Performing a complete setup of a guitar is not an easy task. It requires know-how and a lot of patience. You also need to have the right tools for the job.
For some basic setup, you may be able to get away with using some stuff from your generic toolbox. For example, A standard set of pliers will do a fine job of snipping the excess string after a string change. You may also have some of the correct sized screwdrivers or Allen wrenches for your guitar. However..
It is easier to perform even the simplest of setup tasks with specialized tools.
It is near impossible to do certain advanced setup projects without the right tools.
To know exactly what tools you need to set up your guitar depends on what the project requires. An all in one kit could be enough for most basic jobs. On the other hand, a specific tool could make a certain project much easier.
It is important to keep in mind that the quality of the tools matter.
A cheap tool may measure incorrectly and make the guitar worse off than it started.
You may also strip the screws or tools with budget gear. This would make any more work in the future much more difficult.
The following is a list of some available tools for guitar setup and what they do. We hope this helps you decide what you need for your project. We have included some links to our preferred options for each of these tools.
These are guitar kits designed to get guitars that don’t have major issues setup.
They include enough tools to measure out string height, angles, and fret problems. They also have tools to correct any issues you find.
These kits will be enough for most quick setups. You could get one of these plus some other individual guitar setup tools for a more thorough setup.
This kit comes from a trusted brand for music gear. They have quality products across their entire range of setup tools. This kit comes equipped with more than enough for a basic setup.
The included torch is a nice touch for quick string changes at a gig. The lighting is not always perfect for fine motor skill work such as that.
There are enough other basic tools to use at gigs too. There is also a multi-tool to prevent you from having to get the whole kit out for minor fixes at a show. This kit also comes in a pouch that fits perfectly in a gig bag so it is ideal for taking with you.
It also has a few advanced tools such as the fret collars and a Superlube pen. These extra inclusions make it one of the better all in one kits for performing guitar maintenance at home.
This Ernie Ball kit comes with fewer tools than the Dunlop kit. Yet it does have enough in there to get you through basic maintenance.
It also has the appropriate tools included for simple string height and truss rod adjustments. It is the perfect little kit for primary guitar care needs.
This kit costs around 1/3 as much as the Dunlop kit so this could be a good choice if you don’t need the extra inclusions. For instance, you may already have a bottle of polish, an adjustable wrench, and a small torch. It would be hard to justify the extra cost of the Dunlop kit if you have those inclusions.
The included tools are durable and won’t let you down in a pinch. This is very important to not damage your guitar. It is also nice to know that you can get a quality kit for such a low price.
This kit is definitely enough to get you out of trouble if you’re guitar doesn’t need a lot of work. It is also a good starting point to learn about simple guitar setup.
Guitar multi-tools are like having a small guitar kit that can fit into the palm of your hand. Their small nature makes them great for taking on tour or to a gig. The tools being tiny makes them much more difficult to work with though.
These are for quick fixes rather than for full setups. We wouldn’t recommend a multi-tool as your only setup device but they are nice to have in an emergency.
Most major guitar manufacturers and tool manufactures have their own versions of multi-tools. If you stick to a trustworthy brand you could go for any that you like best.
The following are some of the simple tools you will need in order to set up your guitar. If you have been playing guitar for a while and have a toolbox at home you may have most of these already. If you don’t own any of these you will likely need to get a hold of them before you start work on your guitar.
You may be one of the few people out there that have perfect pitch. But, mere mortals like myself will need a tuner to tune after changing a set of strings. At least to get the first string in the correct tuning. A clip-on tuner, stompbox, or phone app are all fine for this. However, if you need to adjust the intonation on your guitar you will need a more accurate tuner.
The most accurate type of tuner is a strobe tuner.
A standard chromatic tuner will give you a pitch that is correct to about -/+ 1 cent. A strobe tuner has an accuracy of -/+ 0.1 cent or better. That is at least 10 times more accurate!
A more accurate tuner means more exact intonation while making adjustments.
Strobe tuners can get very expensive. Here is a budget option that seems okay but I have no experience with it so can’t guarantee it will work perfectly.
Peterson is the biggest name in strobe tuners and the StroboPlus HD is one of their most popular models. It has plug sockets for an electric guitar or has a microphone for use with acoustics. It is also great for intonating several other instruments.
I don’t think I need to explain what string cutters do. You could use a pair of pliers from your toolbox but string cutters work better and are usually smaller. This makes them easier to take with you to gigs. I have these Dunlop cutters in my guitar case and they have never let me down.
You could wind the strings by hand but this can become tedious quite quickly. A string winder makes it so much more efficient.
There are winders that have a cutter included so you could just take one tool instead of two.
There are also electric string winders which cut down on the time it takes to change strings even more. They are even available as smart winders. These automatically wind the string to the correct tension for you.
I like to stick to a basic cheap winder though. If for no other reason than that I am inclined to lose things like that.
