Ever since the punk rock ethos caught the fancy of the young guitar players, especially those belonging to teenage outfits performing gigs at local clubs and so on, it has become somewhat of a fashion to turn a blind eye to the defects of a guitar and its sound. What is more, these very defective sounds, be it string buzzing or out of tune notes and the like, are considered as an essential and core element of the punk sound.
Is guitar setup worth it? Yes! Once someone starts to make music continuously and takes the whole affair seriously enough, it becomes all too evident that a properly conditioned instrument (in this case, the guitar) is pivotal to creating good music. Making faulty sounds an essential part of one’s personal brand of music is something that can only be achieved by seasoned musicians and guitar players (and they don’t necessarily need to be ‘punk’ either!). For lesser mortals, it is in their best interest that they take necessary care to keep their guitars in proper shape and thus get the best from it in terms of sound and play-ability.
What Is Guitar Setup and Why Is It Important?
First things first. A guitar ‘setup’ is not the same as repairing a guitar. Sometimes the operations involved in these two categories may overlap. For example, Fret Dressing may be seen as a repair job or as part of a guitar setup routine (although, fret dressing is not commonly included in a guitar setup job—but more on that later!).
Guitar setup is more like a maintenance job. It makes certain necessary adjustments to the instruments that improves play ability and sound but also makes sure that your guitar and its sound will not get affected by seasonal changes. The two most basic operations of a guitar setup job are adjusting the action of the guitar and making sure that it is properly intoned. The luthiers or guitar technicians commonly work on the guitar fretboard, nut, intonation screws and the bridge to make these necessary adjustments.
Why Must One Worry Over Action and Intonation?
Action: The ‘action’ of a guitar refers to how high or low the strings sit on your guitar’s fretboard. A high action means that there is a considerable gap between the strings and the fretboard. The advantage with a high action is that there is fewer chance of string buzzing. On the flip side, it is more difficult to play with a high action since with a high action, your fingers need to put more pressure on the strings to hold them down to the fretboard. This is especially difficult for beginner players, but also experienced players normally prefer to use lower or middle action. The action of a guitar is typically adjusted by manipulating the truss rod of both acoustic and electric guitars.
Intonation: Adjusting the intonation is one of the primary aspects of a guitar setup. Intonation refers to how well a guitar holds its tuning throughout the entire length of fretboard.
For example, you tune your guitar strumming the open strings and it appears to be perfectly in tune. And yet, once you start playing, you may notice that the guitar falls out of tune when you are playing up the neck or when playing an open chord, etc. This occurs when the guitar is not properly intonated and unless you settle the issue, the problem will persist no matter how well you play or how frequently you tune your guitar.
And imagine this happening when you’re playing at a live show or recording a session!
Now, when you take your guitar to a professional technician, he will work on your guitar’s fretboard, nut and bridge saddle to intone it. The basic idea is that any open string and the 12th fret on that same string (beginning note of the second octave) should match. Since the 12th fret marks the halfway point between the nut and the bridge of a guitar, if an open string and the 12th fret on that string are both in tune, all other notes will stay in tune as well. Typically, a technician needs to work on the saddle to rectify improper intonation of a guitar.
[Note: Although adjusting the action of a guitar can often be performed by the guitarist himself (as long as he can access the truss rod by help of the right tool), an action adjustment may sometime affect the intonation of the guitar. If this happens, you must take the guitar to a professional]
Other Tasks Performed During a Guitar Setup
Hydrating & Polishing
Hydration is another important part of a guitar setup. Just as trees need hydration, so do the guitar woods made from the trees. Absence of heat and moisture can radically affect the performance of your guitar and in worst cases, the body of the guitar may crack and split, thus rendering it altogether beyond repair. Guitar shop techs will use proper fret and body conditioners and a micro-fiber polish cloth to hydrate all the wooden parts of your guitar.
Adjusting the String Radius
Many believe that all fretboards are made completely flat. That, however, is NOT true. For example, different guitars come with different fretboard radiuses. For example, most Fender models use a somewhat rounded fret board. On the other hand, Gibson or Yamaha guitars come with a much a flatter fretboard.
Now, in case of a rounded fretboard radius, it is important that strings perfectly emulate the radius of the fretboard over which they are set. In other words, the gap between the strings and the fretboard must be uniform throughout the length of the fretboard and proper adjustments to the guitar neck and bridge is required to achieve this effect. Otherwise, there will be an uneven action that can result in awkward string action, fret buzz and other inconveniences.
