Monday, September 3, 2012

How to set up a Gibson Les Paul style guitar

Hello everyone. Today we’re going to do a setup on a Les-Paul-style guitar. For this post, I’ll be setting up a “Burny Super Grade” guitar, but the set up is the same for most Les-Paul-style guitars. I already have a general electric guitar setup post over here:, but there are a few Les Paul specific areas I’d like to go into here.

Before I start, I want to mention a few things about this particular guitar. It looks and (potentially) sounds great. The neck plays well too, but it has some tuning problems and buzzes a bit more than I’d like. The tuning problems are coming from two areas. Firstly the nut slots are too tight, made evident by the strings making a pinging noise when they are tuned up or down. This means that it is difficult to fine tune, as the string’s pitch tends to “jump” up or down. The second reason for the tuning issues is that the intonation is way out. By that I mean that the saddles’ forwards/backwards positions are not set up well, and so when the open strings are correctly tuned, and we then play up the neck, it suddenly seems out of tune again.

Before doing a setup, I’d recommend you put a new set of strings on the guitar. Specifically put the type of strings on that you intend to use in future, since different gauges (and sometimes brands) can require a slightly different intonation setup. If you don’t know how to restring a guitar, then have a look here:

One thing to point out here. When you take the strings off a Les Paul, there is (usually) nothing holding the bridge or the tailpiece on, so be careful with this. That said, I do want to mention that while the strings were off this guitar, I took the opportunity to lower the tailpiece. I prefer the tailpiece to be lowered all the way to the body if possible. Many believe that this will give you better tone/sustain, although it's hard to prove such a thing scientifically. That said, there is very little reason for the tailpiece to be anywhere other than as low as possible anyway.

Here are the reasons why you MIGHT want to raise it: 1. The break angle (the angle change of the strings as they pass over the saddles) is so severe that the strings keep breaking as they pass over the bridge. 2. The break angle is so steep that the strings hit the edge of the bridge before they go over the saddles. I’ve never had a problem with 1 above. However, 2 often happens and it’s not something that bothers me unless it’s severe.

Here's how the tailpiece looked before I tightened it down:

An alternative solution to raising the tailpiece is to pass the strings through from the FRONT of the tailpiece (heading towards the back of the guitar) and then passing them over the top of the tailpiece before they go over the bridge. Here you can see evidence of someone having set up the guitar in this way in the past (scuff marks from the strings passing over the top). Personally, this is not something I’ve ever needed to do, but the option is there should you choose to take it.

I’ve also decided to fix the pinching nut issue while the strings are off. However, it’s easy enough to do this while the strings are on, by just moving each one out of the way before filing each slot.

Before filing the nut:

For each slot requiring attention, I use a nut file at a slight downwards angle to widen the slot, making sure not to LOWER it (you should do this at a shallower angle than this photo might imply – you want to make sure that you are JUST slightly downwards compared to horizontal). Just take it really easily here, keeping an eye on the front of the slot to make sure you don’t go too far. Repeat this for whichever slots require widening.

Note that if for any reason you are unable (or unwilling) to widen the slots with nut files, you may get away with using nut sauce instead. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, have a look here: 

OK, I’ve put a new set of strings on now. We’re now going to carry out the following steps, just like we did in the general electric guitar setup post. 1. Check and adjust neck bow (how straight the neck is) 2. Check and adjust saddle height 3. Check and adjust the intonation (how far back or forward the saddles need to sit at the bridge to keep your guitar as in tune as possible no matter what fret you’re playing)

1. Check and adjust neck bow (how straight the neck is)
Since we only want to check how straight the neck is, we need to isolate this aspect of the guitar. In other words we don’t want the height of the nut or the placement of the saddles to confuse us, so we take them out of the equation. Don’t worry; we’re not going to remove any of these components, just circumvent them. I use a ruler to do this, but you can do it using only strings. I’ll describe both methods below.

Method A: Using a ruler
Get a ruler (or straightedge if you want to be all fancy) that is at least as long as the neck, but not so long that it reaches all the way from the nut to the saddles (and watch it doesn’t lean on the pickups or pickup surrounds either). If you can’t get one between these lengths, and are willing to sacrifice a ruler, get one that’s too long and cut it to length. Alternatively, you can just cut a little out of one edge so that you can still make full use of the other edge of the ruler. Now lay the edge of the ruler along the frets (don’t rest it on top of the nut, saddles, pickups or pickup surrounds).

