What IS a Basic Setup Kit for guitar?

– Asked by new & future guitar techs

“What is the minimum tool kit I need to do basic guitar setups?” I get asked this question from time to time, so let’s look into it..

See bottom of this article for link to a lists of my tools and their order of use and importance.

I have my opinion, of course.  But I wondered how my opinion – the opinion of a guy who does over two hundred guitar setups a year (I’ve slowed down in my old age!), matches up with StewMac’s Basic Guitar Setup Kit – the guys who sell guitar tools. (2 days after this post, Stewmac slashed the price of this “kit” by thirty dollars!)

basic guitar setup kit - stewmac
Stewmac’s Basic Guitar Setup Kit

The Stewmac’ Guitar “Basic Setup Kit” –

(currently $133.22)

#1:  String action gauge

A guitar string action gauge is a good start for a setup kit.  But I don’t like their string action gauge.  I used one just like it for years and have since found two alternatives I like much better.  

Same style & very similar to the SM gauge

The above photo is of my metal string action gauge. Other than the name, it’s like the Stewmac in terms of readability, etc.

A white, plastic gauge is much easier to read and doesn’t scratch the frets or guitar body.  Even better, for more accurate measuring and easier on the eyeballs, are feeler gauges made of pieces of guitar strings.   I make (3d printer) labeled handles for these feeler gauges which makes them easier to handle.

White plastic string action gauge – easier to read!

Why not just use a set of feeler gauges from your local auto parts store?  They’re too flat and smooth.  By the time you can tell they’re touching the string, they’ve already been touching for several thousandths of an inch.

But a 0.010” string will start to bend slightly as the string barely gets below that level, so you have a clear, visual clue.

OK, I didn’t mean to write a dissertation on string action gauges (but maybe next time!), so let’s move on..

#2: 18″ Precision Straightedge

These things should not be part of a “Basic Guitar Setup Toolkit”

I’m trying to stifle a laugh as I type this.  Yeah, Stewmac conned me into buying their straightedge years ago.  In the last six years, I probably haven’t used it six times.  And even then, I was mostly trying to get my money’s worth out of the dang thing.

One side is for 24.75″ scale and the other for 25.5. But what about bass guitars? How about short-scale bass guitars of varying scale lengths? Baritone guitars? Short-scale guitars? How many of these overpriced rulers must we buy?

I suppose if you’re interested in the straightness of the neck as opposed to the straightness of the row of frets, it could be useful.  But as rare as those cases are, there are other ways to accomplish the task.  

For one thing, with a guitar in your hands, you have plenty of “free” straightedges at your fingertips – the guitar strings! Just put a bit of tension on the string and you have a “straightedge”!

In 99% of cases, your main interest is having the frets level.  The 3 most vital measurements of a setup are all based on the distance from string bottom to fret top, not fretboard top.

Certainly, if we’re talking about a “Basic Setup Kit”, you can do without the Stewmac straightedge.  If you just simply must have one, you can buy a metal ruler of whatever length you like and use your Dremel, etc. to cut the notches.

#3: Understring Radius Gauges –

Another item you’ll rarely use.  I do use mine for fret level & crown jobs, to judge the fretboard radius.  But I use it on the frets or fretboard, not under strings as a way to set saddle heights (which is how they’re often shown being used).

If you measure the string height for each string, when setting saddle heights, you’re already taking the radius into account, and in a much more practical and accurate way.

Understring radius gauges is the guitar world’s version of taking a newbie on a “snipe hunt”!

– Hank Castello, guitar tech

And as for judging fretboard radius – these are not necessarily the best tool for two reasons –

  1. It’s really hard to eyeball the difference between say a 9.5” radius and a 10” radius, or even a 12” to 14”, using these tools.
  2. A previous level/crown job may have radiused the frets at a slightly different radius than the fretboard (by accident usually, or because they didn’t have the proper radius leveling block).  If you now try to change it back, you’ll lose excessive fret material, so it’s often best to retain the current radius.

You can eyeball (if experienced) or Google-up (sounds like a soft drink!) the probable radius, then mark fret tops with marking pen and lightly use your chosen radius block over the frets and inspect whether the ink has been evenly removed.   This is the best, most accurate method, in my experience.

