Acoustic Guitar Setup Tips and Ideas
The Trifecta of Guitar Setup
I always do setups in this order: 1) relief, 2) nut, 3) saddle because a) relief can affect the other two and b) there is essentially one correct nut height and it will affect the overall action. So, set those two first, and THEN do the saddle.
1) Neck Relief: I like to setup acoustic guitars with .004"-.008" of neck relief, as measured by capoing the first fret, holding down the low E at the body, and measuring clearance at the 7th fret. Use your truss rod to adjust. If there is no adjustable truss rod, then you'll have to do a compression refret or some other lutherie trickery.
2) Nut: I like to set the nut slots at "fret height". Here's why and how. This will result in open string 1st fret clearance of about:
E = .018", A = .016", D = .016", G = .016", B = .016", E = .014"
Don't take these nut measurements all by themselves as the saddle will affect them. What you're looking for is an anomaly in them. If, for instance, I saw that the A was 0.020", then I'd take a closer look at it. Unlike the 12th fret action, a few thousandths at the nut IS noticeable. A well-adjusted 1st fret action can make a BIG difference on the feel of the guitar, all the way up to about the 5th-7th fret.
3) 12th fret action
To check the 12th fret action, I use feeler gauges. I'm checking the action on this Martin D-16 with a stack of automotive feeler gauges. Measure the clearance between the string and 12th fret. In this photo, the gauge is tilted a little- keep it parallel to the strings and feel for "slap" when pushing the string down. As soon as the string just barely, barely slaps down, I've got a measurement.
Here are some typical measurements for 12th fret action- these can be adjusted for your style:
E = .093, A = .090, D = .087, G = .087, B = .084, E = .080
A few thousandths one way or the other won't matter much, but the main thing I like to feel is a consistent decrease in action. Many guitars that I work on have a saddle that matches the fretboard radius and this results in a higher D/G action than the rest of the strings. Combined with the increased tension of the D string, this produces a very stiff feeling guitar. I've arrived at my measurements by measuring a bunch of well-playing guitars, including those of numerous professional flatpickers.
Lowering a saddle: I personally lower nearly all my saddles from the top, but an easy way to lower the saddle a little is lay a sheet of sandpaper on a flat surface and press the saddle against a square object like this little ruler. Pass the saddle back and forth over the sandpaper, keeping it snug against the ruler. This helps ensure that the saddle bottom stays square and flat.
When you're dealing with the kind of precision I like to work with, a ruler ain't gonna cut it and a pair of dial calipers is best for measuring saddle heights. Lacking those, draw pencil lines on the saddle bottom, sand them off, draw another set, sand them off, and repeat. This way you can clearly see your progress and won't over sand. Check the saddle and action frequently as you go. Instead of putting all the strings on and measuring your action, try this: before messing with the saddle take all but the two E strings off. Measure the action of both using a stack of coins or picks as a feeler gauge (providing you don't have a real feeler gauge). Adjust the saddle and check it using just the two E strings again. The result won't be your actual action, but it will be a relative action since you measured it before starting.
YouTube video on lowering saddle
Two Schools of Setup
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