Setup

A guitar setup describes adjustments made to achieve the best possible sound and playing action.

Why do guitars need a setup? Weather changes that go from hot to cold, and anywhere in between, create extreme dry and humid conditions that can have negative effects on a guitars playability and overall structural integrity. Extreme changes in temperature and moisture force the guitar neck which is made of wood to shift, which in guitar talk means to bow or bend. When this happens as it will with most all guitars it is nesscessary to get the guitar properly setup. Most professional guitarists need a setup at the change of every season but a beginner player can get away with setting up their guitar at least once or twice a year. This will depend on: weather conditions, how students care for and store their guitar and the quality and make of the guitar.

The term action refers to the overall playability of the guitar. Many factors contribute to a guitars action. But mainly action is determined by the height of the strings above the neck. There are basic rules that apply when setting up a guitar but their is no definite setup; ultimately the aim should be to accommodate the individual players style and technique within the adjustment limitations of the instrument.

Giutar Setup 1A guitar setup maintains the guitars intonation and action. This is achieved by the guitar repairman adjusting the saddles of the guitar up and down back and forth and setting the angle of the guitar neck. The truss rod is a metal rod built into a guitars neck that reinforces it against string tension. (I must add that many beginner level nylon string classical guitars do not have a truss rod built into the neck so if the neck does bow or bend a neck adjustment is impossible, structural damage may occur along with very high action that will make the guitar difficult to play.) To raise or lower the action on acoustic or electric guitars the guitar repairman must make a neck adjustment by tightening or loosening the truss rod with an allon wrench or hex wrench or making height adjustments to the saddle or saddles of acoustic and electric guitars. When the saddles on an electric guitar are raised up or down, backward or forward with a smaller allon wrench the guitars intonation (pitch) is affected as well as the action. The acoustic guitar has one long saddle which has no screws to adjust like an electric guitar. To set the action on an acoustic guitar the one saddle is raised or lowered by either shimming it up with a small piece of wood or cardboard (which would also raise the guitars action) or filing it down (which would lower the guitars action). When adjustments are to the action are made correctly, the guitar string is able to sit on the saddle at a comfortable distance above the guitar fretboard. Through a proper action adjustment the guitarist can play with the least effort and play notes that have the clearest sound. Action also affects intonation.

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An intonation adjustment allows the guitar to be in tune with itself. Through proper intonation adjustments the string is placed in an exact length from the saddle to the nut which is what allows each note to sound in proper pitch. When intonation is set correctly a guitarist is able to tune each string in relation to each other with a harmonious outcome. When the neck and saddles are adjusted properly the guitar has been intonated.A guitar that’s been setup properly can be tuned and played with the least hardship and produce the most beautiful sound because the action and intonation combine to allow the guitar to produce proper pitches and stay in tune with itself.

Giutar Setup 2Most guitar setups cost between $40 and $75. Usually only music stores that sell professional level guitars and music equipment have a trained guitar repair man available on the premises. If a guitar technician is available find out how much they charge and how long you will have to wait to receive your guitar before you drop it off. New strings are included during the setup process so when you drop off your guitar specify the brand and size (tension) of guitar strings that you’d like them to be put back on the guitar. If you don’t know, the repairman will pick a tension and brand that they like and usually those strings will work fine. Often guitar repairman work only one or two days a week and are swamped with other time consuming repairs from musicians who make their living playing guitar. Like any business there is a pecking order whether anyone will admit it or not. They will tell you your guitar will be ready on such and such a day and it may not be, so don’t be surprised if this happens. Be polite but firm when you schedule a drop off time and tell the guitar repairman or sales clerk you need your guitar back on such and such a day in time for your next lesson or performance.

When a student gets their guitar back while there still in the music store preferably in front of the guitar repairman or salesperson, they should check their action and intonation. Firstly the student should put their guitar out of tune and re tune it. This will be a great indicator if the guitar has been intonated properly. If a student doesn’t posses the necessary skills to tune their guitar yet they should make sure they have it tuned in front of them at the guitar store, because that’s what half of a setup is, making the guitar stay in tune with itself. Students can check the action by literally playing every note up and down each string to check the height of the strings above the fingerboard throughout all positions on the neck. Students must take care to notice if any strings or notes produce a buzzing sound. If the guitar string buzzes on a particular fret or string or the action feels too low or high the student should immediately show the repairman or store clerk so they may correct it or explain it. If the guitar repairman knows their craft and the shop provides good customer service they should be able to describe why this is happening or maybe give the guitar the once over to make sure they didn’t overlook something. Guitar repairmen are no different than car repairmen or doctors. Some are good and some aren’t. Unfortunately beginner guitarists are at a disadvantage to understand why different sounds occur and understand the wide variety of technical terms regarding guitar information. A beginner guitar student may find it hard to know when the guitar repairman is telling the truth when they say “that’s the best it’s gonna get.” Often that is the case, due to the limitations of the instrument and other times the guitar repairman are lazy or just not very qualified. Either way students will learn important and necessary knowledge that will help them to understand more about their guitars setup and possible limitations of their guitar or the guitar repairman.

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Remember the student is the one who’s going to play his or her guitar everyday not the guitar repairman so it’s their job to make sure their guitar is setup in a way that pleases them.

The more questions students ask about the guitar repair specifics the more they will learn about guitar repair and the more confident their overall guitar playing experience will be.

One remaining thing to mention. A setup does not mean that the guitar repair man will clean the guitar; polish the fretboard with lemon oil or tighten any lose screws or bolts so if students want their guitar cleaned and bolts tightened they should specify that when they discuss dropping it off and find out if the guitar shop will charge them for it. If the music store doesn’t offer a complimentary cleaning and maintenance of a students guitar I recommend that each student do that stuff themselves. If a student takes his or her guitar playing seriously then they should learn how to take proper care of their guitar!