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Professional Guitar Setup – What It Is & Why You Need It?

A quality setup for your guitar is something that is overlooked by so many people. You go down to the guitar shop and buy your new instrument and then take it home. You can’t wait to start playing. 

I wonder how many people ever think to make sure that what they bring home is ready for optimum performance. A great many just assume because it’s new, it is ready to go. Quite often, it hasn’t had a Professional Guitar Setup.

Like everything else

Most equipment that we use needs to be prepared but then checked occasionally. Cars need a service from time to time. So do guitars. The process of setting up a guitar isn’t a one-off exercise.

How often you need a setup is determined by a variety of things. Even where you live based on humidity and temperature. Along with how often you use it or change the strings? It can all have an impact. 

Even guitars that aren’t used much should have a setup once a year. Environmental factors can affect it, even when it isn’t being used. If you play regularly, of course, it needs more attention.

Is it expensive?

Not really, but you can learn how to set up a guitar yourself. If you have a friendly music store guy, they might give you a few pointers. Likewise, you can use information that you find online. The basics you can learn over time to master yourself.

What is a Setup?

What is a Setup

A Setup is a series of adjustments that are made to important areas on your guitar. You need to have an instrument where the neck, nut, and saddle all work together. They need to be finely balanced to interact with each other. When that is right, you will get the best from your instrument.

A competent setup will eliminate or at least reduce buzzing strings. The action will sit comfortably, making it easier to play, especially bar chords. It will have a nice feel to it, and it is going to sound better.

How Will I Know?

As a starter, or someone that might not be too familiar with how it should feel, you might not. That is when you take it down to the shop every 6-12 months, depending on its amount of use. Experienced players and the Pros just know as soon as they pick it up.

What Does a Guitar Setup Consist Of?

When you take your guitar to be set up, there are some things that they will do as standard. These are assuming that there is nothing major that needs to be repaired. Here are the basic steps to set up a guitar.

  • Check the neck is straight and not bowed or warped.
  • Use the Truss rod to make any corrections to the neck.
  • Clean the Neck.
  • Replace the strings.
  • Check and reset the string height, i.e., setting the gap between the strings and the frets.
  • Set up and check the intonation for all strings.
  • Set the string Radius.
  • Clean and polish the body.

Depending on when it was last set up, the age of the guitar, and its general condition, there may be other things that need to be done. These form the basis of a Profession Guitar Setup.

  • Filing the Nut.
  • Fret Dressing.
  • Fret cleaning.
  • Tremolo adjustments (if it has one).

Let’s take a closer look at some of these important guitar setup procedures.

The Neck and the Truss Rod

There is a metal rod that runs inside the length of the neck into the body. This is known as the Truss Rod. It adjustments the amount of tension on the neck. Guitar necks are wood and will naturally alter the shape and sometimes warp. This can happen because of environmental conditions.

An experienced Luthier will be able to judge whether this tension is sufficient. Or whether there is a “back-bow” and more tension needs to be applied. The incorrect amount of tension can cause either fret buzz or an action that is far too high for comfort. Ideally, the neck will be almost completely straight, without any bends or a misshapen appearance.

Changing the Strings

Once all work has been finished on the neck, a new set of strings will be fitted. The Luthier will recommend a good string if you are not sure what you require.

Setting the String action

The string action is the distance between the fretboard and the strings. Different genres and styles of music demand different string actions. 

Higher action 

The distance between the strings and the fretboard is quite large. That means there will be more effort needed to hold the string down and play the note. Not such a good idea for a beginner.

Lower action 

As it implies, the distance between the fretboard and the strings is small. Notes are easier to play because there is less effort needed to hold down the strings.

As I said, you will need to inform your technician about your style of playing and what height you prefer. It needs to be at a level to satisfy your playing style.

A high action whilst requiring more effort means there will be no fret buzz. Strings have more room to vibrate, and the sound suits a more acoustic style of playing. A lower action is easier to play, but you do run the risk of fret buzz.

