III. Guitar Setup
- A. New Strings
- B. String Gauge
- C. Action
- D. Fret Buzz
- E. Intonation
- F. Pickups
- G. Bridge
- H. Nut
- I. Body/Fretboard/Tuners/Neck-through/etc.
You should be changing your strings every 2-3 months at the very least, more often if you play them a lot. Generally, it's a good idea to change them once a month. Many popular artists with dedicated guitar techs will put a new set of strings on after every show! New strings will stay in tune better, have longer sustain, produce a richer and brighter tone, and be easier to play. If you want to get more life from your strings, wash your hands before playing and wipe the strings down with some rubbing alcohol every now and then. You donít want them to get covered in dirt and corrosive materials.Top of Page
Most stock guitars come in standard E tuning with 9's (.009-.042). These are easy to bend and are good for lead work, but I find them a bit lacking if you want a heavy rhythm sound. Because they are relatively loose, you'll get a strong attack on them that quickly fades to a whimper. In my mind, that sounds kind of vintage, not modern and heavy. For standard E tuning, I prefer 10's (.010-.046). If you like to play in drop D, you may prefer strings with a heavy bottom (.010-.052). The heavy bottom is nice, even if you don't play in a drop tuning - you generally don't need to make as strong bends on your thicker strings as you do on the thinner ones. Given that I'm a Petrucci nut, I basically use the exact same string gauges (Scroll down a little and there's a chart for all his tunings with the gauges used).
Also, thinner strings are easier to mute. This is mostly why I like them for lead work - you are less likely to have an unwanted string ring out. I find I sometimes like the sharper attack too, but not always. You will also have an easier time playing legato (hammer-ons and pull-offs) with thinner strings. I have two guitars tuned to standard E. One has 9's, the other 10's.
If you are tuning all your guitar strings down, you don't want 9's, or even 10's. I find I need at least 11's to play in standard D, at least 12's to play in standard C, and at least 13's to play in standard B. If you are additionally going to drop the 6th string a full step, I highly recommend getting a set of heavy bottoms. Again, see the chart on the Petrucci site linked above, or visit this website, which has a Java Applet to calculate string tension using gauges and tunings. Here are the values I use for most of my guitars: notice you can specify the scale length, tuning, and type of strings. The first is D'Addario EXL120's, then D'Addario EXL110's, then D'Addario EXL110-7's with an additional .080 nickel wound string (for my Ibanez RGA8 8 string). Notice the 8 string has a longer scale length, but I tune it down a half step, acheiving roughly the same string tension.
Another point on string gauge - the thinner your strings, the less tension they'll have which means the more you'll stretch them when you pick them. This will cause them to go sharp initially and gradually lower their pitch until they find their natural sustaining volume. The harder you pick them, the sharper they'll go. For metal, where you often have to play fast and aggressively, picking hard will cause the initial attack to be sharper than the note you desire. This is another reason to use thicker strings for aggressive music like metal - otherwise, you can sound out of tune, even when you arenít.
Lately much ado has been made about balanced tension between the strings - basically each string having near identical tension when tuned up. There's nothing wrong with unbalanced tension. Of course, a wide imbalance is going to feel awkward. I consider balanced tension a good ideal, but I find most commercial sets are close enough not to nitpick. D'Addario actually took notice and makes true balanced tension sets now, but the price is a bit too high right now for me to switch to them. Keep in mind also that the link above to the tension calculator is not perfect and should only be used as a rough estimate.
And a final point - thin strings are more likely to have fret buzz with the attack. As I just mentioned, they will stretch more and thus be more likely to slap against frets above the one you are fretting. This can sound kind of nice for blues work, where you aren't always picking aggressively - it really emphasizes when you do. For metal, where you are constantly picking quickly and aggressively, it will make your playing sound like noise; it will be near impossible to hear the desired note pitch. This also depends on your...Top of Page
Action can generally be described as the distance between your strings and your frets when you are not fretting them, usually measured as the distance between any string and the top of the 12th (or sometimes 24th) fret. This depends on your nut height, your bridge height, and your truss rod tension. Properly setting up your action is way beyond the scope of this guide; we are only focusing on how action affects your tone, assuming whether you can set up your guitar correctly for your desired action.