Fret Dressing, Nut Filling and/or Replacement
As you keep playing your guitar over time, the instrument will receive wear and tear. As the metal frets come into constant contact with the metal strings, the frets slowly begin to wear out and this leads to uneven frets, rough fret edges or dented frets across your fretboard.
During fret dressing, a guitar tech will level and reshape the frets (normally by filing them) so that all frets become even and there are no rough edges. Keep it in mind, however, that fret dressing is not included in a routine guitar setup job and the guitar shop will charge you a separate fee for the service.
And as with frets, the nut (made of bone or some other composite material) of the guitar is prone to wear out, too. Most commonly, this happens to one or more of the nut holes. So, you may experience that your “G” string is sitting somewhat lower than the other strings and this is caused by an eroded and thus widened nut hole on which the string sits. In such cases, guitar techs use bone dust to fill up sections of the nut. Sometimes, however, the nut is too worn out to be filled up, in which case a nut replacement will be necessary.
Do New Guitars Need to Be Set Up?
This depends on the model you are buying. If you are buying a budget or a beginner model, it might be a good idea to get a setup job done on it. Normally, the workmanship on these models is not very high. So, the guitar can actually benefit from a good setup job which will make it sound so much better.
If, however, you are purchasing a good quality model, a setup won’t be necessary. The little adjustments that need to be made will be performed by the store itself during the purchase. However, guitars are often left hung in the store for a long time. Also, they are manufactured and shipped from different places and the finer parts of the guitar may get somewhat harmed during the transit.
So, if you find that the store technician is having some difficulty setting up the instrument, we would suggest that you stay away from that particular model. Otherwise, you’ll have to factor in the price of the setup to the original price of the guitar.
Some guitar players, however, are too particular about their personal preferences and not all of those can be met by any single model. In such cases, even a new guitar may need an initial setup job.
How often should a guitar setup be adjusted?
The rule of thumb is you should setup your guitar at least twice a year to keep it in peak condition at all the time. We also strongly recommend that you perform a guitar setup job before important recording sessions or before you are starting on a tour.
How long does a guitar setup take?
It depends on where you are sending your guitar for the setup job. For example, if you choose a master luthier’s workshop to get the job done, you may have to wait 2-4 weeks before you get your guitar back (since there are not many master luthiers around these days, the workload is higher at such workshops).
The fact is it all depends on the work volume of the place where you are sending your guitar. The setup job itself doesn’t take more than a couple of hours (unless fret dressing or more complicated jobs are involved), but then again, you’ll have to wait your turn!
Typically, however, you can expect to get back your guitar in 7 to 10 days time.
If, however, you are in a hurry to get back your guitar, most places also offer a quick turnaround time for an extra fee.
Tools Involved in Setting up a Guitar
The most common tools required to set up a guitar include box wrench, hex key, different manners of nut and screw drivers, files, bone dust, wood and fretboard conditioners, special micro fiber cloth and more. But, I would recommend getting the same guitar setup kit that I have from Amazon. It’s everything you need and cheap!
Acoustic Guitar Setup and Costs involved
An acoustic guitar setup job will typically set you back $40-$100, depending on who performs the setup job. Commonly, local guitar shops will charge less than corporate chain shops.
Also, not all setup jobs involve the same amount of complexity. For example, the setup technicians sometimes need to lower the saddle by filing the bridge in order to achieve the proper intonation. And this will drive up the cost of setup.
However, as we mentioned, you need to pay a separate fee for fret dressing which alone will cost you $80-$150, depending on the severity of the case. For example, if the frets are too worn out, that means extra work for the technician. Sometimes it also happens that the frets are too damaged or have been filed too many times in the past. In such cases, the guitar tech will have to put on a completely new set of frets on the neck and this will normally cost you about $150.
Electric Guitar Setup and Costs involved
Normally, there is not a huge difference between the setup costs of an acoustic and an electric guitar. However, since electric guitars come with more bells and whistles, so to speak, you should expect to pay a little extra with an electric guitar. Apart from the common setup operations, an electric guitar setup job involves cleaning the electronic components such as the potentiometers, input jacks, various switches, etc. Also, the pickups on an electric guitar sometime tend to come out of their slots. This will also be attended to during a routine setup job.
For other more complicated jobs on an electric guitar, you will need to pay separate fees.
Just as you perform maintenance on your car, air conditioner or other electrical appliances so they run smoothly and long last, similarly it is important to perform guitar setup jobs at regular intervals. This will help your instrument perform at its peak condition; personalize it to your preferences; and will prevent little things from go awry.