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This group of setup tools is easy to use but can have dramatic effects on how your guitar plays!
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Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit

Making playing easier

Text and photos by Tom Hintz

Posted – 9-10-2012

I know that it will surprise some that a total casual guitar player like myself has invested in a quality setup tool kit, from an industry stalwart Stewart-MacDonald no less. Actually, I think that buying the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit makes perfect sense. A casual player often has no instructor, not a lot of practice time and the budget means we may be playing a mediocre instrument. Being able to insure that the strings and neck are adjusted correctly makes playing any guitar easier which means the casual player spends more time having fun and less being frustrated.

The Basics

The Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit includes a precision-ground 18” straight edge that is used for checking the fret board and neck. This straight edge has been machined for what Stewart-MacDonald calls “fanatic accuracy” of ±.0015" per foot. If you are going to measure things like neck relief and quantifying truss rod changes being very accurate is not only smart, it’s mandatory.

You also get a very nifty rectangular String Action/Spacing Gauge that has other uses a well. The String Action Gauge is a remarkably quick and easy way to check things like the height of strings, nuts, saddles and pickup polepieces. It also has scales for measuring and setting string spread if you are building or modifying a guitar. You can also buy the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit with a Metric String Action Gauge.

Finally a 9-piece set of Understring Radius Gauges is included that lets you determine and then match bridge saddle heights to all common fretboard curvatures. These Understring Radius Gauges are precisely laser-cut from stainless steel to insure a long life. Both the upper and lower curves are accurate and represent the radii stamped on the handle.

The 18" Straightedge makes checking and fixing Neck Relief rather easy. It also can help diagnose a neck that is pout of adjustment just as easily.
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While using these tools is surprisingly easy Stewart-MacDonald includes free instructions that get you going right away and include important specs you can follow for setting up your guitar. Stewart-MacDonald also has a wealth of on-line information and How-To articles that will help you get the most out of your guitar and the Basic Setup Tools Kit.

Plugged In

Using the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit is simple but can really turn a lousy-playing guitar around. I built a kit guitar and when I first tried playing it was very disappointed. It did buzz very well and made bad noises pretty much all of the time. Rather than break into a Peter Townsend imitation and killing the evil guitar I ordered the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit.

Once I had the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit in hand it didn’t take long for me to see what was going on with the new kit guitar. It had problems at the neck and bridge but now I had the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit so I was able to remedy these issues myself.
The neck (with strings on and tensioned) was nice and flat. Sounds great but without a little Neck Relief this is a setup for buzzing off of adjacent frets. I suspect this is more of an issue on cheap kit guitar necks but I later found it helped on my factory Telecaster as well. The idea is to have a small bow in the neck that puts the tuning machine head slightly over the fretboard. By slight we are talking about a total bow of 0.004” to 0.008” measured from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of the 18” Straightedge held against the frets.

To induce the slight bow I had to loosen the truss rod nut about ½ turn. That was all that was needed on this kit guitar. On my Telecaster I only needed to back the truss rod nut off about 1/3rd turn to hit the target 0.006” spec window. If your neck has too much of a bow (tuner keys up) we would tighten the truss rod slightly. The key here is to make changes in very small increments and then re-measure.

I also found that my strings on the kit guitar had near zero radius when the fretboard had a 12” radius. I used the included Understring Radius Gauges (I often use them on top of the strings….) to both confirm the 12” radius of the fretboard and for setting the strings.

The Radius Gauge (left) makes checking and setting the spring radius very easy and super accurate if you take your time. The string Height Gauge (right) has several uses but for setting the action (height) of your strings, it is a must-have. Very easy to be super accurate.
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I had to file the notch in some of the bridge saddles a bit deeper to get the radius. After filing the notches they have to be polished and for that I used abrasive cord that I also got from Stewart-MacDonald. After a bit of careful filing, polishing and checking I had the radius in my strings that I needed.

Finally I had to adjust the bridge height to get my string action (string height) at about 0.078” on the bass side at the 12th fret and 0.070” on the treble side at the 12th fret. With the right radius in the string saddle seats I did check the rest of the strings but they had no choice to be at the right height.

After all that work (which took under an hour) I retuned the guitar and found that it indeed played much better. Virtually no buzzing, chords were sounding like chords and I no longer felt like a death grip was needed to form the chords.


With a street price of $89.11 (9-10-2011) the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit is not a freebee but if you consider the money it can save you not to mention being able to make these adjustments when you need them, this kit is heavy on the value side.

Now that I have the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit and have a little experience using it effectively I can fine-tune the setup of my guitars and even try other setups with no worry about being able to get back to what I know worked before. I don’t use the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit every day but every day I do use it I save money and time. That means I get to play for fun a little more and for me that is what it is all about.

Visit the Stewart-MacDonald Basic Setup Tools Kit web page – Click Here

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