That’s ALL Folks!

Yup, that’s all that Stewmac has in their current Basic Setup Kit, other than “free setup instructions”.

Interestingly, they list the following under

“Additional Supplies”

  • Truss rod wrench
  • Lubricant (petroleum jelly)
  • Stiff brush
  • Sharpie marker

I hate to quibble, but truss rod wrenches are not “supplies”, they are tools and should be listed within the “Basic Setup Kit” because you simply cannot do a setup without them.   You’ll need a 4mm, a 1/8″ and a 3/16″ wrench. No ball ends! And you want a short “L” wrench and a long “L” for each size or a short allen wrench AND a hex adapter for a screwdriver.

But wait! Many Gibson, PRS, etc. guitars require female socket type truss wrenches, mainly sizes 1/4″; 9/32″; 5/16″. But that’s not all their kit is missing..

Stewmac Basic Guitar Setup Kit is missing the following –

  • Saddle height adjusting allen wrenches (1/16” & 0.050”)
  • String winder
  • String cutter
  • Intonation tool (Phillips & flat screwdrivers)
  • Magnet (or old pickup)
  • Polishing cloth (supply?)

I’d sure hate to be doing setups without a string winder! I prefer the ones that go onto your screwgun, but the hand winders sure beat the heck out of just using your fingers!

Guitar Holder/Rest

A few thick paperback books make a great guitar holder!

You need to keep the guitars off of your benchtop. All sorts of sharp, nasty things sit there just waiting to bite your customers’ guitars! Loose screws, pieces of guitar strings, bits of sandpaper and miscellaneous junk collect on the benchtop and can scratch a guitar finish.

You can spend a small fortune for fancy “guitar vice” type stuff, but in my experience, nothing is better, quicker to reconfigure and more adjustable than four thick paperback books!

Since Stewmac bothered to list supplies, here’s what I’d put under –

Guitar Setups Basic Supplies

  • Naphtha
  • Car polish (Poly finishes)
  • Carnauba car wax spray (Other finishes)
  • Furniture polish (dark wood fretboards)
  • #0004 steel wool (dark wood fretboards)
  • #220 sanding foam (fret ends)
  • Painters tape
  • Paper towels

Guitar Nut Files

Since we’re talking just “Basic Guitar Setup Kit”, and presumably a starter kit for people on tight budgets, I won’t get much into nut files – but nut slot depth is an integral part of a professional setup process and if you can swing it, figure a cool C-note ($100 USD) for a proper file set.  

OK for widening nut slots but not for filing/deepening

Since most guitar nut files are 9-42, I’d also buy the cheapie sets (intended for welding tip cleaning) that are useless for cutting nut slots but ok for widening them.  i.e.:  turn a .042 into a .046 or angle the rear nut slots of D & G on Gibson type nuts, etc.

Keep in mind, you’re looking at spending another wad of money for a bass guitar nut file set, but it will have a .046 file that will be helpful for nuts filed for 10-46 strings.

You just gotta have “real” nut files!

As for the Harbor Freight files included in some of these sets – do not try to use these on guitar nuts! They are much wider than most guitar strings and may not always have the curved edge that you want at the bottom of your nut slots. Nut slot files are the one tool that I just don’t see any decent cheap substitutes or DIY solutions for. (And I’ve probably tried them all!)

A bit more depth on the – 

Supply List Detail

My cleaning & polishing supply

Naphtha is merely lighter fluid.  It is a great cleaner and has never harmed any guitar finish that I’ve noticed.

For scratch and swirl removal, I have several types of Meguier’s polish, but for everyday cleaning and polishing I use Nu- Finish, available at Walmart, Amazon, etc. – about eight bucks for a bottle that’ll last many months.  It really does a fantastic job and makes old guitars with poly finishes shine like new.

For lacquer finishes, etc., I use a spray type car wax – usually with Carnauba, to both clean and shine.

For dark wood fretboards, I use furniture polish with “lemon oil”.  Yes, you’ve heard all sorts of stories about how lemon oil with just chew your guitar up and swallow it.  But they’re all BS.

