Studio Preparation: Guitars

Written by George Belben on February 9th, 2016

Guitars are definitely one of the hardest instruments to get a great recording of, there are so many elements you have to get right! For starters the guitar has to sound great, then you add an amp into the equation, which also has to sound incredible. On top of this, you have the performance, you can play guitar in so many different ways and so many different styles that it’s easily one of the most expressive instruments around.

So where do you start?

Start by playing your guitar, listen out for all imperfections, all the little vibrations and rattles that shouldn’t be there, and then it’s time to start fixing them. Check over all screws and bolts, check the strap buttons, tuning pegs, string tree and of course, don’t forget that pesky jack socket. Make sure everything is tight but save yourself problems in the future and don’t over tighten anything.

Take off those old strings

The best way to start work on your guitar is to strip it back. When it comes to removing your strings, unless you’re rocking a Floyd Rose it’s perfectly okay to take off all your strings at once, you may experience some issues keeping it in tune for the next few hours but that’s perfectly fine and once the neck has settled back into place, all will be well. However, never cut the strings all at once, I’ve seen first-hand a neck crack by doing this, loosen each string with a string winder and you can save yourself an expensive repair job.

Give your fretboard some love

At this point, I give my guitars a good clean, inside and out. There’s no point going overboard right now, though, as you’re going to have fingerprints everywhere by the end. It’s more about getting rid of dust in awkward places, cleaning the pots with a compressed air can and of course treating your fretboard to some well-earned attention.
It’s important not to clean your fretboard too much so as not to mess with the natural moisture in the wood, so if you clean your fretboard often you may want to give this part a miss.
The simplest way to clean a fretboard is to just work down the neck with a slightly damp cloth, make sure you’ve wrung it out though as you don’t want to leave water drops on the surface, and keep changing the part of the cloth you’re cleaning with, it’ll get dirty surprisingly quickly!
If the frets themselves are dirty it might be a good idea to give them a once over with some very fine #0000 steel wool, a clean set of frets will give a nice bright tone to your guitar.

Now the strings go back on

Once you’re happy that your guitars had a good refresh, it’s time to restring, but at this point, I’d take minute to lube up the bridge and the nut, this will help keep the guitar in tune while you’re rocking out and prolong the life of your string by a significant amount. I personally use Big Bends ‘Nut Sauce’.
When selecting your new strings, be sure to use a sensible gauge, nothing too thick for your guitar or your tuning. If you’re going to be sticking to standard tuning then 10’s and 11’s are perfect, but if you’re dropping the E (or everything!) then you might want to look at some 12’s, 13’s or a hybrid set.

Now the tricky part

So you’ve cleaned, fixed, and restrung your guitar, and now for the hard part, setting it up properly. I won’t be going into a huge amount of detail in this section as you could write a thousand articles on setting up a guitar. If you’ve never done it before and you’re unsure about it, or you’d just rather leave it to a professional, then go to your local shop and ask about it. When I don’t set up my guitars myself, I leave it to the guys at Mansons Guitar Shop.
So! First things first we’re going to want to check our neck is straight, if your neck is bowed at all you might notice a nasty hum when you plug into your amp. You can check this by pressing down each of the two ‘E’ strings in turn, on the 2nd and 16th frets, a gap of about 0.6mm on the eighth fret is what you’re aiming for. You can adjust this by tightening or loosening the truss rod.
Next, we want to check for fret buzz, take your time in checking each fret and checking the sound, if you get a nasty buzz from it, you want to raise the relevant side of the bridge slightly.
Now you’re going to have to pull out a tuner as we’re going to look at the intonation.
In turn, play each string open, then on the 12th fret, if they show the exact same note then you’re all good, but if it’s out by even a small amount it can wreak havoc with your chords!
If the note is sharp then the saddle needs to move back towards the tailpiece, if it’s flat then bring it towards the pickups, take it easy though as a small amount of movement makes a surprising amount of difference, work your way through all the strings until they’re all perfect.

The final check

You’re all done, you get to play your guitar and listen to the difference you’ve made!
As much as it’s wise to go through this process before you go into the studio, it’s a good shout to keep on top of it even when you’re not, guitars are very sensitive to temperature and being leant against walls for too long (hint hint!), so if you notice buzzing or the intonation starting to play up, then you best get setting up before it gets any worse.
Enjoy your awesome sounding guitar!

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