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Last Updated: July 18, 2021
In a previous article, I showed you just what’s involved in a guitar setup.
However, if you’re reading this, then I bet you’re considering doing your own guitar setups. Maybe you’re sick of always paying someone else and then being without your guitar for weeks while it’s in the shop. Or, perhaps you just want to set up your axe exactly how you like it.
Whatever the reason, if you’re serious about giving your guitar a proper setup, there are some basic guitar setup tools you’ll need in order to do it right. There are also a few specialized (and really cool) tools you can add to your arsenal as you gain experience.
Me trying to isolate the source of a mystery buzz on a floating trem. My magnification visor helps me see those tiny spaces.
You don’t need everything on this page.
That’s why I’ve broken the page 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” specialty tools as needed, such as if you start doing setups for other people.
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Guitar Setups: The Essential Tools
These guitar setup tools represent the minimum core toolset I would recommend if you’re on a budget but serious about doing basic setups on your own guitar. You’ll be glad to know they’re inexpensive, not highly specialized, and you may even have many of these already.
Tapered Feeler Gauge Set
Feeler gauges are handy for checking and setting neck relief and other guitar measurements. I use this TUSK set because the tapered tips are better for tight spaces, and I like that this 32-gauge set goes from a paper-thin 0.001″ (0.03mm) all the way up to .040″ (1.00mm).
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 Cutters (Side Cutters)
You’ll need a decent set of string cutters (or side cutters) with a hardened edge for cutting guitar strings. I like these CruzTools cutters because they’re reasonably priced, spring-loaded, and hold their edge.
Twisting tuning pegs by hand sucks, so get a proper string winder. The cheap ones like this are a dime-a-dozen on Amazon and just about any basic winder like this will dramatically speed up your string changes.
It may go without saying that you need a guitar tuner, but I’ll say it anyway. You can buy a physical tuner like the one shown here, or use one of the free tuners available for smartphones. Low-priced tuners like this one are fine for general tuning, but not adequate for setting intonation. For that, you’ll need a strobe tuner (see next section below).
You’ll need a capo to perform the “string-and-capo” method of measuring and setting neck relief. There are other ways to check neck relief, but the string-and-capo method will work fine for most people in most situations.
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):
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 we start getting into the good stuff! Already have a core set of guitar setup tools, but want to take things further? Maybe you want to start doing setups for others. If that’s the case, you’ll need a few extra (or more specialized) tools so you can be prepared for the different guitar types and setup issues you’ll encounter.
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.
Cheap chromatic tuners are fine for general tuning. However, to accurately set intonation you need a tuner that’s accurate to within +/- 0.1 cents or better, and that’s where strobe tuners come in. I use the Peterson HD Strobe Tuner shown here, and I love it. It’s an incredible value for the price, considering how expensive strobe tuners can be.
26-Piece Guitar Screwdriver and Wrench Set
If you plan on servicing other people’s guitars, you can use trial-and-error and spend years accumulating a garage full of tools, or you could just buy this all-in-one toolset. It’ll cover almost every guitar nut, bolt, and screw size you can throw at it. I use it, and you can read my in-depth review of this tool set here.
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.
Guitar Knob Puller
If you’ve got a press-on guitar knob that’s being stubborn, this ingenious (and inexpensive) little tool will pop it right off… easily and safely. Simply slide it under the knob, secure the tension ring, and gently pull up. Done! Works on standard speed knobs, bell knobs, and Strat-style knobs that are of the press-on variety.
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.
A notched straightedge fits over the frets so that it rests directly on the fretboard rather than on top of the frets. This avoids any irregularities in frets that might throw off your relief measurement. If you suspect a high fret somewhere or your frets are pretty worn, use this to set neck relief instead of a normal straightedge. Each straightedge comes notched for two different scale lengths, so be sure you buy the correct one for your guitar’s neck.
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 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.
Nut Slotting Files
Part of a perfect setup is making sure that your nut’s string slots are the correct depth and shape. For that, you need a proper set of nut slotting files. I own the Grizzly files shown/linked here, as well as nut files by Stewart MacDonald. Just be sure you buy the correct size for your specific string gauges. These come in handy for string saddle work too.
Understring Radius Gauge Set
These radius gauges help you easily set the height of the individual string saddles on your bridge so that they match the guitar’s fretboard radius (as they should).
Bridge Saddle Shims
The radius of your bridge saddles should match the radius of your fretboard. But what if you have a Floyd Rose (or similar) bridge, where the saddles aren’t height-adjustable? Bridge saddle shims to the rescue! Stack these little shims under the saddles until you’ve achieved the desired radius.
