Do Your Own Guitar Setups With the Right Tools

Do Your Own Guitar Setups – With the Right Tools

In another article, I showed you what’s involved in a guitar setup.

However, you may have decided you want to do your own guitar setups. That’s great! Maybe you’re sick of shelling out cash or just hate being without your guitar for weeks while it’s in the shop. Whatever the reason, if you’re serious about giving your guitar a precision setup, there are some basic tools you’ll need. There are also some specialized (and really cool) tools you can add to your arsenal as you gain experience.

Now, you do not need everything on this list. That’s why I’ve broken it into 3 main sections. Use the “The Essential Tools” list to make sure you have the basic toolset you’ll need to get started working on your own guitars. Use the other 2 lists to gradually add some “nice to have” tools as needed, such as if you start doing setups for other people.

Note: To keep this list short, I’m not including cleaning supplies nor any tools specific to major guitar repair.

Guitar Setups: The Essential Tools

These tools represent the minimum core toolset I would recommend if you told me you’re on a budget, but serious about doing basic setups on your own guitar(s). They’re not highly specialized, and the good news is that you may already have many of these.

Feeler Gauge Set
You’ll need a few feeler gauges, in very thin sizes, to check and set neck relief with your truss rod. The set I’ve linked here is great because it’s affordable and contains the very thin gauges you’ll need for guitar work.

Precision Ruler – Metric and Imperial
Setup-related measurements are very small, so you’ll need a precision ruler that reads measurements as small as 64ths or 1/2mm. The one pictured here is the actual ruler I use (that’s my guitar in the pic). It’s cheap, highly accurate, and has both inches and millimeters.

String or Wire Cutters
You’ll need these to clip guitar strings during string changes. The StewMac cutters I’m showing here are the ones I use, however, they’re on the expensive side. If you want to save a few bucks, most run-of-the-mill wire cutters should do the job–but might wear out faster.

String Winder
Twisting tuning pegs by hand sucks, so get a proper string winder. They’re a dime-a-dozen on Amazon and just about any basic winder will dramatically speed up your string changes.

Guitar Tuner
It may go without saying that you need a guitar tuner, but I’m going to say it anyway. You can buy a physical tuner like the one shown here, or use one of the free tuners available online or as apps for smartphones.

You’ll need a capo to perform the old “string and capo” method of measuring and setting neck relief. There are fancier ways to check neck relief, but this method works just fine when you’re first starting out.

Truss Rod Wrench
If you don’t have the truss rod wrench that came with your guitar, you’ll need to buy one to adjust the relief (forward/backward bow) of your guitar’s neck. There are a few different types and sizes, so be sure to buy the correct wrench for your guitar’s truss rod bolt. Here are two examples (but not guaranteed to fit your guitar):

Tools for Guitar Setups

Other Basic Tools You’ll Need
Depending on whether you have an acoustic or electric guitar, and what kind of hardware your guitar has, there are other basic tools that you may need. In general, I’ve found that having a couple Phillips screwdrivers and a hex key set to be invaluable:

  • #0 Phillips screwdriver: for smaller screws like those used for tuning pegs, saddle intonation, cavity covers, etc.
  • #2 Phillips screwdriver: for bigger screws, like guitar neck screws or the tremolo-claw screws.
  • Hex keys (a.k.a. allen wrenches): for hex bolts used in electric guitar saddles, locking nut pressure pads, or wherever else your guitar has hex bolts. Double-check whether you need standard or metric for your guitar.

Guitar Setups: Intermediate Tools

Now it starts getting fun! You already have a core set of setup tools, but want to take things a bit further? Maybe you want to start doing setups for other people. In that case, you’ll need a few extra (or better) tools in order to be prepared for the different guitar types and setup issues you’ll encounter.

Guitar Screwdriver and Wrench Set
If you plan on servicing other people’s guitars, you can use trial-and-error to accumulate a garage full of tools, or you could just buy this handy little toolset. It’ll cover just about every guitar nut, bolt, and screw size you’ll ever encounter.

