Setting Up A Telecaster

To make sure your guitar is in tune across the whole fingerboard, that the strings don't buzz or rattle against the frets and the height of the strings (the action) is comfortable for you to play, the guitar must be set up. This can be done yourself using a few basic tools or you can pay for it to be done professionally - ask at your local guitar shop. Most new guitars will be set up before they are shipped or by the retailer, but it's always best to check for yourself and if you buy second hand you should always check it out. The set up will also need to be checked if you change the gauge of strings you use or if instrument has been unused for any long period of time.

Setting up a Telecaster is a three stage process. First we set the length of the strings (the intonation), then we check the neck tension and finally we set the action. Setting up the guitar is always a compromise between perfect tuning and playability, so you may have to repeat stages in the process to find the right balance.

To set up your Telecaster you will need some or all of the following tools:

Tape Measure
Allen Key
Screwdrivers (Phillips and Flat Headed)
Feeler Guage
Six Inch Ruler
Electronic Tuner or Pitch Pipes and a good ear!


Setting the intonation of a guitar is ensuring that it plays in tune over the whole fretboard. It is technically impossible! Even the most perfectly laid out fretboard has areas where the notes are slightly sharp or flat. There are some complex (and expensive!) ways to address this, such as the Buzz Feiten tuning system, but it is possible to set the intonation sufficiently accurately on a regular Telecaster so that the slightly sharp or flat notes are unnoticeable.

First, tune the guitar using an electronic tuner if possible. Now, using a tape measure, measure the distance between the nut and the twelfth fret. This is half the scale length of the guitar - the length of string that resonates. Double your measurement and you have the full scale length - the distance between the nut and the bridge saddle. Now check whether that is true by measuring from the nut to the saddle.

You will probably find that your calculation differs slightly from the actual measurement. This is because we must adjust the distance to take the string thickness into account. If there is no difference, or the difference is greater than 2mm, the guitar has probably never been set up and you need to rough out the intonation to account for the strings. As a rough guide each bridge is set back by the width if string above it. So, if you have a 0.010" (10 gauge) top E string, the 2nd (B) string saddle should be set 0.010" behind the first saddle and so on. On a 3 saddle bridge the second saddle should be set back by the sum of the diameters of the first two strings. So if your 1st string is 10 gauge and your 2nd string 13 gauge, the second bridge sadde should be 0.023" back from the first.

Now, let's see how good the intonation is. Each string should produce a note exactly one octave higher than the note of the open string either when fretted or played as a harmonic. As we've already discovered, the twelfth fret is exactly half the string length, so the harmonic is the most accurate representation of the tuning of the string, we'll use that as our reference point. Tune the string so that the harmonic is exactly in tune. Now check the open string. If it is sharp the string needs to be lengthened, if it is flat the string needs to be shortened. This is done using the screws at the back of the bridge plate that hold the saddles in place. Normally, turning the screw clockwise will lengthen the string, anti-clockwise will shorten it.

If you have a modern 6 saddle bridge where each string has its own bridge saddle, simply repeat this process for each string, starting with the bottom E string and working across to the top E string.

If you have a vintage three saddle bridge, you have to make a compromise as each bridge is shared by a pair if strings. With each pair of strings, the lower string should be slightly sharp and the higher string slightly flat. You probably will not be able to hear this, but it will be evident using an accurate electronic tuner.


Truss Rod

The neck of a guitar is constantly under tension, being pulled upwards by the guitar strings. Without strengthening, the neck would curve and warp over time under this pressure. To counteract this, Telecasters are fitted with a metal rod running through the length of the neck to add strength and apply a counterbalancing force to the strings. Truss rods can be adjustable from one end or both, depending n type. Most Telecasters have are adjustable at the headstock, where the truss rod adjustment screw or allen bolt emerges above the nut.

The perfect set up of a telecaster neck is not to have a dead straight neck, but to have very slight concave over the length of the fingerboard. To check this is so, place the guitar on its back on a table; put a capo on the first fret and fret the bottom E string at the highest fret on the fingerboard. Now check that there is a gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the eighth fret. This gap should be 0.010" (0.3mm) for a guitar with a neck radius between 9.5" and 12.5" and slightly larger at 0.012" for 7.5" radius necks.

The most accurate way to check it is by using a set of feeler gauges (like those used to set the gap on a spark plug), but you can also use the cut end of a guitar string of the right gauge or even roughly judge using a nail file - they're usually around 0.010" thick! Push the feeler between the string and the top of the eighth fret with the string fretted at the first and last fret (by the capo and your finger respectively). If the string moves when you push the feeler in, the neck is too straight, if there is visible daylight around the feeler, the neck is too concave. Usually turning the truss rod head adjustment clockwise will straighten the neck, anti-clockwise relaxes the neck and deepens the concave. Never force a truss rod. If you cannot turn the adjuster easily, stop and seek professional advice.



The action of the guitar is the height of the strings above the fingerboard. It needs to be high enough so that the strings don't buzz or rattle against the frets, but not so high that fretting a note stretches the string enough to make the note sharp. Players with a light touch can get away with a lower action than those who have a heavier touch. The height of the sting is set by adjusting the bridge saddles. Each saddle will have two screws or allen bolts holding it up from the bridge. Use a small screwdriver or allen key (depending on the type of screw or bolt) to turn the screw or bolt clockwise to raise the saddle or anti-clockwise to lower it. Turn each of the pair of screws or bolts equally to keep the saddle parallel to the bridge plate.

Before you start adjusting the action, check the tuning and intonation. Now measure the distance between the bottom of the 6th string (bottom E) and the top of the 17th fret (usually where a Telecaster neck meets the body). The gap should be 5/64" (2mm) for a 7.5" radius neck and 4/64" (1.6mm) for a 9.5" to 12.5" radius neck. Adjust the height of the saddle. Repeat for the fifth and fourth strings. For the 3rd, 2nd and 1st strings the gap should be 4/46" (1.6mm), for any neck radius up to 12.5". These are the settings recommended by Fender.

Now check every fret on the fingerboard for rattles and buzzes. If you find a problem, raise the string by a fraction.


And Finally

Once you've set the action, retune the guitar and re-check the intonation. The note at twelfth fret when played either as a harmonic or fretted should be exactly one octave above the note produced by the open string. If you can't fine tune the intonation to achieve this, the best compromise is to have the harmonic perfectly in tune, the open string slightly flat and the fretted note at the 12th slightly sharp.




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