Many people play guitar, but it takes a special set of skills to know how to set up and especially, repair guitars. I’m just going to be taking you through basic setup, such as truss rod adjustment, action, pickup height and intonation. All of these require only an allen key or a screwdriver, so you can follow along on your own guitar.
Note: This article was written with only electric guitars in mind. Adjusting action and intonation on an acoustic is way more difficult, and requires a special set of tools. Only the truss rod section of this article will apply to acoustics.
Your truss rod can cause fret buzz if it’s adjusted wrong. Besides backbow, this is entirely personal preference. Backbow is when the neck is bent backwards–this pulls the strings down towards the frets, causing them to buzz. You can either have a dead straight neck, or a bit of overbow (also called relief). Dead straight helps with keeping the action consistent along the entire length of the fretboard, while a relief will give you a higher action towards the higher frets. The chart above will help with adjustment.
Pickup height can make or break your sound. Ideally you want equal volume on both your neck and bridge pickup, but it can be a personal preference. For example, I have my bridge pickup set very close to the strings, for playing leads and stuff with distortion. Then I have my neck pickup far away from the strings, so I can play things in a clean tone. So just adjust to your play style, and adjust to fit your needs.
Setting your string action is vital to the playability of your instrument. Action refers to the height of the strings off the fretboard. Too high, and your strings will be uncomfortable to play and hard to press down. Too low, and your strings will rest against your frets and buzz. This is up to personal preference, but there are two important things to keep in mind when setting your action. One, make sure your neck isn’t backbowed. And two, your string action has to be adjusted to the radius of your fretboard. It’s not the end of the world if they don’t, but I recommend buying understring radius gauges to get the optimal action everywhere on the neck. Here’s an example of how you would adjust the action to a radius:
Set your desired action on the low and high E strings, then place the understring radius gauge under the strings at the bridge, and adjust all the other strings in between, so all of them are just touching the radius gauge. Then test it, and see how it feels to you. Some people like a lower action on the treble strings, but that’s all up to personal preference.
Intonation makes sure your guitar is in tune at each fret on each string. Intonating is pretty easy, but you need an accurate tuner to properly intonate. Ideally you would use a strobe tuner for max accuracy, but you can also use a tuner with a line input directly from your guitar. Do not use a clip on tuner, such as a Snark. They are not accurate enough to use for intonating. Intonating can be different for different types of bridges, but this demonstration uses a Tune-O-Matic bridge, which is used on most Gibson and Epiphone guitars.
There you have it. Go play.