High action is often regarded to have "better" tone (see below), but can be more difficult to play. This is mainly due to poor setup in other areas, which causes a lower area to have too much fret buzz. It can also be more difficult to get a good intonation (making you sound out of tune). Low action runs the risk of fret buzz, especially when other aspects of your setup are bad or you pick aggressively and use a thick pick. For metal, fret buzz is a no-no (too noisy). I like a medium to low action across the board - high enough so that I don't get a strong buzz when I pick the strings at a low to medium stength.
A lot of people think action has little impact on tone, other than the amount of fret buzz. That might be true on a low-quality instrument or one that hasn't been set up properly because by the time you get the action low enough so that it affects tone, it's already getting quite a bit of sustaining buzz. With a great instrument well set up to allow a really low action with virtually no sustaining fret buzz, action has a strong impact on tone. At higher action, the strings don't have as much twang or pop to their attack and sustain a strong bass response. As you lower the action, the strings will occasionally hit the frets. This pop during attack can be regarded as good or bad. It tends to add a little brightness to the tone.
My advice here is not to try to basically EQ your guitar tone through the action. And if you have a strong bass response, you can always EQ it out later, whereas you can't EQ it in if it wasn't there to begin with. A boost pedal does a much better job of filtering out too much mud than a low action.
For reference, Petrucci's tech said in some forum that he runs a super-low action: ~1mm at 12th fret for all strings (~1.2 - 1.3mm @24th fret). You can hear how much pop and how little bass (and how much buzz) this gives the tone in the intro solo to Hollow Years on the Live at Bukokan DVD. Petrucci's setup has been said to be absurdly low. Most low action shred setups are around 1.5 - 2mm on the high E string at the 24th fret. For more on this, see Ibanez Rules action setup page.Top of Page
Fret buzz is the bane of most guitarists' existence. As such, there is so much stigma and strong language around it, that more novice players can be misled about what to expect from their instrument. This section is simply designed to clarify a few things.
Fret buzz is not the same thing as fretting out or choking. Fretting out is completely unacceptable - it means the string doesn't even have enough clearance above the frets higher than the one you're fretting to make a sustainable vibration. This can be caused by having your action too low, too much truss rod tension (making the fretboard side of the neck convex), or unlevel frets. A bit of fret buzz, on the other hand, is acceptable; as long as it isn't having a strong impact on your tone.
You should gauge the amount of fret buzz you are getting by playing through an amp using a clean tone, not simply listening to the guitar when it's not plugged in. All electric guitars tend to have a little buzz, but that won't necessarily be heard by the pickups. Some people may try to completely eliminate all acoustic buzzing, making their instrument near unplayable for ABSOLUTELY NO tonal benefit.
Eliminating (reducing) fret buzz uses multiple points of attack. First, I want to make sure I'm using tight enough string gauges for the tuning I'm using (and the playability I desire). See above. The more tension on the strings, the smaller their vibration distance for a given volume, and the less fret buzz they'll produce. If I can accept a little more buzz for ease of play, I use a guitar with lighter strings. And when I say a desirable amount of buzz, I mean just a touch of it on the very initial part of my attack. I don't want it to occur through (and kill) my attack, and I DEFINITELY don't want it continue as I sustain. And again, I don't use that guitar for metal.
Next, make sure your neck is virtually flat. You need to adjust your truss rod to counter-balance the tension the strings exert on one side of the neck, but you still want the neck to have a little bow to it for the frets closest to the nut to avoid fret buzz. Again, Ibanez Rules action setup page is a good reference. Be careful when doing a truss rod adjustment - you don't want to turn more than a quarter turn without giving the neck time to adjust to the new tension. Make sure you're turning the right direction too. If this is your first time, have an experienced friend or commercial technician demonstrate the process for you. Or do lots of internet research. Also, be sure to re-tune to ensure the neck is receiving the right amount of tension after adjustments.
Finally, I want to raise my bridge (either adjusting the saddles or the entire bridge depending on the type of bridge). I'll raise it a bit at a time, retune at least one string to test, and see how much buzz I get playing a medium amount of pick strength across at a couple frets from 1-12. Make sure you retune after any bridge adjustment. If you raise the bridge, you may be tightening the string(s), resulting in less buzz...until you actually tune to the proper note. Or vice versa. If you are adjusting via individual saddles, be sure to keep the saddles at the same relative heights as the fretboard radius. If you already have the saddles fit to the fretboard radius, it's usually best to adjust the two bridge posts when possible. Also, watch out for how floating trem bridges make contact with the posts. You generally want the knife edges to hit at a perfect 90 degrees. This will vary with the bear claw tension in the back cavity of the guitar as well as the string gauge, tuning, bridge height, saddle heights. You basically have to adjust everything at once, slowly moving closer and closer to the ideal setup.