First of all, there is no such thing as “lemon oil”.  Lemons do not make an oil.  And secondly, no you probably don’t want citrus juice on your fretboard.  But furniture polish with “lemon oil” is actually just mineral oil with a drop of aroma to make it smell “lemony”.  

I’ve used expensive “cabinet makers furniture polish”, and “magic gypsy beauty cream”*, but nothing I’ve found works noticeably better than the lemon oil furniture polish, when applied and buffed properly.

* (OK, I just made that up, but I’ll sell you a 2oz bottle for $18.95! 🙂 )

#0000 steel wool and naphtha work great for cleaning rosewood, etc. fretboards and cleaning up frets also.  Do not use it on maple fretboards or boards with any type of finish. 

Clean rosewood fretboards with #0000 steel wool & naptha
#0000 Steel wool & Naptha for cleaning rosewood fretboards & frets

Tape over the neck pickup before using steel wool.  Many well-meaning forums tell you to only use a motion parallel to the fretboard & grain. No. That will only pack steel wool bits under the fret crowns and leave the accumulation of gunk that well-played guitars tend to get.

While cleaning fretboards, I use the steelwool perpendicular to the fretboard, especially along each fret. If you’re discarding your steel wool before it gets too worn and gathers debris, you shouldn’t get any perpendicular scratches, but if you do, then go back over in a parallel motion being careful not to use force against the frets.

I use a strong magnet to collect wayward steel wool bits

When you’re done, use a paper towel to mop up the excess naphtha and steel wool bits.  (Because you reuse rags and you don’t want those steel wool bits getting onto pickup poles, etc.)  Once dry, use a strong magnet to collect any errant bits before removing the tape from the neck pickup. 

Fret protector, Dremel, polish wheel & red rouge to polish frets (+ safety glasses!)

And despite what they say on the forums, #0000 steel wool does not “polish” frets.   If you want to polish frets (and you should) get a Dremel, polishing wheel and rouge.

#220 sanding foam – I don’t care what kind of smooth, rounded-edge file you get, if you try to file each fret end, you’ll not only lose half an hour, but you’re going to leave file marks on the fretboard.

That’s why I switched to sanding foam.  Two minutes and I’ve done as good a job as a file could do, but without fretboard damage.  (Use extreme caution on fretboards with binding!).  But protect the body with painters tape.  I often tape a piece of cardboard over the body because the sanding foam could penetrate the tape.

file fret ends with sanding sponge
#220 Sanding sponge files fret ends smooth, quickly

Once you get the knack of using the foam, and holding at about a 45° angle, you’ll wonder why anyone would bother with a file!

Complete Basic Guitar Setup Toolkit

This article is getting too long, so I’ll post a second and maybe more in this series of guitar setup tools & kits.

I’ll break it down into 3 segments –

  1. No nut work or fret work, just adjustments, cleaning & restringing. You could get your business off the ground with a minimal setup service that would generally work fine for new guitars, etc.
  2. The services covered in #1 (above) plus nut jobs, (I’m not talking about customers – I’m talking about guitar nut replacement & filing nut slots!), and electronics.
  3. All the above plus fret work. We’re staying with “basic”, so I’m not getting into tools needed for removing fretboards, structural issues of acoustics, routing for pickup upgrades, headstock repairs, etc., etc.

Watch this space for the LINK to this Toolkit article that so far, exists only in my head!

Stewmac’s Basic Guitar Setup Instructions

I just got a look at Stewmac’s guitar setup instructions and I’m going to write about those and write my own instructions, as soon as I get up off the floor and stop laughing! 🙂 (Probably posting next week)

Here’s a list of my guitar tech tools, their usage frequency and importance… (click)

NOTE: My own version of a definitive list of a Basic Guitar Setup Toolkit will be posted soon. Got ideas? Great! Let me hear them. Whether you’d like to add to the discussion, agree with what I’ve written or tell me I’m full of whatever, I appreciate your participation. Together, hopefully we can help guitar techs improve their business and help newbies have a smoother start than most of us did. Thanks!