Become Your Own Guitar Tech: Basic Tools and Tricks

I've been a guitar player for decades but only recently became serious about working on my instruments. In my research, I’ve found hundreds of articles about instrument repair, and while many are fantastic and chock full of information that’s invaluable to musicians, a lot is impractical or requires more space or specialized tools than most of us have. Plus, some repairs, such as fretwork, nut replacement, under-saddle pickup installation and finish repairs are best left to professionals.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t work on your own guitars, only that you should know your limits, which in many instances are related to having the right tools. What I found most challenging when getting started was knowing what tools I should buy, and which were not worth the money based on my skill level.

From trial and error, I found what some repairs were simple and small-space friendly. Any of the repairs discussed can be done with just a clean and level space. All of these techniques will easier with the purchase of a guitar work mat with neck rest, although a rolled up towel to support the neck will work well in most instances.

Here’s an overview of some basic guitar repairs that any serious guitar player should be able to tackle and a list of tools necessary to accomplish them. In future stories, we’ll dig into these repairs in greater detail.

Rewiring a Guitar Jack

Installing pickups and wiring mods can be complicated, but learning to do common pot and jack repairs is almost more important, as they can save you time, money and frustration, especially before or even during a gig. That said, it can be daunting to know what to buy when jumping into the world of soldering, but for less than $80, you can have tools that will last for years.

Here are some quick tips:

  • Only use a soldering iron around musical instrument electronics; soldering guns will demagnetize pickups
  • A good wire stripper and tweezers will also make the job easier
  • Get a chisel and a point tip for the iron; use the chisel for high-heat applications and the point tip for delicate operations
  • For guitar electronics, use only standard 60/40 rosin core solder, which is 60% tin and 40% lead
  • Before you do anything, take a picture of the parts and connection for your reference
  • In the long run, you won’t regret spending a little extra money to get an adjustable soldering station, not just the iron. It will give you more consistent heating and better results; 30 watts is enough to work on guitar electronics.

Set Your Guitar’s Intonation and Action

Setting string action and intonation also are tasks you can master at home, and you probably already own the most important tool: an accurate tuner. Most electronic tuners will do the trick, no need for a strobe-style tuner unless you are a perfectionist.

The other tools necessary for setting action and intonation — screwdrivers and hex keys — are also cheap and likely already in your toolbox, but here are a couple thoughts to help avoid issues and make the job simple:

  • Proper bit size. You should use the largest bit size that fits the screw. This allows for a solid grip and decreases the chance of “camming out” (when the screwdriver slips out of the screwhead due to too much force) and maybe strips the screwhead and gouges your paint.
  • Get extra-long and extra-short screwdrivers. Setting intonation and adjusting the spring claw on a Stratocaster requires long (six-inch-plus) screwdrivers. The length gives you the torque needed to set the claw, and also allows you to clear the body when setting bridge intonation.
  • Short screwdrivers are great when taking off pickguard screws or adjusting pickup height, and allows for better control and less danger of missing and scratching the finish.
  • Allen wrenches, both standard and metric, are a necessity for adjusting bridge saddles, truss rods, knobs and plenty more.

Intonating an Electric Guitar

Setting the intonation on an electric is simple. Holding the tuned guitar vertically, as you would play it, test the note at the 12th fret.

  • If the note is flat, move the string saddle forward until it’s in tune
  • if it is sharp, move it back until it’s in tune

This is best done with newer strings that have been stretched, but not abused.

Setting the Action on an Electric Guitar

Setting the action is more tricky, and there as many variations as there are bridge types. Generally speaking, however, it is an easy fix and requires just a couple tools:

In a pinch this can be done with a good ruler, but the right tools make it a breeze. The string action gauge measures the distance between the top of the fret to the bottom of the string, and gives a concrete measurement to tinker with.

Check with your guitar’s manufacturer and tweak it to your preferences based on string gauge and technique, but for electric guitars, the “standard” action at the 12th fret is:

  • 0.078” on the low E
  • 0.063” on the high E

Once you have your outside strings set to the proper height, set the rest using the radius gauge. The radius refers to the curvature of the fretboard:

  • Vintage-style instruments tend to have smaller radii, meaning they have a more pronounced fretboard curve. Old-school Strats and Teles, for example have a 7-½ inch radius.
  • Shredders tend to have flatter fretboards, which can measure 12 inches and more.

Now your strings will feel “right” across the fretboard. If the action is now buzzy, adjusting the truss rod is the answer.

Minor Truss Rod Adjustments

The ability to do a minor or seasonal adjustment on a truss rod is an essential skill. However, if you are working on a vintage or delicate instrument, uncomfortable with the idea or the rod is very stiff, then a professional should service it. If you can move the rod with light resistance, you can start working on the neck relief yourself.

Evaluating Your Neck Relief

Evaluating the curvature of your guitar neck, referred to as “relief” is easy; we’re looking for:

  • Back bow — the neck pulling away from the bridge; evident when the strings are buzzy in the middle of the neck
  • Up bow — the neck is being pulled toward the bridge; evident when the strings are too high off the neck in the middle of the neck
  • Straight — necks play best when they have just a little relief

To measure relief, you can capo at the first fret and hold down a string at the fret where the neck meets the body. This makes the string a straight-edge. The space between the string and the frets at the midpoint between the capo and the where the neck meets the body (where you fretted) shows how much relief the neck has.

Some techs will use feeler gauges to measure this space, which are good guitar tools for sure, but there is an easier way. The gap under the strings should be taller than a business card, but shorter than a credit card.

Adjusting Your Guitar’s Truss Rod

Once you determine your relief, get access to your rod’s adjusting nut. A flashlight can make finding the right size wrench easier. The right tools are key. Make sure your wrench fits tight, too small of a wrench will strip or mar the nut, which is a big problem.

The most important rules are:

  • Take your time. Never turn more than an ⅛ of a turn. Then wait. The wood needs time to react
  • Right to tighten — tightening will straighten the neck
  • Left to loosen — loosening will add more relief
  • Always loosen a truss rod first. This will make sure you don’t have too much tension on the neck, and makes sure the rod works

These simple tools and techniques will allow you to know your instruments better and save you money on taking your instrument to a tech. This also helps you quickly analyze deals on used guitars, letting you unlock the potential of a diamond in the rough. Also, by knowing how to better set your intonation and action, you will also play better.

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