What is a guitar setup and why do you need it?
Written by Teresa Topaz
So, what is a guitar setup? A guitar setup is a series of adjustments made to an electric or an acoustic guitar to ensure proper health and playability, and is considered “basic maintenance”. Performing a setup addresses changes a guitar goes through over time and returns it to its proper condition. We offer re-string and setup services here at Bananas at Large. If you bring your guitar in, please let us know a bit about your playing style and preference of tunings so we can tailor the instrument setup specifically for you. There are many steps involved in performing a setup, let’s review what those steps are.
1. What is a truss rod and what does it do?
Most acoustic and electric steel string guitars built after late 1970's - 1980 have a truss rod in the neck of the guitar. Most nylon string guitars, however, do not have a truss rod. The truss rod is a long rod that runs down inside the neck of the guitar. Adjusting it will either give or take relief away from the neck, causing the strings to raise or lower off the fretboard. Depending on whether you have an electric or acoustic guitar, the truss rod can either be accessed where the headstock meets the nut and fretboard (most electric guitars and bass guitars), or under the neck accessed through the sound hole (most acoustic guitars).
The truss rod's nut style will determine whether you need a hex key, nut driver, screwdriver, box wrench or mini screwdriver. If you’re not sure which one you need, it's always a good idea to refer to the manufacturer's website to ensure the right fit. On an electric guitar, the truss rod is accessible at the base of the headstock. To tighten the truss rod, turn your tool to the right, and to the left to loosen. Make sure you make small quarter turns each time, as a small adjustment can sometimes be all you need.
To adjust the truss rod on an acoustic guitar, find the hex shape located at the bottom of the neck through the sound hole. Turn your 90 degree angle hex key to the right to tighten, and to the left to loosen. Adjust, check and tune. Repeat these steps as needed.
2. What is 'action' on a guitar?
Action is how high the strings sit off the fretboard. If the guitar’s truss rod is tightened, the action becomes lower. If the truss rod is loosened, the action becomes higher.
Now what is the difference, and why would you want high or low action? If you are beginning to play the guitar or are an advanced player but mainly play in standard tuning then you will probably want to have a low action set on your guitar. If you play in alternate tunings and slide, you will want to have a slightly higher action set on the guitar. Playing a slide on the guitar causes more pressure to be applied to the frets, potentially causing fret buzz if the action is too low.
Once you have adjusted the truss rod to achieve a straight neck, well will check the action.
It's always a good idea to measure the action height with a 1.0 hard pick at the 12th fret. If it fits perfectly between the fret and the low E string with little to no room on either side then you have achieved a low action. If there seems to be quite a bit of space on either side of your pick, your bridge will have to be adjusted which we will cover in the next step.
3. Adjusting the bridge & nut
Adjusting the bridge allows us to manipulate the action, as well as intonation. There are several different types of bridges for an electric guitar. For instance, a Tune-O-Matic bridge that we would find on a Les Paul style guitar has the option to be raised or lowered by adjusting the thumbwheels. There are several different heights we can place the bridge in and each setting will create a different feel. Finding the sweet spot of proper bridge height, action and intonation can require finesse and patience.
On an acoustic guitar, there are no screws to raise and lower to adjust the height, so we have to file down the saddle by hand to the appropriate height. Filing down the saddle requires the precision of a trained eye and is best left to a professional.
Next we'll look at the nut of the guitar (*nut: most commonly bone or composite, a nut is placed where the headstock meets the fingerboard which has filed slots to hold each individual gauged string in place). If you’re experiencing fret buzz, a good place to look is the nut. If a string is sitting to low in the slot, it will cause fret buzz. To fix this, we either need to add bone dust and glue to raise the slot or replace the nut all together.
Note: Do not change the gauge of strings on your guitar without making the necessary modifications to support it. Guitars come stock with certain gauge strings so be sure to look that up on the manufacturer’s website to continue using the correct strings and avoid issues.
4. Cleaning your frets
Frets get dirty over time and buildup can collect on the sides of the fret wire. To clean this, grab your fret cleaner, a pick or toothpick and a few paper towels. Drizzle a few drops of the fretboard cleaner on the frets, and take your pick or toothpick and start to scrape the buildup off the frets and fretboard, wiping with a paper towel. Repeat these steps until your fretboard is clean.
To polish the nickel silver frets on your guitar, I use Nevr-Dull. Grab a small amount and gently buff the discoloration off of your frets. Repeat this step all the way up the fretboard. If your frets are too tarnished and the Nevr-Dull is not working, you may need a Crown and Polish.
*Nickel silver frets: Composed of 18% Nickel, 80% Copper and small trace amounts of Zinc, Lead and Cadmium. High grade Fret Wire consist of more Zinc and less Copper.
5. Hydrate, polish & re-string
One of the most important steps of a setup is hydration. Trees need hydration to survive and the same rule of thumb applies even after parts of that tree have been transformed into a guitar. Absence of moisture and heat are a guitar's worst enemy and can cause irreversible damage of cracking and splitting (*Picture seen below of a dried out soundboard with cracks through the wood). Using a fretboard conditioner along with an overall guitar polish and a micro fiber cloth to hydrate your guitar, along with changing the strings every 4-6 weeks (sooner if you’re playing more often) will help keep the guitar in good health.
Now that we have all of the strings back on the guitar and have tuned it to standard tuning (E A D G B E), our next step is to intonate the guitar. Intonation means that the instrument is in tune with itself and all the open strings and every note on the fretboard rings at the correct pitch. If you have ever tuned your guitar and noticed when you play a chord it sounds out of tune it probably means that your intonation is off. Guitars can be affected by the elements of weather which can affect the intonation requiring periodic intonation.
To intonate your guitar, we need to first start with tuning it to pitch, preferably with a strobe tuner. Once it's in tune, check the same string’s pitch at the 12th fret. If the pitch matches open to the 12th fret, then you can move on to the next string. If it’s sharp, the string must be slightly lengthened at the bridge until both pitches (open and at the 12th fret) are in tune with each other. If the string’s pitch at the 12th fret is flat, we need to shorten the string length at the bridge. Remember, less is more with small quarter turns. Repeat these steps on each string until the guitar is fully intoned. If you own a Floyd Rose, this can be a much more difficult setup so please have a professional tech or luthier perform this action for you.
7. Buff and polish
Now that we have completed the setup on the guitar, the last step is to buff the guitar using a high quality micro fiber cloth and a guitar polish and conditioner. Spray your polish on several spots of the guitar and use your cloth to buff out any smudge or finger marks. I tend to polish the entire guitar, front and back and after a set up the guitar should look as good as new.
Hope this article help you to understand how to practice the best techniques to ensure your guitar’s health. We do offer re-string and setup services here at Bananas At Large so please feel free to contact us for more information. Please leave any questions in the comments below and we will get back to you as soon as possible!