Guitarists and magazines mention it regularly, but what is a guitar setup?
It’s a familiar scenario… You’ve started to play the guitar, and you’ve bought an instrument that you’re happy with. It’s a bit tough to play, but when you start out, so are all guitars, right.
Then, your friend who has been playing for some time pops round to cast his experienced eye over your purchase.
He plays it for a while, then says, ‘Yeah, it’s good. It really needs a setup, though’.
You might ask him what this means, but often, in the strange world of musical instruments, there is a fear of showing gaps in your knowledge. You want to be considered an equal in the world of musicians, not someone who knows nothing.
‘Oh yeah, I thought that…’ comes the reply, and the setup remains a mystery.
Having a well setup guitar can improve its tone, and make it easier and more enjoyable to play.
Here’s a mini-guide to explain just what is a guitar setup…
So why do I need it?
The easiest way to understand what a guitar setup is, is to first understand why you might need one. And to do that, we must take a look at how guitars are constructed.
Guitars, with a few exceptions, are made from wood. Whilst wood delivers the most pleasing sound, its organic nature does yield a few problems.
Wood is fairly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, which means that your guitar is constantly changing shape as the wood expands and contracts. Though this is on a very small scale, it can drastically affect the way a guitar plays.
For example, for a guitar to be in tune all the way across the fret-board, the distance between the saddle (where the string rests on the bridge) and the nut (where it rests by the headstock) has to be right.
Also, a guitar neck has relief to accommodate the strings above the fretboard (i.e. the neck is angled so that there is an adequate gap between the strings and the fretboard). As temperature changes and humidity have their effect, the neck can shift, and cause strings to ‘buzz’ in certain positions.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that a certain amount of buzz occurs when learning to play, as the learner perfects their fretting technique.
This relief or bow of the neck also dictates the distance between the strings and the fretboard.
With all of this in mind, what is a guitar setup?
Most commonly, a guitar setup is the adjustment the guitar so that it is:
- Intonated correctly – i.e. all of the correct notes sound at all of the correct frets,
- Plays at its best – the neck is adjusted via the truss rod according to taste (the lower the playing action – distance between string and fretboard- the easier it is to play), bridge height and saddles adjusted,
- Sounds at its best – issues with fret buzz can usually be fixed by adjustment of the neck etc.
It’s a little bit of a ‘balancing act’- adjusting one element can affect the other. Plus, there are limits to how much you can adjust things without creating a guitar that buzzes all over the fretboard.
However, a well setup guitar is far, far more enjoyable, and usually easier to play. Getting it right is often down to the tastes of the individual player.
Setups can involve adjusting things such as string spacing, fixing fret issues and generally giving the guitar a full service, depending on the guitar tech or luthier carrying it out (and the amount you’re willing to pay, of course). The above list comprises the key elements you’d usually expect from a setup.
A warning, though – attempting to setup your guitar without experience of guidance from somebody who is experienced is generally a very bad idea. You can easily end up with an instrument that is unplayable with a few wrong turns of an Allen key.
Dawsons stores all generally offer a guitar setup service, or in cases of unusual or complicated bridge types, can enlist the skills of a luthier to get your guitar sounding and playing its best.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.