open up the guitar to expose those bits of electronics and spray some cleaner/lubricator into the “windows”. Just a tiny spray should do it. Work the pot or selector switch back and forth.
Friendly Caution Note: You can buy cleaners without lubricants but this can lead to a short-term improvement while actually decreasing the life of the component. Make sure you have a cleaner/lubricant.
2. Remove your nasty old strings.
Pro Tip: cut the curly ends off of the string as soon as practical and don’t lose them. It will be much easier to work with a straight string rather than a string with curly bits on the end and will decrease the risk of scratching the guitar body. Also, those little guys will bite you if you leave them laying around.
Friendly "Don't Worry" Note: you may read about people recommending changing strings one at a time to avoid having the guitar sit around with no string tension on it. Most people (including guitar manufacturers) agree that removing all of the strings is not an issue. I would not recommend having a guitar sit without strings for a long time but if you’re doing this activity in one session, you should have no issues.
3. Clean the neck and fretboard
First, polish up and smooth out the frets. You can do this using fret polish or very very fine steel wool (0000). When working on your frets, you want to minimize the risk of damaging the fretboard wood. For this reason, it’s a good idea to either tape your frets up with a very slightly tacky masking tape or to use the little metal fret guides that come in fret polishing kits.
Above you can see the fret guard on the left, polishing using the fret guard in the center and using masking tape instead of a fret guard on the right.
Another nice alternative that I saw in this video was to create your own fret guard using an old credit card. Either of these methods will allow you to wail on the fret itself without touching the surrounding wood surface. This is a bit of a tedious process.
The first couple of frets will feel great. You’ll think that you’ve really changed. You’re the type of person who’s no longer afraid to just roll your sleeves up and dig right in to job you've been avoiding. You’re a powerhouse.
By the 12th fret you’ll start wondering if this was a good idea. Maybe instead of recording an album it would be better to just watch some superheroes punch monsters on Netflix.
By the 20th fret you’ll begin hallucinating. You may be visited by Randy Rhoads' famous ghost. Don't be alarmed. He's loud but he's friendly.
Audio god help you if you have more than 22 frets.
Pro tip: steel wool is magnetic and tiny pieces of it that are visible only through a high-powered microscope will break off of it. It's super annoying to clean up. Oh hey, also your guitar has a bunch of magnets, remember? It’s a good idea to keep the wool away from your pick-ups by masking the pick-ups. You can use masking tape or masking tape and paper towels. An alternative is to use a non-ferrous wool (which won’t stick to magnets) – like copper wool or super fine abrasive pads which are also non-ferrous.
4. Clean the fretboard
I told myself I wasn't going to make any "don't fret" jokes. So I won't.
Now that your frets are super shiny, it’s time to remove any masking you put on the fret board and clean the spaces in between the frets. Again, there are a couple of different way to approach this. One way is to take a plastic credit card (or pharmacy card) and work the major pieces of dirt off of the fretboard by using the edge of the credit card. This is how I usually attack it. Another option is to use the 0000 super fine steel wool or super fine alternative – though this has always made me a bit nervous since steel is harder than wood and can scratch up or dull up your finishes. Nevertheless, people swear by the method. Always use the wool running along the grain of the wood and don't be afraid of going over the frets as well. Once you’ve done a first pass, use a paper towel moistened slightly with either water or water with a bit of white vinegar to wipe down the fretboard. This helps remove any loose pieces of dirt and should help lift up some tougher ones. I always like to follow up any wet paper towel steps with a dry paper towel step to keep things nice and dry.
Once the neck is dry, you can use a small amount of lemon oil and clean rag to rub the fretboard down. The oil helps to keep the fretboard from drying out and cracking. Note: maple necks (the light colored ones) do not generally need to be oiled and lemon oils can discolor them so try to avoid that. You can use a plain, light mineral oil if you'd like.