Beyond those adjustments, the only way to get your action lower with the same amount of buzz is to have the frets re-leveled or the nut filed down. I would get a professional to do such modifications, although there are plenty of tutorials on the web that can help you. I'd try to find several of them, as some may make them sound way easier than they are. Filing and/or replacing your nut is the far simpler of the two, but you'll need precise tools to do it at a professional level.Top of Page
Intonation is basically how in tune the guitar is at different frets and strings. If a guitar is intonated poorly, it will sound out of tune when playing notes higher on the fretboard. Chords will be notably dissonant when they shouldn't be.
Most people don't pay much attention to intonation, yet it is absolutely crucial to sound good, especially in a band or recording environment. It's also a fairly simple and risk-free adjustment, although it may take a little time.
The easiest way to intonate the guitar is by comparing the pitch of the 12th fret harmonic vs. the fretted note. If the fretted note is sharper than the harmonic, the string must be lengthened, which usually involves moving the individual bridge saddle away from the nut. If it is flatter, then the string must be shortened by moving the saddle closer to the nut. Once all your strings are intonated, tune up your guitar. You'll notice it will sound much better across the fretboard, especially for chords.
Note that intonation is also dependent on the rest of your setup, particularly your action. If you have a high action, you have to press the string down a significant distance to fret it, which is adding tension (and possibly length) to the string. This is why it is difficult to intonate a guitar with high action. You can match the 12th harmonic to the 12th fretted note, but other spots on the fretboard may not be consistently in tune. The same principle applies to a guitar with a high nut height. You have to exert more tension on the frets close to the nut to properly fret them, causing them to be sharper than other areas of the neck.
Thus, I like to intonate using at least 2-3 comparisons. I'll start with the 12th harmonic vs 12th fret, then I'll try the 7th fret vs. 19th fret. If that's off, maybe I need to lower my action a little. Then I'll try the 2nd fret vs. 14th. If there's a discrepancy there, it tells me how much impact my nut height is having on getting a proper intonation. If I can't get all of these 3 tests perfect, I'll compromise and get all 3 as close as possible rather than have one perfect and the other 2 way off.
Keep in mind that lower quality instruments might have issues with the nut or possibly even with the fret spacing. Unlevel frets can also throw off intonation, making it impossible to intonate. Technically, perfect intonation is impossible - the best you can do is a compromise to get all the notes as close to in-tune as possible.Top of Page
I feel pickups are the most important part of an electric guitar. They determine the overall tone of your guitar's output. The biggest tonal improvement you can make on a cheap/mid-range stock guitar is to replace the stock pickups.
In general, single-coils are noisier and glassier (have more shimmer in their high-end) than humbuckers. That makes them great for blues and funk (and most "clean" tones), but poor for hard rock and metal, where their noise gets compressed and amplified and high-end shimmer makes for a gritty sounding distortion. While single-coils are usually called "glassy", humbuckers are usually called "creamy" They can sound kind of nasal when used in a clean tone - lots of mids but not a lot of treble.
To be more technical, humbuckers consist of two single coil pickups in series with opposite direction windings. This causes them to cancel out interference and hum. Their increased impedance; however, also causes them to produce less higher frequencies, which gives them their strong mid-range output compared to single-coils which are generally brighter. Because they are two pickups in series, they produce stronger output generated by string vibration. Strong mids are great for distortion - bass tends to generate muddy distortion, and treble tends to generate splatty or gritty distortion. Mids distort in a smooth to searing manner, great for all variety of rock.
I really like a HSH setup - that's bridge humbucker, middle single-coil, neck humbucker. This let's you dial in some solid blues and funk tones, while still achieving most of the classic rock, hard rock, and metal tones you can dream of. Another versatile setup is the HSS (bridge humbucker + single coils middle and neck). If you only want mild crunch, grungy rhythm distortion, blues, funk, and classic rock tones, you may prefer the 3 single-coil setup.