Letting the Guitar Sing

Letting the Guitar Sing

I had the honor of playing with a great musician in the early 70s who played acoustic with a picking style. He played a Guild guitar, possibly an F-30. But the point is, I was shocked at how high his action was. When asked, he simply said, “I like my guitars to sing. Put the action too low, and you choke them.”

Most people prefer a lower action as it is easier to play. Playing with a higher action does demand excellent technique, and of course, well-worn fingers.

How is the String Action Adjusted?

One of two ways. Either by truss rod adjustment or simply by making small changes to the saddles of the bridge. Regardless of the method you use, getting the string action right is key to a professional guitar setup.

Checking and Setting the Intonation

I think you may well agree that having a guitar play in tune is quite important. That is all down to the intonation. 

I remember being asked to sit in with a band one night. The other guitarist was playing a Gibson 330. It was so obviously out of tune as he came up to the octaves around the 12th fret. I mentioned it to him. His reply was, “yes, it’s always been like that,” and he just carried on. 

A guitar needs to be in tune for the full length of the fretboard, not just halfway. You cannot tune a guitar properly with incorrect intonation.

Easy to set

It is one of the easiest guitar setup procedures to check and adjust yourself. But if the Luthier is doing it, he will tune the open string. Then he will see if the same string at the 12th fret is also tuned properly and matches the open string. He will do that by using a digital tuner, a good one.

Depending on whether the string is reading sharp or flat, they will gently adjust the saddles on the bridge. If you try this yourself, do not make massive adjustments to the screws on the saddles. That can have a very marked effect on the tuning. Turn the screw gently until you get the correct reading.

Why the 12th fret?

The 12th fret is set at the halfway point between the nut and the bridge. If the open string and the string at the 12th are both in tune, the rest of the notes will be as well, even on a Gibson 330.

It won’t matter how good you are

If your intonation is out, you are not going to sound good at all. Having the intonation set correctly is a vital part of a guitar setup. The Luthier will earn their money just on this setting alone. And while you can do it on your own, for a truly professional guitar setup, it’s best left to the Luthier to make the intonation adjustments.

Setting the String Radius

The fretboard of a guitar is not completely flat. Some manufacturers make guitars that have flatter fingerboards, whilst others prefer a more rounded design. Fender and Gibson are good examples. Fender often has a more rounded radius of the fretboard. A Gibson is slightly flatter.

Getting the Radius right

The strings need to be set up and aligned to the radius of the fretboard. Most electric guitars are fitted with bridges that have adjustment screws to set the string radius. 

This allows the correct adjustments to be made so that everything is aligned. If not, then you are likely to have a very awkward layout of the strings, with some set higher than others. Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, have a fixed wooden bridge without such adjustment options.

Hydrating and Polishing

Hydrating and Polishing

After the truss rod has been adjusted, then the neck will be cleaned and polished. Not with ordinary furniture polish, but with a special conditioner for the fretboard. 

Guitars are made from wood. They need a very small amount of moisture to stay hydrated and in perfect condition. This conditioner provides it. A modest amount of conditioner will also be applied to the body of the guitar. This is to prevent or at least delay the processes of time. 

In time, guitars can start to have very tiny cracks. This is a natural occurrence with some instruments. This applies particularly to hollow and semi-hollow body guitars that are of some age.

Some Extra Work

I mentioned earlier that there might be some extra work that needs doing depending on the condition of the guitar. Let’s just take a quick look at what that might entail.

Fret Dressing

Nothing to do with stage clothes; this is just a maintenance procedure on the frets. With use, pressing metal strings down on metal frets will cause them to wear out a little. The inevitable result is that over time they will need some reshaping and sometimes leveling off.

If the frets deteriorate to a serious extent, it will lead to sharp edges and some rather unpleasant buzz from the frets. With a brand new guitar, this won’t be an issue. If you find it is, then you might consider sending it back as that is clearly a manufacturing error.

Time Consuming

This can take some time as the frets have to be filed down so that they are all level. Time equals money, so it is going to cost. If it is bad and needs doing, then it will only get worse if you ignore it.

Too Far Gone?