Method B: Using the strings
First, put a capo on the first fret. This stops the nut from having any influence, say from being too high/low.

Next, hold down the low (thick) E string on the bridge side of the highest fret. This stops the saddles from having any influence.

No matter whether you used method A or B, you can now go about measuring the neck bow. This is done by measuring the string height (the gap between the ruler/string and the top of the fret) at about the 8th fret. There is a lot of debate over how straight a neck should be, and in fact it really is personal choice, but a height roughly the same as the thickness of a B string is a good starting point. Personally, I use a 0.012” feeler gauge to do this, but you could use a B string. Simply slide the feeler gauge/B string into the gap to see if it is too big/small.

If the gap is perfect, congratulations – you may now move on to step 2. If the gap is too large, then you need to tighten the truss rod a little (similarly, if the gap is too small, you need to loosen the truss rod). Locate the adjustable end of the truss rod. On every Les Paul style guitar I have seen, the adjustable end of the truss rod is located under the truss rod cover, located on the peg head. To remove this, simply unscrew the two (or three) screws and lift/slide the cover off.

Under this cover you can see a nut. In my case it requires an 8 mm socket, although this may differ from guitar to guitar. Obviously American-made guitars will likely use Imperial measurements.

Anyway, here’s how you adjust the truss rod. This must be done with the strings tuned to whatever pitch you usually use. If your neck is too bowed (the gap you just measured is too big), you tighten the truss rod by turning the socket clockwise. It is recommended that you only turn the tool a quarter turn at a time (or even one eighth) and then give the neck some time to settle. You will also need to make sure the strings are still properly tuned after each adjustment.

CAUTION: If you find that the truss rod is very difficult to turn, then stop now and take your guitar to the guitar shop. It may be that there is a problem with the neck or the truss rod and you may damage the guitar by forcing it. Believe me, you do not want to damage the truss rod. If, instead of tightening the truss rod, you need to loosen it, do so by turning it anti-clockwise (counter-clockwise). Again, a quarter turn at a time. Once you have got the gap to 0.012” (or whatever gap you prefer), you will have finished this step. Feel free to remove the capo at this stage if it is attached.  

2. Check and adjust the saddle height
Adjusting saddle height couldn’t be easier on a Les Paul. Since the bridge can only be adjusted at each end, there is no need to adjust each saddle individually. Firstly check and, if necessary, adjust the low (thick) E string height. Do this by adjusting the height of the bridge at the thick E string end. This is done by rotating the thumbwheel anti-clockwise (counter-clockwise) to raise the bridge or clockwise to lower it. You might be able to do this with just your fingers, but chances are you will need to use pliers. Be careful if you use a tool as it is easy to slip and damage the finish on your guitar. Alternatively you can slacken all of the strings and use your fingers, although this is a very time-consuming process. Finger method

Plier method

The question here is how high to make the bridge. Well, this is personal choice. Find somewhere were the string doesn’t buzz on any fret from being too low, but low enough that you can play up and down the neck easily. There’s usually a sweet spot where you can just start to detect some buzzing and you can leave it just a tiny bit higher than that. Now do the exact same procedure for the high (thin) E string end of the bridge. Play the guitar a little bit to see if any of the other strings are buzzing. If, say, the A string is still buzzing, then raise up the end of the bridge nearest to that string a little bit ( a small amount of buzzing is often OK as long as it doesn't bother you too much and isn't heard through the amplifier - this a bit of a personal choice thing). OK, that’s step 2 finished. Your guitar should be nice and playable now. However, it may not seem to stay in tune very well. That’s because the intonation might be off.  

3. Check and adjust the intonation
The intonation here refers to the forward/backward position of the individual string saddles. By moving the saddles forwards or backwards, we are actually adjusting the length of the strings. Without going into too much detail, if the string is the wrong length, the positions of the frets will not be correct and the guitar will be out of tune on some of them. Adjusting the intonation is not difficult. All you need is a guitar tuner and a tool to move the saddles forwards or backwards. Play an open low E string and make sure it is in tune (using the guitar tuner).

