I used to think that setting up a guitar was something only highly-experienced luthiers could do. Truss rods, nut adjustments, radius gauges all sounded so scary and there are whole books about how to set up your guitar, surely I couldn’t have the skills to properly set up my Pacifica myself? Totally wrong, it’s actually dead easy to set up your Pacifica and you can do it to a totally professional standard with just a few tools.
You can genuinely make a relatively cheap Pacifica feel and play like a very expensive custom shop guitar if you take your time and go carefully. It’s a lot easier than people think and you get your guitars exactly as you want them. Not what some spotty youth in your local guitar store thinks you should have.
Note on tremelos: I’m only going to briefly cover the most basic aspects of setting up a 112 or 604 style trem here. There are endless vids on Youtube about the more mystical and arcane aspects of tremelo adjustment and setup, and setups for Floyd Rose style units etc.
So here’s how to do a set up the way I now do it
I take no responsibility for your cockups, of course: if you make a mistake and damage yourself or your guitars, it’s not my fault!
The measurements I suggest here are what I use with a set of 10s. You might prefer a higher action (or indeed lower) depending on your personal style and how you like your guitar to feel.
First, put a couple of thick towels or similar on your table and lay your beloved Pacifica on them.
Optional step one: block the tremelo.
There are practically whole books written about setting up your tremelo, and loads of different ways of doing it. Fender does it this way which works if your Pacifica has a vintage style tremelo (eg a regular 112 or 604 etc), you’ll need to take the back cover plate off and slide a small piece of wood or something between the tremelo block and the body so that the tremelo is rendered immovable during the rest of the setup. Watch this video for how to do this:
There are others way to do it. You can block the trem movement with paper or, as here, some plectrums. Same principle.
While you’ve got the trem blocked off, do the rest of the set up. Personally, I hate trems and just do a Clapton, and block them off and screw them down. Even easier!
But on to the set up proper…
Step one: neck relief
- Put a set of the strings you normally use on the guitar. Stretch them. Stretch them again and again. Tune up. Stretch them again until they stay in tune. Tune up.
- Put a capo on the first fret
- With one hand, fret the low E string on a fret close to where the neck joins the body.
- With a feeler guage in the other hand, measure the gap between the top of fret 8 and the bottom of the string. You’re looking for a gap of 0.2-0.25mm. If you haven’t got a set of feeler gauges, you’re looking for the depth of a piece of paper. Just enough that the string moves when you tap on it. But feeler gauges cost a couple of quid on eBay and you’ll use them throughout the setup. (You can turn them into nut files, too. More on this later!)
- If the gap is too small, you need to tighten the truss rod to put a slight bow into the neck so the middle of the string can vibrate freely.
- Stick the correct size allen key into the end of the truss rod (you’ll need to take off the truss rod cover first. DOH! Put the screws in a glass or small pot so you don’t lose them. I’ll say again: put the screws in a small pot so you don’t lose them. Told you you could learn from my mistakes!
- The truss rod can be really stiff sometimes. It just is. Sometimes it feels like something will break as you try to turn it. It probably won’t.
- Turn it clockwise to tighten. RIghty tighty! Just a quarter turn at a time. Check the relief constantly.
- If the gap is too big, turn the allen key anti-clockwise to let the neck straighten out a bit. Again, check with your feeler guage after every quarter turn until you get the relief just right.
- Done. The truss rod is, for me, the most important part of the setup and can transform your guitar or bass instantly. Hard to believe, but trust me.
Step 2: Check and adjust the nut slots
There are two ways the nut can spoil your guitar. First, if the slots are too high, it’ll be harder to play than it should be and it will go out of tune when you press on the first few frets.
Second, if the nut slots are too tight and you get ‘pings’ when you tune up, your guitar won’t stay in tune.
- The quick and easy way to check the slots is to fret each string at the third fret.
- Look very carefully at how much gap there is between the string and the FIRST fret. There should be a teeny tiny amount of air, just enough for a tiny bit of movement.
- Or measure 0.3mm with your feeler gauge between the top of the first fret and the string.
To widen or deepen a nut slot you’ll need to use a file. You can buy very expensive luthier files that come in every gauge of string, or you can improvise and make your own. I did the latter.
I bought some cheap diamond needle files off ebay which are great for bass, but then discovered an even better trick…
You buy a set of feeler gauges, a couple of quid off eBay. Then take a big old rough file to them and cut notches in the tops, do four or five at a time otherwise they flap about too much. So you do all the gauges that cover the strings you like to use on your various guitars. Here are my home-made files.You can see the notches I cut…
The slots in the nut will be slightly wider than their string so just need to make a set of files that go slightly higher than your string gauges. So if you use 11s (where the thinnest E is .011 of an inch), make a set that goes up to say .052 or something, to cover the fat E slot. Just look at the specs on the string packet and make some files that are very slightly fatter.
Here’s the video that showed me what to do:
- To cut the nut slots deeper just follow the angle of the strings as they cross the bridge and head for the tuners.
- Keep the guitar in tune and just take each string out one by one. A bit of cord looped under the string makes this easier.
- File down very gently, do literally three or four strokes then check the fret 1 measurement.
- Go very carefully as too deep a slot is much more a problem. You can botch a repair with glue and bits of plastic dust but you really need a new nut.
- Just work at the slots until the string is at the right depth and the slot no longer grips the string too tightly. The string should move smoothly through the slot when you tune up, use the trem or bend or note, but not flap about.