String Action Gauge
Made specifically for guitar work, the progressive string height scale makes it a lot easier to see the individual string heights. It’s a precision-cut piece of stainless steel, so the short edge can even be used as a fret rocker in a pinch. Choose inches or metric.

18″ Precision Straightedge
If you’re ready to move beyond the string-and-capo method of checking neck relief, then use what I use: an 18″ precision straightedge. I actually find it easier and faster to just grab this than to try and use the capo method.

DeoxIT Electrical Contact Cleaner
This is the miracle spray you’ll use to fix any cracks, pops, or scratches you hear when you move your guitar’s knobs and switches. Assuming your electronics are otherwise good, DeoxIT will clean out whatever is causing noisy electronics.

Big Bends Ultra Nut Sauce Guitar Lubricant
A little dab of this in each string slot of your guitar’s nut is often enough to fix most tuning problems (assuming your nut is in good shape). It’s also a great lubricant for truss rod nuts, string saddles, Floyd Rose knife edges, and more.

Drill Bit String Winder
Speed up your string changes dramatically with this cool little string winder. It fits just like a drill bit in any cordless screwdriver. I recommend only using it with a cordless screwdriver, not drills. Drills can spin too fast and potentially strip the gears in tuning pegs.

Guitar Neck Support
You’ll eventually need a proper guitar neck support, since roughly 75% of the work you’ll do requires the guitar to be flat on its back. Having a neck support frees both your hands without worry of the guitar falling or sliding around.

Guitar Work Mat
A proper work surface needs to be soft, padded, and made of a non-slip material that won’t interact chemically with a guitar’s finish. That’s why I love this guitar work mat from Music Nomad. You can also buy the work mat and neck support together.

Guitar Setups: Advanced Tools

Oh yeah, now we’re getting into guitar repair-nerd territory! If you’re buying from THIS list, then you’ve decided that you’re all-in. Maybe you’re doing setups on your friend’s guitars or have moved on to doing it as a business.

Luthier’s Digital Caliper with Notch for Measuring Fretwire
These calipers were designed especially for fretwork, and includes special notches for measuring fretwire height. Handy for lots of other measurements too. For example, someone asks you to put lighter or heavier strings on their guitar, but forgets to tell you (or isn’t sure) what’s currently on there.

Understring Radius Gauge Set
These radius gauges help you easily set the height of the individual string saddles so that they match the guitar’s fretboard radius.

Ball Bearing Guitar Nut and Saddle Sander by Heart Sound
To lower the action on an acoustic guitar, you need to sand the underside of the bridge saddle and/or nut. However, it’s hard to apply even pressure and keep things square when sanding by hand. This cool tool holds the saddle perfectly square while you roll it over sandpaper on a flat surface.

Fret Rocker Tool
You’ll use this 4-sided precision straightedge to pinpoint pesky high frets that are causing fret buzz. By spanning 3 frets at a time, it “rocks” on high or uneven frets. The StewMac rocker is precision machined for accuracy, so beware all the cheaper Chinese imitations on Amazon.

What Tools do You Use?

As you’ve seen, you can get by quite well with tools you probably already have in your garage (and in your guitar case). Do you have any cool tools or gadgets you use for guitar setups? Or, maybe you’re just getting started with this stuff and want to know more.

Let me know in the comments below!

2 replies
  1. Luke
    Luke says:

    Small allen wrench set comes in handy for some guitars.
    Fender Stratocaster (tremolo bridge) string saddles require
    a small allen wrench to adjust string height. I forget the size
    but it is a much smaller size than what you find in a normal
    set of allen wrenches. So when buying a set of allen wrenches-
    size beware!

    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Howdy Luke. I mention that you’ll need a hex key set as the last item in “The Essential Tools” section, but I’ll add the bit about them needing to be pretty tiny… for bridge saddle screws and whatnot. The fender hex bolts are 0.050″

      If you buy the Guitar Screwdriver and Wrench Set you won’t need to buy separate allen wrenches. That kit has the 0.050″ allen key, as well as other sizes you’ll encounter on various guitars.


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