If you want maximum versatility, look into getting humbuckers that have a coil tap (actually coil split) feature. These split the wire between the two coils, allowing wirings that can access the pickup as one of its single coils or as a humbucker, or wire the coils in parallel getting you a single-coil tone but still achieve hum-cancellation.Top of Page
Generally, the "tightest" and brightest tone will come from the bridge pickup. I use this pickup most of the time. You will be unable to achieve a tight, djenty metal tone without using a bridge humbucker. It also works for tight, shred leads. I find that for leads where you want a softer, singing-type sound, use the neck pickup. It will have less attack and a warmer sound - more of an "oo" than an "ii". You can also use it for a fat rhythm sound Ė I find Satch often uses such.
I tend not to use multiple pickups at the same time, at least for distortion. It kind of puts the tone in no man's land. You can get a good, "bigger" clean sound using multiple pickups, however. But you can get some interesting sounds by running the pickups out of phase.Top of Page
One of the more important aspects of pickup selection is signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Cheap stock pickups generally have poor SNR, and thus your tone always sounds washed out. Adding a noise suppressor is only masking the problem. Many "high-output" pickups claim they will make you sound heavier, but you probably don't need a high output signal to get the amount of distortion you want. You just want a high SNR, so that you can crank the gain without getting a really noisy tone. If you are maxing out the gain knob and still not getting enough distortion, you've either got very low output pickups, or you're using the wrong amp (or amp model).Top of Page
Pickups also have a strong effect on the output signal's frequency response. Some pickups are dark, whereas some are bright. Some will simply lack response in one area or another, or be prominent in some range. For a high gain sound, you'll want somewhat bright pickups, but you don't want them to lack bass or lower mids. I used to have EMG's, and I put the EMG 81 as my bridge pickup. I find this pickup is too thin and cold (not enough bass or lower mids). It's simply incapable of achieving a good vintage tone or really warm lead. I switched to Seymour Duncan AHB-1 Blackouts, which has a more even frequency response and better dynamics (less compression), but they have their own shortcomings and I swapped them out for D-Activators. REMEMBER: you can't add frequencies to your signal that never existed in the first place, but you can always filter them out down the road. Trying to add frequencies that aren't there means you will simply add noise.
Here is a great comparison video of some different pickups and the effect they have on tone. You'll notice the distortion tone differs from one pickup to the next. This is mainly due to their varying frequency responses. You can EQ around these differences later on, but it's generally a good idea to start as early as possible with the tone you want rather than trying to dial it in later.Top of Page
It really depends on the pickup. Research the individual characteristic of the pickup, and generally disregard whether it is active or passive, except keeping in mind that actives have one negative aspect that passives don't: actives require you to fit (and occasionally replace) a 9V battery inside your guitar's electronics cavity. Some people like to run two 9V's in series to get 18V. I have heard this will improve the SNR on EMG's but has little effect on Blackouts.
Some people say that actives are more compressed sounding than passives. In general that's probably true, but again, it really depends on the pickup. Also, compression isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many artists like to run a compressor as the first piece of their signal chain. Just keep that in mind. If you want versatility more than one specific tone, you may want more dynamic pickups - you can compress dynamic pickups with other gear, but you can't decompress compressed pickups.
One positive to actives is that they are generally low impedance, which means less signal degradation over longer runs of cable. However, this problem can easily be remedied by a buffered pedal inserted in your chain before any giant runs of cable occur.