It’s actually a lot easier than it sounds and, along with the truss rod adjustment is, in my experience, the biggest contributor to a guitar that feels great to play and stays in tune.
Step 3: Set the action by adjusting the bridge saddles
Next set the ‘action’ by adjusting the bridge saddles. This is matter of personal taste. Some like their strings really low and almost buzzing into the frets, some like a really high action, especially if they play really hard or play a lot of slide.
Fender’s factory specs suggest an action of 1.6mm at the 22nd fret on all the strings. But you can go down to 1.2mm or even less on the high E on a Pacifica that has frets in good condition.
On my 102s, strung with 10s, I like 2mm on the low E to 1.6 on the high E. Obviously you just turn the tiny screws in the bridge saddles with the appropriate metric allen key. Do be careful to use the right size allen key, here, as the screws are quite fragile and you can strip them easily if you’re not careful
You can also use a radius gauge to help you here. Pacs are 12″ so you adjust the top and bottom Es to taste then site the radius gauge over the strings and create a nice curve to match by adjusting all the other saddles. By no means essential.
Check for buzzes
Once you’ve got the action where you like it, play every note on the fretboard one by one. If you hear any buzzes or rattles it might mean you’ve got a high fret or two somewhere. Or a low one.
Pacificas are usually so well made, however, that this shouldn’t be an issue unless the guitar is extremely worn.
Before you decide to dress the frets to cure this, try a slightly higher action. Does this stop the buzzing? Then if it’s still comfortable, leave it.
Double check the truss rod setting/neck relief. Is it still 0.2mm at the 8th fret when you fret at one and where the neck joins the body? Sometimes the neck may have moved a bit and resetting the relief is all you need. (I did a set up on a Squier bass where I thought the frets were terrible until I did the truss rod properly. Sorted all the buzzes and clangs in one go. No fret dress needed.)
Step 4: Level the frets if necessary
But if you do need to level and dress the frets, here’s what to do.
First you adjust the truss rod so the neck is completely flat, then mark each fret with magic marker along the top. Then you need some 320 grit sandpaper and a levelling beam — just a long steel block with a very flat edge, or you can use a builder’s spirit level. But I bought a cheapo levelling beam off ebay. This kind of thing: Levelling beam
Stick the sandpaper to the beam and gently slide it up and down the frets til the marker has gone on all of them ie they’re now all of equal height. You really don’t need to press, just let the weight of the beam do the work.
Then you stick frog tape or masking tape between the frets to protect the wood, redo the marker and ‘crown’ each fret with a fretting file to a nice triangular shape (near enough) so the string sits on a thinnish blade of metal. So you just leave a thin line of marker on the top of each one.
Then smooth off the rough edges, so the frets’ profiles are more of a circle and less of a triangle, with 600 grit, wire wool and Brasso metal polish. There’s a full tutorial on crowning the frets here on the site, kindly provided by a fellow Pacifica enthusiast: Crowning tips
It can be nice to round off any sharpish frets that stick out of the sides of the fingerboard too, at this time. Again, makes the guitar feel more expensive.
A final touch: roll the neck edges?
I roll my neck edges, too, for the same reason. Just run the shaft of a screwdriver up and down the edge of the fingerboard between the frets a few times, pressing gently and changing the angle of the shaft to round the edge of the fingerboard. Like this:
And/or use some gentle sanding with very gentle grit sandpaper eg 600 grit or finer.
Step 5: Set the intonation
I assume if you’re reading this article, you know how to do your intonation? But just in case:
You use a tuner and match each open string’s note with the note fretted at the 12th fret, the octave.
- Play the open string. Get it in tune
- Play the same string at the 12th fret and look at your electronic tuner. If the fretted note is flat move the bridge saddle towards the neck.
- If it’s sharp, move it back towards the strap button
- Do each string in turn until they’re all intonated perfectly
Step 6: Finish your tremelo set up (optional)
Here’s another video showing a slightly different way to set up your trem. This is a bit more rough and ready but again, concentrates on getting the trem to move in musical steps.
Further reading and viewing about set ups
There are loads of videos on Youtube and pages and pages of websites about setting up your electric guitar. I’ve linked to some of them in this site’s links section.
But the one resource I’d now recommend is Sam Deeks, who is a British bloke who started doing setups just three or fours years ago, in his garden shed! He now runs a business setting up guitars and even building them.
The key thing is, like me, or maybe you, he started from absolute scratch, teaching himself as he went along, even inventing his own fret levelling tool! He levels his frets with the neck relief fully set up which is a great idea but you’ll need his home-made banana tool to do that!
So I can’t recommend him enough. His videos are strangely compelling and relaxing too, as you see him do the setups in real time. I have no affiliation with him, other than I follow him on Facebook and Youtube.
Here’s one with a Pacifica as the guitar he’s working on: Sam Deeks
There are several other vids of him working on Pacificas, 112s, 102s and 604s, for example.
You can buy Sam’s setup on iTunes which I’d also heartily recommend. It’s got lots of links to tools to buy as well as really clear step by step instructions and clear pictures. All totally without bullshit. Doesn’t cover tremelos at all though which is a bit of a let down for £25. The book here.
Another good book, which covers trems in some detail, as well as all sorts of other setup and maintenance projects, is the Haynes Electric Guitar Manual.