If someone has let the frets get into a very bad state, there is only one solution. The Luthier will have to remove them and re-fret the entire fretboard.

Adjustment of the Tremolo

This will only apply to those guitars that have a floating tremolo arm. Many guitars these days do not have them fitted as standard. If it has, it will require some attention to ensure it is set up properly.

This is something that is not so easy. You will need to balance the tension between the spring on the tremolo and the guitar strings. This setup will allow the arm of the tremolo freedom of movement without disturbing the tuning. Something that Richie Blackmore paid close attention to in his ‘Purple’ days as he threw his Strat around by the tremolo.

Filing the Nut

Finally, an often overlooked area of a guitar setup, but one that can be so important. The nut needs to be cut properly and fitted correctly. The materials used can also play a part, but that is another story unless you choose to replace it.

If the nut is in good order, it will improve the sound of the guitar, how it plays, and its intonation. Therefore, you will have the guitar performing at its best.

Why Do You Need to Set Up Your Guitar?

Why Do You Need to Set Up Your Guitar?

By now, I hope that I got the message across. There is quite a bit involved, especially if the guitar is a little older. 

Top players employ a Guitar Tech as part of the road crew. Their job is to make sure that all the guitars, either electric or acoustic, are at their best for every performance.

Would these guys do that if they thought the guitar could look after itself? I don’t think so. You might not be Pete Townshend hurling his Strat through the front of his HiWatt cabinet. But your guitar needs some regular care.

A New Guitar

As I have said, a new guitar coming out of the factory to the shop is never really ready to play. There will always be something not quite right. 

I smile when I read comments about someone’s new guitar not being perfect out of the box. “Oh, it was made in China, that’s why.” What rubbish. It’s been made, stored, shipped, kept in a warehouse, carried around, and loaded here and there. What do you expect? 

Travel and Storage precautions

The action may be set high so as not to put too much tension on the neck in transit. This might be a precaution taken for what is likely to be a long journey. There could be fret buzz. Simple issues to solve as we have already looked at. The shops aren’t, or can’t, set it up and solve the problem. So you walk out of the shop with a new guitar that needs some TLC.

The worst two Fender Strats I ever played in my life were both given to me in the Fender Soundhouse in London. Bonafide “Made in America” Fenders that were “set up and ready to go,” I was told. 

The only place they should have go was on the fire. Pure rubbish. But then that was post-CBS takeover, so I shouldn’t be surprised. 

New or Old

Your guitar is going to need to be taken care of. You can learn to do it yourself, but let a pro do it until you know what you are doing. It needs to be set up so you can get the best from it. It will deteriorate with time unless it is serviced.

Why do you need to set it up? 

So it plays at its best, and so it will give you years of great service at its optimum level. There are some basic guitar maintenance jobs you will need to do yourself. 

Changing strings is one, and this D’Addario Pro-Winder String Winder and Cutter can help. And it is always useful to carry a small toolkit around with you, such as this Guitar Repairing Tool Kit 26Pcs with Carry Bag for Guitar.

When you are ready and want to try yourself, you will need this 42 Pieces Complete Guitar Repairing Maintenance Tool and Setup Kit, and this KLIQ UberTuner – Professional Clip-On Tuner.

Need a Great Guitar or Guitar Accessories?

We have what you need. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Locking Tuners for Stratocasters, the Best Grover Tuners, the Best Electric Guitar Pickups, the Best Acoustic Guitar Pickups, the Best Nylon Strings, the Best Electric Guitar Strings, and the Best Clip-On Guitar Tuners you can buy in 2022.

Also, have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Jasmine Guitars, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $300, the Best Jazz Guitars, the Best 12-String Guitars, the Best Alvarez Guitar, and the Best Cheap Acoustic Guitars Under $200 currently on the market.

Professional Guitar Setup – Final Thoughts

I hope it is now crystal clear how important it is to set up your guitar properly. There is no valid reason why you shouldn’t ensure your guitar is at its best. Whether you use it every day or once in a while, it needs taking care of. A good setup will achieve that.

Until next time, let your music play.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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