FWIW, I have given up on Blackouts and other active pickups. I'm just not getting the dynamic response and "life" to the tone I want. This means I will likely have a lower signal-to-noise ratio. So be it.Top of Page
As far as Blackouts go, keep in mind there are 3 variants. I have heard the AHB-2's are generally not very good (but I have no first hand experience). The AHB-3's have a radically different frequency response from the AHB-1's. Also, the AHB-1 bridge is different from the AHB-1 neck. I like the AHB-1 bridge in the bridge position and AHB-1 neck in neck position. The difference is the magnet used - the AHB-1 bridge tends to sound a little less defined, but more compressed and "thick". Many people prefer the AHB-1 neck in the bridge position to get a cleaner sound. I tried it both ways - I think the AHB-1 bridge gets a great djent sound, whereas the AHB-1 neck was a little "crispier".Top of Page
Too low and you lose SNR and your dynamic response gets messed up, too high and you get input clipping on your device, as well as "pole pull", which can screw up your intonation and kill sustain. I recommend allowing them to have a safe distance. Also, don't confuse output level with SNR. Raising your pickups will increase their output level, but it is probably not improving their SNR unless they were very low (or extremely weak) to start.Top of Page
EMG recommends you to put them as close as possible. I followed this advice when I had these pickups and never noticed any problems with doing so. For the Blackouts, this is where things get a little interesting. The pickups seem to have some kind of buffer, so they will not output above a certain level. So it's like a limiter effect. If you raise them close, you will actually reduce the dynamics to your attack. I prefer to keep a medium distance on these pickups. They work pretty well at a distance. I actually have them as low as possible on my custom Jem (which actually isnít THAT low). Even with some distance, they still have a higher-than-normal output. But if you go too low, youíll notice you canít get good artificial harmonics or softer notes to sound good.Top of Page
Petrucci uses the Dimarzio Crunchlab and Liquifire combo. You can't deny his tone. I switched to these on an earlier model of his EBMM signature, and I like the tone better - it's very mid-focused but modern and thick. The earlier Steve's Special/Air Norton are also great pickups - slightly more chunk and bite to the tone. Vai uses Dimarzio Breed and Evolution pickups (EDIT: and now the acclaimed Gravity Storm pickups) - also a guy with great tone. I've played a stock Jem before and was surprised how easily you could get a great metal tone from it - I figured they would come off a little fatter and fuzzier. I've heard that EMG's __X line of pickups have improved on the short-comings of their earlier models, but I am skeptical that they'd sound better than high-quality passives. I really, really like the Dimarzio D-Activators - very aggressive pickups. And while they cost a bit more, I hear that BareKnuckle Pickups are basically the best in the industry, although I've never used any in person - I personally think they're too expensive, but if money is no obstacle... In general, Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio, Lungren, Lace, EMG, and BareKnuckle are all popular brands, and you can find pickups suggestions all over the web.Top of Page
I can't tell you much about how this type of bridge material will affect your tone, but I do know that a fixed bridge will best maximize your frequency response and sustain. If you have a floating bridge, you may lose a little brightness (or some thickness) - something to keep in mind for pickup selection and tone editing. You can use a Tremel-no or put a block of wood under the bridge to keep it from floating. I recommend the Tremel-no Ė it allows you to switch on the fly by turning a thumb-screw.
Also, if you have a Stat type bridge (whammy dives only) or floating bridge, I recommend stuffing the bear claw cavity in the back of the guitar with Kleenex or cotton balls or gauze. This will keep the springs from making any noise, so that they do not ring after you play a note. This is essential for hard rock and metal, where you use lots of compression/distortion and have to play punchy rhythm or lead sections that require you to quickly mute all the strings. This is a common technique, not some ill-thought-out hack. Similarly, mute the strings between the nut and tuner to prevent them from ringing. I like to use sticky-tack (earthquake putty), but you can also use foam or a wristband.Top of Page
Some people claim all the "tone" is in other parts of the guitar. I've had people tell me I gotta get such-and-such tuners, or this kind of fretboard, or a neck-through design, or a body made of this kind of wood, or this kind of paint job, etc. etc. While all these things certainly will affect the tone, I don't think they have nearly as much impact as the things I mentioned above. Very popular artists that have all achieved highly desirable tones throughout the ages have used a very wide variety of such things. Most fretboards are rosewood, but EVH played a maple one mostly. Jimmy Page used a 10+ lb. Les Paul, yet Steve Vai's Jem's are like 4 lbs.
Get tuners that help best tune your guitar. Set the guitar up properly. Worry about body weight and your bridge setting for sustain rather than tone. Paint the guitar the color you want. If any of these things really adversely affect the tone, you can generally use pickups that help counter these affects. For example, if they make your tone bright and thin, use pickups that are a bit darker. If your tone is dull, get bright pickups. Yes, you may lose a bit of potential tone; theoretically, you should maximize the richness of the tone towards your desired tone for every component. But you're not a rocket scientist, nor are you likely going to be able to build your guitar component by component.
Of course, this has limitations. If you're thinking about buying a guitar that sounds really dull, you won't achieve great results by getting really bright pickups. You can't EQ in frequencies that never existed to begin with. My main point here is don't sweat the small stuff. You'll likely get relatively larger tonal improvements by properly setting up your guitar and using good pickups than by spending a fortune building a 100% custom guitar. And your guitar will only get you so far. Even a great guitar still sounds like crap going straight to the board. You need the compression, EQ, and distortion that only post-guitar processing/amplifiers can give you.
Still with me?! Good, let's move on to...USING THE POD...Top of Page