This post contains affiliate links, meaning, if you click through and make a purchase, I may earn a commission. This is at no additional cost to you. Learn more.
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.
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.
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 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!
Bobby Davis is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
Latest Blog Posts
- SensorPush Wireless Hygrometer and Thermometer Review February 22, 2021
- The 5 Categories of Guitars December 7, 2020
- 5 Ways to Adjust Acoustic Guitar Action October 5, 2020