When you think of a decent guitar setup, what comes to mind? Lowering action, correcting intonation, maybe giving the truss rod a good turn? They’re all components of a good setup for sure, but is that really the long and short of it? No, there’s more to it than that!
I’ve always believed that a thorough setup has to go beyond just the basics. You’ve got to take into account the whole instrument, from dressing the nut slots for the player’s preferred string gauge to even giving the tuners a quick twist just to make sure they aren’t sticking. De-gunking a fretboard, polishing frets, spraying out dirty pots, and even removing some problematic rust are often essential to making a guitar fully playable as well as functional.
Case in point, something I’ve often seen slip past the sensors is neck alignment, where the neck is tilted on the body in favor of one E string or the other. With a misaligned neck, the strings closest to the edge of the board are prone to slipping off and intonation can suffer greatly. Almost every bolt-on guitar on the market exhibits this issue in some form or another, which is commonly caused by the extra bit of play in the neck pocket that comes with mass-production. It’s an issue found on high-dollar guitars too, not just imports and affordable models like the guitar I’ll use below as an example.
Have a look at this Squier J.Mascis:
When I got my hands on this one, the high E had a tendency to slip off the fret ends, and intonation on the plain strings was nearly impossible, especially with the reduced saddle travel of the TOM bridge installed on the model. This kind of thing can even muck with string bending, as the string can be choked off as it crosses the fretboard at an angle. Also note that the strings do not line up with the pole pieces of the neck pickup!
Luckily, this is an easy thing to correct. The most basic solution is to simply pull the neck back into place. In this case, all that was needed was holding the guitar with the upper bout against my body and giving the neck a quick pull towards me, then tightening the neck bolts to ensure it stays put.
In more extreme cases, shimming around the perimeter of the neck pocket may be necessary for a tight fit. Where there’s only a little extra space, I’ll insert a shim where the neck touches the pocket when tilted. Using this J.Mascis as an example, this could mean shimming the treble side of the heel and along the bass side of the pocket to keep it in place. [See Fig. 1]
As for materials, wood veneer, cut-up baseball cards, or even discarded picks made to fit will work just fine if you’re more of a DIY fan. In the case of an oversized neck pocket, like those often found on some CBS Fender guitars, a qualified tech or luthier should be able to add material if necessary, even going so far as to add a shaped, painted shim along the bass side of the neck. Really, whatever keeps things stable is good enough in most cases.
Next time you’re cleaning or restringing your guitar, have a look at the neck and check to make sure it is properly aligned. If not, you could be missing out on a better setup and truer intonation as a result. All it takes is a little attention and experimentation to correct an issue like this one.