Photo by Andy Ellis.
We all know the feeling: Inspiration strikes and you grab your guitar to explore some cool riff, phrase, or chord progression before it gets away. But instead of nailing the idea, you wind up wrestling with your instrument and getting sidetracked. Maybe the strings feel unexpectedly stiff, or everything sounds a bit sour and out of tune, or an annoying buzz keeps distracting you. The muse slips away and frustration sets in. Bummer.
No one says playing guitar is easy, but the condition of your axe can create additional hurdles that get between you and the music inside trying to get out. Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned pro, having your guitar in optimal playing condition is essential if you want to sound your best. No amount of modding is going to transport you to sonic nirvana if the foundation—the essential physical platform—isn’t adjusted and tweaked to operate correctly.
With that in mind, let’s take a moment to review the key elements that govern how your guitar feels and sounds. As with any piece of sophisticated machinery, various aspects of your guitar drift out of alignment over time. Seasonal changes in temperature and humidity drive a lot of this, but so do gigging and travel.
Here’s the good news: If you understand how the guitar works as a system, you can keep your beloved 6-string in primo working order—and it won’t cost you much. Armed with a few simple tools and knowledge of where to invest in hardware or electronic upgrades, you can do a lot to maximize your guitar’s sound and playability. And even if you choose to have all the repair, maintenance, or upgrades done by a pro, knowing how to troubleshoot and pinpoint issues when they occur will help you communicate effectively with your local tech.
In this overview, we’ll explore playability, tone, intonation, tuning stability, and electronics. We could write a thick book about each category—and many authors have—but instead let’s examine the 10 most critical actions you can take within these five areas. We’ll also point you to related stories on premierguitar.com, in case you want to further investigate a particular subject.
Before we dive in, let’s acknowledge that these primary functions and the parts that support them often have to be adjusted to suit the specific needs of each performer and musical genre. For example, the archtop-wielding jazzbo with stout flatwounds will have different needs than the shredder with ultra-light strings and a locking vibrato. That said, the fundamental physics always remain the same.
Photo 1 — Photo by Andy Ellis.
(1) Adjust the truss rod. We’re listing this first because neck relief has to be set before you do any other adjustments that affect the action. Relief is best described as the small concave curvature intentionally left in the fretboard to accommodate the elliptical pattern of a plucked, vibrating string. The best way to measure this is to first tune to pitch and then use the 6th string as a straight edge. With your fretting hand, press and hold the string against the 1st fret. Next, move up the fretboard to the 15th fret—or wherever the neck joins the body—and press the 6th string down against it using your picking-hand thumb. Finally, extend your index finger over the fretboard pointing toward the nut and bounce the 6th string against the frets to make the space between the top of the frets and the bottom of the 6th string visible to your naked eye (Photo 1).
That space or gap is the amount of relief in your fretboard. Repeat this process with the 1st string to check the relief on the treble side. On guitars, it should be very slight, but present. As an average measurement, figure no more than the thickness of a business card. Different playing styles require different amounts of relief. For example, bluegrass flatpickers or rock rhythm guitarists may require more relief because their hard attack creates larger string movement, while the light touch of a fusion player or folk fingerpicker requires less.
Photo 2 — Photo by Andy Ellis.
Embedded in the neck, the truss rod is designed to counteract relentless string tension. An adjustable truss rod lets you set the relief by controlling the neck’s amount of resistance to string pull. Some truss rods adjust at the headstock (Photo 2), others at the base of the neck. Depending on the guitar manufacturer, the tools for this operation vary. Check out “Demystifying Truss-Rod Tools” to see some of these in action.
Whether your guitar requires a small socket wrench, an Allen wrench, flathead screwdriver, or a specialized tool (on some acoustics, for example, you access the truss rod through the soundhole with a right-angle wrench), it’s essential that the fit is snug. Don’t try to cut corners here—you’ll risk damaging the truss rod nut or extension. Your guitar may have come from the factory with the correct tool, but if not, you can track one down online.
Many guitarists learn how to adjust the truss rods on their guitars. If you feel up to the task, read “Time for a Neck Adjustment?” for instructions. But before you attempt this, you need to research and understand how your particular instrument functions. Most nuts tighten (straightening the neck to lift the frets toward the strings) to the right as you sight down the neck from wherever the truss rod nut is situated. However, there are a few instruments (mostly electric basses) that work in the opposite direction.
Not everyone is comfortable adjusting the truss rod, and if you’re not, just hike on down to your local repairman—every competent tech knows how to do this. On a well-built instrument with a stable neck, you won’t have to do this very often.