Why Have a Guitar Set Up?

Some folks ask, "Why should I pay for a new guitar to be set up? Shouldn't a brand new, expensive guitar be set up properly from the factory?" Well, ummm, uhh, the answer isn't necessarily "yes." WHAT? Well, let me clarify. Not everyone plays the same way. Different players with different styles need different setups. Some like 'em high, some like 'em low. What you consider a good setup may well not be what another player would consider a good setup. As a result, a factory-built guitar will come with a compromise setup, one designed to please as many players as possible and to require the least money to locally adjust to a particular player's style. For instance, to properly raise a low acoustic guitar action, the end user would have to supply a new saddle and nut. If the manufacturer supplies the instrument with the action set slightly higher and lets a local tech take it down, that expense isn't incurred.

But lets address another issue: The factories don't typically have the time or budget to dial in each production instrument to the final ten to fifteen percent or so of its potential. To do so would require paying a skilled technician to spend a sizeable chunk of time on each instrument, and that, in turn, would raise the final cost of the instrument to the buyer. Another reason for the factory to leave the action higher rather than lower is to mask any high spots left in the frets or fretboard. In today's competitive atmosphere, it pays the factory to instead do a "pretty good" job that will please most of the players, and leave anything more to a local technician. It all makes economic sense, but the result is that most instruments have lots of room for improvement.

So, what does my money buy me when I have a guitar's frets dressed and the guitar setup? First off, a good technician drops the string tension down to where the strings can be pushed aside or removes them entirely. He then removes the relief in the neck with the truss rod and runs a steel straight-edge up and down the neck, looking for high frets or high spots left by the factory or created by fingerboard swelling and shrinkage as the guitar finally settled in after it left the factory. When he encounters high spots, the tech will either use a file to lower them until the frets are leveled to play their best or loosen them and reset them lower. If he finds low frets, he'll reset them higher. Believe it or not, there may be loose frets from the factory. In order to get the best action, the tech may have to reseat them and set them with super glue. Next, he'll use a crowning file to bring the frets to a proper crown shape to fret well, be in tune, and wear well. Finally, he'll round the fret ends to take off any feeling of sharpness. My tech, Kenny Marshall, makes as many as twelve cuts per fret with a micro file to smooth the fret ends.

Kenny at the bench. Image courtesy Kepone Cowboys.

To finish off, he'll tune up the guitar, set the relief, and set nut and bridge height to accomplish the action you desire. If the guitar's bridge, saddle, or nut needs adjustment to better accommodate the radius of the fingerboard, he'll take care of that to bring each of the strings to the same height. Then he'll put on new strings and work on the guitar's intonation so that it plays as in-tune as it can, all the way up and down the neck at all fret positions. In the process, he'll address any hardware-based mechanical buzzes and/or problems. Finally, on an electric guitar, the tech will adjust the pickups and pole pieces to balance their output from string to string and pickup to pickup and give the best sound.

So, what is the result? First off, if at all possible, you'll end up with a guitar that doesn't buzz at any fret. That often isn't the case from the factory. Next, the action will be optimized for your playing style, with the height at nut and bridge properly set. The guitar will intone to its best and any extraneous buzzes will be eliminated. And finally, any rough edges will be eliminated. The final result will be a guitar that is easier to play, sounds better, feels much more comfortable, and feels much more "you" than one straight from the factory. I am always amazed at how much more comfortable and "homey" a guitar feels when my tech finishes with it. A brand new guitar will feel broken-in, like it has been played for years. It feels like your favorite pair of jeans or sneakers. The result is an instrument you don't have to think about to play well. A good guitar improves greatly. A very good guitar becomes excellent.

Of course, another question is still hanging out there, being, "Why shouldn't I do my own setups?" Well, some people can do pretty good setups, and that is great. In my years playing guitar, I've done some tech work myself. In fact, I used to buy electric guitars, rehabilitate them by repairing any problems and setting them up, then re-sell them. But as my playing has developed, I've found a good technician and he does the work on my guitars. Why?

1. I've found that my playing benefits from the improvements that a real professional technician can bring to an instrument.

2. A professional setup really establishes a baseline for the capabilities of an instrument.

3. My professional tech has done this for years. He was the main neck luthier for a small-shop custom guitar luthiery before he began working on other's guitars. He sees guitars and their problems day-in-day-out. He can easily spot and correct problems I might miss or not be capable of handling.

4. Frankly, as I've bought better instruments, I've become squeamish about taking a file to them myself. I am nowhere near as capable a tech as I am a guitarist.

5. When I take a guitar to my tech right after I purchase it, he is able to evaluate it and tell me if there are any mistakes in workmanship that might make me want to take it back. That's a big financial plus.

So, you'll have to figure out whether a setup is something you'd want to do yourself, but it has become a settled question in my mind. My playing benefits from a modern, professional setup.

So, who is my luthier? He is Ken Marshall, who has his shop in Newport News, Virginia. Ken is top-notch! He spends the time with me and my guitar to make sure the setup is right. He also offers his own line of custom, hand-made electric guitars with gorgeous necks. You can track him down at (757)303-1728.

With one of Les Paul's personal guitars