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Basic Guitar Set-Up is Affordable and Unavoidable

Aug 16, 2008
The matter of setting up a guitar is not a new vibe, especially if you are a regular reader of my blog. My enthusiasm for a good playing guitar is compelling and becomes infectious to people. One more time, if you want to play at your top level, than your guitar needs to be set-up, or adjusted properly, which is a rarity for a new factory guitar. Needless to say your guitar will sound better too.

Realistically speaking, any equipment that is not in proper working order or out of adjustment is a hindrance to your success and can be frustrating. An out of tune car, runs poorly, gets bad fuel mileage and is not much fun to drive, get it?

Simply put, here are the steps considered to be etched in granite for a competent, quality guitar set-up:

#1. Talk to your customer and find out as much about their playing style as possible. If you have an opportunity to watch them play their guitar, that is an added bonus. Perhaps you can make a recommendation.

#2. Inspection of the whole guitar is imperative, we need to repair anything worn or broken before we actually start our set-up procedure.'Sight' the neck for straightness and for any warp-age. So the first thing to do is to check the relief, or bow of the neck with a special tool and then adjust the truss rod. Briefly, the guitar must be strung and tuned to concert pitch to check and adjust relief. We go as far as checking relief in the normal 'playing position'. We try for a flat neck, flat necks play and sound better.

#3. Once the neck is flat the frets must be leveled and dressed up. Meaning that rarely will you find a guitar that all the frets are exactly the same height. If not, we use a precision ground leveling file and make sure the frets are all even, then polish them up with a super fine grade fret dressing file. If you have some custom measurements you would like to use, then this is the time to give them to me.

#3. The act of lowering the string action, meaning, getting the strings the proper distance between the frets and strings is a very precise job, and a mess-up requires a new nut to be cut, so we are very careful at how slowly and accurately we go. Measuring the distance with a dial indicator in a special tool is the most accurate way of checking distance. Other ways such as a feeler gauge is a popular and accurate method as well.

That being said, we use special width diamond files to cut the string notches deeper in the nut, using small increments. Until we have the correct distances set for all strings. We also stagger the heights, to put it in terms you understand, the high E string would be the lowest string, then the B would be two thousands of an inch higher. Each string there after, the B, G, D, A & low E and would receive about the same 2 thousands of an inch in height increase over the string before it. A nice touch that makes the guitar easier to play.

#4. Setting the final height of the strings, which is generally measured at the 12th fret is done by adjusting the tremolo or bridge height. The technicalities of this sort of adjustment vary from guitar to guitar. Don't discount it, especially if you play a lot of lead above the 12th fret. Either way, it is a difference maker.

#5. Lastly, and with great precision we need to set the intonation. Intonation is a way of making sure it is in tune anywhere on the neck you are playing. Without getting detailed, the guitar is almost impossible to have and keep in perfect tune. Mainly due to the design, where pushing a string down to the fretboard actually stretches the string a bit and therefore makes perfect tune everywhere on the neck impossible. By intonation of the guitar we get the best of both worlds.

#6. Lastly, I play the guitar for a short while, then recheck and readjust my work, wait until the morning and recheck it again. Then I call my customer. When my customer arrives, I have them play it,and make sure they like it too.

Bottom line, don't get set-up with a guitar that is not set-up. The cost is cheap and the results are "priceless"!
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