Guitar Neck Pocket Shims
Sometimes you need to alter a bolt-on neck’s angle to achieve a consistent string height over the entire fretboard. These shims are precision-sanded to ensure a precise angle. They maintain full-contact between the neck’s heel and the guitar’s body, unlike sticking pieces of plastic and credit cards in your neck pocket. These are also available as blanks, so you can cut them exactly to your desired size.
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.
Magnification Visor with Headlamp
Even if you have perfect vision, some guitar parts are just too small to see well without some magnification and a little extra light. This magnification visor is the one I use. It comes with 5 magnification lenses, a built-in headlamp, and optional elastic strap. I almost always have this on my head whenever I’m working on guitars. Best of all, it’s less than $20 on Amazon.
Ball Bearing Guitar Nut & Saddle Sander
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.
StewMac Erlewine Neck Jig
Technically, this isn’t a “setup” tool per se, but it’s just too cool not to include here. This neck jig has been on my wish list for years. If you plan to do a lot of fretwork or fingerboard work, this neck jig takes a lot of human error (and gravity) out of the equation, allowing a much higher level of accuracy when leveling frets or fingerboards.
Need to Learn How to do Setups?
Do you need some help setting up your guitar or bass? If so, check out this series of fun, easy-to-follow guides that’ll help you get your guitar or bass set up and playing its best.
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 section down below!
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I just buy a new guitar every time my guitar gets out of whack. I only buy guitars that hold their value well, and I buy them from places who inspect and set up their guitars before selling them. So, when my current guitar becomes hardly playable, I sell it for usually $100 above or below the price I paid new, and simply purchase a new guitar.
This gives me sort of like a short term guitar lease program. I can get the latest model or completely swith makes and models. Im never stuck with a bad guitar and Im forever getting a step closer to “the one”.
Dont knock it till….
Hi Billy. That’s interesting, but you’re definitely in the minority. I don’t think many people do that.
If you do ever find “the one,” I can guarantee that it too will eventually need some adjustments (what we like to call a “setup”). When/if that day comes, rather than just selling it, you might want to try to learn to do setups yourself. I offer a number of different guides here on the site. Just choose the one that most closely matches the guitar that needs some TLC:
Er…also, I’m unconvinced on the morality of this unless you inform the buyer of the issue prior to purchase and adjust the price accordingly. If you’re just dumping on ebay and making it someone else’s problem, I couldn’t recommend you’re approach to anyone
Hey Guitar Answer Guy. I have a lat 70s Epiphone 12 string acoustic BARD (bolt on neck) that desperately needs some ribs and the neck block reglued. Ideally, i would like to remove either the back or the soundboard to accomplish this. Which do you think would be easier to do?
Will this thing “potato-chip” on me making either one difficult or impossible to re-install?
Hi Mark. I’m not a luthier or professional guitar tech, so I unfortunately can’t advise you on serious repairs like these. This is one I would advise taking to a pro, or at least reaching out to some of the pros out there online today. I can’t guarantee a response (he’s very busy running his guitar repair/building business), but try emailing Gerry at Haze Guitars. Gerry is the owner/luthier at Haze Guitars and author of the Sketchy Setups guides I recommend throughout my blog.
Thanks so much for replying so fast! I have been mulling over this turkey for a while (no Thanksgiving pun intended).
I think you are right that a pro should handle this one! I just discovered your site and I think it’s great. Even for old guys like me:)
I have a guitar that no matter what set up is done to it, the action slowly begins to raise to an almost unplayable height. ive had two different techs work on the guitar and even tried myself to correct the issues. After the initial set up, the guitar is in great playing shape but by the 3rd or 4th day the action has begun to raise.
Its a les paul style guitar with TOM bridge.
Any help is appreciated !!
Well, after a truss rod adjustment, it can take a neck 1-2 days to fully “settle.” So, it’s not uncommon to make a truss rod adjustment, then have to adjust it again a day or two later. So, that’s one possibility.
The other possibility is that the truss rod nut is somehow working its way loose. This can sometimes happen if someone used WD-40 on it (which you shouldn’t do). In other words, the threads are quite literally SO slick that after the bolt’s been tightened, it gradually turns itself counter-clockwise (loosens itself) over the next few days… helped along by string vibrations.
It’s not super common, but it CAN happen.
It’s also possible that there’s something else going on with the truss rod, or the truss rod nut. Ultimately, I’d need to inspect your guitar to figure out what’s actually going on, but those are some things you can look into.
What’s the best way to adjust the truss rod without ruining the 3rd and 4th strings?
Just loosen them a little. Simple as that.
I play 7-string guitars, which is even worse because I have a D-string right smack down the middle of my truss rod compartment, and all I have to do is loosen it a couple turns and that’s enough to give the wrench the movement it needs. It’s okay if the wrench pushes against the strings a little, as long as they’re somewhat loose. You’re not going to break them, though it can make it a little tough to pull the wrench back off of the bolt.
