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Guide to Electric Guitar Maintenance

Guide to Electric Guitar Maintenance
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Updated August 2019

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Like anything else you use in your daily life, your guitar requires some maintenance in order to stay in peak position. Now you could always schedule a few tune-ups for your guitar with a local luthier, but in doing so you’d be spending a lot of money that you don’t have to.

Though it may seem a bit overwhelming at first, working on your guitar can be pretty painless. Most of the things the average musician can do by themselves don’t require any specialized or expensive tools, and with a little bit of research you’ll have everything you need to make the correct adjustments to your instrument.

  1. First Things First: Tools
  2. Intonation
  3. (Lights, Camera) Action
  4. Neck Relief
  5. Guitar Maintenance Gear Recommendations

First Things First: Tools

Ok, so while you don’t need any specialized tools in order to maintain your guitar, there are a few odds and ends that you’ll want to make sure you have access to. The items below are all things you’d be able to find at your average hardware store.

  • Pliers
  • Phillips head screwdriver set
  • Wire cutters
  • Hex key set
  • Toothpicks**
  • Glue

**Ever get a loose end-pin on your guitar? A quick fix for that is taking out the screw, putting a toothpick or matchstick in the hole (breaking off whatever wood sticks out of the hole), and then putting the screw back in. It does a nice job of tightening up a loose end pin.

Intonation

For those of you who weren’t already aware, intonation is how you describe how in-tune a note is. That cheap guitar that sounds awful up and down the neck? Odds are the intonation is all whacked out. But the question is, how do you fix it?

First, play a harmonic on the twelfth fret. To do this, lightly rest your finger over the twelfth fret on your guitar and pluck the string. Next, fret the note at the twelfth fret. Using an electronic tuner, check to see if there’s any difference between the pitch of the fretted note and the harmonic. If there’s not, you’re in luck. If there is, you’re going to have some work to do.

On electric guitars, there are generally three different kinds of bridges. What I call “Fender style bridges” with the screws in the back of the bridge and action adjustment in the saddle, Tune-O-Matic bridges (what you’d see on a Les Paul), and Floyd Rose bridges. Different manufacturers and models use different derivatives of these three types of bridges.

Side note, you’re probably never going to get perfect intonation all the way up and down the neck. There’s nothing wrong with your guitar, it’s just the limitation of the instrument. As long as you’re close you’ll sound fine.

Fender Style Bridges

Note: The steps below will work for either Stratocaster or Telecaster style bridges, as they both function in an incredibly similar way.

  1. Check fretted 12th note and 12th note harmonic against one another.
  2. Provided you need to readjust intonation, loosen your strings.
  3. If the fretted note was flat (lower than the harmonic), move the saddle (what the string rests on) closer to the neck using the screws located on the side of the bridge farthest away from the neck. If the note is sharp (higher than the harmonic) move the saddle farther away.
  4. Tune the string up to pitch, then check the fretted 12th note against the 12th harmonic.
  5. Repeat steps 2 through 5 as needed.

Tune-O-Matic Style Bridge

  1. Check fretted 12th note and 12th note harmonic against one another.
  2. Provided you need to readjust intonation, loosen your strings.
  3. So to set the intonation, find the screws on either the front or back of your bridge (location varies by manufacturer) that are parallel to the strings. If the note is flat, use the screws to draw that saddle closer to the neck. If it’s sharp, use the screws to place the saddle farther from the neck.
  4. Tune string up to pitch, and check to see if the fretted 12th note and 12th note harmonic match.
  5. Repeat steps 2-5 as necessary.

Floyd Rose

  1. Check fretted 12th note and 12th note harmonic against one another.
  2. Provided you need to readjust intonation, loosen your strings.
  3. Use an allen wrench to loosen the screw that attaches the saddle to the bridge.
  4. Push the saddle in the desired direction (towards to neck if the note is flat, away if it’s sharp).
  5. Bring the string back to pitch.
  6. Repeat steps 1 through 5 as necessary.

(Lights, Camera) Action

Action is simply how high your strings are from the fretboard. Why is it called action? Who knows!

