A well set up guitar plays in tune and with good intonation, responds smoothly and easily to your playing style, and will help your fingers convey the sound that you want. Defining the goal is easy enough: everyone wants a guitar that plays easily and sounds great.
The means to the end is a little trickier.
All guitars need to be set up properly at some point, from the rough setup they receive at the factory to the periodic work thats required to maintain them in good playing condition as they experience normal wear and seasonal climatic changes. Of course one of the most important reasons for adjusting a setup is to adapt an instrument to your playing style. A guitar setup, then, basically consists of checking and adjusting specific points on the guitar to optimize its playability, tone, and feel for the owner of that guitar.
But why do a setup at all when all this is taken care of at the factory? Well, it’s true that all factories do a basic setup on their instruments so that they will be reasonably playable for most players. Yet, because of the time consuming nature of guitar setup to standards beyond that of the most basic nature, most factories choose to spend less time on setups than might be considered ideal.
This so called average setup from the factory covers small inconsistencies in fret height which would show up as fret buzz if set up to tighter tolerances. Though we would all like new guitars to play perfectly out of the box, a more realistic approach would be to consider a factory instrument in reasonable playing condition as only a starting point. We can take up where the factory left off and customize the instrument to our specific needs, abilities and music style. A guitar set up for playing slide could be quite different than one set up for speed metal, just like an acoustic or classical guitar setup could be different than that for an electric – even for the same player.
Also, a guitar setup may change over time, resulting in a need to have the setup checked and adjusted periodically. Some examples that may affect a guitar’s original setup could be: changing string gauge, fret wear lowering frets, change of humidity, wear on nuts and saddles, and slight top movement on an acoustic or classical.
Basic parts of a guitar to adjust
A Complete Guitar Setup consists of the following:
- Restringing guitar with new strings of selected gauge
- Neck relief adjustment using truss rod
- Nut height check and adjustment
- String action adjustment (height of strings from fretboard)
- String Intonation adjustment (string length compensation)
- Pickup height and tremolo adjustment (on electric guitars)
- Check and tighten all screws, nuts, output jack
Precision fretwork is always crucial for action and tone. Together with the neck, fingerboard, and truss rod, the fretwork directly influences the adjustments that determine the amount of relief necessary for good action without buzzes. In addition, the contour and condition of the fret crowns affect the tone quality, sustain, and even intonation of each note.
|An extreme example of divots in frets. These need to be pulled and replaced. It’s vital to have a fret dressing performed before the frets get this bad.||
Example of flattened fret tops. This can make intonation vary greatly across the fretboard and also create tonal dead spots or buzzing.
FRET DRESSING refers to the leveling out and re-rounding (or crowning) of high, low, and worn spots on frets, usually caused by wear from constant string contact, bending strings, or fretboard inconsistencies.
These high spots and wear can cause buzzes and notes that don’t play cleanly along the fretboard. Eventually ALL regularly played guitars experience fret wear due to the strings and frets being rubbed against each other.
A complete fret dressing consists of the following:
- Properly assessing fret wear and adjusting neck relief with strings off the guitar.
- Finding and identifying location of high frets.
- Removing high spots and divots. This is the leveling process.
- Re-crowning frets so they have clean string take off points
- Removing file marks and polishing frets to a factory like mirror finish.
- Performing a Complete Setup on guitar with fresh strings
- A guitar can potentially have a few fret dressings performed before the frets are worn low enough that they need to be replaced with completely new frets.
- In some cases if a player has waited too long for a fret dressing, a particular fret or set of frets may be too damaged to level out with the rest of the frets.
- In this case you get in the realm of partial refrets.
Acoustic players who search for the utmost in tone and volume can’t be particular enough about having a well fit saddle and string nut made from high quality material. Installed properly, the saddle and nut put the finishing touches on expensive, high quality acoustics, yet the same attention to detail is probably even more important on a less-expensive model for achieving the best tone and volume possible for that instrument.
As the diagram below shows, the saddle and nut are the final stopping points of the vibrating portion of the string’s length. Therefore they are transmitters of sound from the strings through the bridge and guitar neck, causing the top of the guitar to move.
This creates the sound, tone, and volume that are unique to each acoustic guitar.The following criteria should be met to achieve the best results:
- Use of a hard, good quality material such as BONE, MICARTA, or CORIAN. Plastic Material is used by factories to reduce the cost of guitars and is much too soft for good tone transfer. This is perhaps the #1 culprit for tone/volume loss, and the reason why the replacement of these inferior parts will improve ANY guitar’s tone and volume.
- A tight fit of the saddle in the bridge and of the nut to the neck. The saddle should be tight enough in the bridge slot to lift the entire guitar by the saddle. The most obvious sign of a poorly fitted saddle is if the saddle is leaning forward at all from string tension. Unseen signs include the saddle not meeting flat with bottom of bridge slot, the bridge slot not deep enough to cover at least 60% of the saddle, and a saddle that is a shade too thin for the slot.
- A proper string angle behind the saddle and nut. This ensures maximum coupling and transfer of string vibration to guitar body.
- Properly slotted string nut. This means that the slot does not pinch the strings too tightly or allow them to move laterally in the slots during playing, both of which can rob a guitar of sustain and better tone.
Volume and tone knobs have what is called a potentiometer to vary the resistance to an electronic signal passing through them. Inside these “pots” there is a carbon strip and a wiper that is in constant contact with that carbon strip.
Eventually dirt, grime, dust get into the open end of the pot and/or the carbon strip develops wear spots which don’t allow the wiper to make good contact, thus creating the annoying scratchy sound you hear as you adjust your volume or tone.
Try this trick as taught to me a by an old guitar repair guru. Just spray a TINY amount of WD-40 into the pot from the small opening at the solder terminals, and then quickly move the pot back and forth a number of times. I have found that 9 times out of 10 this gets rid of the scratchy sound, usually for a very long time.
In those cases where this doesn’t work, then bring the guitar in- it’s time for new pots. Also beware that many cheaper import guitars just have low quality potentiometers that don’t last very long. I recommend replacing those as soon as they develop problems.
Those standard guitar polishes and cleaners are fine for your everyday guitar wipe down, BUT if you have a guitar finish that is suffering from any of the following…
- Very dirty or oily
- Old and dull
- Slight scratches
…then try this secret recipe: Turtle Wax Scratch and Swirl Remover. It’s the one that comes in a green bottle with Red top. My customers are amazed at how this product gets their guitars to just shine. It will not remove deep scratches, but does an incredible job of removing dirt, and buffing out those minute scratches that will dull a finish.
Just apply a little with one rag in each area of the guitar, rub it in lightly with circular motion. Then wait about a minute and buff it off with a clean rag.
PS. Another product that is on the market now would be, Phil’s Guitar Clay Detailer Kit, which is made by Everly music and sold on all fine internet location. This product also works very well.
For cleaning an ebony or rosewood fretboard most any standard fretboard cleaner and a rag will do well. Also, boiled linseed oil is very good for conditioning the wood after the cleaning. It can have a certain smell that some do not prefer but for true wood protection it is recommended for fretboards and acoustic guitar saddles.