Like most machines that have moving parts, a guitar needs to be regularly maintained. Parts wear out, wood can swell or contract, and the guitar that was once comfortable to play can seem like it’s fighting you at every chord.
If you’ve bought a used guitar, particularly one that hasn’t been played in a while, you’ll probably notice that the strings may seem too high (or low), the guitar doesn’t stay in tune or perhaps something is buzzing or rattling when it shouldn’t.
It’s probably time for a setup.
Think of it like a car MOT. If you get your car looked at regularly, you can help avoid serious issues later, and address problems when you find them.
A setup is the process of adjusting the various parts on a guitar to make sure it plays correctly and comfortably. If there are any problems like unneeded noises (buzzing, rattling, etc) those could be sorted out first to see if any repairs are needed. Then it’s on to making sure things are straight and in place, starting with the neck.
To make sure the guitar is playing right, the neck needs to be right. This means adjusting the truss rod to give the neck the right amount of relief to ensure the strings don’t hit the frets on a bowed neck. Relief is the amount of space between the strings and the frets that allows the strings to vibrate freely. Too little relief can give you fret buzz while too much can result in high action and a difficult to play instrument.
Uneven frets can also be a problem with older or very well played instruments. If there is enough fret material left, they can be levelled and recrowned (filed on the top to give them the curved shape needed to play clean notes). Otherwise, the frets may need to be replaced.
Once the neck is behaving, we can examine the nut. This is the point of contact before the strings reach the tuners and a critical part of the equation. The idea is that the strings should be able to pass freely across the nut without any friction. The slots need to be accurately cut so that the strings don’t move sideways, or vibrate behind the nut. The height of the slots can also affect intonation at the first fret and action, so it’s always a good idea to check the slot depth.
Material used for the nut can vary. The traditional material is bone, which can be difficult to work with, and does smell funny when it’s being cut or filed (which obviously is only an issue for the person cutting it!). I prefer to use Graph Tech, a Canadian invention, that is impregnated with lubricants to make sure the strings move freely. It’s particularly good for vibrato-equipped guitars where the strings are going to move a lot further back and forth across the nut when the vibrato, or tremolo, is used.
The saddles on the bridge are adjusted to make sure the string action is correct and so that each string length is correct. This is how intonation is set. The half way point of the string (the second harmonic) needs to be positioned at exactly the 12th fret, and this is done with a tuner, tuning the 12th note by moving the saddles one at a time.
A setup can also include setting pickup heights so the pickups play at the same volume. Some players like to have the bridge pickup a little louder to work like a boost when switching from neck to bridge pickups, but that’s a matter of taste and playing style.
Adjusting the truss rod, saddles and nut can be circular type of process where setting one means the others need to be adjusted. A setup involves going back and forth adjusting each until the whole instrument plays as it should.
In fact, just about anything that can be adjusted on a guitar should be adjusted, if necessary, to make the overall playing experience a comfortable one.
If you have a guitar that isn’t playing quite like it should, or you bought one used and would like it setup to your playing style, please get in touch.