This article is from Guitars Done Right, author – Hank Castello

Buzzing? Hard to play? Loss of tone or sustain? You can’t fix it until you know what’s wrong. A correct diagnosis will lead to your solution. No matter the problem (unless it’s electrical), there are not only certain steps you have to take to efficiently diagnose your guitar problems, but there is a definite sequence those steps must follow.

it may surprise you to hear that over 90% of “professional” guitar techs do not know the proper sequence of those steps! Recently, on a Facebook page devoted to professional guitar techs, a tech posted the question, “What is the sequence of steps you take when doing a guitar setup?”

Dozens of responses followed and 100% of the posts either stated, “The T.R.A.I.N. sequence” or agreed with someone who had.

So, what IS the “T.R.A.I.N.” sequence, you ask?

  • Tune (to get the proper tension)
  • Relief (adjusting the truss rod)
  • Action (setting saddle height)
  • Intonation (getting the right note on each fret)
  • Nut (setting slot heights above the first fret)

My setup process adds several more, very important steps, but the list above forms what most will agree is a simplified, basic setup. There’s just one problem. The sequence is fatally wrong! The last step undoes the two steps before it. Let me explain:

Any adjustment you make to the saddle height (action) causes 50% of that amount of change to occur at the center of scale (12th fret on guitars). So, if our low-E action is 90 thousandths as measured at the 12th fret, and we want to lower it to 70 thousandths, we must lower the saddle by 40 thousandths.

Let’s say we want it as low as we can possibly go without buzzing, and we’ve determined that would be 0.060″ at the 12th fret, and we set it at this height. Then, following the T.R.A.I.N. sequence, we set intonation so we get the proper notes on each fret.

Now, we measure the low-E nut slot height and find it is at 0.040″ and we want it only half that height, 0.020″ and we fill the slot appropriately.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is train-wreck-Screenshot-from-2023-12-10-16-32-59-1024x571.png
No actual trains were harmed in this illustration, but some techs’ egos were bruised!

What have we done to our action and intonation? And why is the guitar suddenly buzzing?

Geometry (and Pythagoras) don’t care what you call each end of a line. With guitars, we call one end the saddle and the other end the nut. But no matter which end you change, 50% of that change will be felt at the center of the line – in our case, the 12th fret, where we often measure our action.

So, now your low-E is not at 0.060″ but it’s at 0.055″ and buzzing on one or more frets. Also, since the saddle must be higher than the nut, relative to the frets, you’ve also lengthened the length of the string and your intonation is therefore slightly flatter.

So why on earth would any decent guitar tech use the T.R.A.I.N. system? Maybe it’s because nut slots often only need a ten thousandths or so change and the resulting change of half that amount is often not noticed because the tech has already measured the action before filing the nut, so why measure again? Same with intonation. So the tech fails to notice that they’ve messed up their previous adjustments.

The T.R.A.I.N. acronym has been going around since I first learned guitar repair in 1970 and was probably prevalent decades before then.

So why do techs just accept what they’re told without questioning and without testing for themselves? I have an answer – There isn’t much money in guitar tech work unless you’re the top tech in your area. Most techs are gigging musicians and just teching for side money. Others are retired and just want to be able to tell their wives that they’re too busy for her “to-do list” and make a little pocket change.

Anyone calling themselves a guitar tech but says they go by “feel” instead of measurements, or says they use the T.R.A.I.N. setup method – well, I’d suggest that you think twice before trusting them with your guitar. So who can you trust?

Look for a Guitars Done Right member shop. GDR member shops are run by professionals whose main business is working on guitars, not playing them. Our members have promised to follow the GDR setup methods and steps and will GUARANTEE your satisfaction.