I’ve noticed something about the guitars I play. I have a variety of ways of setting them up and have tended to set them up to give each one a particular playability and sonic personality. I didn’t really think about why this might be, except for the fact that I have a new one and have to make some decisions about how I set it up. So, now that I am in a position where I am making those decisions, I thought I would write about how those decisions are made. It might help other players.
The first thing I like to decide is which gauge of strings to use. The trade-off here is that the lighter the strings, the less tone and power you get out of them and you have to hit them more gently. The upside is that you get to do more left hand gymnastics and you can generally play faster and bend them further. You can also get a more delicate and subtle control over any left hand vibrato, but they do not hold tune as well, if the guitar has a tremolo, even if it is a locked down Floyd Rose style beast. Because they produce less sound, you tend to turn up the gain on your amp more, so you get better sustain and less attack. It’s a nice smooth, creamy sound.
Heavier gauge strings are great for rhythm, you can bang them hard and aggressively and they produce a lovely tone, with plenty of attack. The tremolo holds tune better, but you have a fight on your hands when you want to incorporate string bending, or chords or lead runs that require large hand stretches. You also need greater hand strength to play heavier strings all night long.
My preference is for .009s (Very Light) and .008s (Ultra Light), depending on the guitar. I find .010s just too uncomfortable for my style of playing. Some people prefer to compromise by having skinny tops and heavy bottoms, so that you still get crashing power chords, but you can play fast lead lines on the upper strings too. Tom Scholz from the band Boston famously went this route.
The next question is how high off the fret board your strings are. This is what is called the action and there are compromises to be made in this area too. If the strings sit too close to the frets, they tend to buzz and rattle if hit hard, especially if the neck is not straight (or rather, not optimally bent – it should have a slight relief, not be perfectly flat) or the frets are not dressed properly (i.e. some of them are higher or lower than they should be). Assuming all the neck bend adjustments with the truss rod and the fret levelling is all in good order, as a matter of hygiene, then the action depends only on the bridge saddle height and the nut slot depths.
Adjusting the bridge height is easiest and here you need to make some decisions about playability, which are interrelated to what you decided to do about string gauge. If the height of the strings above the frets is greater, you can play the strings harder and get strong power chords, but they can be fatiguing to play. If the strings are too close to the frets, they become harder to bend, because bending actually requires that you wedge a little of your finger tip under the string to move it sideways. If bending the strings is part of your technique, you need a little height above the frets to permit this wedge to happen. A high action is also more difficult to perform hammer on and pull-off techniques and to use two handed tapping techniques (made famous by Edward Van Halen).
Having the optimal nut slot depths makes a huge difference to how easy the guitar feels to play, irrespective of the bridge height and to some extent, gauge of strings. However, it’s very easy to go too far and cut them too deep, or too wide, and then you are into a world of pain, so best to not attempt this unless you know what you are doing. Rest assured that having this done correctly is one of the best things you can do to improve a guitar’s playability.
Adjusting the harmonics is important to make the upper registers (fretted notes) be in tune with the lower ones. All string lengths need to be adjusted so that you get a perfect octave when you fret the 12th fret. It’s useful to use an electronic tuner to achieve this. The bridge of most electric guitars provides some adjustment of effective string length on a per string basis. Changing string gauges is a notorious way of getting the guitar to sound bad at the upper frets, unless you change the harmonic tuning at the same time.
The last sonic compromise is the height of the pickups under the strings. Too close and you get a loud tone, lots of attack, but you can squelch sustain because of the magnetic pull of the pickups on the strings, turning to wolf tones in the extreme. Too far away and you lose the attack and most of the volume, but you do tend to get a sweeter sustain and tone. Getting this right is a matter of taste.
Once you have your guitar set up, stick to the same gauge of strings and you won’t have to adjust the guitar very much (only if you experience climactic changes in temperature and humidity, typically). Change string gauges often and you will always have to mess around with the harmonics and other adjustments.
I think I am going to set this new guitar up with .009s and with a low but not too low action, because I like to bend. It needs to be high enough to permit reasonable power chords too. I’m going to keep the pickups about 3 to 4 mm below the strings. I’m leaving the fret slotting for another day, after I see how this setup plays in and I have more time to take care with it. That should do nicely.