Updated: Oct 23
Having a guitar, and keeping it in top shape can be a money pit. Especially If you own several guitars. You should seriously learn the basics and do it from the comfort of your own home and pay $0.00 (apart from tools needed) and set up and maintain the guitars yourself. If you want to go the DIY route and learn basic setup and troubleshooting yourself, here is a list of basic tools you need to get started. I only list tools for guitar adjustments. not building them (that is a way deeper rabbit hole) It all limits down to what you want to learn to do off course, but if you are like me and want to learn to do more than just changing your strings, there are some investments to be made. And believe me, everything does not have to be expensive Stew Mac tools. Ebay has plenty stuff from china for cheap. But certain tools is worth putting money on for decent quality if you are doing this more than once for your guitar, and sometime, other people´s guitars if you want to take the step doing it for a living. Some people are too afraid to turn a screwdriver or an Allen key to their guitar. But most thing you do in terms of adjustment can easily be reversed. But ultimately, remember that it is just a guitar, not rocket science.
KEEP IT ORGANIZED..
If you are serious about it, a good sturdy workbench is a must. A tool wall is handy too. I work with sheet metal and made one myself, but they are cheap to buy. Have it all somewhat tidy when you work with the guitar. My biggest issue personally is that the table often gets cluttered with tools lying around and i forget to put things i dont use anymore for the session away. I am still trying to work more tidy.. :) Also, you should get a nice soft surface to work on. I use a large sized gaming mouse mat for computers. Works wonders. And of course. A decent neck rest can be bought online or made yourself.
You migth need a jig to hold you neck/guitar firm and stationary if you are to work on certain things Especially if you are to level frets. You can buy finished products that cost quite a bit, or you can simply build your own out of wood blocks and straps-fasteners. If you decide to build your own jig, your own creative mind will come to play. I am sure there are forum threads and guides on youtube how to make a DIY one.
BASIC SETUP AND MAINTENANCE TOOLS
For basic setup, Music Nomad and Cruz Tools (pictured above) makes simple all-in-one tool kits for basic setup like tussrod, saddle adjutments and string change, Some of these you might already have in your tool box in your garage. But below i will list each individually.
-Phillips tip Screwdriver.
You can have a power drill with bits to save time. But i mostly use it to just take off the screws. when i am to attach screws, i never drill the screw all way. I stop just before it tensions and use regular screwdrivers to turn the last rounds. You have better control and if you are lazy with the torque setting, damaging screws can occur, or even worse snap them off. Having a broken screw lodged into the wood of the guitar is a nightmare. Always use regular screwdrivers to fasten the screws on the guitar. You need: Phillips #2 for bolt on neck screws and heel mounted tussrod Phillips #1 Screwdriver for smaller screws like Pickguard, intonation etc. Phillips #0 for the smallest screws like Tuner screws and String tree screws. Flat head screw drivers are a thing of the past, but for those vintage guitar aficionados, they often have flat head screws to stay true to vintage specs. Good to have back hand. And flatheads can be used for more than just screws. If i want to recommend a brand i would try Klein screw drivers if you are in US. but whatever brand you choose, use good quality with hard tempered tip. Do not go for cheap Chinese brands. The screwdriver is a constant-in-use tool by luthiers and techs. Screwdrivers with changeable bits are ok too. But i stick to regular one-piece screwdrivers. Bits tend to get lost on the table. -Feeler Gauge (Optional)
For beginners and skilled users, they are good to have and they are very cheap too. I use them for checking string height when rough cutting nut slots on new nuts. Get a set that is comprehensive, not just .010-.015-.020 blades.
I recommend most folks to set up by feel. I only use feeler gauges mostly when i cut nuts.
- Basic Tuner for Intonation (Recommended)
Many to choose from. I prefer the modern ones with LCD display. You can buy a $4000 dollar strobe tuner from Peterson. but you can get away with a Korg GA Custom that will so fine. Many recommends Turbo Tuner (pictured) by Sonic Research. Read around for reviews and get one that fancies you. You can even get away with a simple phone app to start with. But a box you can connect a cable straight to jack to is more accurate.
- Fret Polishing Kit (Essential)
There are loads of methods and products out there for polishing your frets. There is nothing more lovely than fresh strings on highly polished frets. Many sweared to Gorgomyte (discontinued) others like the erasers. I say try out and find your personal favourite. Personally i use high grit Micro Mesh Pads and Autosol polishing cream (Can be bought anywhere). you can use Fret Guards. But since i use polishing cream i use masking tape for good sealing, so i don't stain the fretboard. For a real good shine, i also use a polishing pad for my power drill.
- String winders (Optional)
Trust me, get one. Nothing as boring as winding string on by hand. There are different types. Regular cheap plastic crank winders. or a motorised one from Ernie Ball if you don´t have a power drill. If you DO have a power drill, you can get just a bit for the job.
- Allen Keys. (Essential)
Pretty much essential for adjusting you bridge saddles. remember that US Strats have Imperial size and Mexican and Japan uses Metric size. I advice you get both if you want to do it for a living, or if you own Mexi, Japan or US guitars. I can´t recommend having T-Style Allen keys enough. They are the best. Also used for tussrod adjustment at headstock. If you are to adjust tussrods on acoustics you need the Allen tools made for this
For Gibsons you need socket keys (these comes in three sizes for asian guitars as well)
- Polishing Cloth. (Recommended)
Good to have. Have a few in various grades soft and medium. Get leather types too for giving guitar polish the last finishing rub. Can be found in cheap dollar stores everywhere for a few dollars.
