Introducing the Guitar Setup
I’m going to begin this guitar blog post by talking about automobiles. Stay with me here…
The famous British motoring TV show ‘Top Gear’ once challenged its presenters to make a Renault minivan (not exactly a racing car) achieve a faster track lap-time than a Mitsubishi Evo (definitely a racing car). Unsurprisingly they failed at this task. But one interesting point was highlighted in the process.
Blowing over 80% of their £9,000 tuning budget on uprated brakes, wheels, tires, suspension, and racing seats resulted in shaving a mere couple of seconds off the cars original lap-time. But they then had the bright idea of simply giving the minivan a good general service – filters, injectors, fluids, etc (costing just a few hundred pounds) which produced a power increase of nearly 50 BHP and another couple of seconds sliced from the clock.
The moral of this story? Simple maintenance gives astonishing effects. And in the world of the guitar, this starts with what we call a setup.
So, what is a guitar setup?
It’s actually fairly similar to a service on a car. A technician will check how the guitar performs, see if there are any issues with the body or electrics, replace consumables (strings rather than tires) and generally ensure that it sounds right. Maybe even add a drop of oil here and there. Not engine oil, obviously…
And why do I need one?
Well, you might not! If it’s feeling great to play and sounding sweet then why mess with it?
But guitars (like cars) might not be set to perform at their absolute best even brand new and fresh from the dealer. And guitars (unlike cars) are usually made from wood, a material that will respond to changes in humidity and temperature over time, and certainly be more susceptible to rough handling than the bodywork on your Honda.
Put very simply, a setup costing between around $50 – $150 (depending on work required) could easily make a $100 instrument play like it’s a $500 instrument. You have to admit that sounds like a bargain.
Sold! So how do they do it?
Your chosen guitar technician will discuss what you hope to achieve with the setup, including any string preferences and possible playing style considerations (for example, the last work I had done to a guitar involved switching to fat gauge flat-wound chromes for pure jazz use). You both agree upon the desired outcome and your budget for the work.
The technician will start by playing your guitar and making a general assessment, before removing the existing strings. They’ll then focus on some key areas…
Checking and setting up the neck
This is probably the main reason you want setup, and definitely the part of the process that yields the greatest gains. This job makes the action of the strings over the neck as sweet as possible, and will involve some or all of the following procedures;
Truss rod adjustment: Most steel string guitars have a metal rod inside the length of the neck, designed to counteract the string tension and keep the neck straight. This is usually adjustable at the headstock end of an electric guitar (beneath a cover) or within the body of an acoustic guitar at the body/neck joint.
Bridge adjustment: This adjusts the height of the bridge, and consequently the string height above the frets on the neck. Usually do-able by adjusting screws on an electric guitar; with an acoustic, it’s achieved by sanding or shimming the bridge saddle. And with a Floyd-Rose style floating bridge – every guitar technicians’ nemesis – it’s done through delicately balancing the weight of the strings against the tremolo system spring tension while using a lot of bad languages and probably making some kind of deal with the devil…
Nut adjustment: This adjusts the height of either the entire nut or the individual string slots cut into the nut. Achieved by either cutting deeper string slots or by shimming up the height of the nut. Fortunately, it’s not a common job, but probably the one requiring most skill – your tech will make the right choice here.
Fret dressing: This is usually a standalone job rather than part of a regular setup unless there are major issues with the frets that are unavoidably affecting playability. Frets do wear down over time – remember you’re jamming metal into metal whenever you play the guitar – and will require infrequent maintenance (sometimes even replacement). A fret dress involves leveling and re-shaping the metal frets themselves, using a variety of measuring/leveling tools, files, and other fairly specialist equipment.
Clean & Polish frets and fretboard: The final part of sorting the neck. Just accept that your hands are disgustingly filthy – end of the argument. This means that frets will get dull or dirty, and unimaginable levels of grime can build up on the surface of the fretboard. All the muck is removed with appropriate cleaning materials, and the whole fingerboard is polished up.
Your guitar tech will check over the whole instrument for any general structural issues. How does the neck joint look? Is that scratch-plate secured properly? Any problems with the interior bracing, binding or the back/front of an acoustic guitar body? Now’s the perfect time to have a look inside the sound-hole with a mirror and mini torch to see if anything is amiss.
And while the strings are off the guitar it’s always worth checking the tuners. Are they too stiff? Do they rattle around loose? Either way, screws will be tightened or loosened as required, oiled if necessary, and entire units replaced if you both agree it’s essential.
A relatively simple part of the process compared with the neck! Checks are made to confirm all electrics are screwed into/onto the instrument correctly, ensuring no wires have come loose, making sure the jack socket works and that there’s no nasty crackles or pops when adjusting the controls. Usually just a case of tightening things up and cleaning the inside of pots and switches with contact cleaner. Oh, and making sure batteries in active circuits aren’t dead!
Probably the simplest part of refreshing your guitars sound. Especially if the reason for the setup is to adjust the instrument for a substantially different gauge or type of strings.
Once the strings are back on, it’s time to correctly set the intonation. This is ensuring that the string produces the correct pitch on each fret, and is set by making adjustments on the bridge saddle while checking the pitch with an accurate electronic tuner. Fairly easily done on most electric guitars (using just a screwdriver) but requires physical work to the non-adjustable saddles on most acoustic guitars.
Final clean and polish
Well since your tech has now completely tidied up the way the guitar plays, it’d be a crime not to make it look just as gorgeous as it feels!
Wrapping it up
And as if by magic, it now seems like you’re holding and playing a completely new guitar. No kidding here – it’s like unwrapping a new Christmas present. This means you’ll want to play it more and more. Which then means that, before too long, it’ll be ready for another setup. And that will just make you want to play even more for even longer. Which then means….
…you get the idea.
Keep your eyes glued to your inbox for next week’s blog…you just never know what we’re going to be talking about!