Although it's not really a cleaning step I'm going to throw in nut lubrication here. Yeah yeah, it's funny but I'm not going to dwell on it. Once your strings are tight, any tuning adjustments will cause the string to rub against the slots in the nut. We want to have a little bit of lubrication on the nut to minimize how much the nut is grabbing the string as we make tuning adjustments. This will help minimize the risk of breaking a string. My favorite way to do this is to grab a mechanical pencil and just "color" in the slots of the nut. The little bit of graphite that transfers to the nut will act as a dry lubricant.
5. String it up!
Put on your new strings.
Friendly Safety Warning: Remember friends, strings and springs are only different by one letter. A coiled string can jump around as you start uncoiling it. Both strings and springs can store energy and both can poke your eyes out. They're cold hearted killers.
When wrapping the strings around the peg, there are some different strategies. Most people will recommend having no more than 2-3 wraps around the peg. More is unnecessary and makes for a cluttered peg. A good rule of thumb for how much slack to leave in the string is to pull the string through the peg hole until it’s taught, then push it back towards the bridge by roughly the distance of one peg to another peg (on a 3-to-a-side headstock) or roughly two peg-distances (on a 6 or 7-to-a-side headstock). Better yet, check out this cool video which explains it very nicely. .
I didn't say no yoga jokes.
It’s always difficult to believe how much new strings will stretch. This process will happen by itself over time but, until it does, the strings will constantly be going flat as you play. Grab your tuner, tune each string then take each string between your thumb and index finder and stretch them back and forth smoothly but firmly. Retune and repeat a few times until the strings remain relatively in tune after a good stretching.
7. Truss Rod Adjustment
Now that the strings are on and in your desired tuning, we can check the truss rod.
The truss rod is inside the guitar neck and its function is to counteract the tension of the strings. Those jerk strings are constantly pulling the neck and trying to break it in half. If the guitar did not have a truss rod, the string tension would ultimately warp the neck - making the fretboard concave (picture on the left below). This is why you don’t want to leave a guitar sitting with no strings for an extended period of time. Without the string tension, the truss rod can warp the guitar in the opposite direction - making your fretboard convex (picture on the right below).
When we talk about adjusting the truss rod we are talking about adjusting how hard the truss rod is counteracting the tension of the strings. Adjustments should not be needed too often but will almost certainly be needed if you’re making radical changes to your tuning or string gauge.
For example, if you increase the string gauge significantly, the thicker strings will pull harder on the neck since they need to be tighter to achieve the same pitches as thinner strings. This means that the truss rod needs to be tightened so that it is pulling a little bit harder in the opposite direction.
Friendly "Don't Worry" Note: Truss rod adjustments carry a lot of stigma because you can ruin your neck but this is a bit like saying driving is dangerous because you can crash into a tree (and ruin your neck). It's true but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t drive. It just means we need to understand what we’re doing and do it carefully.
The first step is to just close one eye and look down the neck of your guitar from the head-stock towards the bridge. You can some times see a slight bow one way or the other. Do this for both the thickest and thinnest string.
A more accurate way to refine this is to put a capo on the first fret and then fret the 21st fret of the highest or lowest string with your finger. Look at the gap between the string you're fretting and the 12th fret. On most guitars, this distance should be roughly equal to the thickness of three pieces of printer paper (or about 0.010 inches). In other words, you do want a slight bit of “relief” (or concave bowing) - but not too much.
Adjust as follows:
Make sure your guitar is in tune. If you use alternate tunings, then tune to whatever tuning you're planning on using during the session.
Use the capo method
If you have too much relief (gap is too large), increase the truss rod tension by tightening it (righty tighty y'all) by no more than a quarter of a turn. Recheck and adjust again if needed. Going in small increments will reduce the chances of breaking something.
If you have too little relief (gap at 12th fret is too small), then loosen the truss rod. Use the same "no more than a quarter turn" principle.
8. Adjust the string height
Now that the truss rod is where it needs to be, our neck “position” is fixed and we can adjust the string heights.