- Mesh pads and Sanding paper. (Essential)
Nice to have around. I always seems to need these every time. I use them for everything wood and metal parts. Get 220 / 800 / 1200 grit paper. Mesh pads are more tricker to get a hold of, but in a world of internet, should not be too hard finding them.
- String Cutters. (Recommended)
Needed to cut string ends. Get a decent quality. The cheapest usually have terrible alloy and wear out fast. Any home depot cutter works. Nothing special about them.
FOR GUITAR REPAIR AND SERVICE & MAINTENANCE
Here is the more comprehensive list for taking thing a step further beyond just string change. Pretty essential tools for any tech out there.
FRET LEVELING WORK
- Notched Straight Edge (Optional)
I consider this a beginners tool. A seasoned tech really dont need a notched straight edge. I sold min after a while. But they are basically a tool to get your neck straight. You can buy a cheap one on Ebay from China instead of wasting too much on Stew Mac. Mine works wonders.
-Fret Rocker. (Essential)
Used to check uneven frets. Can also be bought from Ebay super cheap. You can get two tools for nice price here
- Straight Edge for Leveling (Essential)
There are many products for this sold by Stew Mac and others. But there are ways to get other stuff from other places in DIY fashion. One of the best ones are Corian levelers. A good way to get them is to go to a store that sells kitchen counters. They have many cutoffs from their daily works and can be bought for cheap. Ask for one. You will get a 100% flat tool. Get one that is just as long as the fretboard.
If you can find sheet metal business or any place that weld metal, go and ask for brushed stainless steel metal tubing in at least 3mm thickness and have them cut one for you the size of a full neck. Just make sure they / you check that it is 100% dead straight after cutting it. It is not expensive and it is what i use. Keyword for these is that they MUST be dead FLAT!
-Crowning File (Essential)
These have one function, to make new fresh-leveled frets round again. Good ones cost some, but i have come across good budget ones, but i avoid the very cheapest one. I use the tri-file types that works for all sizes.
- Masking Tape (Essential)
Comes in many types and material. Get at least basic type paint masking tape, and you can get a little thicker ones too. Masking tape is something you use for fret polishing, nut shaping. Fret filing. Pretty much anything and everywhere sharp tools go to work to prevent damage to the guitar finish. I prefer the blue colored tape. Less stickier.
- Hand Reamer (Optional but essential)
You NEED a reamer if you are to widen up tuner holes from 8.8mm to 10mm for instance. you have more control over the process and at the same time you keep your hole straight. and the chances of failing it is almost zero. For tuner holes you need a reamer with a 2-degree taper, but that will work for any hole. I have reamed up holes in pick guards as well.. Allparts sells one that is decent enough. High grade reamers can cost a bit.
FRET CHANGING TOOLS
Changing frets is not for the faint of heart. But i cannot stress this enough: If you are to change frets, you need PROPER tools. Here i would avoid Chinese goods from Ebay like the plague. I have gone trough that, so i speak of experience. GOOD quality fret changing tools is essential. Do not save the cash for this job. - Fret puller (Essential)
You need one with good hardened steel. I prefer smaller size ones, but other likes bigger size ones. I like small one because i can rest my hand on the fretboard while i pull them.
fret puller have a dead flat surface to grip under the fret. Hosco has one of the best ones.
- Fret Puller Guards (Optional)
I like these, not essential, but they do save your pickguard from chipping some wood. You slide them under as you start to get a gap between the fret and wood, and it guards your fretboard from chipping off as you continue to lift them off.
- Fret Cutter (Essential)
These are for cutting fret ends once installed. I use them for regular nickel frets only. SS frets should be cut to finished length before install. Any hardware store stocks these. It does not need to be bought from guitar repair specialist store. But please get one with a flat head (pictured)so you can get it cut as close to the neck as possible.
- Tang Nipper (Optional)
Its only job is to cut off the tangs at the each side of frets for installing them on necks with Binding like Gibsons and a some acoustics. There are other ways to remove them, but a nipper does the job quick.
- Fret Press or Hammer (Essential)
Luthiers and techs either prefer to press on new frets or hammer them on. I prefer to press them, because you get an even distribution of force over the fret with a press and gets perfect result every time. With a fret hammer, you need more technique, and there is plenty room for error. But, With a hammer, you come out cheap. They cost little. And you need a rubber hammer if you go that route. A press is more expensive and comes in 3 types. You have the cheap converted F-Clamps. These are awful and should be avoided. You have the clamp presses. These are way better and can be found for cheap on Ebay or expensive on Stew Mac. And last you have the mini Arbor press (pictured). You most likely need to buy the caul and inserts on the side for these.
- Bevel file (Almost Essential)
These are for bevelling the fret ends evenly to correct 30 degrees (comes in a few degrees). To do bevels on frets by hand takes skill, but with a bevel file, you get nice and even bevel every time. You can buy these for a few tenners or if you are crafty, make you own out of a hand file, a wood block and a level adjusting table saw.
- Fret bender (Optional)
Not essential since you can get frets finished cut and bent to radius by certain vendors. But for those who do this for a living and re-fret plenty, they mostly buy frets in bulk and prefer to bend frets themselves to keep cost down. You can get an expensive one, or a cheap one.. Heck you can even build one yourself if you are crafty. Its design is very basic.
- Fret dressing files (Essential)
For basic filing and shaping frets, rounding them off and getting them flat and smooth on the fret ends. Fret-end work is a work of art of its own. It is where you can tell a good fret change for a bad one. A good craftman take extra care with fret-ends to round them off and get every sharp end smooth and fine. Fret dressing files is needed for that. But you can do it with simple needle files. But for A-class fret ends, you should get the files designed for it. Fret dressing file are engineered to not damage the fretboard and are curved slightly to round them off easier.