The cheaters’ way to change a key. A staple for any guitar playing cover musician. They are also very useful for adjusting the intonation of your guitar.
Capos apply to a number of different setup steps. They help to find how much neck relief you have. A capo can also help you adjust the nut on your guitar.
Picture the capo as being a third hand during guitar setup. It makes things much easier. A quick change capo such as a Kyser is great for the stage. They are less useful for setups. They are spring-loaded and that spring is not adjustable.
Something like the Planet Waves NS Tri-Action will prevent you from accidentally putting too much or too little pressure on the neck.
You will likely need at least one screwdriver. You may need more than that too. The sizes that you will need depend on the type of guitar you are working on. A few common sizes for guitars are:
#0 Phillips Head - Small screws used for cavity covers, tuning pegs, saddle intonation, machine heads, etc.
#2 Phillips Head - Tremolo claw screws, bolt-on neck screws.
1/4" Flat Head - Certain types of bridges.
If you don’t have a large collection of screwdrivers already you could buy a kit.
There are hex bolts in various places of certain guitars. For instance, you might need one for an electric guitar bridge or saddle.
You can also use hex keys to adjust a truss rod. This is less ideal than using a specifically designed truss rod wrench though.
We recommend buying a set of hex keys rather than individually. Check if your guitar uses metric or imperial measurements before you buy though.
You could also get a kit that has common sizes of wrenches, screwdrivers and hex keys for guitars.
These often come with new guitars. They adjust the truss rod of the guitar.
Guitars use several different measurements for their truss rods. It is a good idea to google what size to get before buying a new one. If you plan to work with many different types of guitars you could get a truss rod wrench set.
Guitar setups use very small measurements. It is important that your ruler can effectively read those measurements.
You will need a ruler that can measure into 64ths of an inch or 1/2 mm. We recommend you get a ruler that has measurements for both. It makes it easier for tutorials and other media so you don’t have to do the conversions yourself.
These are tools that you will be unlikely to have at home unless you have bought guitar setup tools in the past.
You could perform a setup without some of these but they definitely make life easier.
With this tool you can measure string height easily. It uses 0.005” measurements so is super precise.
The fret rocker will help you identify any high frets that are causing fret buzz. It also includes a nut slot height gauge which could be a major timesaver.
It has lasered markings in the stainless steel so you won’t have to worry about them rubbing off.
Like the precision straight edge, a notched straight edge is to measure neck relief.
The notches on these tools fit over the frets of the guitar. This helps to avoid misshaped frets from interfering with your measurements.
These are better to use if you suspect there is a problem with the fretwork of your guitar. They are compatible with different scale lengths so make sure you get one that suits your guitar.
You may have pops, hissing, or crackling from the knobs and switches of your electric guitar. These problems can often be from the gunk in the electrical contacts.
Using a product designed for cleaning these will help you eliminate this problem without risking damage. I prefer to use the WD-40 branded spray but there are many different brands available
You will need a suitable work surface for your guitar. This will help prevent interactions from your table such as scratching or dust in the electric components.
It is also important the surface is non-slip so accidents are less likely to happen while working.
A guitar mat covers both of those bases and is a portable option for a clean and safe workspace.
Much like the work mat, the primary purpose of a neck support is to keep your guitar in place while you are working on it.
Having the guitar sitting in a support will make it much easier to work with too. You won’t have to hold the neck with one hand while working on another section of the guitar with the other.
The nut of your guitar will need to fit the gauge strings that you intend to put on it. These files will assist you in creating the right-sized gap without overdoing it.
We do recommend these Grizzly nut files but understand that they are expensive. For this reason, we have included a link to a budget option.
A measurement tool specifically designed for luthiers. It uses a digital screen to display measurements. This makes it easier to read than other calipers or rulers.
You can use these for many different fretwork purposes while working on guitars. You won’t find yours far from your side once you start working with one.
You will sometimes need to adjust the angle of a bolt-on neck in cases when it has become warped. This will get the string height to be consistent over the entire fretboard. Manufacturers machine these gaskets to a specific angle so they make full contact over the entire plate and fix angle issues in the neck.
The short answer is no. The long answer is it depends on what your guitar needs and how easy you want the setup to be.
You can often complete basic setup tasks with regular tools. However, it will take a lot longer and likely be less precise. Precision is everything for a guitar so the more specialized tools you have, the better.
Again this depends on what tools you have available. It also depends on your previous experience. Be prepared to make some mistakes and to be patient.
Remember the rule to measure twice with parts that you must file, sand, or cut.
Chances are you may have to buy a new part if you have overdone while filing a nut or anything similar. Many other mistakes can be overcome by going back a few steps and starting again to see what you missed.
Setting up a guitar is a learning process. There is no right way to make sure that if you change one factor it will fix your action or remove fret buzz. You will have to eliminate possible causes one by one until you find the problem.