String height is typically adjusted at the bridge of the guitar. Within reason, the target height is a matter of preference. A lower string height allows for easier legato playing but can make the recording susceptible to fret buzz. Check to see what your guitar OEM recommends and then adjust to taste. Typically they will have you measure the height of string off of the 12th fret.
9. Adjust intonation
Now that the string heights are fixed we can adjust the string length – which adjusts the intonation.
Having a "good intonation" just means that your string will be in tune no matter which fret you're playing.
You may wonder why this matters. Regardless of the string length, can’t you just tune the open string using the tuning pegs (i.e., adjusting string tension)? Well, yes but you will often find that an open string can be perfectly in tune while the 12th fret (1st octave) is out of tune. This means that the string length is not appropriate for the string tuning.
So, grab your tuner and tune the open notes again. Now play the 12th fret of each string. If the 12th fret is sharp, the string length is too short. Lengthen the string by using whatever mechanism your bridge has. If it's flat...well, you get it.
Now, retune the open string and check the 12th fret again. Repeat until the 12th fret is in tune when the open string is in tune.
10. Adjust the pickup heights
Now that we’re done monkeying with the strings, we can adjust the height of the pickups. What we mean in this step is the “macro” adjustment that is made by using the screws on either side of the pick-up. Each screws moves its respective side of the pick-up up and down.
Like string height (or "action"), pickup height is a bit of an adjust-to-taste scenario but here are a few points to keep in mind:
The pickups are magnets. The strings are attracted to magnets. If they weren’t, this whole “electric guitar” thing wouldn’t really work out. If your pickups are too close to the strings you will hear a very weird modulation/distortion. There can be several reasons for this. If you have active pick-ups (i.e., you need to stick a 9V battery into your guitar somewhere), then you could be overloading the active pick-up circuitry. However, even with good ‘ol passive pickups, you can get to a point where the magnets are affecting the string’s free vibration. Think of it like this: you’re swinging on a swing that’s too close to the ground and sometimes your feet drag on the ground – slowing you down in a weird and unpleasant way. This is what the magnets will do to the string's vibration if they're too close. There are times we want a distorted guitar tone (almost always – if you’re me) but this is NOT the place we want to get distortion from. It's going to be weird and only your mom will tell you it still sounds good.
Closer to the pick-up means higher output. If you’re trying to drive a pre-amp hard directly from your guitar, having a “hotter” output may be desirable.
Closer to the pick-ups may mean a “brighter” tone.
I would recommend starting with setting the pick-ups to your OEM’s specifications and then adjusting to taste.
11. Pickup pole height adjustment
Friendly Helper Note: this ONLY applies to guitars that have a screw or hex-head slot directly under the strings. If you have a strat, congratulations, you’re done with your guitar setup.
Ok so we’ve roughly adjusted the overall height of our pickup in the previous step. Now we can fine-tune by adjusting the individual pole piece heights.
If we were to set our pole piece heights so that they were each the exact same distance away from their corresponding string, we would find that the strings have very different output levels when plucked. In fact, unwound strings can have higher output than wound strings because the pickup is reacting to the string core on the wound strings - and it's a bit masked by the windings.
So, if we can't adjust this visually, how do we do it?
Plug your guitar into your interface and pull up a peak volume meter - or just hit record on your DAW so you can visually see the results. Pluck each string one at a time using roughly the same amount of pick or finger force each time. Use the meters (or just look at the wave form) to determine which strings have higher output. Lower the pole pieces for those strings and raise other, quieter string pole pieces until you have roughly the same output level for each string. Repeat for the other pickups.
Whew! Ok, you’re done. Your guitar is ready for recording.
Many of the steps above will not need to be done every time you change your strings. Things like truss rod tension, string intonation and pickup height are unlikely to change from string change to string change. That said, it's a good idea to check periodically to make sure you're still in good shape.
Each time you’re finished playing for the day, it’s a good idea to wipe down your strings to keep your finger grease and salt (from your shred metal finger sweat) from corroding the string surfaces.