Regardless, this section is going to focus on adjusting action from the bridge. You can adjust action from the nut, but that’s honestly one of the many guitar repairs that are better left to professionals.

Also, you may have to re-tweak your intonation slightly after performing these adjustments.

Fender Style Bridges

  1. Detune strings.
  2. You’ll notice that there are two screws poking out of the bottom of each saddle.
  3. Through turning these screws you can either raise or lower the action to your tastes.

Tune-O-Matic Style Bridges

  1. Detune strings.
  2. On either side of the saddles, you’ll notice two large (generally flathead) screws. To lower the action, turn the screws clockwise. To raise it, turn them counter-clockwise.

Floyd Rose Bridges

  1. Detune strings.
  2. The Floyd Rose is a floating bridge. It’s attached to the body by two screws on either side of the bridge plate. To raise or lower the action, simply turn the screws in the desired direction.

Neck Relief

So neck relief is kind of a confusing subject for the average musician. It affects both your action and intonation, and in certain cases even render your guitar unplayable if it’s improperly done.

Fair warning, messing with your neck’s relief can permanently damage your guitar if you aren’t careful. So when you’re making these adjustments, take it slow and remain patient.

So inside the majority of guitar necks there’s a metal rod that controls the bend/relief in your neck. Turning it one way will increase the tension of your neck and cause it to sport more of a bend, while turning it the other will lower the tension and cause your neck to become more flat.

First thing first, you need to check the relief of your neck. To start with, place a capo on the first fret. Next, fret the last fret on your neck. Lastly, measure the distance between the top of the seventh fret and the bottom of the sixth string.

Generally, the gap between the seventh fret and the bottom of the sixth string should be around the thickness of a credit card. If the gap is significantly larger than that, you’ll need to tighten the truss rod. If there’s no gap, you’ll need to loosen it.

Guitar Maintenance Gear Recommendations

Kyser Capo KG6B

Kyser Quick-Change Capo

Why You Would Need It: When checking your guitar’s neck relief, it makes things a lot easier if you use a capo. That way you have a hand free so that you can measure the distance between the fret and the 6th string.

As far as this capo in particular, I recommended it because I have one and I know it works well. It’s fairly priced, has the perfect amount of tension, and in my experience it’s rugged enough that it won’t let you down when you need it.


TC Electronics PolyTune Clip

TC Electronic PolyTune Clip

Why You Would Need It: While you’re setting your guitar’s intonation, you’re going to be tuning and checking the pitches up and down the neck. And when you’re doing so, you’re definitely going to want a capable tuner.

The TC Electronics PolyTune Clip is incredibly accurate, and in my experience it’s easily one of the most reliable headstock tuners on the market.


Planet Waves Pro Winder String Winder and Cutter

D'Addario Pro Winder String Winder and Cutter

Why You Would Need It: You know what sucks? How many times you have to loosen your strings and then bring them back up to pitch while you’re working on your guitar.

So go ahead and pick up a Planet Waves Pro Winder String Winder and Cutter. It can easily halve the amount of time you’ll be spending working on your guitar, and get you back to playing as quickly as possible!

Check Price on Amazon


Jim Dunlop NC65 Formula 65 Neck Cradle

Jim Dunlop NC65 Formula 65 Neck Cradle Maintenance Station

Why You Would Need It: When you’re working on your guitar, keeping your guitar at the right angle can make all of the adjustments you’re going to make a lot less painless.

So instead of using an old t-shirt or a towel, why not just get the Jim Dunlop NC65 Neck Cradle? It’ll give you a stable platform to work on, as well as protecting your guitar from any unforeseen drops.

Check Price on Amazon


Learning to maintain your own guitar is an important part of becoming a fully realized musician. Not only will it save you loads of money in the long run, it’ll also give you a deeper understanding of all the components of your instrument.

About the authors
Mason Hoberg

Mason is a freelance music gear writer that contributes to Equipboard, Reverb, TuneCore, Music Aficionado, and more. He plays the guitar and mandolin and resides in Wyoming. Read more


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Comments 1

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lervz
2yover 2 years ago

Great guide!

1