Don’t loosen them so much that they’re totally slack. You only need to drop ’em enough that the wrench can get between them and then move when you turn. Once you’ve adjusted the rod, tune ’em back up and check your relief again.
hello,Bob. Thank you for your wonderful review. I wish I had had this kind of article a long time ago. Great article!
I just want to ask : do I have to use the radius gauge to set-up a floating bridge (edge, floyd rose) too? because as far as I know,
the action of each string with that system can not be set individually, and mos guitars which come with such bridge have a flatter radius? Thank you.
Hi Joe. You’re correct that the individual saddle heights are not adjustable–not in the traditional sense, anyway. But, I’ll get to that in a minute. Most Floyd-style trems have the radius “built in” to the saddles. In other words, each saddle has been machined at a different height to create the radius. You can’t adjust them on-the-fly via any screws or hex bolts.
Now, in a perfect world, that built-in radius would always match your guitar’s fretboard exactly, but that’s not always the case. That’s why bridge saddle shims exist.
An excellent article on this topic was written by luthier Gerry Hayes (who has a kick-butt guitar blog of his own). You can check it out here.
So, to answer your other question, yes you could use a radius gauge to check the radius of your tremolo’s saddles if you suspect that they’re not correct. Chances are, if your guitar came with that trem from the factory (e.g. you didn’t do an aftermarket install or tremolo swap), it’s probably spot-on or at least pretty dang close. But again, there are exceptions… even coming from the factory. I wouldn’t worry about it too much unless you’re having a persistent problem with your setup or you otherwise suspect there’s a mismatch between the radius in the bridge saddles and the radius of the neck. If there is, the radius gauge will let you know, and then you can start exploring ways to shim the saddles to get a closer match with the fretboard.
Thanks,Bob. I didn’t know that floyd rose saddles can be adjusted like that. Thanks also for the link. Hayes’ website is indeed a very good website.
I’ve been doing my own set ups for several years now and I’ve gradually branched out into doing more and more work than just basic setups. One tool (set of tools, actually) that has come in very handy is a set of nut slotting files which I ordered from stew mac. With these i have been able to properly lower string action at the nut when needed, properly slot tune-o-matic bridge saddles, and I’ve even made new nuts from blanks (and I understand now why luthier’s charge so much for that job.) But there are a bunch of fixes that I’ve done myself that I wouldn’t have been able to do without my nut slotting files.
Hi Mike. I agree that nut slotting files are a must-have, in general. However, I didn’t originally think of them as “setup tools” which is wrong, in hindsight. Nut files ARE necessary if you need to adjust action at the nut (for non locking nuts), so it definitely qualifies them as a setup tool. I’ll get a set added here with a link ASAP. I have a bunch of different nut files from Grizzly as well as StewMac.
I don’t get anything for recommending this, I’m just a happy customer – Neck Check Guitar has notched straightedges for different scale lengths, fret dressing tools, and fret rockers for much less than StewMac has them. I paid just over $150 for a fret rocker, diamond fret dressing file, fret leveling sander, and 4 straightedges, including one for 35″ bass guitars. Look them up while shopping for tools, you might find some of what you are looking for. They are made from aircraft aluminum instead of steel, so durable and affordable enough for the hobbyist luthier.
Yep! I have two notched straightedges from Neck Check Guitar, and I agree… they’re great. I recommend anyone reading this have a look at Neck Check Guitar Tools on Amazon.
Hey Guitar Answer Guy,
I have a Fender 62 reissue Strat and I WILL NOT unscrew my neck from the body to do neck adjustments. I have carved out a cavity in the body and sanded out a semicircle in the pickguard to make better access to the truss rod. But still it is difficult to do adjustments without defacing my pickup covers and pickguard. Do you know of a tool that does this more efficiently. It needs to be a tool (screw driver) with a phillips blade at 90 degree angle and no extra added length when it makes that 90 degree turn. Hope you can help? Thanks, Mick
You don’t have to completely remove the neck to adjust the truss rod on a vintage Strat, but you do have to at least loosen it. Essentially, you loosen the neck bolts enough that you can tilt the neck back in the pocket–enough that the truss rod bolt is fully exposed and accessible with a screwdriver. It needs to tilt enough that you can easily get a screwdriver in there without marring your pickguard. The procedure is explained and demonstrated in this video:
(fast-forward to 3:49)
However, I would recommend loosening the strings first, despite what the guitar tech says in that video. Loosen the strings, then loosen the bolts slightly as shown, tilt the neck back, make your truss rod adjustment, then seat the neck back into the pocket and re-tighten the neck bolts. Finally, tune your strings back up to pitch. If you’re uncomfortable doing this, then definitely take the guitar to a qualified tech to do the work, but I assure you it’s not that difficult and not dangerous… as long as you loosen your strings first and are careful.
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-
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.