Now play the 12th fret of the low E string. It should also be in tune. If it is too high, then you need to move the saddle back. This increases the length of the string. If the note is too low, then you need to move the saddle forwards. This decreases the length of the string. Using a screwdriver on the high E String saddle:

On a Les Paul, adjusting the saddle position can be a little tricky while the string is tuned to pitch. Sometimes you can get a screwdriver in there and turn it, but often you need to slacken the string and move it to the side. Also note that sometimes the adjustment screws are at the back of the bridge rather than the front. I prefer adjusting the saddle while the string is slack anyway as there is a lot of stress on both the string and the saddle otherwise.

Adjusting the D string saddle after moving the string to the side:

Now check both the open and the 12th fret notes again. You’ll have to tune the open string again because by moving the saddle, the tension of the string will have changed and so will need to be retuned. Once you have correctly moved the saddle so that both the open string and the 12th fret are in tune, you can move on to the A string. Repeat until all of the strings have been done. Note that on this particular guitar, the (thick) E, A and D saddles could not be moved far enough forward to intonate correctly, so I had to swap their orientation to give a bit more distance.

You probably won’t have to do this, but if you do, here’s how to go about it: First, slacken the affected strings and move them to the sides of the saddles. Then take some needle-nose pliers and remove one end of the retaining spring (different styles of bridge will use different types of retaining spring – sometimes there is an individual one for each saddle, in which case you might even need to remove the whole bridge to do this).

Remove one of the saddles that needs attention.

Unscrew the saddle from the screw and then screw it back on in the other direction.

Replace the saddles and screws in the bridge and replace the retaining spring, being careful to make sure it is sitting correctly in the screw slots.

Well, that’s a basic setup done. Hopefully your guitar will now be easy to play and appear to be in tune no matter where you play the note.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Making a Cigar Box Guitar – Part 3

OK, let’s finish off our Cigar Box Guitar.

If you haven’t already read parts one and two, they can be found here: and here:

I want to add some fret markers to the neck, but before that I want to fill in a few holes, as can be seen here:
I glue in some toothpicks:
Cut them and sand them down:
It’s not a perfect colour match, but I think it gives it some personality.

Now for marking the frets, I use an online calculator to determine the positions and mark them out with a pencil. There are many sites that provide fret calculators, but I used the one here and it worked great:

I should add here that since this will be a slide guitar only, we won't need any proper frets, just markers.
Then I use a soldering iron to burn in the lines and the dots:
We pretty much have a complete Cigar Box Guitar at this stage, but I’d like to add some sort of pickup, so I grab a spare piezo buzzer I have lying around from repairing one of my kids’ toys a while ago. I also have plenty of pots and jacks, etc., lying around from doing stomp boxes. Here are the main ingredients:
First, let’s cut a section out of one of the reinforcement blocks to make room for the jack:
And drill a hole for it to pass through:
Then figure out where to put the pot. At first I wanted to put it close to the back end of the guitar top, but this wouldn’t work, as it would be banging into the jack when we try to close the box, so instead it’s moved forwards a bit.

Original position:
Moved forwards:
Hole drilled:
Now we fit the pot and scrape the back of it so that it’s easy to melt a blob of solder onto the back of it.

Blob of solder melted onto it:
Piezo and jack connected up:
Piezos are very sensitive, acoustically speaking, so we need to add some padding around ours so that it doesn’t pick up too much unwanted noise. To achieve this, two pieces of very thin wood are cut out and smothered with white glue and the piezo is sandwiched in-between them, making sure there's room for the wires and the solder blobs.

Making little grooves for the wires/solder:
Adding the glue:
Making the sandwich. Mmmm… sandwich.
Note that the wood I used above was FAR TOO THICK and I had to go back and repeat this step with a much, much thinner solution.

All right, finally (for the electronics), the pickup sandwich is glued into place. Make sure you glue it somewhere that is not going to interfere with closing the box (e.g. don’t glue it in the middle only to find that you haven’t accounted for the neck).
We’re now ready to put this whole thing together, so we glue the wooden reinforcements that we made in the last post into the box:
And then the neck itself is glued in:
Finally we add some screws to each corner of the box. This will seal it closed, but still allow us to open later should the need arise:

Making pilot holes for the screws:
Adding the screws:
Add some strings:
And here’s the finished product: