The Guitarist’s Tool Kit
by Daniel Brooks
Whether you’re just giving your old guitar one more tweak toward perfection, or getting ready to do your first complete set up on your new instrument, there are a few essential items you should have in your tool kit. Most of these are inexpensive and well worth the investment, if you don’t already have them, and they will help you fine tune any guitar to its maximum level of performance and playability.
A set of Phillips screwdrivers. There are several standard sizes of Phillips screwdrivers, but you’ll need only three to do any work on any standard guitar. A good Craftsman #2 is the largest. It fits the neck attachment screws on a Strat or a Tele as well as the screws for a tremolo spring mounting claw. A #1 is the perfect size for the screws on any pick guard, back plate, jack plate, or truss rod cover. A #0 Phillips screwdriver fits the mounting ring screws and the height adjustment screws on a humbucker.
A set of Allen wrenches is also necessary for many truss rod and bridge saddle adjustments. This isn’t universal to all guitars, but for those that have Allen screws incorporation into their design, they are an essential tool.
A 6 inch ruler with 1/32" and 1/64" (0.5 mm) increments will give you considerable accuracy when fine tuning your guitar’s string and pickup height or adjusting your truss rod for a straighter neck. A good one will probably cost you between $10 and $35 and there is an inexpensive and more accurate alternative.
A feeler gauge will give even more precise measurement, for less than ten dollars at any auto parts store. It is an organized collection of thin metal leaves, each an exact fraction of an inch thick. You combine leaves of different thicknesses to get an exact reference for any job that requires a professional level of accuracy. It requires a little bit of basic math, but it will give you a perfect reference down to one thousandth (.001) inch, the difference between a .009 and a .010 gauge guitar string.
Wire Cutters. When you’re at the hardware store looking for tools, be sure to pick up a pair of wire cutters. For 10 to 20 dollars, this is the perfect tool for trimming the ends off of new strings after you restring your guitar, and comes in handy if you ever have to work on your guitar’s electronics.
A soldering iron. This one is optional. If you are comfortable with working on your guitar’s electronics . . . and if you know what you’re doing, then a soldering iron will save you a whole lot of money whenever you replace switches, pots, capacitors and pickups. You can spend up to a hundred bucks, or even more, on a soldering iron, but there are plenty of good ones that will work perfectly on any guitar project for around $20.
A drop of 3-in-1 oil in each of your tuning machines, every now and then, will keep them happy and rust free for decades. Be careful to wipe up any excess on your guitar’s wood or finished surfaces.
So far, the tools we’ve suggested are those for which you’ll find plenty of other uses. If you’re handy, it’s a good idea to have them for those times when you just have to fix stuff around the house. But there are a few other tools that really only have a function in reference to your guitar. They may seem like luxuries, but you’ll thank yourself for buying them.
A good chromatic tuner will save your show. When you’re on stage with an out-of-tune guitar, in front of an audience that is just waiting for the next song, or the next band, the time it takes to find the errant string and fine tune it back to rock-star worthy perfection can seem like an eternity. A good chromatic tuner will give you a quick, precise visual reference for any tuning, standard or alternate. This not only helps you onstage, but it is also an indispensible tool for doing a professional set up on any guitar. You have to keep each string in tune for precise string tension as you adjust the truss rod, the string height, the tremolo spring tension and the intonation on your guitar, a good chromatic tuner lets you zero in quickly and accurately after every adjustment. An “expensive” tuner will find its way on your pedal board for a mere $99, and for $20 or so you can get an outstanding hand-held tuner for set ups.
A string winder is one of the great wonders of the modern world. A simple piece of plastic that fits over the button on your guitar’s tuning peg, and a rotating handle that lets you turn a freshly-strung tuner a half dozen full rotations in just a few seconds . . . sheer freakin’ genius. A good one costs only a few dollars and often features a slot for removing bridge pins on an acoustic guitar. There ought to be an international holiday celebrating the birthday of the guy who invented the string winder.
Finally, a jar of polish and a clean cotton cloth will keep your guitar’s finish looking shiny and new even when it’s well into its “vintage” years. I bought a jar of carnauba wax guitar polish for less than $20 more than 20 years ago. I guess I’ll have to buy another in a few years. It is not a cleaning agent, for that you need a clean cotton cloth to wipe away any fingerprints, and if, for reasons that are probably best left unspoken, your guitar has picked up a little dirt, grime, sweat, blood, fur, or unidentifiable fluids, then maybe a mild detergent solution. Fretboard conditioner can also be applied occasionally when you feel your fretboard drying out. Once your guitar is clean, dry, and serviceable, then wax on, wax off, and it’s on with the show.