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Guitar setup: when is it worth paying for?

Nick Coyle

Guitar setup: when is it worth paying for?

So you’ve finally got your new guitar—whether you bought a finished model or built one yourself, it's likely that the only thing on your mind is playing it until your fingers bleed. So the last thing you probably want to do is take it in to the shop and be without your new ax while it gets set up. 

But what if you could set up your guitar yourself? Many guitarists have the impression that setting up a guitar is a scary, mysterious process the be performed only by experienced luthiers and guitar techs. And indeed, some of the adjustments you may make to your guitar while setting it up can have serious consequences if not done properly. But the knowledge and techniques needed to set up a guitar correctly is also readily available for free online.

So for guitarists willing to learn, setting up your guitar doesn't have to entail taking it into a shop and paying to have the work performed by a professional. But if you do decide to try your hand, it's important to know what you're getting yourself into. In this article, we'll give a quick overview of the steps involved in setting up a guitar, how they're performed, and which steps are difficult enough that professional assistance may be required. 

What is a guitar setup?

A guitar “setup” refers to a series of basic maintenance procedures that you should regularly perform on your guitar, both when you first acquire it and periodically as the seasons (and perhaps your preferences) change. These adjustments help fit the guitar to match your particular preferences and playing habits, and even if what you like doesn't change, guitars should be set up from time to time to adjust for how the wood responds to changes in the environment. And even if slight warping or detuning caused by changes in temperature or humidity aren't significantly affecting how your guitar plays and sounds, frequent setups help make sure such changes are corrected before they do any long-term damage to your instrument.

Here are the basic steps involved in a guitar setup:

1. Adjusting the truss rod

The truss rod is the part of the guitar which runs down the length of the neck and works against the string tension to keep the neck straight. Adjusting the truss rod to straighten the neck is one of the most important aspects of setting up a guitar, but it's also the one with the greatest potential to do longterm damage; a mistake here could warp or even crack your guitar's neck. Although adjustments are physically simple to perform—the truss rod can be adjusted with an Allen wrench and is usually accessible at the base of the neck or at the headstock—the knowledge required to do it correctly means that hiring a professional is often the most prudent decision. 

2. Adjusting the bridge height

You’ll want to make sure the bridge height is adjusted so your strings can vibrate freely without any buzzing. This is easy to do on an electric guitar, as most bridge types have screws or bolts that can be adjusted with common tools to alter the bridge height. But with an acoustic guitar, you may want to leave this to the professionals as it requires adding or removing material from the bridge. 

3. Checking the electronics

It's good practice to give your guitar's electronics a look while you're doing a setup, especially if you're experiencing any crackling, popping or temporary cut-outs while playing. You'll want to check all connections, re-solder or tighten any that may be loose, and spray electronic contact cleaner on contacts and exposed wires to remove any residue that may impede your sound. 

4. Checking the tuning machine hardware

A good setup will include this step, which makes sure that the tuning hardware is working properly. This normally just involves making sure each tuner is working the way it should and applying lubrication to any sticky tuning machines.

5. Cleaning the fretboard

While this might seem like a cosmetic step, keeping the fretboard clean will ensure that gunk doesn’t build up and cause problems down the line. This is easy enough to do on your own with some gentle wood oil, a cotton rag, and Popsicle stick to make sure the oil reaches all parts of the fretboard.

6. Inspecting for any structural problems

This is a step that really might require a professional eye. The pro will be able to see if there are any hidden loose joints or cracks caused by incorrect string tension, or loose neck-joint screws (normally seen in bolt-neck guitars). Professionals may be able to more thoroughly check for any of these structural issues, but there's no harm in having a look yourself. A handheld mirror and small flashlight will help you see into the areas not visible to the naked eye.

7. Setting the intonation

A guitar's intonation is correct when each string creates the proper pitch sound for each fret along the length the length of the neck. Intonation is set by adjusting the bridge saddles with a screwdriver while checking for the proper pitch at each fret using a tuner. This is a relatively low-risk adjustment, but it can be tedious and frustrating, especially if you don't have a great ear for tuning. And although incorrect intonation is unlikely to cause permanent damage to your guitar, it will make your playing sound out of tune.

8. Changing the strings

A setup is a perfect time to change your strings, and in fact many of the steps outlined in this article are impossible—or significantly more difficult—if you attempt to perform them while the strings are in place. And especially because strings are one of the most important factors in how your guitar sounds and plays, you should always change them while setting up your guitar.

9. Polishing up

Of course, you want your guitar looking nice and polished, right? A soft cotton cloth and some guitar polish are all you need to make your guitar shine. 

Is it worth it to pay for a setup?

For most guitarists, the short answer is yes—an experienced professional will make sure your guitar is sounding and playing just the way you like it. And perhaps most importantly, they'll be able to spot and fix problems before they do serious damage.

Of course, if you're confident in your abilities and want to take on the challenge yourself, there's little harm as long as you take care to lean how to perform each step properly. And being able to set up your own guitar can be both incredibly rewarding and a huge money-saver.

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